Viggo Mortensen is The Last American Hero in 1997’s Vanishing Point

Vanishing Point 1971

The late 1960s and early 1970s were great times for car-chase movies. I’m not sure if it was because of the badass anti-heroes or the bitchin’ muscle cars. 1968’s Bullitt with Steve McQueen brought the streets of San Francisco alive as a pissed off cop seeks revenge in a black Dodge Charger. 1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop featured soft rock icon James Taylor as “The Driver” and Beach Boys bon vivant Dennis Wilson as “The Mechanic,” two driftin’ drag racers cruisin’ along Route 66 in a ’55 Chevy “One-Fifty,” racing Warren Oates, as “GTO,” cross country for pink slips. 1974 saw Peter Fonda, Susan George, and a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T 440 in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, and I’ll even give props to Dennis Weaver and a 1970 red Plymouth Valiant in Steven Spielberg’s 1971 made-for-TV Duel. The list of 1970s anti-heroes and their vehicular misbehavior is pretty impressive: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The French Connection, The Seven-Ups

But those were different times. There was palpable turbulence in the air then that fostered a new kind of hero, one fed up with incompetence and corruption and the status quo and bureaucracy. He was a lone wolf who went outside the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior to maintain his constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom. One saw this in the Dirty Harry series, where Clint Eastwood’s San Francisco detective Harry Callahan went all rogue and made the city safe again for law-abiding citizens. One saw this in Bullitt, where Steve McQueen’s San Francisco Police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt goes all rogue and exposes a corrupt United States Senator while racing around in some of the craziest streets anywhere. And one saw this in 1971’s Vanishing Point, where Kowalski–a normal guy doing a normal job–accidentally runs afoul of the law, speeding while speeding I guess we can say, and inadvertently becomes a national hero for those who are fed up with excessive governmental intervention.

Barry Newman’s Kowalski, all hopped up and simply trying to deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T from Denver to San Francisco, is the Everyman anti-hero, an ordinary working-class citizen just living to get by. Kowalski is a Vietnam Veteran and a former police officer dishonorably discharged for blowing the whistle on a dirty cop. He used to race cars, he used to race motorcycles, and he had a beautiful girlfriend, but she died. As Kris Kristofferson sang around that time, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,” and Kowalski, by this definition, is certainly free. As a reluctant and unintentional hero to a culture that has experienced an erosion of trust and confidence in its federal government, Kowalski represented the average individual negotiating his way through the incomprehensible maze of a wounded society–psychologically wounded himself–and pressing on despite all the obstacles confronting him.

In 1997, Fox Television remade Vanishing Point, with Viggo Mortensen as Kowalski…Jimmy Kowalski. There are many elements of the original 1971 cult classic updated and echoed in the remake, including the 1970 Dodge Challenger, as well as a totally bitchin’ black ’68 Dodge Charger, in a sly nod to Steve McQueen’s car in Bullitt. Instead of being a Vietnam Vet, Jimmy Kowalski is a Bronze Star-awarded Desert Storm Vet. In the original Vanishing Point, 1970s funnyman Cleavon Little plays the blind disc jockey Super Soul, the film’s super cool voice of conscience who uses his airwaves to connect the nation with running commentary and ’70s cinema funk. Super Soul’s 1997 counterpart is “The Voice,” an anti-government freedom fighting citizen DJ in a “Live Free or Die” trucker hat, with a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag in his DJ booth. Hmmm….

Jason Priestley as “The Voice”

Jason Priestley, still hot on his “Beverly Hills 90210” success, plays “The Voice” with some relish and a pretty noticeable 70s mustache. Between banter about “the man,” voicing his opinion on various conspiracy theories, like income taxes and whatnot, and communicating with Kowalski through the radio like it was the 1970s and DJs were still allowed to speak on commercial radio, he spins some cool wax like “Fallen Tears” by The John Doe Thing, along with some other pretty hot alterna-tunes. Coincidentally, John Doe himself has a little cameo in the film as some sort of gun-totin’, anti-government survivalist.

Jimmy Kowalski and Motorcycle Girl

“He’s always a little apocalyptic on Saturdays,” explains his girlfriend Motorcycle Girl, played by La Femme Nikita’s Peta Wilson. In an even stranger coincidence, John Doe’s ex-wife and partner in punk band X, Exene Cervenka, was also married to Viggo Mortensen for a spell in the late 1980s. How’s that for synchronicity?

X on American Bandstand, 1982: Billy Zoom, DJ Bonebrake, Exene Cervenka, John Doe — Photo/Copyright: Michael Hyatt.

Just as the 1971 Vanishing Point spoke to the average citizen’s mistrust of governmental institutions-think Nixon, Vietnam, Kent State-the 1997 remake has an underlying premise that something, again, has clearly gone wrong. As the beaming faces of President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno are framed and hanging on the wall of a police sergeant’s office, references are made to 1992’s Ruby Ridge siege and 1993’s Waco, Texas raid, both conducted by the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

Militias, Oklahoma City, and domestic terrorism come up in conversation throughout the film. As “The Voice” of the citizenry, Jason Priestley’s DJ fuels the flames of discontent while extolling the virtues of rugged individualist Kowalski. There is something almost as contemporary about Vanishing Point’s 1990s message today as there may be something comparable in its mood and tone to the 1971 version.

But, whatever the movie’s underlying messages may be, Vanishing Point 1997 is totally kickass, with awesome chase sequences and cool car carnage. I think I noticed a wheel-well cam and a rolling-and-tumbling-on-the-inside-of-a-car cam, some sweet animal-morphing spirit guide stuff, gnarly explosions…The opening credits feature an earth-moving tractor, a horned toad, and an electrical pole in the shape of a cross that only reveal their symbolic strength at the end of the movie, although the Easter Sunday timeframe, crucifixion painting on the wall of Kowalski’s cabin, and his reliance on the St. Christopher and St. Anthony medals (“Chris and Tony”) that Kowalski places on his rear-view mirror suggest a deeper, more iconographic, meaning to the character’s existence.

1997’s made-for-TV Vanishing Point is different from 1971’s Vanishing Point, in the way that 1971 is different from 1997. Kowalski, in either version, is a simple working man, minding his own business until he draws the attention of the police for a speed limit infraction, and the full force of government intervention is unleashed against this lone wolf. As a character says in the 1997 version, Kowalski is “just a guy trying to get home to his family.” But I guess when “the man” is going to take you down, it doesn’t matter what year it is.

Oh, and Viggo rocks.

Magic the Cat shares a birthday with his owner and currently resides in Athens, Georgia. His favorite film remains Wings of Desire.

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