Exit Speed

Director: Scott Ziehl
Fred Ward, Desmond Harrington, Lea Thompson

Whenever I sit down to watch a movie - whether it is intended by me to later review it on this web site, or one of the countless movies I watch on my private time - the requirement I demand of the movie above all others is to be entertained by the experience. I suspect that that requirement more likely than not is also your top priority when you watch a movie. But every so often, depending on the type of movie that I decide to watch, I have other demands on the movie. For example, when I sit down to watch a horror movie, I want to be jolted a reasonable number of times. One other demand I often have for a movie, regardless of the genre, is to see characters get into major trouble. For one thing, characters getting into trouble quite often leads to some deep and entertaining drama. But I think the reason why I want to see characters in a movie getting into trouble is that it makes me feel better about myself. Seeing people in a real bad situation makes me realize that despite all the problems in my life, I am better off in comparison. I have a lot of favorite "trouble" situation that I like to see coming up in movies over and over. For example, there is the oft-used "innocent person accused of a crime" situation. Though I admit I don't like the examples when the movie innocent person is thrown in jail - since I have a personal fear of being locked up for something I didn't do - I do like the examples when the central character of the movie is on the run with various forces surrounding him that threaten to either kill him or lock him up in prison. Seeing the poor slob struggle so desperately to prove his innocence, I can sit back in my easy chair and feel good by comparison.

Other situations in movies that make me realize I don't have it so bad in my personal life include movie characters getting severely ill or injured, being in financial dire straits, or being held hostage by various maniacs. There is one additional movie conflict that I'd like to add to that list of movie situations that cheer me up, one that I want to discuss in more length. That happens to be when a protagonist (or protagonists) are holed up in a specific location and are surrounded by some sort of evil force determined to wipe the good guys out. This is one of my favorite types of movie conflicts. In fact, I have in the past reviewed several other examples of this type of movie (Dog Soldiers, Self Defense, and Tenement.) In my free time, I have watched numerous other examples crossing every genre you can think of, from the John Carpenter actioner Assault On Precinct 13 to the 1959 Kirk Douglas western Last Train From Gun Hill. Why has this basic premise been so popular for many decades? For that matter, why do I like this premise so much? Having watched so many examples of this premise, I have a few theories. One reason I think is that this situation is a fertile ground to come up with bad guys that are really bad. If the bad guys are willing to wait it out outside the good guys' limited space, they must be really determined - in other words, a force to be really reckoned with. I think another reason for the popularity of this type of movie is that it more often than not forces the protagonist (or protagonists) to use their brains more than brawn and brute force to defeat the bad element.  Not every viewer is a fighting machine in real life, so seeing people outfoxing an evil element with intelligence is probably very assuring.

Personally, while I agree with those theories that I wrote above, for me there's an additional reason why I like the "siege" movie drama so much. That's because quite often in these movies there is at least one protagonist that is greatly annoying for one reason or another. I think you know the Exit Speedeventual fate of such characters in these films - they get horribly killed. Having to deal with too many annoying people in my personal life, it is good to release some of my stress by seeing an annoying character in a movie get killed. Anyway, I recently figured it was time to review another "siege" movie, which is why when I found in a local dollar store a brand new Blu-ray of Exit Speed for just three dollars, I was sold. Of course, being an Internet movie critic, that meant that I first ran my tongue all over the disc before popping the disc in my Blu-ray player, but I digress. The events of the movie take place in Texas, and focus on passengers of a cross country bus headed to El Paso. Among the passengers are a soldier (Julie Mond) who has gone AWOL and is being pursued by an MP (Fred Ward, Remo Williams), a Hispanic (Everett Sifuentes), a high school physical education teacher (Gregory Jbara, Blue Bloods), a professional archer (Alice Greczyn, The Dukes Of Hazzard), and a single mother (Lea Thompson, Switched At Birth). During the journey, the bus passengers have an encounter with a biker gang. Because of the erratic driving of the bikers, the bus driver (David Rees Snell, The Shield) ends up accidentally running over one of the bikers. Naturally, this does not please the rest of the biker gang, and they immediately make it their top priority to kill the bus driver and the bus passengers. After the bikers' initial attack, the surviving passengers eventually make their way off the highway and into a junkyard, where they hole up. But they are not safe - the bikers soon arrive and surround the bus passengers. Eventually, the bus passengers realize that they cannot get away or stay safe, and that they are in a kill or be killed situation.

