By Christopher Campbell | Spout April 28, 2011 at 9:14AM
I'm anxious to see how "Fast Five" works so well (according to many critics), in spite of it seeming so familiar, whether within the context of its own franchise or in its apparent transition towards more of a straight heist flick (and the next film is supposedly headed even more into that genre). As much as I joke that I'm waiting for the gang to blast out of orbit for some spaceship racing (as per this pitch I suggested last year), it's nice when a franchise can stay reasonably grounded and consistent while making some slight changes along the way. That said, I'm also certain that I'd love a "Fast and the Furious" sequel that brought Charlie Sheen in as a phantom driver, a la the little-remembered movie "The Wraith."
I revisited this 25-year-old movie this week, suddenly recalling that like the original "Fast" movie it involves racing cars for pink slips (I don't remember if "The Fast and the Furious" ever makes some initial innuendo about "pinks" the way "The Wraith" does). It also involves a dead teenager who is kind of reincarnated -- he now looks like Sheen if only for the purpose of not being recognized, though when he's racing he has the disguise of a futuristic driving suit and helmet anyway -- so he can take revenge on the gang who murdered him. He's like The Crow but more sci-fi gearhead than goth hero. And here, the wraith-rider primarily kills people with his ghostly Dodge Turbo Interceptor.
Just a note about that car: why is it that so many lists of greatest movie vehicles (including a new one timed to "Fast Five") overlook this stealth black Lamborghini wannabe? It's indestructible, can outrun bad guys and Sheriff Randy Quaid whenever necessary and it can drive into a building and blow it up from the inside even more awesomely than the 1989 Batmobile can. It also looks like it could drive out into space like the car from "The Last Starfighter" (another underrated movie vehicle, I must add). It can at least disappear and/or zap into the hereafter, I guess.
Written and directed by "Atlas Shrugged Part 1" producer Mike Marvin, for whom this was half of a double directorial debut (his first film, the also-forgotten "Hamburger: The Motion Picture," which had no non-titular connection to "Hot Dog: The Movie," which he'd co-produced earlier, was also released in 1986), "The Wraith" is hardly more than it's surface. The synopsis says it all and there's very little character development outside of gang leader Packard (Nick Cassavetes, making his parents so proud) being motivated to pound on or murder other guys because they talk, let alone make love, to a girl he likes (post-"Just One of the Guys" but pre-"Twin Peaks" Sherilyn Fenn).
One piece of useless but somewhat interesting trivia I just discovered: Matthew Barry, who plays Sheen's character's brother, and whom gets clobbered by Packard at one point, went on to be Cassavetes' casting director. Also, for no other reason than a curiosity for where everyone is now (anyone heard anything about Sheen lately?), I'd like to note that cinematographer Reed Smoot is now a regular DP for IMAX docs and is also apparently the go-to guy for pop star concert films, including "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never."
As for Sheen, seriously now, "The Wraith" was somewhat early in his career. He'd been somewhat notable in "Red Dawn," but 1986 was his big year. It kicked off for him with a January episode of "Amazing Stories" followed by supporting but very memorable roles in "Lucas" (in March) and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (in June). This was his first real front and center role, though looking back now he seems a lot less prominently featured than I had thought, because it's a part primarily represented by a fully covering spacesuit and that car. He does get to ride around a bit on a dirt bike and has a sex scene with Fenn, but due to the lack of depth to the character or film in general he's actually kind of unnecessary.
Anyway, it came and went in theaters fairly quickly that fall, opening at #8 just behind "Soul Man" (in its fifth week), giving way to Sheen's real breakout, "Platoon," a few weeks later. He also, weeks later, had a cameo in his brother's film, "Wisdom," a modern Robin Hood story that also could be worth looking at against the heist stories of the "Fast and the Furious" franchise. For now, though, take a look at "The Wraith" in its entirety, courtesy of Hulu: