The Wraith is a film which is very much the product of its time. Made in 1986, it’s a fast-paced action film with a nearly-constant rock and roll soundtrack, and it doesn’t spend much effort towards establishing a mystery in its plot. We know who the Wraith is almost from the moment he appears, we know who he’s after before then (as the villains are introduced slightly earlier), and we are able to deduce his motive — and thus his real real identity — from fairly early on as well. But it’s not like any of that was really meant to be a mystery to the audience.
The Wraith isn’t here to make the audience ponder deep mysteries, or marvel at complex schemes. It’s here to provide car chases, explosions, and good old-fashioned vigilante justice. And on those simple goals, it delivers.
If a black Dodge pulls up alongside you, just ask yourself, “Have I murdered anybody lately?” If the answer is “no”, carry on.
The Wraith opens up by introducing us to Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes) and his gang. Packard is a local tough known around the Tucson area for being involved in street races and assorted acts of violence, but it seems no charges have ever stuck, though not for a lack of trying on the part of Sheriff Loomis (Randy Quaid). Packard is accompanied by a troupe of cretins and weirdos, all known by various nicknames. A few don’t get enough screen time to really be anything but extra bodies, but there are a couple noteworthy characters. Rughead (Clint Howard) — because of his massive head of hair — is the gang’s resident dweeb, nervous about violence but handy with creating gadgets, and is always happy to be the referee for the races. Gutterboy (Jamie Bozian) is a whiny, nervous little rat, always cowering and deferring to either Packard or Skank; Skank (David Sherrill) is a brain-fried punk who has a drinking problem that goes leagues beyond anything AA is equipped to deal with.
“Drinking problem” in this case means “if it’s liquid, he’ll drink it”.
Packard and his gang stop motorists along the highway, and coerce them into participating in street races for the pink slips to their vehicles. And if there’s any risk of losing, the gang cheats, and they aren’t afraid to risk the lives of the other drivers in the process. Packard doesn’t like anybody getting close to his girl, Keri (Sherilyn Fenn), either. Of course, she’s only “his” girl because he says so; she’s more than indifferent toward him. When newcomer Jake (Charlie Sheen) comes to town, she quickly falls for him, but warns him about Packard’s jealous reaction. So does her friend Billy Hankins (Matthew Barry); his brother used to date Keri, but was murdered several months ago. The culprits were never caught, but it’s clear Billy thinks he knows who is to blame. But Jake is not dissuaded, and he doesn’t seem to be need to be; for the Wraith appears, a man dressed all in black with an opaque riding helmet, and a one-of-a-kind Dodge Turbo Interceptor. (Which actually was one of a kind. I was curious about the make of the car, so I checked IMDb’s trivia section. Dodge loaned the producers a prototype vehicle, and several other vehicles that could be used as doubles for distant stunt shots.) With this super-car, the Wraith eliminates the street racing gang one by one.
If the Wraith wants to blow up a building, his car blows up the building. The Wraith has no patience for laws of man nor the laws of physics.
As I said, there isn’t a lot of mystery or deep thought in this film. But that’s all right; it’s just trying to be a fun film, and it succeeds on that measure. The car races are interesting enough, and while most of the characters are fairly two-dimensional, they still manage to be engaging on screen, thanks largely in part to the actors, who nearly all do a superb job of capturing little mannerisms to make their roles come to life (though Sherilyn Fenn’s Keri is very much the generic 80s movie girl.) Randy Quaid steals every scene he’s in as the dry-witted Sheriff Loomis, though.
The special effects definitely show their age, and the film can be cheesy in a few other respects as well. But between the fairly fast pace and the soundtrack — featuring energetic songs from Billy Idol, Robert Palmer, Ozzy Osbourne and more — it’s difficult to get bored watching this film. Although it has room for improvement, it’s pretty watchable in its own right.