One might think that Steve Zahn had learned a lesson about appearing in daft thrillers after “Joy Ride,” but here he is starring in another. “A Perfect Getaway,” written and directed by David Twohy (“Pitch Black,” “The Chronicles of Riddick”), is a bare-bones story about a newlywed couple, Cliff and Cydney (Zahn and Milla Jovovich), honeymooning in Hawaii, where they find themselves hiking along a mountain path to a remote beach with another couple, Nick (Timothy Olyphant) and Gina (Kiele Sanchez), they meet along the way. As they proceed, they get word that back on the main island the bodies of two tourists have been discovered brutally murdered by another couple, and they come to suspect that Nick and Gina might be the killers. There’s a third set of suspects, Kale and Cleo (Chris Hemsworth and Marley Shelton), an oddly sinister pair whom Cliff and Gina had dissed when they were hitchhiking but who have caught up with them and are on the path too.
The most positive reading of “Getaway” is that it’s intended as an over-the-top send-up of a bad cat-and-mouse thriller, and certainly it demonstrates a lot of self-awareness of the geriatric conventions of the genre: Cliff’s a screenwriter and Nick a rabid movie fan who spouts endless tales of his own background in Special Ops, and they make regular references to second act reversals and what Nick recalls from his single class in screenplay construction as “red snappers” (meaning, of course, red herrings). But even if one takes it in that light, you have to admit that it wants to have its cake and eat it too, not merely ridiculing the cliches but simultaneously milking them mercilessly to get the expected audience response. The result would be a parody that also wants you to take it seriously.
And without giving away too much of the plot, it has to be said that the obligatory big twist (which, of course, involves identifying the least likely people as the perpetrators) is the sort of move a lot of viewers will consider a cheat, though in its way it’s as fair as what Agatha Christie did in “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” Or, to use a cinematic example, what Christopher McQuarrie did in “The Usual Suspects.” The difference is that Christie constructed her tale in a way that they resolution could be tossed off in a few paragraphs, and McQuarrie his so that a quick montage could explain things. Twohy requires what seems like twenty minutes of flashbacks to clarify what’s been going on and italicize the clues that he’s been posting along the way.
And then, having given us the big revelation, he forges on for another twenty minutes, piling climax upon climax as the villains try to kill off the remaining good guys (and a few passersby as well) and the violent confrontations pile up. Maybe this is supposed to be a spoof of the usual thriller fare that drags on endlessly as characters supposedly killed off return to life to take up their knives, axes and guns once or twice more. (A giddily inane split-screen moment could be a director’s visual guffaw.) But it’s all staged to generate gasps and shudders as well as laughs, whether the latter are intentional or not. And in the end the movie flounders trying to have it both ways.
But if the audience might not be enjoying themselves, the cast seem to be—understandable, as the shoot involved a paid Hawaiian vacation. Zahn gets the opportunity to show off his zaniness at maximum force, and Olyphant obviously relishes playing a big red herring himself, tossing off what amount to winks and nods throughout. On the distaff side, Sanchez comes off best, playing a redneck with plenty of unexpected talents (like the ability to gut a wild goat). By contrast, Jovovich is stiff; she comes off really irritating in the early scenes, and though later on she loosens up, she remains the quartet’s weakest link. Shelton and Hemsworth do what’s asked of the, oozing menace.
But the real star of “A Perfect Getaway” is Hawaii; the locations are stunning, and they’re captured in impressive widescreen images by Mark Plummer. The rest of the technical credits are top-drawer, too; this may be a simple-minded action shocker, but it’s done up with the same lavishness that a similar project, “The River Wild,” was fifteen years ago (even if its cast boasts nobody of Meryl Streep’s cachet).
Will genre fans take this totally artificial, over-the-top serial-killer movie as a straight thriller, or understand it as the parody one hopes it’s intended to be? I suppose David Twohy won’t much care as long as they fill the theatre.