Michael Woods (Paul Walker) has arrived in South Africa with something to prove. He’s just recently been released from prison back in the U.S., and even though it constituted breaking his parole he chose to cross the ocean to try and patch things up with his girlfriend. She works at the embassy in Johannesburg, so after landing at the airport he rents a car only to discover the rental agency has screwed up and given him a minivan instead of the model he requested. Short on time he decides to just roll with it so as not to be late for his mea culpa.
Rushing through traffic, sometimes on the wrong side of the road, Woods discovers a few things in the car that just don’t seem right. There’s a cell phone in the glove compartment. There’s a gun beneath the seat. And there’s a woman, bound and gagged in the trunk.
Vehicle 19 aims to be a claustrophobic thriller about a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, but while the pieces are there the film just never comes together in anything resembling an engaging fashion. The easy person to blame is Walker, but while he brings very little to the film the script is just as guilty of a culprit. It’s almost as if Walker was expected to bring all the cache of his Fast & Furious character to the role, but no one stopped to realize that Walker’s charisma has never been that franchise’s selling point. Dropping a generic lead actor into nearly every frame of a generic film is a recipe for, well, not much at all.
The film starts off exciting enough with Woods behind the wheel and on the run from a slew of police cars. He dodges and weaves the minivan through traffic only to face a tanker truck jack-knifing its way towards him. The film slows, a look of panic on his face, and then an “Earlier…” tag appears moving the action back a few hours in the day.
Action tease out of the way, the film almost immediately starts to frustrate, annoy and bore as Woods begins to drive on the wrong side of the road, looks at maps or tries to eat while driving, and generally reveals himself to be a stereotypical American in a foreign land. He also begins the annoying habit of narrating his most obvious thoughts. “They drive on the left,” he says after nearly crashing into another car that we clearly see driving on the left.
Woods’ chattiness is intentional as he’s the sole character on screen for much of the running time, but that doesn’t make it necessary. It gets worse once it spills over into the more dramatic-leaning circumstances as his frenzied thoughts are left to the incapable stylings of Walker’s delivery.
Dialogue issues aside, the script also has an intelligence problem in its efforts to keep the story going. Woods’ reaction to finding the clearly kidnapped woman in the car is to point the gun at her. What? He barely attempts to explain his accidental involvement and instead leaves her in the dark. And even before he learns the full extent of trouble he’s in he tries to simply abandon the car instead of returning it to the rental lot. He even agrees to a mysterious drop-off point instead of again, simply returning the damn thing. It’s understood that he needs to stay in the car for the film to play out, but that doesn’t exonerate the script from finding legitimate motivators and actions for him.
Director Mukunda Michael Dewil also wrote the film, and while this is only his second feature in both departments he may want to pass off script duties to someone else next time. He fares somewhat better on the directing side of things showing a real affinity for the car action. Most of the film is shot from within the minivan, but while the intended claustrophobic feeling is absent it does occasionally create some entertaining and fresh views of the action and vehicular carnage. There just isn’t nearly enough of it.
The Upside: Some solid (if minor) car action; uncommon locale
The Downside: Lead character is dumb and over-reactionary; generic plot never moves beyond the expected
On the Side: Paul Walker already has three other films in varying stages of production scheduled for release before next year’s Fast & Furious 7.