Touched off by a traffic accident with reverberations that spark an ugly game of vengeance, "Changing Lanes" could have been an electrifying portrait of urban rage run amuck.
It has all the right ingredients to be a strong entry in a micro-genre that includes David Fincher's "Fight Club" and Joel Schumacher's fired-man-on-a-rampage film "Falling Down." It's tense, it's troubling, it's strongly acted and directed, and it's uncomfortably true to life.
But "Changing Lanes" has one insurmountable hurdle: 60 percent of the movie is spent trying to make a rich, lying, conniving, completely unprincipled Manhattan lawyer seem sympathetic. Not only sympathetic, but as sympathetic as his nemesis, a struggling father and recovering alcoholic who is trying as hard as he can to be a good dad so his ex-wife won't move across the country with their two kids.
These two men, played by Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson respectively, have a freeway fender bender on their way to completely unrelated hearings, coincidentally being held at the same courthouse. Jackson wants to do things right and exchange insurance information, even though it will make him late. Affleck, puffed up with self-importance, offers to just write a check for the damage because he's in a hurry. When he's refused, he shrugs, says "better luck next time," and just speeds away.
Arriving at his hearing -- in which he's defending his law firm's dishonest takeover of a deceased millionaire's charity trust -- Affleck discovers he's lost the power of appointment document signed by the bewildered old man on his death bed. He left it at the scene of the accident, and it's now in the hands of an enraged Jackson, who lost custody of his kids as a result of being late to court.
When the two men track each other down, a vicious cycle begins. Anger and taunting escalate into attempts to destroy each other's lives through hacked bank records, ruined credit ratings, bolts removed from Mercedes wheels and threats to bring careers crashing to the ground.
But while Jackson's already struggling character endeavors to take the high road and only lashes out as a form of reprisal, Affleck the arrogant lawyer not only keeps upping the ante in this personal war, but proves himself a liar (and a bad one at that). He deceives the judge and his firm partners, he sneaks into those partners' offices to steal documents, he contemplates cheating on his wife, and it's revealed he's the one who tricked a dying man into undermining his own a charity.
Yet director Roger Michell ("Notting Hill") expects sympathy -- even empathy -- for this guy because late in the game he balks at the suggestion that he forge the missing document to win his court case. It's not as if this single act of absurdly unconvincing conscience changes his whole perspective. Soon thereafter he calls Jackson's work and leaves a message that his kids have been hurt at school -- this right after visiting the school and convincing the principle that Jackson is a threat.
So why does Michell spend most of the movie trying to make the audience identify with this jerk? Better yet, why doesn't he just scale back (or at least try to justify) Affleck's amorality? Shouldn't both men be good guys pushed over the edge? Wouldn't that have made for a more interesting character-driven dynamic? Failing that, shouldn't the film focus on Jackson, who is clearly the wronged man here?
"Changing Lanes" has few faults beyond this 800-pound gorilla of a character miscalculation (well, that and the lame title). Jackson gives a powerfully precarious but headstrong performance as a man fighting tooth and nail to get his life back, even before somebody starts messing with it. Michell captures that intensity and agitation of New York that can devour people's psyches if they succumb to it, in part thanks to imposing city-grunge photography by Salvatore Totino ("Any Given Sunday"). Even Affleck makes a valiant effort to turn his character into less of an unredeemable crook, but doing so is just beyond his talents.
The truth is, there are probably more people out there like Affleck's character than I care to admit -- people who would leave the scene of an accident, lie in court to cover their own butts, look for others to blame for their problems and even exact revenge on those others. But in the movies such people should be anti-heroes like, say, Gordon Gecko from "Wall Street," not people we're supposed to feel good about when the credits roll.