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Now here's a switch

SwitchBack is a brisk thriller with a nice gimmick that is hardly a gimmick at all. It's remarkably straightforward in the way it depicts an FBI agent tracking a serial killer, and that becomes a surprise in itself, after so many years of filmmakers' attempts to make the obvious special with illogical twists.

There still are some stretches of shaky sense, easy goose bumps and visual cheats in screenwriter Jeb Stuart's directorial debut, but he's wise to play against our expectations of movie mysteries.

Audiences have been trained by lesser films to believe that the most obvious suspect is the least likely to be guilty, while some secondary character is trotted out in the final reel to take the rap for an out-of-the-blue reason. Stuart confounds that pattern in a fashion that can't be fully discussed to avoid blowing the surprise, and even includes the cleverly edited red herrings in previews that throw us off track. Suffice it to say that you leave the theater fooled for reasons that serious movie lovers can understand. SwitchBack is a movie that you can still respect in the morning.

Stuart picked the proper title for this script, written while he was still in college, before he became one of Hollywood's bankable authors with The Fugitive and Die Hard. A switchback is a tactic used to descend a steep mountain, taking a wide zigzag path instead of rushing headlong downhill. You get where you're going, although it takes a little longer.

It would be more exciting if Stuart took the latter path, but that reckless course taken by most action directors doesn't leave much time for mystery. SwitchBack keeps us guessing for a while, but it always keeps us listening to see if this deathtrap is as simple as it seems. The fact that Stuart stays his logical course while veering off into those other directions is to the benefit of the movie.

Several minutes pass before the plot begins to take shape, as Stuart introduces us to a few colorful characters and one dull hero. The film's weak link is an exceedingly subdued performance by Dennis Quaid as FBI maverick Frank LaCrosse, whose son has been kidnapped by the killer he has been trailing. That personal stake would make Frank ineligible for the case but, in true movie fashion, he has his own agenda.

Quaid plays the role as if he's auditioning to be the soothing voice of the sensor that tells you when your car lights are left on. I counted four times when his face mustered any emotion above steely calm, before the obligatory grimaces during the climactic fight. Stuart barely raises enough interest in Frank's predicament with his words, and Quaid won't even offer a touch of Harrison Ford's everyman irony to make us pull for him.

The filmmaker is smart enough to surround Frank with some promising suspects and some interesting ways of keeping them in the lineup. Danny Glover is a joy to watch as Bob Goodall, a gregarious sort whose occasional glares and unique choice of auto upholstery make an emotionally troubled hitchhiker (Jared Leto) even more uneasy. This unlikely pairing develops during a honky-tonk encounter with bullies that marks the best tension Stuart devises, and the starting point for our own conflicted loyalties.

Frank's assistance from perpetually frowning Texas cops also raises eyebrows, since the sheriff (R. Lee Ermey) has political motives that could cloud his judgment. And, isn't that murderous Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs playing his edgy deputy? Yes it is, and Ted Levine's mush-mouthed mumble is always a nice creep-out for those who fondly recall Jonathan Demme's chilling Oscar winner, which movies such as this are still imitating.

Each of these actors gets juicy moments to play, and there's slightly more than the usual character development in a genre where people are typically known only by their job titles. Cinematographer Oliver Wood makes good use of flatlands and wintry ranges, especially in a boxcar brawl with a fresh touch of snowplow endangerment. SwitchBack would be a better film if it didn't descend to that kind of violent payoff, and if Quaid had a couple of cups of coffee, but it does the trick.



Director: Jeb Stuart

Cast: Dennis Quaid, Danny Glover, R. Lee Ermey, Jared Leto, Ted Levine

Screenplay: Jeb Stuart

Rating: R; violence, profanity

Running time: 105 min.