I am pretty sure that if you were to ask anyone who stumbled across Exit Speed on home video or some other format why they decided to watch it, they would immediately say something like, "I wanted to see some good action sequences and some genuine suspense." Certainly with a film like this, such attributes are very important factors towards whether the movie works or not, and I will certainly be discussing those things later in the review. But as I indicated earlier, a "siege" movie like Exit Speed also depends on its characters. If the movie doesn't have protagonists we like and care about and/or doesn't have antagonists that are nasty pieces of work, it's much harder for the audience to get involved with the movie even if the director is skilled at staging action and suspense. First I'll start with looking at the protagonists. Exit Speed manages to give its audience protagonists that they will like. Yes, there is one protagonist that turns out to be somewhat annoying (and you can guess his or her fate), but we do get to see another side of this character, one that does join up with the other characters in their ambition to defeat the enemy. Come to think of it, we do get to see more than one side of most of the other protagonists as well. We get to see that these protagonists have weaknesses or flaws that don't make them perfect people. Obviously, the AWOL female soldier is flawed, but the screenplay also has (among other character vulnerabilities) the single mother worried about leaving her kids orphans, reveals that the high school coach was recently fired for alcoholism, and that the Hispanic character can't speak a word of English. As I said, these are not perfect people. But that's okay. They have faults, just like we in the audience, so we can relate to them more easily than the super warriors we often get in action films.

I liked these protagonists, and not just because they were more relatable than usual. For one thing, they had the right amount of intelligence, being not stupid as well as not having something like extrasensory perception. The various actions they take to protect themselves as well as fight back always remain at a plausible level. I didn't groan out loud at any of their actions. I feel I should point out that I was sold by these characters not just because they were written well. The cast does a pretty good job selling these characters to the audience. Although the majority of the protagonists are played by a bunch of no-name actors, it's apparent that the casting department did make a great effort to find appealing and talented actors. And there is an advantage with the movie having a largely no-name cast - star power does not once get in the way. You'll be thinking these are real people instead of major stars playing around. As you can see, the movie succeeds with its protagonists. What about the antagonists? As it turns out, the movie doesn't make any of the murderous bikers into true characters. Not one of them steps out in front - instead, the movie always makes them a bunch. Also, none of the bikers is given even one word of dialogue to utter out loud. So you might be thinking that these are not very strong characters. But I seem to recall that the bad guys in Assault On Precinct 13 were depicted this same way, and they ended up coming across as a formidable threat. And so it happens, so are the bad guys in Exit Speed. Director Scott Ziehl (Earth Vs. The Spider) depicts them as a threat that has one and only purpose - to kill everybody. You really sense that they can't be reasoned with and cannot be stopped in any way except to kill all of them. They are a genuinely creepy menace.

Ziehl deserves credit for not just handling his cast well, but for also making much of the rest of Exit Speed work. It is true that despite all his work, there are a few faults here and there, but almost all of these faults seem to be faults that any other director would have found hard to overcome. For one thing, he had a budget of less than five million dollars to work with. Ziehl does manage to give most of the movie an acceptable look, but there are a few places where the seams show, like the "bus station" that's clearly a disguised convenience store. Also, the script he was working with has some plot holes, like how apparently no passing motorists came across the dead bodies lying on the highway for several hours. If there is a genuine stumble Ziehl makes in the director's chair, it is the middle portion of the movie, where for a long time there is no action and the holed up protagonists seem to almost forget that there are people trying to kill them. But other than that section of the movie and those other flaws I mentioned, Ziehl manages in the end to deliver a product that action fans will like. Not just because of the characters, but also with the action sequences. For starters, there is some considerable brutal and bloody violence on display here. It is not only brutal and bloody, but a few times it comes so out of the blue that I admit that I was momentarily stunned, thinking, "Whoa! I didn't see that coming!" The remaining action may not have as much impact, but it is all the same well done. The action has a good amount of variety, from gun shots to people getting punctured by arrows. More importantly, we get a feeling that the protagonists are really struggling as they fight off their foe, and that despite all their best efforts, they may not succeed fighting off a relentless enemy. This movie is genuinely exciting at times. So as you can see, Exit Speed is a way above average example of the "siege" genre, and well worth a look even if you can't find it for cheap in a dollar store as I did.

(Posted December 31, 2018)

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See also: Dog Soldiers, Self Defense, Tenement