Director: Courtney Solomon
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Selena Gomez, Jon Voight, Rebecca Budig
Plot: An ex-racer comes home to find his wife kidnapped by a madman who asks him to perform several dangerous missions in a modified car.
Technically my first Christmas movie of the year. Although it’s more bloody and thrilling than the reason to be jolly.
The film opens fast. Ethan Hawke’s washed-out racer, Brent Magna, comes home from work one day to find his home smashed to pieces. His wife is missing and a phone rings telling him that she will be killed, unless he completes a series of challenges. Magna steals a car at his command, which has been modified with cameras, armour and handy little gadgets that both give Magna the ultimate weapon and keep him confined by his mysterious captors. The man on the phone tells him to stay away from the police and then Magna proceeds to follow his orders, despite the over-arching sense that the kidnapper has very little motive. To make matters worse, a young girl, the owner of the stolen car, accidentally gets caught up in this race and Magna begins to realise that he may have brought an innocent girl into this game where they will likely be slaughtered.
This film has been slated by critics everywhere, so my expectations were pretty low. It has been described as too fast for its own good and I partially agree with that. While I enjoyed the minimal exposition and the fact that the car chases begin within the first five minutes, it must be said that it does get old by the end of the film. The problem here is that the action is confined to car chases and while they are choreographed excellently, when over 50% of the content involves Ethan Hawke and Selena Gomez behind a wheel, driving fast, it does get a tad stale. That being said, Courtney Solomon makes this film far more exciting than it should be. I appreciated several of her directional styles and narrative decisions. Without her, this film would have been a very bland action thriller.
From the beginning, we realise that there is something very different about the direction from your run of the mill action. The camera angles give us the bare minimum we need to see, so we are always held in suspense for the bigger picture. Characters are kept anonymous. We spend most of the movie anticipating the villain’s reveal and Selena Gomez’s character is never actually given a name, a fact that you don’t realise until the half-way point. Solomon uses CCTV to have a fixed sense on the insides of the car and snaps quickly from frame to frame, squeezing every bit of excitement she can from the material. Some tricks don’t really work. The final chase is one long, fixed shot from the front of the car, obviously an attempt to mimic a reality TV show. It’s a nice idea, but there is little going on in that shot, so the excitement gets a little stale. However, when put against the rest of the movie, I am willing to allow one trick to go a little wide of the mark.
The script is also very good, raising it above the generic action. The story cleverly covers some of the common action movie plot holes that others of this genre simply skip. For instance, because Brent Magna is being held against his will, when a police officer or civilian is involved in a stunt, which most likely means their death, this is not lightly breezed over. There is a sense that they are collateral damage and Magna takes the loss with sadness. I am glad that Solomon didn’t try and throw in some romance between Hawke and Gomez, as that would not have worked. The one bit of the script that made me roll my eyes was the techno-babble. When the good guys are losing hope, Selena Gomez would tap an iPad and fiddle with a webcam, to turn the tables on the antagonists. It’s a quick fix and lazy writing, so this is something you will need to take on the chin.
Let’s talk Selena Gomez. Was she the right choice for the role? For the first half of the movie, she is bloody annoying, complete with whiny dialogue and a stubborn attitude. When she enters the story, the film takes a small nose-dive that could lose some fans. However, slowly, she begins to redeem herself, turning into a fairly competent character. She is helpful, makes some good moral choices and Magna seems so intent on heading for his death, that she becomes one of the more relatable characters. My advice would have been to simply tone her character back a bit. I understand that she is meant to be scared for her life, but does she have to shout something irritating every time the shot cuts back to her. Every car stunt comes with its own Gomez line. Sadly, it’s the price to pay when Ethan Hawke goes for the strong, silent type.
Final Verdict: A little too confined by the car gimmick, but Solomon is a clever director and weaves an interesting enough experience from what would have been a dull affair.