A plane lands in Johannesburg, South Africa, an American named Michael Woods (Paul Walker) getting off the plane and heading for the rental car company. He's in South Africa to try to patch things up with his ex-wife who divorced him after he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for a hit and run (one he still maintains his innocence of), just days removed from his release. Woods picks up his car, calls his ex and is off, but it doesn't take long before he realizes something is up. There's a cell phone that's not his receiving text messages with directions, there's a gun underneath the driver's seat and he's hearing noises from the trunk, a woman (Naima McLean) tied up and stashed away but very much alive. Michael isn't telling the whole truth though. He violated his parole to travel to South Africa and salvage his marriage. A voice at the other end of the phone tells him to simply follow orders, but what can he do? What should he do?
Now according to all-powerful Wikipedia (and they rarely steer me wrong), 'Vehicle' earned some $2 million-plus in theaters last year. Obviously, that's not a huge, national theatrical release, but it was in theaters at some point, huh? So trudging on, I stumbled across it on On-Demand and with Walker starring and a premise that sounded pretty cool -- even somewhat similar to the Fast and the Furious series -- so I gave it a shot. Go figure, I liked it. The reviews pretty uniformly ripped this flick from director/writer Mukunda Michael Dewil, one that was filmed on location in South Africa, quite the change of pace from your usual action movie hitting theaters. There is a different quality to it that simply put, just works. The soundtrack mixes South African rap/hip-hop (not so good) with a trance-like score (pretty decent), and things never slow down in an 85-minute movie.
All about the gimmick for this little-released action thriller. Almost the entire movie is set in the rental car that Walker's Woods accidentally picks up. In a rush to meet up with his ex-wife (Leyla Haidarian, heard over the phone more than seen in person), he basically hangs up on the rental office as they try to warn him he's taken the wrong car. From there, we're off. Movies with such a small "set" don't always work, but that claustrophobic, impending doom feeling here works really well as Woods stumbles deeper and deeper into something incredibly sinister involving human-trafficking and corruption through the government and police force. Are there some instances that stretch limits of reality? Sure, especially Woods seeking some help from some rather helpful gangsters. It builds the drama and the tension all the way through, that mystery permeating the story. What the hell is going on exactly?
We get that what the hell's going on mindset through one Paul Walker, a favorite movie star of mine. I recently reviewed another Walker venture, 2013's Hours, that I came away pretty impressed with. Over the last few years before his tragic death, Walker was definitely developing into a very respectable actor, not just a movie star. This was a cool, little part, and like Hours, the focus is almost entirely on Walker, scene in and scene out. It is certainly an interesting character -- some more development would have been lovely -- as he descends deeper and deeper into something he was never intended to be a part of. Can he survive it all? Can he even decipher what he's stumbled into? There's some nice touches from the American driving in a foreign country to the ex-con trying to prove he's innocent for any number of things. And come on now, it's a driving movie. Walker shot to fame in the Fast and Furious movies. He looks right at home in the driving sequences.
I think sometimes when a movie gets negative reviews, other reviewers simply read those reviews and regurgitate ideas into their own. I read several reviews that all criticized 'Vehicle' for its "incoherent action scenes." Literally, word for word. What movie were they watching? It is a movie built around one big, extended car chase. What's so incoherent about these scenes? Do we need to know the inner workings of Johannesburg as Woods navigates the city? No, not at all. If the complaint is the editing, then a whole lot of other, far more positively reviewed movies should have taken some heat. The entire story takes place over a couple hours as Woods' situation goes from bad to worse and then hellaciously worse.
Look, this movie doesn't rewrite the genre. Maybe it's not even that good, but I enjoyed it from beginning to end. It's exciting, keeps you guessing, and doesn't overstay its welcome. Ignore the almost universally negative reviews. This one was fun and worth a watch.
Vehicle 19 (2013): ***/****