Blessedly patient with its could’ve been wacky and wild premise, writer-director Sing J. Lee’s The Accidental Getaway Driver opts to be a methodical mood piece. This based-on-a-true-story tale is about an elderly Vietnamese driver named Long (Hiep Tran Nghia) who takes the wrong phone call at the wrong time and gets dragged into a crime-drama he has no place being in the middle of. You can see the 90s Jackie Chan high-concept version of this story staring in, but Lee’s film aims for and hits something much deeper. Something that speaks to assimilation and generational divides in hushed tones, and with a genuine tension that remains unshowy at every turn. I loved it…
Sneaking out one night in his pajamas to hit up the drug-store, Long’s phone won’t stop ringing… Eventually exasperated he takes it. On the other end is a man named Tây (Dustin Nguyen, recently of the series Warrior and not-so-recently of the series 21 Jump Street) who insists he just needs a short, quick trip. Long stills begs off, but when Tây promises he’ll pay double it’s only a second later that Long pulls a U-turn and heads to pick him up.
When Long gets to the location it turns out that Tây is not alone. There are two other dudes, Aden (Dali Benssalah) and Eddie (Phi Vu), neither of them looking like the friendliest types as they climb into the old man’s car. And then the “one quick stop” suddenly turns into a couple. And then while waiting in the car for them at one of the stops Long finds blood on the backseat – alarm bells good and truly raised. And the next thing you know Tây’s shoving a gun into Long’s ribcage and telling him to drive.
What follows, though, is nothing like what you night expect.
The four men’s journey is never played for laughs or big action beats, the sort where we watch frail Long expected to jump curbs and out-run the cops. The Accidental Getaway Driver is much more of a quiet road picture, with the four men getting to know each other and falling apart as they do. It turns out they’ve escaped from prison and just want to get on with their lives – of course their ambitions and expectations vary, some more dangerous than the other’s, and the drama unfurls from those character-based surprises, and with our own projecting onto the situation too.
An extended stay at a roadside motel is the film’s centerpiece, where the men pause and take stock. Indeed a long tightening-in zoom on Benssalah’s face as his character vacillates wildly between regret and rage is the film’s true show-stopper – I’d be shocked if we don’t see lots more of this actor in years to come as it’s an unnerving and spectacular feat. But the heart and core of the film belongs to the burgeoning understanding between Tây and Long, and the relationship between them, stretching across generational traumas. Turns out The Accidental Getaway Driver is rich and lovely, a slow surprise ride I won’t soon forget in the place of screeching tires and vacant lots.