This movie always impresses me as interesting though I'm not sure why. The story itself doesn't really amount to that much. A big-city cop takes annual vacations near a small town in the desert and, donning his uniform, stops and kills motorists at random, leaving their bodies in the car trunks for the local cops to discover. The local chief runs into the vacationing murderer, identifies him only as a police officer, and more or less recruits him into helping out with the multiple homicides.
The homicidal vacationing cop is Michael Burns. The local cop who finally twigs is Tom Skerrit. The performances of the two principals have something to do with the film's appeal, I think. Burns is husky-voiced and by turns mean and knowing, but always reckless. Burns' cop is hard hearted, and we understand that this is because of his rotten job of dealing with day-to-day garbage. (We already know about all that from Dirty Harry. At least he wasn't an abused child.) But the script drains him of any humanity without making him engagingly evil. He doesn't just murder people whom he finds offensive. He kills ordinary working-class people. He's a stereotypical racist and enjoys taking down blacks and Hispanics. His "friendship" with the locals seems feigned. He beds a blowzy blond waitress but there is no affection between them. (Lying next to her sleeping body, Burns goes through these weird Dracula-like motions with his hands that adds something decidedly odd to the scene.) Only his expression signals a pustular, very private anguish. He never seems to warm to his fellow officer, Skerrit, and overall comes across as a blank rather than a human. Burns is a good actor but needs something to work with.
Skerrit is quite good too. He left the force in San Bernardino to come to this small town and is now working his way through a post-marital depressive state. His acquires a neat-looking girl friend, his secretary Cindy, who is attractive without being in the least cute and who has a naked back that radiates a combination of sinewy strength and femininity. Skerrit's character is friendly enough without being gabby, rather passive, except that his expressions spell out his emotions so effectively.
One of the more compelling features of the film is the location shooting. It's supposed to be somewhere near China Lake, in Hopi Country, in Nevada -- but it's not. The Hopi live nowhere near Nevada. And the desert, of which we see a good deal, is the Mojave in California, full of stucco-coated jumbo rocks and Joshua trees. The scenery excites the imagination. What could be more exciting than zipping along on desert roads on a motorcycle? The sunshine, the wind, the ever-changing horizon, the scent of creosote -- and not another soul in sight except the occasional potential victim if you happen to be a crazed cop. The little towns and road stops we see resemble those around Needles and Blythe of fifty years ago, or so we imagine, without the Styrofoam litter, when people stopped for lunch in cafés instead of driving through Tommy's Big Boy GigaBurgers for take out.
Anyway, I kind of like it, a minor piece with some redeeming virtues, including some careful casting. When Skeritt first pulls his car up in front of a mobile home in which a man has been beating his wife, we see an overweight middle-aged blond woman. Without indulging in stereotypes, her pinched and sour features suggest the kind of uneducated humble people that would live in such a neighborhood.