I am an absolute sucker for certain types of thrillers. The basic outline is almost always people being caught in an impossible situation that requires them to stay in the same place. The tradition goes back to thrillers like Hitchcock's Rope and in the last decade we've seen films like Phone Booth, Cellular, and Buried. Plausibility be damned, they're almost always tightly constructed films playing with a singular vision that fits the scenario.
Vehicle 19 continues in this proud tradition. There are some problems with the film, especially when it comes to the moments when Paul Walker tries out his sensitive side, but it's a solid piece of craftsmanship. There were a lot of moments of quick ingenuity that caught me off guard and the visual style was just interesting enough to keep my attention. It's not the sort of film that's going to set the world on fire, but for a few bucks and a curious customer taking a chance on the DVD they'll find themselves with a better film than expected.
Michael (Walker) lands in Johannesburg, South Africa looking to put a nasty criminal career behind him and reunite with his ex-wife. A mix-up with his rental vehicle finds him with a minivan he didn't want and, after some searching, comes up with a cell phone and a gun that's not his. The voice on the end explains he's been caught in the middle of a sting and if he just returns the van everything will be fine. Not long after that he finds an unexpected passenger bound and gagged, stuffed into the minivan, and starts learning things he'd rather not.
The premise is simple but builds from common fears that director / screenwriter Mukunda Michael Dewil builds on very well. The fear is simply being a stranger in an unfamiliar place. Casting Walker as the easily confused man is a very smart move as he does an excellent job in the scenes of everyman frustration in dealing with different traffic laws, unfamiliar names, and an alien culture. When the trouble starts Michael's concern of being sent back is intensified by a familiar fear. It's simple, but effective, especially in retrospect of the eventual twists.
Less effective are the scenes of Walker pouring his heart out to the voicemail of his ex-wife. The film already clocks in at a lean 80 minutes, but too much momentum is lost on repeating the same "I love you" moments. Walker is also just not that good at conveying this kind of sentiment. The consequences of Michael's actions are so well laid out that there is no need to return to them and 60 minute cut of this material would have been all the stronger for it.
I am also a fan of Dewil's simple, crisp visual style for the film. Dewil shoots every scene in the film from Michael's vantage point within the van. While it seems like this may make for an eventually boring experience Dewil utilizes Michael's reaction to the unfamiliar surroundings of Johannesburg by amping up the behaviors of the people he encounters along with way. The kids' smiles are just a bit too warm, the unfamiliar language too harsh, and Michael perpetually trapped behind the wheel. He avoids the grit that's been associated with thrillers as of late and gives us the needed information as cleanly as possible. The sheer economy of shots that Dewil manages to cram into and around the minivan is impressive enough and has the effect of keeping the tension up with Michael's growing sense of claustrophobia and worry.
As his Sophomore outing, Vehicle 19 is a thriller a few steps above films from seasoned directors. There's a deft touch to the creative escapes that Michael uses to stay ahead and admirable simplicity to both the hero and villain's actions. It kept me interested and involved, something that just doesn't happen often enough. Dewil is off to a good start, and I look forward to seeing how he can grow from here.