Retrofitting Red Riding Hood

The ominous name "Bob Wolverton" clues you in from the outset that this guy is going to be the wolf. The comic terrors of the situation (and the movie's stroke of bad-ass brilliance) emerge from the way Wolverton can suss out Vanessa's needs and with pseudo-therapy soften her up for the kill. He is, you see, a child psychologist, and he uses his professional training to set his wary friend at ease. When I reviewed A Time to Kill, I speculated, "What's next for Kiefer Sutherland -- a creature feature?" Well, he's playing a werewolf of sorts, and dang me if it isn't the right choice for him. Sutherland is superbly hypocritical as the normal-seeming Wolverton, who asks leading questions with an unruffled air that's a little too breezily empathic. He and Witherspoon are terrific at giving us the queasies, as Vanessa divulges her secrets with wrenching candor and Wolverton pushes for ever more intimate revelations. It's a nightmare illustration of paternalism's psychic sabotage. Vanessa opens up to a shrink who turns out to get off on her degradation: Her existential freeway has no exit. And just as she seals her claim on our concern and even affection, Bright seals his claim on our attention: He stages the daringly prolonged three-part sequence with equal amounts of gritty sensitivity and thriller craft, up through the horrifying moment when Vanessa realizes that Wolverton is the freeway killer. The director's choices emphasize the confusion of sexual titillation and pent-up violence, reaching an apex of creepiness when Wolverton takes a straight razor to Vanessa's ponytail.

The movie peaks in this episode and its immediate aftermath, but it doesn't peter out. As Wolverton is transformed into a physical monster (to the grief of his picture-perfect wife -- played by Brooke Shields!), and two cops, Dan Hedaya and Wolfgang Bodison, toss Vanessa into the clink, Bright appropriates the conventions of all manner of exploitation pictures, including girls-in-chains films and Latino-Latina gang chronicles. (Hedaya does a perfect deadpan working stiff; Bodison starts shakily, then finds his groove.) Bright uses genre riffs to fuel Vanessa's evolution from a crazy, misunderstood kid to a dangerous young woman who's open to anything, from knife-fighting to the love of a lesbian.

In the most explosive comic moment, Vanessa faces the man she mutilated and taunts him for getting beaten with "the ugly stick." Who beat Bright with the talent stick? I hated Bright's script for Guncrazy (directed by Tamra Davis). In Freeway, Bright and his cinematographer, the estimable John Thomas, sustain an "artploitation," fractured-fairy-tale tone to the triumphant yet volatile end. They manage to insinuate Vanessa's point of view while not obscuring the world around her: I love the subtle camera move at the beginning that reads "The cat drinks milk" from right to left and then scans over to the teacher and the classroom, as if the words were Hebrew or the language of a reading-impaired kid. Throughout, they light Witherspoon so that we can discern any hint of softness or flexibility remaining under Vanessa's hardening skin.

Freeway affects adults the way fairy tales (the unexpurgated ones, anyway) do kids: as an unruly and imaginative odyssey that offers the catharsis of "The End" rather than a predigested moral. Bright's Red Riding Hood could go either to heaven or to hell -- but at least she'll go there independently. The filmmaker has both brought her into the 21st century and respected her origins. You could say he's given her a retrofit.

"I'm the Big Bad Wolf," said Robert De Niro's killer rapist, Max Cady, in the 1991 Cape Fear. As Gil Renard, a frustrated man who seeks transcendence by following baseball and practicing murder, De Niro snorts his way through The Fan trying to be bigger and badder. He huffs and puffs and blows the house down, but it's a pathetically flimsy construction.

There was a nub of a good movie idea in Peter Abrahams' original piece of cheap fiction, contained in a scene when the title character, a divorced, down-on-his-luck hunting-knife salesman, takes his son to Opening Day at the ballpark only to have it mark the end of the semisane time of his life. Attempting to juggle his devotion to baseball, his promise to his kid, and his need to secure an important deal, he winds up in a "piss-soaked" suit and a "beery tie" -- saleless, sonless, and clueless. (It's like Multiplicity meets Falling Down.) That episode remains the linchpin of this abysmal movie, but in such laundered form that it loses its lowdown impact.

Tony Scott and the screenwriter, Phoef Sutton, play the tired Hollywood game of trying to make a character initially more attractive so that he can ultimately seem more evil. Instead of a shlub who trades on his knife-making father's famous name and sloughs off work to spend time in a sports bar, Renard is at first presented as a spokesman of disgust for American industry in decline; he threatens to become a Willy Loman who fights back, committing homicide instead of suicide. Of course, the film's Renard couldn't be mistaken for a hero: With his usual headbanging use of music, the director tips his hand right off -- he has the budding psycho listen to "Sympathy for the Devil" at screeching volume. But by rounding off Renard's rough edges, Scott sacrifices the emotional traction that can give the ugliest pulp villains their vitality and power on-screen. Rather than unveil hidden facets of Renard's character, Scott reiterates the obvious: He puts staticky noises on the soundtrack so we can't miss Renard's crackup. In Taxi Driver, the template for psycho-loner movies like this one, Martin Scorsese and De Niro went for a slow build, letting the scummy underworld of cabbie Travis Bickle settle on their viewers like the soot left on the back of the neck after a day in New York City. Scott cast De Niro, but he didn't learn from his star's early work with Scorsese, and De Niro forgot what he once knew. Everything in The Fan -- including the San Francisco setting, created partly from locations in L.A. and Anaheim -- is up close and impersonal.

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