Friday, August 30, 2013

Distracted Driver: GETAWAY

The short, high-velocity car chase picture Getaway has as its premise one of those villainous plots that make little sense in the moment and even less afterwards. A mysterious voice (Jon Voight) calls a former professional racecar driver (Ethan Hawke) who has just discovered that his wife (Rebecca Budig) has been kidnapped from their home in Sofia, Bulgaria. The voice tells the driver to steal a car – a Shelby Super Snake that has been outfitted with armor and a dozen surveillance cameras – and take off careening through the streets. He must drive as directed or he’ll never see his wife again. Throughout the movie, much is made about puzzling through the bad guy’s motives and outsmarting his evil plans, but it never really makes sense. By the end, one wonders why anyone – no matter how improbably deranged – would go to such lengths for anything, let alone be able to (mostly) pull it off.

The movie is built out of such silliness, but it’s nothing that couldn’t have been entertaining if the movie wasn’t so consistently undermining its sole reason for being. The car chase sequences make up just about every single second of the runtime, with the exception of brief flashes of flashbacks (and by brief, I mean no more than a minute total) and the occasional quickly spoken bout of strategizing and negotiation. I appreciated the directness and simplicity of the movie in this regard. There’s no wasted time and absolutely no reaching beyond its means for plot, theme, or character that would hit the breaks. But the chase is built out of choppy chaos from which we only grab glances of presumably impressive stunt driving and real crunchy crashes. Why go to all the trouble of driving real cars down real streets, really crashing them into each other, if the footage will be shot and cut indiscriminately?

Director Courtney Soloman (the man who most notably brought us the disastrous 2000 fantasy adaptation Dungeons & Dragons) keeps the in-the-car action suitably claustrophobic, with tight close-ups of Hawke sweating it out behind the wheel while the voice drones out his instructions – avoid the cops! run over that Christmas tree! blow up that power plant! – over the car’s hands-free phone system. The script by Sean Finegan and Gregg Maxwell Parker even adds a nicely ridiculous, but wholly necessary, addition when the car’s owner, a computer-nut, gearhead teenager (Selena Gomez) tries to steal back her car and gets trapped in the whole crazy situation with the driver. The voice seems to have directed her there to help Hawke. I’d explain more, but I’m not sure the script quite understands why, so what chance do I have of getting it? Maybe they realized Hawke needed someone to talk through the problem with. Or maybe the addition of a cute girl really helps out the marketing department. The characters’ terse chemistry under pressure is actually rather enjoyable in a way that matches the movie’s abundant absurdity. They underplay it nicely, leaving overplayed entirely to the plot.

It’s everything outside the car that’s the problem. In a movie that only exists as an excuse to get cars zooming fast, careening around and through obstacles, narrowly missing pedestrians, and smashing and crashing into each other, the visual style has very little need for speed. It’s all about the smash, not the hurtling. The characters wince and shout in close-up, tires squeal and motors roar on the soundtrack, and the camera spastically bounces around catching motions and consequences haphazardly. There’s no flow, no momentum, and certainly no coherence. It’s a jumble of cheaper low-res images, some beamed in from the cameras on the lead car, hurtling through the stunts at a high-impact speed mixed in with shinier, more polished digital imagery capturing the characters. It’s all bleary and blurry, making it difficult to appreciate the hardworking stunt drivers. A lot of work went into designing these chases, but little care was shown in deciding how the audience would see them.

Only one staggering shot – a climactic extended long take from the POV of the Super Snake’s bumper that weaves in and out of moving traffic in hot pursuit of a villain’s vehicle for over 90 uninterrupted seconds – shows off what the movie could’ve truly been capable of delivering. The shot’s so good, I laughed a few times out of sheer disbelief and grew disappointed when we finally, inevitably cut away. If only that much suspense, danger, coherence and imagination had found its way into the rest of the picture. I didn’t much mind watching the movie. It’s thin and single-minded, but the leads are appealing, the plot ludicrously stupid in a largely inoffensive way. It knows what it is, but without the good sense to be a better than middling version of what it is. It’s the kind of dumb actioner with a glimmer of a good idea that’ll play a lot better if and when you catch it on TNT or somewhere like that on a lazy weekend afternoon. 

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