MOVIE REVIEW OF ”UNHINGED”

When was the last time you honked at a motorist who ignored a green light at an intersection? The contemporary road rage thriller “Unhinged” (*** OUT OF ****) shows what could happen if you honk at the wrong guy. Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe is the murderous motorist in “Unhinged” who sits through a green light while our impatient heroine hammers her horn three times.

Mind you, Hollywood has made some better road rage movies than “Unhinged,” but this gear-grinding demolition derby surpasses most with its spectacular stunts. In some respects, Crowe’s “Unhinged” villain resembles the Michael Douglas character in “Falling Down” (1993). A defense industry engineer who had lost his job, Douglas behaved like a hero initially before he reverted to villainy.

Comparably, Crowe is cast as a former executive who has suffered a similar fate. His company fired him in time to deny him his pension. Although the filmmakers generated some sympathy for Michael Douglas in “Falling Down,” neither German-born director Derrick Borte nor “Disturbia” scenarist Carl Ellsworth show a shred of sympathy for Crowe’s felon. As this exciting, 90-minute, R-rated, nail-biter unfolds, this paunchy maniac storms into his suburban home with an ax.

He slays his ex-wife and her lover, and then incinerates the place. By the time he has settled behind the wheel of his massive 4 x 4 Ford pickup truck, flames have engulfed the residence. The attraction of his frightening film is the contagious aura of paranoia it induces. Road rage stories are a dime-a-dozen, and road rage villains often have short-tempered fuses and feel unfairly persecuted.

The infantile-minded, gargantuan-sized Crowe confronts audiences with an ominous performance that fuels the hysteria in this testosterone-laced thriller and turns it into a gripping, white-knuckled experience. Caught between this lunatic and civilization is a susceptible, young single-mom Rachel (Caren Pistorius of “Mortal Engines”), whose back he could crack like a toothpick!

The morning begins badly for this divorced beautician because she has overslept. Desperate to compensate for lost time, she takes the freeway. While she is creeping through snail-like traffic, Rachel receives a phone cancellation from a client about a hairstyling appointment. Things turn truly ugly when Rachel swerves off the freeway for an off-ramp. At the intersection, she finds herself delayed by a gray Ford pickup. The negligent driver sits through a green light.

Now, Rachel cannot get her son, Kyle (Gabriel Bateman of “Lights Out”), to school on time, and he dreads detention at the end of the day. Like any good movie, “Unhinged” suggests you tap lightly on your horn rather than lean on it like Rachel does. Unfortunately for her, the stalled driver is Tom Cooper, the maniac who slaughtered his ex-wife with an ax. Tom struggles to apologize and then encourages Rachel to apologize, too.

She refuses, and he vows to make her day atrocious. Predictably, all Hades breaks loose! Tom tails her to a convenience store. While she is paying for gas inside, Tom swipes her smartphone from her car. When an innocent bystander intervenes on Rachel’s behalf, Tom runs him down. This good Samaritan leaps atop the hood of Tom’s Ford to avoid injury. The momentum topples him backwards into the street and into the path of an oncoming sedan.

The motorist crashes into him and sends the good Samaritan cartwheeling. Once Tom has stolen her phone, Rachel finds herself at his mercy. Cheerfully, Tom empties her bank account via her banking app and sends it to her ex-hubby.

Later, Tom keeps Rachel’s appointment with her pro bono divorce lawyer, Andy (Jimmi Simpson of “Date Night”), at a nearby restaurant. Tom gets chummy with Andy before brutally shattering his nose with a ceramic coffee mug. Were this not enough, he stabs Andy in the nape of the neck with a butterknife! Customers in the restaurant record simultaneous videos of Tom’s manifest indifference to life.

Before Tom leaves Andy slumped dead in their booth, the entire city knows about this public menace. Eventually, our heroine flags down a cop on the highway. Tom rams him, spinning his police cruiser like a bottle into the path of a cement mixing truck. The cop is crushed to death! Earlier, Tom had visited Rachel’s house, seized her brother’s fiancée as a hostage and impaled her on a bread knife her pusillanimous brother, Freddy (Austin P. MacKenzie of “Speech & Debate”), had brandished in his own defense.

Afterward, Tom duct tapes Freddy to a chair, douses him with lighter fluid, and ignites him as a Crescent City cop (Michael Papajohn of “American Ultra”) barges through the door and shoots Tom in the shoulder. Of course, one itty bitty bullet serves only to deepen Tom’s rage.

Watching “Unhinged” is like being taken for a ride. Most of the time the heroine and the villain careen through harrowing streams of traffic. The exception occurs when she eludes Tom long enough to vanish into the suburbs and launch an offensive. Suspensefully, the filmmakers spring surprises on you when you are least prepared.

Caren Pistorius’ Rachel makes a plausible damsel-in-distress who wrestles with tough choices and terrible consequences. She struggles to stay one jump ahead of her psychotic enemy. Naturally, Russell Crowe creates an unforgettable predator with his evil, pugnacious presence.

He seems as invincible as the slashers in the horror chillers “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th.” Part of the thrill of watching a flesh & blood, hyper-violent thriller like “Unhinged” is the drama remains strictly on a human level. You’ll identify with Rachel soon after she tangles with Tom, and your abhorrence for Tom will grow exponentially with each subsequent encounter.

Like a good boxing movie, you’ll want to shout at the screen, spar with those shadows, and swear at the villain. For the record, the setting for “Unhinged” is New Orleans, but the filmmakers avoid the iconic French Quarter, so the scenery is comparatively anonymous. Altogether, “Unhinged” lives up to its title, and you may think twice about honking your horn in the future.

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