Switchback

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Jeb Stuart

REVIEWED: 11-10-97

Back in 1989, my college "Intro to Cinema" class had a guest speaker--Georgia filmmaker Tucker Johnston, who had just completed his debut feature Blood Salvage. He related the long history of the project, which he had begun four years earlier, when the horror genre was still booming. The plan at first was to crank out a quick, cheap feature as a way of getting his name out in Hollywood. As the years dragged on, however, Johnston found more and more doors slamming shut, and eventually the completion of his movie become a matter of habit and determination more than a matter of ingenuity. It would be nice to say that his story was inspirational, but as we sat and watched scenes from Blood Salvage--which starred Ray Walston and Evander Holyfield--the tale seemed mostly pathetic.

Switchback has similar origins. It began in 1984 as a script called Going West in America, the first effort by 28-year-old film student Jeb Stuart. The screenplay didn't get made right away, but it got Stuart more work--within a decade he had put his name on Die Hard and The Fugitive and worked behind the scenes on a pile of other action movies. He never lost sight of his first baby, though, and when the project came out of turnaround for the umpteenth time in 1995, Stuart struck a deal to direct. Upon viewing the final product, however, one wonders why Stuart bothered.

Not that Switchback is a bad movie. In fact, it has some interesting ideas. Dennis Quaid stars as an FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer who has abducted his son. Meanwhile, an ex-doctor (Jared Leto) and a journeyman laborer (Danny Glover) travel West past the scattered crime scenes. Both have mysterious pasts, and either could be the killer, but Quaid's investigation of the duo is stuck in a small Texas town embroiled in a bitter sheriff's election.

The small touches--the election, and the interplay between Leto and Glover--are obviously what caught Hollywood's attention over a decade ago. The weaker spots--like the hackneyed and soft-headed serial killer thread, and a plot full of amazing coincidences and impossible holes--are why the script has gone unfilmed for 13 years. One wonders why Stuart didn't take a few minutes here and there to fix some of the problems. (Like maybe he could've come up with a reason why no one had been able to identify Quaid's son in the months since he'd been missing.)

Of course, that's the problem with pet projects--their masters live with them so long that they have no perspective. The dirty secret of artistic creation is that it's not really a finite process: It ends when the deadline arrives or when the creator gets tired of sweating. With unlimited time and unlimited patience, a writer could go on and on, putting in whatever happens to be on his mind on any given day.

It's obvious that Switchback is exactly what it was when Stuart finished it in 1984--the same gimmicky combination of road movie and thriller, with even the same overwritten train-chase finale. That he still wanted the movie produced is only natural; that he didn't feel up to improving it is no surprise. Some call that perseverance. Others call it vanity.

--Noel Murray

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