Contrary to recent “Fast & Furious” logic, dropping Paul Walker behind the wheel of a speeding car does not automatically mean a successful movie.
Mukunda Michael Dewil learns this the hard way with “Vehicle 19,” a lean, low-budget and claustrophobic mistaken-identity thriller that’s so stripped-down, it’s nearly nonexistent.
Walker plays Michael, an ex-convict and a struggling alcoholic who has flown to Johannesburg to reconcile with his estranged wife, an embassy worker. A mix-up at the rental car company puts Michael behind the wheel of an unassuming minivan. What he learns over the course of this taut, frivolous thriller is that there is a kidnapped passenger (Naima McLean) in the vehicle’s trunk, and her connection to a corrupt South African police chief will cause numerous headaches for our accidental hero.
Alfred Hitchcock would have been tickled by the textbook wrong-man premise that drives Dewil’s constricted thriller. “Vehicle 19” accepts the challenge of unraveling a tense plot without leaving its limited location: the front seat of Michael’s rental. And while Dewil isn’t about to inherit Hitchcock’s “master of suspense” moniker, he does calculate how and when to best tighten the screws on Michael’s dangerous predicament.
Our driver finds a BlackBerry in the glove box that bears a mysterious message. He drops a Twinkie and discovers a gun under his seat. Once Michael uncovers his passenger, “Vehicle 19” is given the green light to throw its plot into a higher gear, logic and reasoning be damned.
With five “Furious” movies under his seat belt, Walker excels at furrowing his brow and mustering stunned reaction shots from behind the wheel of a car that’s supposed to be racing at dangerous speeds. That’s good, because Dewil’s chief directorial choice for “Vehicle 19” is to mount his camera on the dashboard of Walker’s car and photograph the handsome actor in point-of-view frames as he bobs, weaves and responds to off-screen threats. Rarely are we able to leave the confines of Michael’s car. When we do, the disjointed editing saps the suspense out of what could have been a high-wire trapeze act of vehicular mayhem.
I hate to keep referencing the “Furious” movies, but casting Walker as the driver of a dangerous automobile draws unavoidable comparisons. (And a spray-painting montage meant to trick out Walker’s ride is straight out of John Singleton’s hopelessly cheesy “2 Fast 2 Furious.”)
What Dewil doesn’t understand is that audiences only started caring about the recent “Furious” movies once we grew more acquainted with that franchise’s improbable characters, and that it took years for us to become invested in their soap-opera stories. We know so little about Michael, and even less about his passenger, that when we’re dropped into the pulse-racing chaos of “Vehicle 19,” it quickly becomes a choppy sprint toward a goal we hardly care to reach.
Obviously, Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and the rest of Walker’s colorful “Fast” cohorts could have made “Vehicle 19” a looser, sillier, less predictable and more enjoyable ride. Maybe Dewil can use this quick feature as an audition reel for the chance to helm “Furious 19,” which should be racing into theaters before we know it.
O’Connell is a freelance writer.
R. At AMC Hoffman Center 22. Contains brief strong language. 85 minutes.