Those seeking an object lesson in the relative value of art and commerce in Hollywood need look no further than Ethan Hawke, who kicked off the summer movie season with Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” and now brings it to a close with “Getaway,” another tale of an American expat winding his way through an exotic foreign locale. Only here, instead of thoughtful discourse about love and sex and aging against the stunning vistas of Greece, we get the grinding gears of a souped-up Shelby Mustang racing through grimy Bulgaria with It Girl Selena Gomez in tow. Arriving in theaters on the sputtering exhaust of producer Joel Silver’s longtime Warner Bros. deal, this booby prize of a parting gift may nevertheless score some quick cash from undiscriminating Labor Day moviegoers hoping against hope for some “Fast & Furious”-level thrills.
Easily one of the dopiest major studio releases since Elie Samaha got out of the business, “Getaway” marks the not-very-anticipated return to the director’s chair of low-budget horror producer Courtney Solomon, whose prior helming credits include the risible 2000 adaptation of “Dungeons & Dragons” and 2005’s wan historical ghost story “An American Hunting” (where the scariest special effect was the squandering of stars Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland). Here, Solomon tries for his best Kathryn Bigelow or George Romero, thrusting us straight into the action, in medias res, with Hawke and the aforementioned Shelby careening wildly through a crowded Sofia park and adjacent pedestrian mall crowded with Christmas shoppers.
In a script (credited to tyro scribes Sean Finegan and Gregg Maxwell Parker) otherwise mercifully devoid of backstory, a few staccato flashes fill in the essentials: Earlier the same day, Hawke’s wife (Rebecca Budig) was kidnapped from their apartment by villains of unknown motive, and ever since, a mystery voice (Jon Voight) on the other end of Hawke’s cell phone has been issuing directives. Do what he says, says the voice, or his wife gets it. Oh, and Hawke’s character is supposed to be a washed-up ex-NASCAR driver named Brent Magra, a name that pretty much guarantees he isn’t a bank teller or a CPA.
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During a brief respite after the opening melee, a feisty teen (Gomez) appears brandishing a handgun and claiming to be the Shelby’s rightful owner. But despite the brusque meet-cute, Gomez’s unnamed character (billed only as “The Girl”) isn’t quite the girl-gone-wild she played to great effect earlier this year in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers.” In this pic’s fanciful universe, she’s supposed to be a whiz-kid computer hacker, though none of the techno-babble she spews about servers and video feeds and compromised firewalls suggests she would know her way around even a Commodore 64. She’s also the daughter of an investment bank CEO with headquarters in Sofia (perhaps because he’s investing in runaway Hollywood productions like this), suggesting that, like Brent, she isn’t here by accident.
An extended demolition derby follows, as Hawke and Gomez follow Voight’s demands (“Turn left! Turn right! You’re running out of time!”), the American muscle car nimbly outpacing the Sofia police and their fleet of shoddy Euro-made sedans. In terms of sheer onscreen destruction, “Getaway” can hold its own with any “Fast & Furious” pic, but without any of that series’ exuberance at creating elaborate, Rube Goldberg-like chains of balletic action. Rather, Solomon has made something like a “Cannonball Run” for the YouTube Generation, with the largely incoherent action photographed (by cinematographer Yaron Levy) from dozens of small digital cameras mounted inside and outside the Shelby and cut in a Cuisinart. (The press notes boast that the pic contains more than 6,000 cuts, as opposed to the average 1,600, as though this were a good thing.) Matched to an eardrum-endangering sound mix, this is that rare action movie that’s at its most pleasurable during its fleeting fades to black.
Though it’s impossible to fault the precision driving of veteran stunt coordinator Charlie Picerni Sr., once you’ve seen one Bulgarian police cruiser sail off a pipe ramp or flip over on its roof, the next 40 or 50 lose some of their luster. Only in the pic’s final stretch, when Solomon actually holds for more than a few seconds on a POV hood shot clearly modeled on Claude Lelouch’s celebrated racing short “Rendezvous,” does “Getaway” arrive at a single memorable image.
Cast in a rare tough-guy role, Hawke plays it with reasonable conviction, though it’s impossible to say if his weariness is that of a pro racer who bottomed out or a serious actor trapped in the ninth circle of movie hell. Gomez never seems more imperiled than if she’d broken a nail. Voight, seen only as lips, stubble and yellowed teeth until the pic’s final scene, literally and figuratively phones it in.