-By Bruce Feld

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This latest Hitcher--the 1986 version featured Rutger Hauer while a 2002 sequel went directly to video--is helmed by Dave Meyers, whose background includes both commercials and award-winning music-videos. Of the three films this is the most blatantly brutal, a take-no-prisoners thriller that leaves few people standing. Ambiguous motives contribute to what mystery there is, as Meyers splashes his gore on the screen abruptly, like a summer storm, and then quickly moves on. At the same time, cinematographer James Hawkinson makes watching vehicles roll over and over almost compensate for the absence of psychological perception. Together, they manage to make a body riddled with shotgun pellets aesthetically interesting. Alan Rankin's sound design adds to the movie's crisp effectiveness. This is not a thinking-man's thriller, but it has the shock appeal of a severed head on a davenport.

Visual style is key to The Hitcher's chilling moments of death and brutality. From the opening sequence during which a rabbit is fatally surprised on a highway (best to remind yourself that the hare is strictly CGI) to the last-woman-standing finale, we can time the thrills in five-minute intervals, and during sequences where no one is being dispatched, there is the requisite amount of fear and tension, another tribute to Meyers' skill.

The Hitcher burns rubber from its opening shots, in which sleek and sensible Grace Andrews (Sophia Bush) and her grungy but good-hearted boyfriend Jim Halsey (Zachary Knighton) spin off down the interstate to meet her family during school break. Everything is tranquil exposition for about five minutes. But before you can say "John Ryder is the perfect name for a hitchhiker," they almost run over the title character with Jim's Olds, a vehicle fitted with every device known to modern car builders except a muffler.

Will Ryder (Sean Bean) get revenge? Is the Pope Catholic? No matter what the genre of film, a thriller is only as good as its villain, and to this task Bean is a match for the original hitcher, Rutger Hauer. With a vaguely European voice of authority, he relishes every moment of pain he can inflict upon the innocent young couple. And this is a man whose smile is far more sinister than his sneer. Still, The Hitcher quickly reaches a point when we wonder why he finds them worthy of his sadism. That question is never answered.

Those jaded enough or callow enough who love a cinematic battering with no holds barred--and you know who you are--will not be disappointed by this bit of Grand Guignol, which ought to discourage anyone from picking up a hitcher under the age of 80.

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