"The Hitcher" fails to make much of an impression. Typically, the cult classic 1986 original is gutted of all originality, sexual ambiguity and tension, leaving behind a generic chase between blandly heterosexual "good" and quasi-supernatural "evil."

In the veritable avalanche of product churned out by the horror retread assembly-lines these days, “The Hitcher” fails to make much of an impression. Typically, the cult classic 1986 original is gutted of all originality, sexual ambiguity and tension, leaving behind a generic chase between blandly heterosexual “good” and quasi-supernatural “evil.” In the absence of actors with the tremendous presence of Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh, pic loses its raison d’etre. Yet, directed by video helmer Dave Meyers with a certain fastidious distance from its plentiful gore, pic is also insufficiently over-the-top or corny to incite gleeful audience feedback.

Scripters Jake Wade Wall and Eric Bernt have updated the setup — not only has the lone male motorist now been replaced by a lovey-dovey couple, Jim (newcomer Zachary Knighton) and Grace (Sophia Bush, slipping her nubile body in and out of skimpy costumes even when under attack), but Jim is now relegated to the touchy-feely feminine role while Grace undergoes a (literal) trial by fire, emerging as a heroic, low-angled goddess with a pump-gun.

Indeed, pic almost reads like a female empowerment fable whereby Grace, with the help of enigmatic killer John Ryder (Sean Bean thanklessly thrust into the Rutger Hauer role), sheds her wimpy boyfriend for bigger and better things.

Remake is remarkable (given the original’s wonderfully snarky homoerotic subtext) for the absolute lack of personality or chemistry among the actors (though the blond arrogance of Neal McDonough’s state police lieutenant neatly mirrors the uncaring fearlessness of supervillain Ryder, as if the two were squaring off for a sequel).

Lead couple Grace and Jim are furnished with as bare a backstory as Adam and Eve, while Bean incarnates the arch-demonic killer only denotatively, with none of the sexual charisma that made Hauer’s performance so disturbing.

But, perhaps most unforgivably, pic lacks suspense. The action scenes are directed credibly enough, but the nail-biting buildups and awful aftermaths are laid out mechanically and drained of emotional effect, characteristic of all the mass-produced recyclings of underground cult cheapies and bigger-budgeted fright films undertaken by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dune label.

At one point, Bush falls asleep in a motel room, the passage of time measured by seemingly irrelevant scenes from the beginning and end of “The Birds” — until the realization sets in that one is watching product placement for Bay’s upcoming ornithological remake.

Basically, the film’s strategy is to substitute iconic flesh-and-blood actors with stylized tableaux. But one shot of Leigh as a dead-end waitress at a truck-stop in the middle of nowhere in the 1986 version packed more pathos than carefully posed carfuls of dead, Bible-loving families, their kid’s bloodstained “Will I Go to Heaven?” coloring-book fluttering in the wind.

Tech credits are mixed; lensing by James Hawkinson is suitably atmospheric but track’s overdetermined song choices often annoy.

The Hitcher

Production

A Rogue Pictures release of a Rogue Pictures/Intrepid Pictures presentation in association with Michael Bay of a Platinum Dunes production. Produced by Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Charles Meeker, Alfred Haber. Directed by Dave Meyers. Screenplay by Jake Wade Wall, Eric Bernt based on the film written by Eric Red.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), James Hawkinson; editor, Jim May; music, Steve Jablonsky; music supervision, Jojo Villaneuva; production designer, David Lazan; costume designer, Leeann Radeka; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Alan Rankin; sound production mixer, Stacy Brownrigg; supervising sound editors, Dave McMoyler, Kelly Oxford; casting, Lisa Fields. Reviewed at the AMC Loews West 34th Street, New York, Jan. 19, 2007. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 84 MIN.

With

John Ryder - Sean Bean Gracie Andrews - Sophia Bush Jim Halsey - Zachary Knighton Lt. Esterbridge - Neal McDonough

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