Sunday 13 June 2010

Route 666 (2001)

Director: William Wesley
Star: Lou Diamond Phillips, Lori Petty, Steven Williams and L Q Jones

This is the sort of film that has my name written all over it: a defiantly low budget affair full of recognisable faces that delights both in not trying to be a big budget Hollywood movie and in hopping from one genre to another at the slightest provocation. It starts up with Lou Diamond Phillips and Lori Petty flouncing into an Arizona roadside bar like drunken newlyweds to order screaming orgasms from Dick Miller. Phillips and Petty are undercover cops, Jack and Steph by name, who are there to pick up Rabbit, played by a delightfully sassy Steven Williams. Rabbit is a mob informer in the witness protection scheme, but he's on the run because he's changed his mind about testifying against a character called Benny the Buzz Saw. Maybe he has a point because Benny is tied up with the Russian mob and they've sent very large, very imposing hitmen to take him down, played by very large, very imposing actors like Sven-Ole Thorsen.

So initially it's a crime drama with a substantial amount of comedy from Williams. Phillips is Jack La Roca, a highly decorated former Navy Seal and CIA operative, apparently, but still one who hasn't worked out that it's a good idea to shoot bad guys in the head, especially when they're wearing bullet proof vests. However if the title wasn't suggestion enough that we're not going to stick with a plot about a couple of federal agents transporting a witness to an LA courtroom, we get hints at the supernatural during the gunfight because Jack keeps having flashbacks to a chain gang scene he isn't even in. Something is definitely up and we find out what soon enough, when this turns into a zombie flick. These feds make the bad decision to take Route 666 to California, a road that Rabbit's guide book explains was condemned in 1969 after a chain gang accident. Yes, that's the connection but it isn't quite as simple as that, thank goodness.

The first thing they see driving down the empty Route 666 is a graveyard in which Jack finds his father's grave. We've only just been let in on the secret that he was born around here but moved out before he was six. Frankly we don't really care about such blatant revelations, we just enjoy the fact that Lou Diamond Phillips can pose far better with his sunglasses than David Caruso. Anyway, bank robber John La Roca is buried alongside Miles Hackman, Steve Pikowski and Frank Slater, three notorious murderers, and the grave markers show they all died on the same day. PT, one of the federal marshals, is conveniently an authority on this sort of thing, so fills out the back story before the inevitable fight starts as Jack really doesn't appreciate his father being called slime. It's interrupted by the four dead men appearing out of the ether to mash another fed to bloody pulp with their weapons of choice: sledgehammer, chain, pickaxe and jackhammer.

Well, mash one of them to pulp. The rest have to be able to escape so that we can continue as a zombie comedy for the rest of the film. I liked this movie and I offer no apologies for that, but I can't pretend it's a good one. It really doesn't know what it wants to be, and I'm not just talking about the always welcome appearance of Gary Farmer as a shaman living in a cave. 'You must walk among those spirits and bring peace back to this land,' he tells Jack, hardly your standard approach to a zombie flick. I'm mostly talking about the comedy because there isn't any of it at all outside the dialogue, but almost every line of that dialogue could be regarded as a one liner, mostly benefitting Steven Williams but also liberally distributed amongst the rest of the cast. If this was a radio broadcast we'd be splitting our sides, but it's not, so we end up watching a horror movie while listening to a comedy and that's more than a little strange.

There's also a bizarre disconnect between the approach taken to the film and what we end up with. This is actually a really interesting take on a tired genre, or at least it could have been. It's a zombie movie that works with a very limited cast, for a start. Instead of being set in a shopping mall or the middle of a big city, so pitting infrastructure against apocalypse, it's set in the middle of nowhere, out in the Arizona desert. We see precisely four, count 'em, four locals: a bartender and three cops. The situation is automatically self contained because the zombies are tied to the road and can't stumble off it without ceasing to be. There's a spiritual approach to the story too, not just through Gary Farmer's presence but because these zombies are there to mete out some sort of karmic vengeance not because science has gone horrible wrong. In better hands this could have become a zombie movie that stands alone from its peers in a very good way indeed.

Unfortunately while the ideas are great, the execution is more than a little slipshod, only some of which can be blamed on budget limitations. I can forgive the effects, which seem to consist of some viable zombie makeup and a camera that begins shaking annoyingly every time there's a need for some action. What I can't forgive are the atrocious conveniences taken to string the story together. Perhaps the cheese of Jack La Roca emoting with his zombie father was inherent to the plot and perhaps there's a rule that states that nobody in a zombie film can know from moment one that you're supposed to shoot the frickin' things in the head, but the rest of it is far less forgivable. What sort of idiot federal marshals are these anyway, who chase down a suspect in the Arizona desert without either food, water or a reliable means of communication? Which rule allows feds to go make out in their SUV while they're supposed to be guarding a prisoner?

Beyond the high level idiocies, there are so many consistency errors its unreal and I'm not just talking about sunglasses, car keys and bumper stickers that magically appear and disappear between shots. I can forgive that stuff because it can't have been a long shoot. The budget may not have allowed them to reshoot scenes in the middle of nowhere where cars annoyingly pass in the distance. Apparently they got the year of Rabbit's Catalina wrong too, even though they write dialogue about it, but I don't know what a Catalina is so I'm not arguing. I'm talking more about bigger things. Jack and PT quit fighting because they hear a shot down on the road, but why didn't they hear the rest of the skirmish? How come the make out feds didn't hear a full fledged zombie attack a couple of dozen yards away from them? Did the obviously over-qualified Jack get assigned to this case through the sheer power of coincidence?

This even extends to the names involved, which are one of the main drawing points of the film. Was the entire point of Lori Petty's character covered by the first minute of screen time or was she there only to be a name on the DVD cover that might sell copies? She's a talented actress but she gets precisely nothing to do except lounge in the passenger seat of the Catalina and trade one liners with Rabbit. Gary Farmer gets one scene. Dick Miller gets a mere couple of lines. Reliable old Sven-Ole Thorsen disappears far too soon along with his entire subplot, even though there was plenty of potential to revisit it. We don't even see Anne Lockhart (daughter of June, granddaughter of Gene), who somehow slipped from being John Carpenter's first choice to play Laurie Strode in Halloween to playing uncredited voice roles in things like this. Only Phillips and L Q Jones as Sheriff Conaway really get any depth but they're still not well defined characters.

There are always arguments about why there have to be so many remakes in the horror genre and I'm almost entirely on the side of not having them, mostly because they rarely do anything that the originals didn't already do. However in this case, it may well be warranted. Against all reason, I was thoroughly entertained by this film and I'm firmly of the opinion that there's a good movie in there struggling to get out. In more capable hands, this could be something pretty substantial. Unfortunately the crew was hampered by the budget, a mere $2.3m, and a script that plays more like a gag routine. William Wesley directed, co-produced and co-wrote, as he did for a movie called Scarecrows in 1988, but that's all he's done. His co-writers were Scott Fivelson and Thomas Weber, neither of which have prior credits. All are obviously talented but that isn't too apparent in this unpolished rock that could have become a gem.

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