The venerable “from hell” movie subgenre (e.g., nanny from hell, secretary from hell) picks up an unlikely addition — the rental car from hell — in “Vehicle 19,” a South African-made B-grade quickie looking to cash in on a time-tested combination of elements: Paul Walker and mass automotive mayhem. Neither particularly fast nor furious, this mostly preposterous high-concept clunker (which feels padded even at barely 80 minutes sans credits) makes a pit stop in a handful of North American theaters this week en route to a July 23 homevid debut.
“Vehicle 19” turns on the modest novelty that, once Walker’s Michael Woods enters the titular Hertz minivan in the pic’s opening scene, he never leaves. Nor does director Mukunda Michael Dewil’s camera, making this something like the “Cosmopolis” of car-chase movies, though Dewil (a veteran commercials helmer) proves less adept than David Cronenberg at continually reinventing his claustrophobic locale. Instead, he mostly slams the camera so close to his star’s face that we can practically count the pieces of stubble.
Woods has traveled to Johannesburg, breaking his parole in the process, to attempt a reconciliation with his ex-wife (Leyla Haidarian), an embassy employee. A brief phone call between the two early on suggests a fraught backstory, including not only Michael’s prison sentence, but a history of alcoholism and a generally high aptitude for bad decision making. Then another phone — a Blackberry stashed in the minivan’s glovebox — starts spewing forth cryptic messages about some kind of an assignment. And when Michael reaches under the driver’s seat, it’s not an empty Cheetos bag he finds there, but rather a handgun complete with silencer. By which point, it’s obvious he got some kind of upgrade at the rental counter he definitely didn’t ask for.
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“Vehicle 19” plays rather fast and loose with logic from there. Taking a page from the Larry Cohen-scripted “Phone Booth” and “Cellular,” the pic’s first act has Michael receiving orders from a mysterious voice at the other end of that Blackberry, a Joburg detective (Gys de Villiers) who claims Michael has accidentally stumbled into an undercover police sting and needs to swap out his car immediately. But news reports and flyers concerning the recent disappearance of a federal prosecutor suggest that something else is afoot — a suspicion concerned when Michael stops short and said prosecutor (Naima McLean) tumbles, bound and gagged, from the trunk into his backseat.
Dewil (who also scripted) is clearly a fan of such classic wronged-man noirs as “D.O.A.” and “The 39 Steps,” which “Vehicle 19” echoes in spirit if not in narrative or visual craftsmanship. The screenplay labors to convince us that Michael has nowhere to turn — not even to his own ex-wife — because the police can’t be trusted and his own criminal record tarnishes his credibility. Meanwhile, Rachel the prosecutor says there’s only one judge in the whole country she trusts with her testimony — a judge who, conveniently for most of the pic’s running time, proves unreachable by phone until the very moment that Michael’s battery is dying.
None of it is especially convincing, though you wouldn’t have as much time to study the plot holes if “Vehicle 19” were more of a taut, race-against-the-clock thriller. But Dewil opts for a moodier touch, perhaps reaching for the existential vibe of a “Two Lane Blacktop” or “Drive,” with Michael occasionally putting pedal to the metal, but just as often looping around aimlessly, plotting his next move. In one needless longueur, he hits up some roadside graffiti artists to give his ride a new paint job; in another, at what should arguably be the pic’s height of dramatic tension, he ducks the authorities in what seems like the world’s slowest car wash.
That the movie manages to stay even modestly involving is a testament to Walker, who’s never going to win awards for his acting, but who has grown into a more comfortable, charismatic screen presence over time, especially as his once-gleaming baby-faced looks have given way to a weary, leathery gruffness.
Pic tries but never quite succeeds at concealing its budgetary restrictions, particularly in some conspicuously low-res CG effects that appear during Michael’s climactic race to the steps of the Joburg courthouse.