Paul Kix’s story of an elderly cab driver in L.A.’s Little Saigon who gets hijacked and kidnapped by three escaped convicts races like it’s running out of inches before it hits the margin of the magazine. Its perspective whirls around from the driver’s home life to the daring prison break. It’s riveting, grabbing you with its made-for-the-movies premise, and doesn’t dare lose you. Filmmaker Sing J. Lee and his co-writer Christopher Chen take a different route, one Waze certainly wouldn’t recommend. The Accidental Getaway Driver focuses entirely on the growing relationship between the driver, Long (Hiep Tran Nghia) and one of his captors, fellow Vietnamese-American Tây (Dustin Nguyen). Its dedication to Long’s point-of-view is admirable, but Lee’s filmmaking hits the brakes like a student driver, sacrificing what made the framing narrative enticing in the first place.
Really, Lee’s creative strength—and the movie he seems to have wanted to make—only arrives at the very end, when the flashy premise fades and the true heart of the matter comes out. It’s when the thing that initially gets Long involved in Tây, Aden (Dali Benssalah) and Eddie (Phi Vu)’s scheme (a shared culture and language), is allowed to blossom into what both were desperately searching for. The Accidental Getaway Driver wants to be a quiet, contemplative drama between a man caught in the middle of making all the wrong choices and a man already at the end of the road, suffering the consequences from a few bad calls. It wants to focus on their commonalities, and how they directly lead to a position where one could help the other differ his path.
In the small, spare, stripped-down moments like these, you can see why Lee took this approach. Nguyen and Nghia are never better than when having quiet conversations that say very little out loud. Lee gives them space, shooting deliberately whether it’s a lingering long look across a lawn, or an extreme close-up highlighting Nghia’s years of wrinkled-in experience.
But these moments don’t make up most of The Accidental Getaway Driver. No, they are few and far between, as rare and as vital as the other style Lee occasionally leaps into. Interspersed are Long’s flashbacks and dreams, dipped into without much to-do, symbolizing the wandering and active mind of an old man. One looking back, or simply thrust back, into a life already lived—used up so that he already seems finished. Undead. While these sequences aren’t much more sophisticated than the lackluster kidnapping narrative, they’re more ambitious and engaging, and give a sense of care towards an older, complex interiority.
The rest of the film lacks this soft touch. It’s either a faux-softness, dully driving around L.A. waiting for meaning to drop into place, or a tire iron to the head. And I’m not just talking about stagey, obvious scenes revolving around the father-son dynamic, like an extended sunflower seed spitting contest or the world’s longest shared cigarette break. The young cast goes big constantly. Nguyen falters when the material fails him (as in those aforementioned scenes), but Benssalah is the worst culprit. His hothead mastermind overacts to a crescendoed peak, where he jumps from weeping to laughing to a sleazy, Robert Mitchum-like loll over the course of a single ridiculous soliloquy. It’s completely ineffective, as is all of Vu’s over-the-top shouting, which never gets the chance to feel like an explosion from a pressurized bottle because the bottle is badly underwritten. At least Nghia mostly gets to be quiet.
The quartet are shuffled between rundown hotels, Walmart parking lots, a cramped Camry and other liminal nighttime spaces that lack incident, mood or tension. Attempts to build and then tear down camaraderie between the convicts are half-hearted, jabs in the dark at buzzwords like “found family.” For being three allegedly dangerous characters, the men on the lam are awfully dull. They don’t even seem that worried about their predicament, nor cocky that they’ve outsmarted the law with their asinine plan (kidnap a driver and hope he doesn’t have anyone to look for him/report his car stolen). They mostly seem…bored. Shiftless. That’s not to say that the boring film comments on how prison life might construct that in those incarcerated! No, it just sits there through the standard on-the-run beats—taking new ID photos, getting infodumped by a news broadcast, chafing against each other until a brawl breaks out—until the actual getaway has petered out and Lee finds something he’s actually interested in.
Taking on a story like The Accidental Getaway Driver is tricky not just because of the preconceptions of people who’ve read the source, or who seek it out because the movie is marketed as being based on real events. It adds obligations to art that the artists shouldn’t feel beholden to. Lee’s inclination towards repetition, silence and narrative space makes the closely shot and understated conversations at its finale into gripping drama. But the having same filmmaker botch a surreal, tense hostage situation to get there was a miscalculation. The Accidental Getaway Driver feels like it’s trying to be both parts of the old Hollywood phrase “one for them, one for me.”
Director: Sing J. Lee
Writer: Sing J. Lee, Christopher Chen
Starring: Hiep Tran Nghia, Dustin Nguyen, Dali Benssalah, Phi Vu, Gabrielle Chan
Release Date: January 22, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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