Behind the Wheel: Vehicle 19 Is an Exhilarating if Implausible Tour of South Africa’s Urban Milieu

Claustrophobic car chase

Vehicle 19

Vehicle 19

From South Africa, a better-than-average action thriller called Vehicle 19 pits blue-eyed, charismatic Paul Walker, star of the noisy, ridiculous Fast and Furious programmers (he’s currently leapfrogging this movie with Fast and Furious 6) against another car. The car loses, but only by a fender.

It opens with a police chase going the wrong way in traffic, then flashes back to show why. What happens should be the stuff of solid nail-biting suspense, but the writing and direction by somebody named Mukunda Michael Dewil is too sluggish for its own good, and the fact that the entire movie takes place inside the car adds a relentless claustrophobia factor that is hard to defeat. Mr. Walker, however, meets the challenge of doing all of his emoting behind a steering wheel and strapped to a seat belt with an intensity that is nothing less than riveting.

He plays Michael Woods, recently released from prison and already breaking his parole to fly to Johannesburg, see his ex-wife who works at the American Embassy, convince her he’s given up drinking and persuade her to give him a second chance. Arriving sleepless and behind schedule after a grueling flight from America, he picks up the wrong rental car at the airport (a minivan instead of the sedan he ordered), but he’s in too much of a race against time to sort it out, so he drives away. Frustrated in the continual traffic jam that follows, he finds an automatic weapon under the seat, a cellphone in the glove compartment connected to a hostile detective, and a female prosecutor tied up in the trunk who was on her way to testify in the corruption trial of a powerful police chief accused of human sex trafficking.

Already stressed enough to implode, Michael is pursued by an entire police force that will stop at nothing to prevent his passenger from reaching the courthouse. Fatally wounded in the ensuing pursuit, the woman leaves a taped record of her testimony in Michael’s possession. His only crime is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But he’s impaled on the horns of a dilemma—if he turns the testimony in to the judge, he will surely end up back in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. If he runs, his own wife’s life is at risk, and he’ll pay the penalty for parole violation anyway. As an American fugitive in a foreign country driving a stolen vehicle, his only chance to survive is to clear his name. But when the judge he’s seeking finally reaches him on the phone, the battery in his cellphone goes dead. What happens next contains a novel twist guaranteed to keep your adrenal glands working overtime.

The trajectory consists of one damn thing after another, with the able Mr. Walker giving it all he’s got without getting out of the vehicle to catch his breath. It is never clear how Mr. Walker manages to negotiate the traffic in an African city as foreign as an African jungle, and the car chases are not entirely plausible, including one in which the van crashes through the plate-glass window of a supermarket and plunges down the aisles with both doors open. Still, the passing parade outside the windows shows you more of South Africa than most films in the same overpopulated urban setting ever do, and as a man working against the clock while trapped in a vehicle out of control, Paul Walker never wastes his time—or yours.

rreed@observer.com

VEHICLE 19

Written by Mukunda Michael Dewil

Directed by Mukunda Michael Dewil

Starring Paul Walker, Naima McLean and Gys de Villiers

Running time: 85 mins.

2.5/4 stars