"Changing Lanes" (IMDb listing) takes road rage to its logical conclusion. Not short bursts of violence on some expressway to nowhere, but a long drawn out battle between two individuals who want nothing more than to sort their differences out, albeit in this film they use carefully choreographed suspense sequences.
Gavin (Ben Affleck) is a promising young attorney at a huge New York law firm. When the story begins, he is on his way to trial with documents proving that his partnership is now in charge of a deceased rich man's charity. Doyle (Samuel L. Jackson) is a recovering alcoholic who is trying to put his life back together with a new loan for a home purchase, and a shot in court to get his family back. As both men make their way to the court building one Friday morning, their cars collide, leaving Doyle's car completely destroyed. Doyle wants to do the honest thing and exchange insurance cards, but Gavin is in a hurry, and soon speeds away without rectifying the situation. In his haste, Gavin also leaves behind one of his significant files, a file that soon comes to light as having the future of his job attached to it. Enraged at having his life destroyed by this accident, Doyle takes Gavin's file and instigates an elaborate cat and mouse game in which each man tries to destroy the other's life in an attempt to restore their own integrity.
Though "Changing Lanes" eventually finds its way into a morality tale on doing the right thing, for the first 60 minutes, the film is purely a suspense thriller, working on a level almost too perfect for its own good. The opening moves fast and efficiently, as director Roger Michell ("Notting Hill") keeps the story lean and the thrills coming continuously. It's a rather impressive juggling job from Michell, because for the film to work at all he must keep both Gavin and Doyle's lives in constant focus. The film isn't really about the battle between the two angry drivers, but about how this series of events changes both men's outlook on life. Michell successfully weaves the two stories together through some inventive cross-cutting (sharply rendered by editor Christopher Tellefsen, "Gummo" and "Kids"), nicely polarizing production design work from W. Stephen Graham ("Jacob's Ladder") and sharp writing by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin.
The most successful conception in "Changing Lanes" is the idea from the outset that neither Gavin nor Doyle are bad guys, even in the face of the extreme measures they take to find a means to an end. They get carried away with their revenge plans, and their personal lives are a shambles, but Michell is intensely careful to make the characters neither angels nor devils. This balance increases the movie's pleasure factor, as I enjoyed watching both men try to undermine each other without the burden of a simplified good guy vs. bad guy angle.
In the final act, the ethical issues that were hinted at in the opening of the picture are fully allowed to roam wild in a movie that was working fine without them. The characters are so well drawn, and even more impressively performed, that the mid-movie "Afterschool Special" moments of Gavin's redemption (taking place in a church for goodness sake!) or even Doyle's acceptance of his lot in life are forced. Character redemption is an elemental cog for screenwriting, but "Changing Lanes" doesn't need the sermonizing. It works too well as a corker of a thriller, and the pointless sin cleansing at the end of the picture reeks of studio intervention, not actual storytelling.
As the two leads, Affleck and Jackson make for a fine pair of enemies. Both proven talents, "Changing Lanes" gives this odd couple a rare chance to play off another, and it works very smoothly. Though they rarely share actual screen time, Michell does such a skilled job of seesawing the two plotlines, you don't even notice. It's always good to see Jackson playing a meek character, as it acts as a kind of sorbet to his usual fire and brimstone act. His Doyle is an intricate character full of frustrations and mistakes, but through Jackson's superior talents, you never feel pity for him. On the other side of the freeway, Affleck is back in his familiar yuppie-on-the-rise role, but here the twist is that the character is coming apart at the seams. Hiding behind the luxury cars and trophy wife (played here briefly by Amanda Peet, "The Whole Nine Yards") is a man who misses his once philanthropic self. Affleck is a great actor without the much needed respect from the industry or audiences. I think his work here in "Lanes," especially if this performance is indicative of where Affleck wants to go with his career, is something to stand proudly behind.
Even if the last act fails the film, "Changing Lanes" has too much to recommend about it to pass over. I can guarantee that after watching this film, even the most thriller-resistant fan will think twice before flipping the next person who cuts them off the bird.
Filmfodder Grade: B+