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A Gas-Guzzling Revenge Plot Meets Souped-Up Sales Pitch
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
Published: June 2, 2004
"The Last Ride," which appears tonight on USA, is a brazen commercial
for Pontiac that is souped up to look sort of like a car-chase movie.
The network has made no pretense about this, hyping its achievement
as a "unprecedented integrated marketing opportunity." You can't skip
the ads without missing the movie.
Sure enough, gleaming cars with fantastic handling are never far from
view, or earshot, as roaring engines and singing brakes dominate the
soundtrack. During a scene at a car show, no less, a woman in leather
even recites the mantra of Pontiac's new sports car: "Zero to 60 in
Fortunately, this 84-minute commercial stars Dennis Hopper, looking
sheepish but amused, and it is not dreadful. What's more, in so
boldly juxtaposing its themes of brand loyalty and blood loyalty, the
show turns the corporate cultivation of rebel spirit into a gleeful
goof. What? Advertising during a television movie? By a car company
claiming to be cool? Lighten up.
So here's the story. Matt Purnell (Chris Carmack), a cop's son and
aspiring hood, is also the grandson of a hood, Ronnie Purnell (Mr.
Hopper), who was put away in 1970 for robbing banks. Matt and Ronnie
team up to avenge Ronnie's arrest.
If it takes a minute to accept that people whose parents were hippies
in 1970 are themselves now bald squares parents of cool kids, not
cool kids themselves it is worth making that adjustment to witness
the tender love between today's "O.C."-type pranksters and their
rebel heroes from 30 years ago. With his love of fast cars and pit-
crew clothes, Matt is a human footnote to Ashton Kutcher; he is so
insouciant and cute as to be chided for posturing by his pals. (You
can imagine him watching "Easy Rider" and loving it.)
It makes perfect sense, then, that Matt admires Ronnie, whose release
from prison kicks off the plot. Mr. Hopper is in fine form. As he has
for years, he looks much sadder than, say, Jack Nicholson, as though
the mayhem of drugs and bikes really did force on him a lifelong
reckoning. Stiff around the shoulders, with mournful eyes, Mr. Hopper
is believable as an ex-con.
With the exception of one car chase and one drag race, the first half
of the movie is a lecture on its plot. We learn that Ronnie went to
jail for an altruistic crime, during which his wife was murdered. His
son, Aaron (Will Patton), was left in the custody of sinister
security executive Darryl Kurtz (Fred Ward), and became a police
detective. Aaron's own son, Matt, quit school to hang out with his
girl (Nadine Velazquez), a curvy mechanic with a welding torch, and
some bad seeds who hang out and make cars run like greased lightning.
If Matt is going to go straight, he is going to have to learn from
his jailbird grandpa, who is seeking revenge on the evil Kurtz.
In all this exposition one glaring element of the story is left to
speak for itself. That is, of course, the overbearing presence of
Pontiacs: new ones, old ones, S.U.V.'s, race cars, luxury cars,
Bonnevilles and GTO's. Logos abound, as well as shiny prototypes, and
one standout conversation goes like this:
Ronnie: "You kids today don't know how to handle a V8?"
Matt: "Don't need it. This one's got quarter-inch lines, hotshot 421
headers, Tenzo intake and exhaust, and an NX noz system."
There's no hiding it: everyone here, especially Mr. Hopper, is
shilling. As his Ronnie points out, everyone hated the establishment
in the 60's; but this rage, the movie makes clear, has gone the way
of the carburetor. General Motors is thus free to present itself as
our delinquent pal, and our link to America's lawless past. After
all, part of what Matt admires about Grandpa Jailbird is his
virtuosity with a car, and in particular a '69 GTO.
Advertising has steadily migrated into programming during the past
several years, with shows like "American Idol" and "Survivor"
embracing product placement. Maybe this show, which goes further than
any in memory toward total desegregation, will provoke an outcry;
probably people just won't watch it.
That's good revenge. Still, there is some fun in "The Last Ride," as
Mr. Hopper and Mr. Ward slip into two boomer prototypes: the burnout
and the yuppie. As Mr. Carmack and Mr. Patton act around these
notional figures, the movie becomes an allegory of decade-based
American history. As you might predict, something happens to the men
that reconciles the present with the recent past, and that past with
a more distant past. But what brings the movie home, finally, is that
Matt ends up with the 2004 Pontiac GTO, and makes it to 60 m.p.h. in
5.3 seconds. It's touching.
THE LAST RIDE
USA, tonight at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time
Directed by Guy Norman Bee; Rob Cohen, Angela Mancuso and Bruce
Mellon, executive producers; written by Ron McGee.
WITH: Dennis Hopper (Ronnie Purnell), Will Patton (Aaron Purnell),
Chris Carmack (Matt Purnell), Fred Ward (Darryl Kurtz) and Nadine
Velazquez (J. J.).