Route 9

Director:David Mackay                       
Kyle MacLachlan, Peter Coyote, Amy Locane

It's unfortunate when two movies with similar plots are released around the same time. Instead of simply each movie being judged on its own terms, both movies will be compared to the other. Also, the particular movie that gets the big release first will be judged as "the standard", and the other movie may bizarrely be called "a rip-off", even if it was made around the same time. As well, that other movie simply may be overshadowed by the earlier movie. Actually, there are indications that Route 9 may have been introduced to the public - via cable - before A Simple Plan even got a theatrical release. But the kind of movie and market it was intended for - an ultra-low budget movie made for video and cable - sealed its fate to be overshadowed by A Simple Plan (relatively speaking - A Simple Plan didn't exactly set the box office ablaze, despite great reviews and having a careful marketing and releasing strategy.)

I saw A Simple Plan several weeks before I rented Route 9, and I must confess, comparisons between the two did enter my mind while watching Route 9. Part of the reason was that I thought A Simple Plan was a great film, well made in all areas, and Route 9 in these same areas wasn't great. But wait a minute - just because a movie similar in story to another, superior movie, may not be as good, that doesn't necessarily mean that there's no merit at all. I personally didn't mind seeing another take on the same basic story, so I was interested in seeing how the makers of this particular movie would handle it. At the end of this low budget movie, I felt satisfied. No, it's not one of 1998's best movies, like A Simple Plan - but if you don't mind seeing the same story again, it's a fairly entertaining 105 minutes.

The setting for Route 9 is a small town in central California, in the middle of nowhere. We are introduced to the two central characters - Booth (MacLachlan) is one of the few policemen in the town, and is having a secret affair with the battered wife (Locane) of the secretly cruel sheriff (Coyote). Booth and the sheriff's wife wish to flee, but don't have the money. Booth's friend and partner Earl (Wade Andrew Williams) is having his own money problems - he doesn't have enough, and is in debt to several people.

Out on early morning patrol, Booth and Earl pull into an abandoned farm, where they find several vehicles and the bloody bodies of several people - all killed after a disagreement during a drug deal. They find the drugs, but they also find in the back of a car a suitcase filled with over a million dollars. Booth wants to immediately radio this in, but Earl cajoles and pleads with Booth for several minutes that they should keep the money, and burn the car it came in, so it looks as if the money went up in flames. Eventually, Booth caves in, and they carefully rearrange and plan things, including making it look like the car exploded via a bullet to the gas tank. But just seconds after executing the final part of the plan and radioing for help, the two of them find out that there may not be such a thing as a perfect crime.

And that's just the first of a number of mishaps that happen to Booth and Earl. Screenwriter Brendan Broderick wrote the characters well enough so that we are intrigued in how they will deal with what is dealt to them, and some interesting personal details. For example, though Earl may be (secretly) rich with his share of the money, he still angrily leaps on his clunker truck when the repo man tries to take it away. Scenes like that give us a better idea of what kind of characters these people are. Broderick also puts some nice throwaway conversations at various points in the screenplay that are nice to listen to, even if they don't advance the plot. He doesn't always have the characters in jeopardy, but we are never bored by the "nothing" happening at the moment. The subplot about the affair is a bit too drawn out, and I will admit a lot of the "twists" he throws in are familiar and anticipated, which spoils some of the suspense and mystery. Though they are written well enough so these twists come at appropriate times, and are written well for what they are. And he does manage to throw in a few new twists I didn't see coming.

The screenplay gets the performers to a lot to do in this movie, and this shows both the actors strengths and weaknesses. As Booth, I guess MacLachlan does an overall passable job, convincing as a kind of everyman. Maybe a little smarter than usual, though he can still make mistakes. He's fine when his character acts more or less "normal", though when the situation gets more intense, his performance is erratic. He has an impressive scene when his character gets upset in one instance, believing that his fate is doomed and he can't do anything about it. But a few scenes when his character has to do some serious actions that would visibly upset a normal person are acted in a surprisingly bland fashion. And the acting of his character after these incidents isn't that different from what the character was acting like before. I said his acting was passable, but it so frequently feels watered down that I had a hard time picturing his actions when replaying key scenes in my mind. On the other hand, Wade Andrew Williams is surprisingly good in his debut performance. His one big emoting scene, when he blabs to Booth that the money is "a gift from God", does sound awkward and embarrassing (though that's partly due to the dialogue writing here being inferior.) But otherwise he does a really impressive job as an aggressive man who has some rage bottled up. Williams also pulls off the task of showing that the stupid things his character does don't necessarily come from general stupidity, but from not taking time to think things through. He has genuine star power, and I think that with a little work, he could become a B movie star on the level of Tim Thomerson. Though the real find here is Roma Maffia (also in TV's Profiler) in the small but pivotal role of a suspicious FBI agent. Maffia goes beyond what the screenplay and direction ask of her, and she creates an entertaining no-nonsense attitude for her smart character - a character that you know has a better idea of the situation than she reveals. It's too bad that her character isn't in more of the movie, and I hope Maffia gets more attention in the future.

The actors are pretty much left to their own devices by director Mackay, which seems to explain the times the acting is not sufficient. In fact, for a lot of the movie, Mackay doesn't seem to do that much for the movie's direction. The whole movie has a washed-out, fuzzy look to it; though bright colors and a razor-sharp look would not have been appropriate for a more "human" story, he could have got the cinematographer to crank up the focus and color a little, which would have improved things. He does handle the few action sequences extremely well, making them exciting and us wondering what will happen at the end of each sequence. But other than one sequence with Earl and Booth talking in a car, and the camera whipping back and forth between the two (very badly done), the only other place that he puts some effort into making visual excitement is with some throwaway shots, which range from cool (fading from a newspaper to the title highway) to in-your-face-arty (close-up of a lighter burning a $100 bill). Mackay might have enough talent to direct a fast paced actioner, but he wasn't right for a leisurely paced human suspenser - the scenes with people talking are usually directed straight-out, with no real effort to make them more interesting or special.

Despite the obvious problems with the acting and (especially) the directing, I thought Route 9 was enjoyable enough. The biggest reason why I enjoyed this movie was that I find the premise - finding and taking a large amount of money illegally, and trying to get away with it - irresistible. Even if Route 9's attributes were weaker than they are now, there's still a chance that I might still have enjoyed it - for I still wanted to see what the characters would do, and how things would end up. Fortunately, Route 9, problems and all, is by itself a good movie. Unfortunately, this movie will suffer under many viewers' eyes because of A Simple Plan - I admit even I was having a lot of trouble trying not to compare the two movies. If you want to see one movie concerning this particular plot, I would have to admit A Simple Plan would be the movie to choose. If you don't mind seeing the same plot twice, then see Route 9 as well, only watch it first so when you are watching it, it won't be dwarfed by its big brother.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: Phoenix, Road Ends, Seven Hours To Judgement