[This contains spoilers, but it doesn’t really matter as the plot is so basic]
If you ever thought that all you needed to make a film was a girl and a gun, a specific demographic if ever there was one, Vehicle 19, which has both, may disabuse you of the notion. It is essential to have a decent story as well. Vehicle 19 (2013) is the sort of film that shortly afterwards will have you asking yourself, ‘now was that Vehicle 19 or 17 I watched the other day?’ The makers presumably chose a number above ten in case filmgoers assumed it was a sequel, rather like the production-line Fast & Furious films with which the late Paul Walker was largely associated.
Vehicle 19 was written and directed by South African Mukunda Michael Dewil, an inexperienced filmmaker. The concept must have seemed an interesting one on the drawing board: a thriller filmed entirely within the confines of a car, showing the character arc of a flawed individual caught up in an increasingly fraught situation who moves from frustrated confusion, anger and fear, to determination to come through against the odds and redeem himself. The claustrophobia engendered by filming in a confined space is reminiscent of Phone Booth (2002), though in formal terms, but not much else, Vehicle 19 has more in common with Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (also 2002).
Walker plays Michael Woods, an ex-prisoner who breaks his parole in the United States to fly to Johannesburg in order to see his estranged wife, now working at the city’s American consulate. Having spoken to her on the phone he knows that if he messes up once more it will be the end of their relationship, her move to the other side of the Atlantic having given him a hint. Unfortunately he has been allocated the wrong hire vehicle by Hertz, a minivan rather than the saloon car he requested, and as he tries to navigate the city’s traffic jams and tricky youngsters he learns that he has collected much more than he bargained for.
The first question you ask yourself after you and he realise that the van comes complete with bound woman in the boot, then discover that she has been abducted on behalf of corrupt police, is why would they leave a car with a gun and a kidnap victim in a rental lot where a clerical error could assign it to the wrong person. There must be simpler ways of disposing of government officials who have stumbled on to their misdeeds.
The second is, when later on we find Michael has no money, how he managed to rent the car in the first place, or why he needed to when there must have been less expensive public transport options available from the airport to the city centre; it can’t be far, given that Michael tells his wife that he will be there in twenty minutes, despite not having a clue where he is going or what road conditions are like. It is certainly a relief that when he hides from police in a car wash it doesn’t require him to pay, as that could have been tricky.
In an effort to ramp up the tension there is a pointless bit of business with his mobile phone when, after some drama with his battery running out while making an important call to the single trustworthy individual in the South African judiciary, he gets out his charger and plugs it into the dashboard. The only problem caused by the crisis was an interrupted call to the judge, which he is able to resume once he has got some power in the phone. Why didn’t he just plug the thing in earlier? It only takes a moment.
Walker, the star in the affordably-priced minivan, has a strikingly chiselled face reminiscent of a young Henry Fonda, circa The Grapes of Wrath (1940). He carries the film almost single-handed (apart from the section where he first spars with and then teams up with – once he realises they are in the same boat – his unexpected passenger, ably played by Naim MacLean) and he makes a good job of portraying the rising tension as Michael wonders how he can explain the bizarre state of affairs in which he finds himself to a sceptical spouse all too ready to believe the worst of him, while trying to work out what to do for the best. Unfortunately Walker is let down by the underdeveloped script.
Of course seeing Paul Walker drive will always now put the viewer in mind of the manner of his death. If he is best known for the Fast & Furious films, Vehicle 19 might be included as a more sedate entry in the franchise as Michael spends most of his time lost in the streets of Johannesburg, depicted as a kind of enormous South Los Angeles that does the South African Tourist Board no favours, interspersed with bursts of action. The strapline ‘He picked the wrong car. They picked the wrong guy’ and advertising showing Michael holding a gun mis-sells the tone of the film. This is not some kind of Man-on-Fire revenge thriller, it is a fish-out-of-water tale of someone who realises he can’t just walk away from the obligations that have been thrust upon him.
Despite the happy ending to the adventure Michael must know that he has to face up to his parole violation (sadly for him the United States and the Republic of South Africa have an extradition treaty). However, the film does not conclude with Michael, but with the titular van. After all that mayhem, we discover that Vehicle 19 was not written off even though it must have been a hell of a mess. We see it back in the rental car park waiting to be hired out again, with just a seat cover pulled on to hide a bullet hole and unsightly blood stains. The implausibility of the van being put back in the pool after all it has been through seems to sum up the plot’s weaknesses. You wonder what a director with a more developed script might have done with the concept of Michael on the run in a strange land, and what Paul Walker would have achieved if he had been stretched by better, uh, vehicles for his talent.