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In the first third of “The Accidental Getaway Driver” you might think you’re in for the film of the festival at Sundance 2023. The setup is simple and suspenseful: Long (Hiệp Trần Nghĩa), an elderly Vietnamese immigrant who works as a driver is paid double for a late night assignment that turns out to be about keeping three escaped prisoners ahead of the law. When Tây (Dustin Nguyen), one of the convicts, points a gun at him to prevent him from bailing when he wants to get out, the tension ratchets up to the breaking point.
But “The Accidental Getaway Driver” is not the film of the festival. And though the tension ratchets up there near the beginning, that’s as high as it goes for the whole movie. Instead, it’s merely a very promising first feature from Sing J. Lee, who’s brimming with ideas but might have worked a little more carefully to give them focus. When it starts, you think you’re in for the second coming of Michael Mann’s “Collateral,” the anxiety-level high and cinematographer Michael Cambio Fernandez’s night photography supple and sinuous. It’s impressive the sheer number of angles he and Lee find to film Hiệp and the late ’90s Toyota he’s driving around Southern California, trying not to anger the men holding him hostage.
What Lee is aiming for is actually higher in purpose than “Collateral.” Tây, the convict who points the gun at Long and hired him initially, is a fellow Vietnamese immigrant. He sits in the front seat, all the better to keep Long under close watch, so he doesn’t make a bolt for it or signal the police. Tây feels genuinely menacing at first. Nguyen isn’t called “the Clint Eastwood of Vietnam” for nothing, and this film’s producers, Bond caretakers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, would do well to consider him for a future 007 movie. But his hard surface melts away over the course of the film’s 116-minute runtime until he becomes something far more complex, like a John Ford antihero who’s done terrible things but is looking for a path to redemption.
Tây is ultimately the heart of “The Accidental Getaway Driver,” which does feel like a bit of a bait-and-switch given that he is not the title character. Long is so guarded for so long that it’s a little bit harder to connect with him until the film’s very end. He’s so terrified of his situation, not to mention still processing decades of heartache (he’s been separated from his family for years after he objected to his daughter’s fiance), that he’s, rightly, tough to get to know. It’s an opacity that’s outright reflected in Lee’s directorial choice at times to position Hiệp in such extreme close-up that the lower edge of the frame cuts off the bottom half of his face. It’s like he’s peering out over the frame, wishing that he could hide below it and escape the terror of his situation.
The other two convicts are much more thinly drawn in the script from Lee and Christopher Chen. Aden (Dali Benssalah) is the most violent and volatile, with Benssalah giving a Joker-like monologue that for all its bravado actually does show some real pain underneath. And Eddie (Phi Vũ) is in his early 20s and still as adrift and uncertain as a child. They’re all types, and, oddly, the three convicts line up quite closely with the three escaped prisoners in both Richard Boleslawski and Ford’s versions of “Three Godfathers.”
That leads to some concern while watching it that Long might ultimately have his edges sanded down and be revealed to be a lovable old softie, which is always the temptation when having an 80-year-old as your title character. But though Lee interrogates Long’s pain and inner strength through intriguing flashbacks to his childhood in Vietnam and visions of the family he’s now estranged from, he avoids the more cloying catharsis that might have seemed obvious. Lee’s a filmmaker with clearly strong instincts, and nothing about where “The Accidental Getaway Driver” ends up is trite. He’s deeply attuned to the nuances of what it means to be an immigrant, and some scenes near the end speak to an understanding of the power of community that another director would not have been able to offer.
The problem is that, after that early peak of a first act, “The Accidental Getaway Driver” doesn’t have much tension. You don’t really buy that Long’s in profound danger after a point, even when Aden’s pointing a gun at his head. There must have been a way to make the film about the growing bond between Long and Tây while keeping the suspense sustained at a high level. That doesn’t happen, and it makes the film feel undercooked even as it does offer genuine moments of connection and even poetry.
But any driver knows that the destination is the thing. And “The Accidental Getaway Driver” is promising enough to be excited about wherever Lee might be heading next.
“The Accidental Getaway Driver” world premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.