The Wraith, the '80s supercar movie everyone's heard of but nobody can really remember watching, gets a special DVD release. And after watching it again, it's now clear why our brains tossed this movie in the circular file. Rest assured, though, the car is still pretty awesome.
So, there's this town out in the middle of nowhere in Arizona where a gang forces people to drag race for pink slips. For those of you born after the Korean War, pink slips were how you used to determine car ownership back before there were organized state governments that kept track of such things. The leader of the gang, Packard (Nick Cassavetes, at what was probably a low point in his career), is something of a one-note sociopath who pretty much rules this town, since no one is smart or brave enough to stand up to him and his three-inch switchblade. With Packard is a diverse group that seems to have been assembled from every cinematic gang in history. While he's got a vague Rebel Without a Cause influence, there's also a guy from Miami Vice, a guy from Road Warrior, even somebody from Happy Days, complete with letter jacket and wingtips. Fortunately, all Packard wants is to steal cars for his out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere chop shop and stare obsessively at local cutie Keri (Sherilyn Fenn, also probably at a low point in her career) from his car parked across the street. No matter where she is or what time of day it is, Packard is always parked across the street from her.
His life does have two problems, though. One of them is Jake (Charlie Sheen, at what was definitely a low point in his career, current problems included), a stranger who just seems to ride around town on his dirt bike and make Keri get all butterflies-in-the-stomach around him. Jake also befriends local burger jockey Billy (Matthew Johnson), and all this starts bothering Packard because he's already killed one guy he caught dry-humping Keri, and as it happens Billy is said victim's brother. Which may be why looking at Jake keeps giving the unflappable gang leader flashes of that murder.
The other problem, our title problem, so to say, is a mysterious driver in a kick-ass, futuristic car, who Packard's mechanic (veteran character actor Clint Howard, also at a low point in his career) dubs the Wraith. The Wraith keeps challenging the gang to race using some strange form of telepathy that writer-director Mike Marvin (oddly enough, at the high point of his career) never feels the need to explain or symbolize on film. In some unknown way, everyone in the gang just knows the guy in the gleaming black car wants to race them. Even more interesting, they continue to do it, even though every single person who goes up against the Wraith ends up dead and ghoulishly disfigured, while the mystery car proves itself again and again to be completely unstoppable. By odd coincidence, the Wraith also makes Packard flash back to the night he murdered Keri's ex, but he's far too stoic and single-minded to draw any conclusions from that. It's also supposed to be a big surprise to the audience, apparently, when we learn in the closing moments of the film that Jake is the Wraith.
No, seriously. He is. I know, I know, I didn't see it coming, either.
Despite all this mocking, this should be an easy movie to like. I mean, it's not going to win an Oscar, or even a Nickelodeon Kid's Choice Award, but this has all the ingredients for a fun night with your friends. There's a bunch of very talented actors, a really bad-ass über-car, and enough money in the budget for four or five sizeable explosions. An even passably talented director could carry it past the limitations of the weak story.
Then again...having a weak director who also wrote the weak story could actually sink this film like a pair of concrete overshoes. Which is what happens here. No matter how cool The Wraith might have seemed when you were 11, now there's just no denying this movie is incompetently made and rock-stupid. The races are mind-numbingly repetitive. Every scene is clumsily staged. Heck, it's being generous to call the characters two-dimensional. Oh, the cast is doing their best, but this dialogue would seem clumsy in a third-grade school play. It's a half hour of plot stretched to 90 minutes, directed by someone who doesn't have the ability to shoot a cohesive music video.
The other big problem this film has is that, well, it really isn't anything. Despite all the racing scenes, it's paced too slowly to be an action movie. It's not scary enough to be a horror movie or eerie enough to be a supernatural thriller. Don't even try to say it's a character piece. Heck, it's not even a passable revenge movie -- since the gang members never learn why they're being picked off and have that all-important moment of guilt and realization. It's just the Wraith on a somewhat-motivated killing spree. There's not even a clear main character, so you can't narrow it down that way. If I wanted to be generous, I could say it's car porn -- an episodic film with minimal story, repetitive action, and not a grain of subtlety to be seen.
For a 24-year-old movie, long before the idea of special features, it is kind of impressive how many extras Lionsgate assembled for this film. There's "Rughead Speaks," an interview with Clint Howard, who goes to great lengths to politely say, "They paid me to be in it." There's the original trailer, complete with '80s movie-trailer voice. In "The Ride of the Future," the film's transportation coordinator, Gary Hellerstein, and stunt coordinator, Buddy Joe Hooker, recall how the Wraith's fantastic Turbo Interceptor was built out of Chrysler's Indy 500 pace car and some of the joys and problems they had with it and the other vehicles in the film. They also talk about the accidents that happened on set, which left several crew members injured and one dead. Two decades later, you can see both of these men are still a bit shaken by the idea that they were involved in a project that led to someone's death, and they talk about some of the attempts to help the families of those victims, including a benefit demolition derby using the film's "finished" cars.
It's interesting to note their reactions, because in his own interview, "Tales from the Desert," director Mike Marvin doesn't seem all that shaken up by the fact that someone died on his set. Honestly, he's just kind of annoyed by it because, the way he sees it, this is why he couldn't get another job in Hollywood for years after The Wraith. According to him, a director will always get blamed for a death on set and will always become a pariah in the industry after that. The rest of his interview is him proudly explaining how he stole what little there is to the story from other films, then claims numerous other films stole the story of The Wraith from him. Most notably, he mentions The Crow, which was based on the comic book by James O'Barr and directed by Alex Proyas (who did not, in fact, become an industry pariah after the very high-profile death of Brandon Lee on that film's set, but in fact went on to bigger and better things like Dark City and I, Robot... go figure).
Of course, in the commentary Marvin doesn't mention the death at all. The only injury he refers to is a small cut he suffered during one effects sequence. He does credit his film for inspiring numerous car commercials and launching the careers of Sheen, Cassavetes, and the rest of the cast. He also talks constantly about his ability to shoot basic scenes without CGI, "pioneering" numerous film techniques, and being able to stick to a schedule. Yes, in a town with some legendary examples of arrogance and self-delusion, he seems determined to rise to the top. Really, as he continues to make claim after claim, you're left with the unmistakable feeling that anything good in this film happened despite Mike Marvin, not because of him.
The one amusing thing that comes out of the commentary is a little story about Sherilyn Fenn's then-boyfriend, a semi-known, television pretty boy who came out to Arizona with her and spent most of his time at the hotel. Marvin says he wanted to give the kid a part in the movie as one of the gang members so he'd have something to do, but apparently the producers put their foot down. They didn't think someone like Johnny Depp would add anything to the film.
If you remember The Wraith fondly, the best thing you can do is avoid it. It won't stand up to your memories. If you haven't seen the film before, you should still probably avoid it. And if you somehow stumbled across it and had your childhood memories shattered, you should watch it with the commentary. That way it's clear why this movie didn't live up to its potential.