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Film / Vanishing Point

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"This radio station was named Kowalski, in honor of the last American hero to whom speed means freedom of the soul. The question is not when he's gonna stop, but who is gonna stop him."
Super Soul

Vanishing Point is a 1971 American action road movie directed by Richard C. Sarafian and starring Barry Newman and Cleavon Little. Arguably the Trope Maker/Ur-Example of the car chase movie, or in any case the Trope Codifier.

In a post-Woodstock '70s US, Kowalski (Newman) is a car delivery man with a mysterious past and no first name given, now working for Argo's Car Delivery Service in Denver, Colorado. The film opens on Sunday, 10:02 am, with him driving a white 1970 Dodge Challenger into a roadblock with the police in hot pursuit. Just before he hits it, however, the film flashes back to two days earlier. Kowalski has been assigned to deliver the Challenger to San Francisco, and makes a bet with his dealer Jake (Lee Weaver) that he can get there in just fifteen hours. Setting off, Kowalski ends up running afoul of the police when he runs a motorcycle cop off the road. A blind African-American DJ at KOW known as Super Soul (Little) listens to the police radio frequency and encourages Kowalski to evade the police. By doing so, he is turned into an overnight folk hero, revered by the counterculture scene across the west.

Along his journey, Kowalski encounters a man who collects snakes, a faith healer named J-Hovah, a pair of gay carjackers, and a nude woman on a motorcycle. We eventually learn Kowalski's past: he is a Vietnam veteran who later became a cop, but quit when his partner molested a woman, then became a car and motorcycle racer until two near-fatal accidents forced him to retire, and then became the "adrenaline junkie" he is today. Vera, the only woman he ever loved, died in a surfing accident.

Does Kowalski evade the police and make it through the roadblock? Does he make it to San Francisco? Find out!

Was remade in 1997 as a Made-for-TV Movie starring Viggo Mortensen, Jason Priestley, and Keith David. Many of the characters are heavily changed; in the remake, James "Jimmy" Kowalski is a Gulf War vet trying to get to his pregnant wife in Idaho, while the DJ is now a right-wing shock jock named "The Voice" who views Kowalski's race home against the police as a battle against government oppression.

See also Easy Rider and Two-Lane Blacktop, two other counter-culture road films from the same era.

"Vanishing Tropes":

  • Anti-Villain: In the original film, Kowalski is a Type II.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Kowalski in the remake is completely sober and has a more sympathetic reason to be racing with the Challenger throughout the country (aside from just wanting to do it on the original): his wife is about to deliver their baby and is in a very bad state, so he's racing to the hospital where she is, and his panic along with a chain of misunderstandings means the cops are out for his blood.
  • Adaptational Villainy: The cops, in the remake. A few of the cops that are after him escalate quickly from doing it because it's their job to a full-on vendetta, and the feds that are brought in quickly theorize that he's a Right-Wing Militia Fanatic and refuse to hear a word saying otherwise.
  • Artistic License Geography:
    • The original film doesn't make it clear when Kowalski crosses from Colorado to Utah (though you can see the Utah beehive symbol on the highway patrol patches), so it almost seems like he just suddenly jumps from Colorado to the Nevada border.
    • A small-town AM station like KOW isn't going to have a clear signal across three states during daylight hours, not unless it's a Class A clear-channel station.
  • B-Movie: In both versions, the remake even being a Made-for-TV Movie.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Kowalski doesn't make it through the roadblock. He crashes and he dies. However, in doing so, he evades capture, and is put out of the internal torment he is in, to not mention he becomes a folk hero.
    • Might also count as a Bolivian Army Ending, since it's unknown whether or not he escapes from his car before the crash, made it through the roadblock, or simply died in the explosion without a trace.
  • Bumper Sticker: The cop's Dodge Charger in the remake reading "My wife? Yes. My dog? Maybe. My Dodge? Never."
  • Car Chase: The whole movie is one car chase, with as few interruptions as possible.
  • Car Fu: Many cops try their damnedest to ram Kowalski off the road. They don't really succeed.
  • Cool Car: The Dodge Challenger. The final scene has it somehow turn into a 1967 Chevrolet Camaro. The Remake gives one of the cops a Dodge Charger to show him as The Rival (and ups the coolness of both cars by virtue of them being classics by the "current" time of the film).
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: In the remake, the entire mess with law enforcement starts because Kowalski finds out that his wife is having difficulties and panics. Instead of driving to the nearest airport and buying a plane ticket home, he instead gets back into a car that doesn't belong to him, drives off at 100+ MPH on a public highway and gets pulled over. He then does what you should never do at a traffic stop: get out of the car and rush the two officers who pulled him over.
  • Cutting the Knot: Subverted in the remake, but not from lack of trying. Immediately after eluding the two motorcycle cops, Kowalski does go to a nearby airport and attempts to charter a flight to Denver, which would tremendously cut down on travel time and avoid more trouble with the police. Unfortunately, the police spot the Challenger outside the terminal and Kowalski has to continue the trip by car.
  • Death by Childbirth: Kowalki's wife in the remake, shortly before he encounters the final roadblock (and as a matter of fact, him fearing that this is what will happen to her is the reason he's racing through the country). One of the theories The Voice tosses out at the epilogue why they Never Found the Body was that Kowalski managed to get out of the car, disappear in the confusion, and is raising his child with an assumed identity.
  • Did Not Think This Through: See "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot. In the remake, what gets the cops and the Feds on Kowalski's tail is entirely his fault because he panicked and didn't think.
  • Dirty Cop: In the original film, when Kowalski was a police officer, he stopped his partner from sexually assaulting/raping a female suspect.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Kowalski, in all versions. It's why he gets in trouble to begin with.
  • Everybody Owns a Ford: Chrysler loaned the production company five 1970 Dodge Challengers. They had to be returned after filming (this is why the car that is crashed is a Camaro), repainted (white wasn't available on Challengers then), and sold to unsuspecting customers. Chrysler also supplied the police cars (all Dodges and Plymouths), and a new Imperial LeBaron.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: The Camaro at the end, standing in for the Challenger, was loaded with dynamite to explode when it crashes into the police barricade.
  • Fanservice: Hello, naked (or near-naked in the remake) woman on motorcycle!
  • Greek Chorus: Super Soul on the original and "The Voice" on the remake, both commenting on what is going on and trying to provide advice to Kowalski.
  • The Grim Reaper: According to Kowalski's actor and the movie's director, the female hitchhiker in the UK release is an allegory for Death. This is further supported by her saying that she's been waiting for Kowalski for a long time despite her being just a random hitchhiker that the former just met.
  • The Hero Dies: Though it is left open as to whether or not Kowalski actually dies in the explosion for the remake.
  • Large Ham Radio: Super Soul practically defines this trope. "The Voice" gets as hammy as you could expect of an "anti-government" guy in The '90s.
  • Magical Negro: Super Soul, with a side of Blind Seer.
  • Never Found the Body: In the remake, the police check the crashed Challenger and this happens. In an attempt to kill Kowalski's status as a Folk Hero, they say that the explosion probably immolated him completely. The Voice tosses the theory that Kowalski may have gotten out of the car before it crashed, and is now living elsewhere with a false identity with his kid. Nevertheless, the movie never truly says who's right.
  • No Full Name Given: Zigzagged in the original. Kowalski is only ever referred to by his surname and when cops do find out his first name, it's either too long or incomprehensible for them to read out. However, when Kowalski is getting speed pills from his dealer, the latter calls him both "Kowalski" and "Jimmy".
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The closest thing to a villain in the original is Charlie, one of the cops that ends up crashing while chasing Kowalski. When he first encounters Kowalski, he refers to him as an f-slur to his partner and later when he gathers an angry mob to assault Super Soul, he calls the latter a "loud-mouthed n-word".
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: In the remake. At the roadblock, the County Sheriff orders his people to leave and admonishes the lead Agent for pursing some fool who's just trying to get home to his wife. Said Agent's partner even suggests just letting Kowalski through and picking him up quietly at the hospital. The lead Agent blows them both off.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Not exactly revenge, but, in the remake, an FBI Agent and a Utah Highway patrol officer are hell-bent on taking Kowalski down and shoot down any reasonable solutions. Both their partners suggest backing off of Kowalski more than once because of the confusion, danger, use of expensive (and potentially classified) resources, collateral damage and media circus that has resulted from it. Things don't end well for either of them.
    • A Utah Highway Patrol Officer justifies the use of lethal force because of a law requiring any pursuit to be ended before entering a populated area; which was meant by the Governor to be Salt Lake City, not Blanding—a small town with a population of 50. While driving, he fires a shotgun at Kowalski while on the wrong side of the road not paying attention to oncoming traffic and ends up in a roll-over crash heavily damaging--if not outright totaling--his vintage Dodge Charger.note 
    • After expending considerable resources, including the use of NSA's "satellites" to triangulate Kowalski's mobile phone (which he just plants on a Bus that gets stopped by an FBI HRT team), the lead Agent's partner suggests a pretty simple solution that practically guarantees that they can capture him with ease and quietly. The lead Federal Agent blows this off and claims that they need to capture Kowalski on their terms to demonstrate to the public that they're in charge. It ends with them looking like trigger-happy fools and Kowalski either dead or possibly escaped and a valuable muscle car destroyed.
  • Right-Wing Militia Fanatic: "The Voice" in the remake. Part of the misunderstanding that escalates Kowalski's manhunt is that his personal history (disenfranchised war vet) makes the police think Kowalski is one of these.
  • Road Trip Plot: The race to cross the country in the original, a race to try to get to a hospital in Utah in the remake.
  • The '70s: In the original.
  • Stating the Simple Solution: In the remake, we have two of them, both of which are rejected for personal reasons.
    • During a pursuit in Utah, a Highway Patrol officer suggests backing off and calling in backup and a helicopter to follow him until he runs out of gas.
    • At the roadblock, the lead Agent's partner suggests just letting Kowalski go instead of using the roadblock to capture him. By this point, they already know who he is, the car he's driving, where he's going and why. All they have to do is let him drive to the hospital—where they already have agents and police officers waiting—and let him spend some time with his wife and newborn baby. He would be in a controlled situation; out of the car, surrounded by security, have absolutely nowhere to go and out of the public eye. This would enable them to arrest him quietly at their leisure with no publicity.
  • Troubled Backstory Flashback: Kowalski encounters people and situations that lead him to flash back to various points in his past, which helps the audience understand why he acts the way he does.
  • The Unreveal: When it seems we are about to learn Kowalski's first name through a telegram received by the police, one cop reads it:
    Officer: Surname, Kowalski, K-o-w-a-l-s-k-i. Christian name... Christian name, my flat foot. What is that?
  • The Vietnam Vet: We find out from cops looking into his background, that Kowalski served in Vietnam until being wounded and honorably discharged.