The premise is simple; it promises a comical, stranger-than-fiction thrill-ride. Late at night, an elderly Vietnamese cab driver begrudgingly agrees to a routine pickup where he’s taken hostage at gunpoint by three recently escaped Orange County convicts. Based on Paul Kix’s similarly titled GQ story, The Accidental Getaway Driver certainly begins at a tense pace, but over the course of a few days this enervating scenario shifts into a lower gear, becoming a scattered meditation on masculinity that wrings out just enough emotional truth to appease its multi-genre approach.
Against the clock, these three outlaws––Tây (Dustin Nguyen), Aden (Dali Benssalah) and Eddie (Phi Vu)––start crossing off the items on their escape-plan checklist: they get haircuts, make calls, stop at Wal-Mart, and demand obedience from Long (Hiep Tran Nghia), their involuntary wheelman attempting to stay calm while navigating Little Saigon under extreme pressure. When Aiden and Eddie split off to pick up a van, director Sing J. Lee, using a script from co-writer Christopher Chen, starts hinting at the movie he really wants to make––a somber two-hander about his protagonists’ desperation for a second chance and the different routes each is capable of taking.
The movie shines in these conversational moments, and you almost wish Lee had chosen to only pull out certain pieces from his source material. For lengthy stretches Long and Tây sit in the car and pass time with their past; the movie settles into a nice, introspective rhythm even as it throws off the pacing. In their dialogues, which cinematographer Michael Fernandez beautifully shoots with a variety of angles and orange filters in and around their decorated Toyota Camry, the pair earn each other’s respect by expressing the backstories of their isolation––Tây shares the circumstances of his imprisonment while Long describes the reason he’s abandoned his family for 20 years, pain that Lee captures with dream-like visions throughout this kidnapping.
Then it’s back to the trio’s ticking reality—except the stakes rarely seem too high. Though Lee makes sure to show news footage documenting the prison break, paranoia and pressure never go beyond a simmer. You assume these three prisoners are close to each other; ringleader Aden huddles them together early on and calls them a makeshift family. But as Tây becomes more invested in Long’s solitary life and Aden leaves Eddie alone to find more resources for their proposed trip abroad, there’s nothing to suggest these three have bonded behind bars, which leads to some infighting that foils most of these highfalutin plans.
It’s hard to care equally about four characters. Lee attempts a dramatic, slow-zoom monologue with Benssalah, who reaches into his acting bag for an exaggerated laugh-to-cry pivot, and then watches an overlong sunflower seed competition in the motel led by Vu, who mostly acts as the know-nothing sidekick. But the juice remains with Nghia and Nguyen, who anchor The Accidental Getaway Driver and provide something of a redemptive arc for these hurting, quiet men. Lee has crafted strong, sensible character studies, filled with long pauses and reflective beats. It’s just trapped in the wrong vehicle.
The Accidental Getaway Driver premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.