Switchback (1997) poster

Switchback (1997)


USA. 1997.


Director/Screenplay – Jeb Stuart, Producer – Gale Ann Hurd, Photography – Oliver Wood, Music – Basil Pouledoris, Music Supervisor – Ralph Sall, Visual Effects – Pacific Digital (Supervisor – David Sosalla), Todd-Ao Digital Images & VIFX (Supervisor – John Wash), Special Effects Supervisor – Stan Parks, Production Design – Jeffrey Howard. Production Company – Paramount/Rysher Entertainment/Pacific Western


Dennis Quaid (Agent Frank LaCrosse), Danny Glover (Bob Goodall), R. Lee Ermey (Sheriff Buck Olmstead), Jared Leto (Lane Dixon), Ted Levine (Deputy Nate Booker), William Fichtner (Chief Jack McGinnis), Kevin Cooney (Grant Montgomery), Orville Stober (Hector Saldez)


While in the middle of contesting his re-election campaign, Buck Olmstead, the sheriff of Amarillo, Texas, is faced with several murders in the town. FBI agent Frank LaCrosse arrives, certain that the killings are the activities of a serial killer he has been tracking for several years. Olmstead then finds that LaCrosse has deserted his Bureau assignment and is operating without jurisdiction. Olmstead is ordered to place LaCrosse under arrest but learns that the killer has abducted LaCrosse’s son. Meanwhile, former doctor Lane Dixon hitches a ride through the area with railway worker Bob Goodall. As the journey progresses, neither appears to be whom they seem and clues seem to point at either one being the killer.

Switchback features the directorial debut of Jeb Stuart, then best known as the scriptwriter of Die Hard (1988) and The Fugitive (1993). It was one of producer Gale Ann Hurd’s few box-office failures, receiving a negligible theatrical release before being sent to video. It is nevertheless an interesting film.

Switchback is reminiscent of the later Clay Pigeons (1998) (albeit played straight), while its’ final quarter turns into something akin to a psycho-thriller version of Runaway Train (1985). Jeb Stuart’s script does a fair job in turning most of the principals into suspects where no character is as they initially seem. Ambiguous clues are littered throughout the film – the killer may be a doctor, Jared Leto is revealed as a disbarred doctor; the killer is a sexual pervert, Danny Glover’s car is pasted with pornographic pictures; the car wanted is the same one Glover is driving; what is the significance of the phrase 21:8?

Dennis Quaid in Switchback (1997)
Rogue FBI agent Dennis Quaid in the midst of action

However, Jeb Stuart never puts the twists on the plot the way he should. Switchback is a film that grips in moments but at other times seems large and unwieldy, with Stuart never manipulating the clues enough to keep one constantly unaware or on the edge of the seat. Stuart never ties the ancillary subplot that follows Danny Glover and Jared Leto’s journey across the state to the main action in any way – the purpose of it being there is solely to make the two of them into suspects.

That said, Jeb Stuart fares far better as director. The suspense sequences are built with some tension – like the sequence where Danny Glover saves Jared Leto from a bunch of rednecks in a bar. Stuart even manages to invest the old device of a car hanging on the edge of a cliff with considerable tension. He is particularly adept in the scenes with Dennis Quaid charging into a hostage situation unconcerned about the threats being made, or where he calls the lawyer’s bluff. The scenes fighting around the wings on the outside of a train make for an excellent climax.

Danny Glover, Jared Leto in Switchback (1997)
The suspects – (l to r) railroad worker Danny Glover, hitchhiking passenger Jared Leto

Stuart is also serviced by a top notch cast. Dennis Quaid gives one of his best performances in some time as the tightly emotionally lipped FBI agent. Danny Glover plays effectively against the good guy typecasting he has received in the likes of the Lethal Weapon films, giving a performance where friendliness sits alongside a swaggering danger. (Although [PLOT SPOILERS] at the final revelation that he is the killer, Glover never fully succeeds in convincing you he is the genius nemesis the film makes him out to be). The best acting in the film comes from R. Lee Ermey as the small town sheriff, a performance that balances wry hard-headedness with gut instinct to surprisingly good-natured ends.

Despite the promise shown here, Jeb Stuart subsequently vanished from the film industry, even in a writing capacity, until his return as director/writer of the true crime drama Blood Done Sign My Name (2010). His other scripts of genre note are the monster movie Leviathan (1989) and the legal/serial killer thriller Just Cause (1995).

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