On Christmas Eve, army deserter Meredith Cole (Julie Mond) eludes military policeman Archie Stokes (Fred Ward) and boards a bus travelling across Texas. Far out in the wilds they collide with a crazy, meth-addicted biker who kills the bus driver along with several other passengers before Meredith takes him out, sustaining a bullet wound in the process. More vengeful bikers force the bus off the road, leading Meredith and her fellow travellers, resourceful drifter Sam (Desmond Harrington), working mom Maudie (Lea Thompson), cute comic book artist Annabel (Alice Greczyn), surly football coach Jerry (Gregory Jbara), Mexican handyman Vargas (Everett Sifuentes), cowardly Duke (Nick Sowell) and his girlfriend Desiree (Kelli Dawn Hancock) to take refuge in the hell hole of an abandoned scrapyard. When the bikers besiege their hideout, the passengers are forced to fight back.
Whether inadvertent or by design, Exit Speed is more or less a modern variation on John Ford’s classic western Stagecoach (1939), substituting a bus for the stage, drug-addled bikers for angry Indians and with foxy Julie Mond essentially essaying a female variation on the ruggedly heroic John Wayne. Just like Wayne’s hero, the Ringo Kid, Meredith Cole is on the run after breaking the law (in this case military law) but selflessly risks her life to help other, more respectable folks. Screenwriter and producer Michael Stokes, whose past work includes children’s animated fare like the superior Jane and the Dragon (2005) as well as live action DTV actioners such as Iron Eagle IV (1994) and Shadow Builder (1998), lifts plot elements from the likes of Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Exit Speed is not in their class but still emerges a rather nifty B-movie.
The premise is simple but effective and director Scott Ziehl stages some solid suspense sequences. Most engagingly, the film maintains a resolute belief in the ability of outsiders to contribute something worthwhile to society. As was the genius of Stagecoach, the brave band of survivors become a microcosm of America, each an outsider in their own way bearing their own personal problems. Maudie is a cancer survivor, Annabel is a socially inept fantasy role-playing game enthusiast, Vargas cannot speak a word of English. Yet over the course of these harrowing events, each reveals a secret skill that proves invaluable: Maudie is a veteran marathon runner, Annabel an expert archer, and Vargas turns out to be the Latin MacGyver improvising a host of home-made weapons. Meanwhile, gun-toting Coach Jerry behaves in the time honoured tradition established by the grumpy middle-aged guy in Night of the Living Dead (1968) and acts like a belligerent asshole, though even he comes good at the end.
Shot in Dallas, Texas, outside the usual Hollywood system, this does surprisingly little with its Christmas setting aside from having the heroes ascribe Reindeer names to the anonymous bikers. Some attempts at pathos err on the side of goofy and one could come up with a decent drinking game based on how many characters shout “hey asshole!” right before plugging a bad guy. The bikers are broadly caricatured bad guys straight out of a Death Wish sequel or Italian post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie: all piercings and clown makeup. Yet the film musters an array of disarming moments, both darkly humorous and affecting including Annabel’s moral dilemma (“I can’t shoot an arrow into a person. I’m vegan!”) or Maudie sobbing “I have children!” as she smothers a biker to death. A strong ensemble cast respond to Stokes’ snappy script with Thompson once again proving her worth as a fine character actress, Greczyn a sparkling presence in an endearing role, and Mond a likeably gutsy soldier girl. John Wayne would approve.