Saturday, 25 April 2009

Roadflower (aka Road Killers)


Director: Deran Sarafian
Screenplay: Tedi Sarafian
Starring: Christopher Lambert, Craig Scheffer, David Arquette, Christopher
McDonald, Michelle Forbes, Josh Brolin, Adrienne Shelley, Alexandra Lee, John Pyper-Ferguson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The desert road. Long, arduous, lonely. You and your family or you and a couple of friends travelling cross country. Everything going fine. Maybe the odd argument. Until you piss off the wrong trucker or pick up a bad hitch-hiker (or in the case of The Forsaken, run into vampires) that perfect road trip goes to hell. Suddenly you are fighting for your life, the road appears desolate and devoid of anyone, the people you do manage to find seem weirder than those who are chasing you and you find yourself surviving impossible car stunts and your driving becomes surprisingly skilled as you try to outrun your pursuer and the disbelieving cops. The terrorised road trip genre has given us many classics including Duel, Hitch-Hike, Roadkill (a.k.a Joyride), Highwaymen Breakdown and the wholly godfather of them all The Hitcher. Roadflower (a.k.a Road Killers) is another entry in this genre hailing from 1994 and starts off promisingly buts ends up a mixed bag.

Jack (Lambert), Helen (Forbes) and their daughter Ashley (Lee) are on a road trip, passing through desert America. Along for the ride are their close friend Glen (McDonald) and his son Rich (Gordon-Levitt). Stopping to fix Jack’s car, Rich wanders into the road to examine a sole flower that has grown out of the asphalt (the road flower of the title). A speeding Cadillac whips past, almost killing him and infuriating Glen. After they calm Glen down, the road-trippers stop at a highway diner for some chow. Spotting the Cadillac at the diner, Glen confronts the driver, Cliff (Sheffer) and gives him an earful. Little does he realise Cliff is a fully feldged psychopath and he and his crew speed off after the travelers, resulting in a deadly game of chicken and Glen’s death. The gang also leave Jack for dead and kidnap his family, holding them hostage in an abandoned farmhouse. Jack survives but is mistakenly arrested by the police. With the help of a fellow prisoner (Pyper-Ferguson), who might just know more about the killers than he is letting on, Jack rushes to save his family.

Roadflower is a film of two halves. One half road chase thriller, one half talky, psychological battle of wits. Both halves are pretty good in their own right but never quite gel as a whole. The first half hour (road chase thriller) is taut and suspenseful. Director Sarafain builds up tension superbly as Jack, his family and friends are terrorised by Cliff and his gang. Shot in a claustrophobic manner by James Carter, and with tense music by Les Hooper, the filmmakers create a sense of impending doom. The desert location is sweatily evoked and McDonald is very effective as the increasingly harassed Glen. After a silly, but well staged game of chicken, Glen is killed in a rather disturbing scene and the stage is set for a dramatic game of cat and mouse across the American desert. However, the tone change somewhat as the film switches its perspective from Jack’s desperate family man to Cliff’s demented gang of drifters.

After an oddly humorous scene of Tom (Brolin) and Red (Shelley), two of Cliff’s gang members, failing to kill Jack, the next 30-40 minutes focus on Cliff and the gang tormenting Jack’s family. This is done well (as much as torturing a family can be considered well), Sheffer proving rather menacing as the mentally unstable Cliff. We get to see a psycho dealing with his own inner demons as well as being a cold blooded killer. Brolin is equally good as Tom, a gang member who doubts what Cliff is doing. The whole gang (including Shelley’s Red and Arquette’s Bobby) is a group of mentally challenged misfits who give the impression of a bunch of escaped asylum inmates. The scenes of the gang falling apart are well acted with a suspenseful edge to them.

However, Jack’s quest to find his family is to some extent put on the backburner. Shifting the focus of the story onto Sheffer’s character ruins the momentum which was built up in the first half hour. It’s a noble effort to flesh out the usual psycho characters but focusing so much on the bad guys ruins the great road chase movie this promised to be. Despite being given top billing, Lambert spends most of the time off screen. His character is only seen briefly attempting to rescue his family (he also says about 4 words in the whole film). The subplot of an escaped convict who helps and hinders Lambert’s character is ill-advised. The chase thriller does kick in for the last twenty minutes or so but feels a little rushed and everything ends rather abruptly.

At a lean 86 minutes, one gets the sense a lot of chopping occurred in the editing room. Afterall, this is an earlier offering from the destroyer’s of film du jour: The Weinsteins. It seems someone was so pleased with Sheffers’ performance (good, but does get irritating after a while) they decided to change the focus of the film to his character. It would be interesting to see if Tedi Sarafian’s original script had more road chase elements to it. Despite this, Sarafian has made an entertaining and often disturbing little flick. Just don’t go into it expecting The Hitcher mark 2.

Sidenote: Whatever happened to Deran Sarafian? He showed great promise with arguably one the best Jean-Claude Van Damme films, Death Warrant and also made the criminally underrated Terminal Velocity. He seems to be stuck in T.V. hell now.

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