Grade: F

One can understand why director Robert Harmon might have thought that returning to the roadway could be the means of recapturing the fame he won with the cult favorite “The Hitcher” in 1986. After all, his subsequent features–the John Travolta bomb “Eyes of an Angel” (made in 1991 but not released until 1994), the Jean-Claude Van Damme potboiler “Nowhere to Run” (1993) and the dismal 2002 horror flick “They”–have all been dreary failures. But “Highwaymen” lacks what made the earlier picture so eerily effective: a script (by Eric Red) that gave its simple story, about a maniacal hitch-hiker who terrorizes the young fellow kind (or stupid) enough to pick him up, a subtext that successfully recalled some of the classic works of horror. “The Hitcher” was actually an existential fable in the tradition of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” It could be enjoyed for its pure fright elements–on that level it was stylishly done–but it could also be taken as a commentary on the dual nature of man, with the seemingly omnipotent villain actually being a projection of the hero’s evil side. (Similarly, the invisible monster in “Forbidden Planet” was revealed as the embodiment of the great scientist’s own id.) The fact that the film never made this explicit added to its haunting quality.

But there’s no such ambiguity in “Highwaymen,” which, as written by Craig Mitchell and Hans Bauer (the scripters who penned the dim-witted 1999 giant lizard flick “Komodo”), is a simple revenge tale, specifically the old sagebrush saga in which a protagonist hunts down the villain who killed his wife. The only differences are that this time the combatants ride around in souped-up cars rather than on horses, and that (presumably to add a weird sci-fi element, since there seems no other point to it) the villain has been turned into a half-man, half-machine type as a result of a previous crash–a mechanized serial murderer, or, if you prefer, Robokiller. These alterations, sad to say, do more harm than good. When this plot was used in “The Bravados” or other similar westerns, it had some resonance. Here it merely seems silly.

The cast goes through the motions without breaking into guffaws, but that’s about their only noteworthy accomplishment. Jim Caviezel is dour and inexpressive as Rennie, the ex-con who was jailed for crashing into the killer who deliberately ran down his wife and is now tracking the guy down, and Rhona Mitra does the damsel-in-distress routine without much enthusiasm as Molly, the potential victim who escapes the killer’s initial attack, only to become Rennie’s bait to attract him again. (Of course, the two become romantically involved in the process.) But they get off easy compared to Colm Feore, who’s compelled to don an absurd metallic outfit and really bad eye makeup and grimace profusely as Fargo, the evil road warrior. He’s hardly aided in making this unlikely character more than a cartoon by the ludicrous dialogue about his past put into the mouths of the other actors–not just Caviezel and Mitra but also Frankie Faison as Macklin, a comic-relief accident investigator. This is one of those movies that generates plenty of unintentional laughs as it drones on.

On the plus side, the action sequences in “Highwaymen” are nicely done–good stunt work is involved–and the slick cinematography by Rene Ohashi assists Harmon’s in creating a moody atmosphere. But unfortunately the picture is more akin to the abysmal “Hitcher 2,” with which Harmon had nothing to do, than with his far superior original. Unhappily “Highwaymen” resembles Harmon’s “Hitcher” less than it does all that classic’s shoddy cable-TV imitators. It’s one road trip you should definitely not take.