Movie Review - Pedal to the metal

High-speed chases and road-side murders collide at cinefest

In the 1970s, lawless heroes cruised America's roadways and graced the nation's drive-in movie screens with their rugged insolence, perverse thirst for speed and the open road. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), Eat My Dust! (1976), Grand Theft Auto (1977) anything directed by Monte Hellman or featuring the grizzled visage of Warren Oates was a contender in the archetypal '70s genre of counter-cultural road movies in which souped-up buggies and dirt clouds often serviced in the absence of a viable plot.
A prime example of the genre, Vanishing Point (1971), features Barry Newman as Kowalski, a mystery man driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Colorado to California at a bad-ass speed with a state-by-state contingent of cops trailing him. The faster he goes and the more recklessly he drives, the greater his folk status grows. By the time he hits Nevada, Kowalski's the side-burned Sun Myung Moon of every freak, drop-out, hippy, disenfranchised outlaw and naked motorcycle-riding chick studded between the fascist outposts of square America.
Part of a genre of films that celebrated the Zen of the open road, Vanishing Point nominates a man to hero status simply for swimming against the current. In the ambiguous world of the highway drama, where the heroes often had their share of moral failings, the only unquestionably, unambiguously bad apples were ... the cops. Cue banjo music and those immortal movie cop words spat like a stream of greasy tobacco juice, "I'm gonna git that sunvabitch," as yet another corrupt smokie tries to stand between a rebel and a tasty slice of highway. As these Us vs. Them movies tend to demonstrate, the Man turns out to have a lousy sense of humor, especially when he's inhaling some longhair's exhaust.
Rebellion of a different order defines Peter Bogdanovich's low-budget 1968 sleeper Targets. Like De Palma's Hi, Mom!, Scorsese's Who's That Knocking at My Door, Coppola's The Rain People and Cassavetes' Faces, Targets is an instance of a rising directorial talent cutting his teeth on some mild social critique (before Bogdanovich's social conscience gave way to babe-chasing weekends at the Playboy mansion).
In Targets, it's America's gun culture that defines the filmmaker's thematic crusade, a crusade informed by Texas serial killer Charles Whitman's 1966 murderous rampage, which backstories this often clunky but original film.
The killer in Targets, Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly), has less of a murderous modus operandi. He's just an ordinary clean-cut all-American lad whose parents' California ranch home is stocked with a soldier of fortune's paradise of weaponry and whose idea of parental affection is target practice with his dad.
Bogdanovich, a cinema-obsessive as well known for his reverent, starry-eyed interviews with directors like Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang etc. as for his often less distinguished movie output, typically invests Targets with a movie-referencing storyline. As Bobby hits every gun shop in Los Angeles to load up on more rifles and ammo, across town B-movie horror star Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff in an exceptional, affecting performance) calls it quits after a lifetime of playing silly movie monsters. Glancing at the lurid newspaper headline, "Youth kills six in supermarket," Byron, an exhausted, defeated star watching his town and society crumble, shrugs, "My kind of horror isn't horror anymore." Bogdanovich parallels the creaky scares of Orlok's old movies with the bloodspilling horrors of Bobby's real life.
Despite some cardboard exposition and sets that look propped-up with 2-by-4's, Targets has an interesting message beneath its awkward execution and some moments of genuine creepiness. When Bobby pops a can of Pepsi and begins picking off motorists on the California highway, the film takes an eerie, depressing turn. You are there with the sniper, experiencing the rush of power and the sickeningly surreal anonymity of mass murder as tiny figures scramble for cover and cars weave off the highway, in another, far more troubling vision of the American road.