The first major difference is that there are now two boneheads being pursued by John Ryder, the psychopathic hitchhiker with a death wish. The two boneheads, Grace Andrews and Jim Halsey, are played by the ridiculously pretty Sophia Bush and the ridiculously plain and boring Zachary Knighton. (Knighton is no C. Thomas Howell!) Rutger Hauer has been replaced by Sean Bean who is, for all intents and purposes, a poor man's Rutger Hauer.
The second major difference is that nobody pukes in the new one. Howell threw up a lot in the original. His barf always looked like milk, kind of like the demon spew in the Evil Dead movies. What's more, Ponyboy could puke on cue. He saw that finger in his fries and instantly puked. There was no, "Oh gosh, the visual of that finger in my fries has made me want to puke. Whoa ... here it comes. Gonna throw up!" Nope. He just saw the severed appendage and honked all over the diner, much to the disgust of Jennifer Jason Leigh's waitress character, who had to clean it up.
Other than that, the movies are pretty much the same, thus making this cinematic venture relatively pointless. The deviations from the original that do occur do not improve upon the story for those who have seen the '86 film. It's quite the contrary, actually: They're annoying.
Grace and Jim are on their way from New Mexico to Lake Havasu for spring break. They pass a shadowy figure hitchhiking on a rainy night and decide against picking him up. That would be one of the cutesy, annoying deviations from the original. Director Dave Meyers seems to be saying that Ryder starts his murderous rampage because a couple of kids wouldn't give him a ride.
The original was almost comic in the way Ryder kept coming back from near-death situations. It almost seemed as if Ryder was in love with Jim Halsey, and it was Jim's destiny to kill him and stop his miserable ways. This time out, Ryder is just a really mean guy with no apparent motive other than terrorizing people. Hauer had a scary eeriness about him, a lost look in his eyes suggesting he was irredeemable, or even Satan incarnate. Bean's Ryder is just your typical bad guy. There's nothing supernatural about him, and he's rather boring.
I think Bush would work rather well in a decent horror movie. After the awful Stay Alive, this is her second lousy horror flick in a row. Still, she has a good screen presence and plays scared with the appropriate energy. Knighton is just bland and should stick to television.
Playing Lt. Esteridge this time out would be Neal McDonough, and he has absolutely no fun with the role. The remake gives the character a little more to do, but McDonough fumbles the chance for some decent camp and plays it straight and serious.
Meyers re-creates a couple of key moments from the original, including a helicopter coming up over a highway and a dog licking at somebody's wounds. While it was the Jennifer Jason Leigh character who wound up in that precarious position between two trucks in the original, this time, there's a role reversal. The original didn't show us the grisly results of the two-truck situation, but this one does, thanks to the glories of CGI. Spare me.
Admittedly, some of these horror remakes work just fine (Dawn of the Dead, The Hills Have Eyes), but most of them are terrible (The Fog, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this one). Hollywood isn't stopping, either; Rob Zombie is currently at work on a "redo" of John Carpenter's Halloween. Blasphemy!