In the bank robbery business, a “wheel man” is a skilled driver of getaway cars whose services are in great demand. An uneven but surprisingly pleasing and often entertaining low-budget indie-prod called The Chaperone is about an accidental wheel man named Ray Bradstone who lost his freedom, family and self-respect in a heist that landed him seven years in prison. Now he’s out and determined to make amends, pay his debt to society and start fresh. Ray heads home to his well-kept brick house in the neatly manicured suburbs to catch up with his wife, who wants him to turn around and leave, and his embarrassed, ashamed and hostile daughter, who just wants him to drop dead. The movie is about the comical, cultural and criminal repercussions when Ray signs on as a chaperone on his daughter’s junior-high classroom field trip to New Orleans. Here’s the big surprise: Ray is played by 13-time world championship wrestling superstar Paul”Triple H” Levesque. And he ain’t bad.
Unable to find a job in a skeptical society wary of ex-cons, Ray says things like “Failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” but he turns out of necessity to one last stickup with his old gang, only to get an attack of moral conscience and cold feet at the last minute, running away while the crooks are inside the bank wearing Halloween masks from the Bush administration. The movie sometimes falters in its comic targets (a silly bank teller tells the cops, “I almost don’t mind being robbed by a man in a Condoleeza Rice mask. I like a guy with a sense of humor”), but the thieves on the run who think Ray has double-crossed him don’t laugh, and Ray finds himself pursued by a pack of angry thugs and an army of cops–all while unknowingly carrying the stolen bank money. With his massive center-ring frame, Mr. Levesque takes up most of the screen’s dimensions, but he has an appealing gentle-giant way with kids, and can say a dramatic line with unexpected tenderness. On his journey to redemption, he dodges spitballs and cherry bombs, does a good deed that wins the admiration of the school, polishes his parenting skills, tries to be a role model for moppets and repairs the ruptured relationship with his daughter while dispensing cracker barrel philosophy like “Life is like a raging river–you never know what is around the next bend. You just make sure our boat doesn’t leak and go with the flow.” O.K., some of the dialogue is so cute you want to yell “Ouch.” But the too-neat payoff wins over his estranged daughter and all of her egghead friends, who use their iPhones and the book Cellphone Jungle for Dummies to rescue her dad from a colorful storage warehouse for Mardi Gras floats. (Did I forget to mention the film also presents the best postcard view of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina?)
Happily, the direction by Stephen Herek (Mr. Holland’s Opus, 101 Dalmatians) finds the perfect way to distill the unexpected charms of his star. The obvious thing for a tattooed muscle man with a ponytail would be to play has-been fighters or goons with cauliflower ears, but Mr. Levesque has chosen a role with warmth, range and sensitivity, and even sings a few bars of the Fred Astaire classic “Pick Yourself Up.” When the kids take over, the movie gets sloppy. But as long as the poker-faced “Triple H” is the centerpiece, The Chaperone is not without moments of genuine sweetness. Best of all, he is the most unpretentious and least flamboyant human juggernaut to ever hit the screen. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop, but better.
Running time 103 minutes
Written by S.J. Roth
Directed by Stephen Herek
Starring Paul Levesque, Kevin Corrigan, José Zúñiga