Review: 'Getaway'

Can a terrible film be redeemed by a single shot?

An interminable and boldly incoherent car chase masquerading as a feature film, Courtney Solomon’s “Getaway” is to the “Fast and Furious” franchise what “The Paperboy” is to “Citizen Kane”, until suddenly – for nearly two minutes of the penultimate scene – the film achieves a breathlessly sublime cinematic purity, providing in one glorious long-take a spectacle unmatched by the entirety of even the summer’s most over-sized blockbusters.

But the juice, to quote “The Girl Next Door” (as fine criticism always should), is not worth the squeeze. Not by a damn sight. The 80 minutes or so that precede the transcendent shot, the inordinate thrills of which in no way require any narrative context to enjoy, amount to one of the year’s most punishing and pointless endurance tests.

Remember that “Simpsons” episode in which Homer, having decided that he’s going to start consuming all of his meals in bar form, pulverizes eight pounds of spaghetti into a short cylinder of pure starch and gulps it down in one bite? Homer thinks for a moment, takes stock of how his body is reacting to his ridiculously dense pasta snack, and calmly dials the operator on his phone: “Hospital, please.” That’s “Getaway,” 6,000 cuts recklessly crammed into a movie that only works when it eschews montage altogether, the film at its best when it uses distinctly computer-age tools to capture unmistakably analog (and shockingly dangerous) feats of daredevil driving. In a time when our biggest movie moments are engineered from 1s and 0s, “Getaway” feels like an almost Herzogian bit of madness, if only Solomon weren’t blinking too fast to maintain a coherent vision.

The film sure doesn’t waste any time, so narratively threadbare that there’s hardly any difference between its premise and its plot. We open on driver Brent Magna (played by a courageous squad of stunt doubles who closely resemble a grizzled Ethan Hawke), a retired Nascar driver endowed with the name of a jaeger pilot and the complete lack of compelling characterization of, well, a jaeger pilot. Magna retires to his apartment in downtown Sofia, to find the place ransacked and his wife missing. A phone call from a mysterious voice (Jon Voight as Rade Serbedzija) informs Magna that his wife has been taken, and if he ever wants to see her again, he needs to get behind the wheel of the seemingly death proof 2008 Shelby Super Snake that’s waiting for him in a local garage and await further instructions.

Further instructions, Magna soon learns, are relayed to him directly through the car’s dashboard, from which the Voice can both see and hear everything that happens in and around the vehicle. Magna naturally assumes that he’s transporting illicit materials or something to that effect, but no, that would make far too much sense. Instead, the Voice effectively wants Magna to LARP “Grand Theft Auto”, commanding the burned out wheelman to bomb around the gorgeous Bulgarian metropolis at insane speeds, the giddy directions imploring Magna to smash into everything in his path in a fit of vehicular rampage which Magna is uniquely qualified to execute.

The Voice’s hilariously convoluted plan eventually comes into focus, but not before Magna is carjacked by a teenage girl (Selena Gomez as “The Kid”), who quickly becomes an unwitting accomplice in Magna’s high-speed quest to save his wife. Whereas Gomez’s blank cherub appeal was a perfect fit for the soulless hedonism of Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers”, in “Getaway” she’s a useless foil to Hawke’s high-octane husband in crisis, their lame verbal sparring and her preternatural abilities as a hacker so resoundingly inauthentic that they almost completely negate the tactile pleasures of the film’s squelching mayhem.

To that point, the sole virtue of Solomon’s “Getaway” is – or perhaps should have been – how it almost completely eschews weightless computer-generated effects for the real deal. The decision to rely on practical stunts  – a reaction to the “Fast and Furious” juggernaut as well as a concession to the fact that it’s cheaper to actually fish-tale a car into a Bulgarian lamppost than it is to fake it believably – might have validated the film’s existence, as Solomon and his brave stunt crew were essentially allowed to transform a historic Eastern European city into the ultimate demolition derby. Unfortunately, “Getaway” isn’t content to be a throwback to an older way of doing things, as Solomon’s ultimate loyalty isn’t reserved for the past but rather for the future, the movie rendered unwatchable by its split devotion between refreshingly physical wreckage and uniquely digital ways of capturing it.

Whereas “Speed” allowed the villain to surveil his runaway guinea pigs because he had to, The Voice pastes tiny, low-resolution cameras on the hood of its star vehicle simply because he can. Blessed with previously impossible ways of seeing, “Getaway” should have done for race cars what “Leviathan” did for fishing boats, but Solomon was seduced by the remarkable technology available to him. Why shoot a scene with 40 different cameras (bolted onto rear-view mirrors, road signs, and even the road itself)? Well, why not?

The problem isn’t a lack of angles, it’s a lack of discipline. Had Solomon restricted himself to the cameras bolted onto the body of his star Shelby, “Getaway” might at least have been a neat formal exercise. But Solomon lost sight of the fact that being able to put cameras anywhere isn’t a good reason to put cameras everywhere. And Solomon naturally wants to show his work, and so he does his best to make sure that the audience is made aware of every one of those cameras, a tactic which doesn’t result in a progressive series of related images so much as it does a dissociative gumbo of twisted metal – somewhere in here is the greatest movie that Stan Brakhage never made.

Which, finally, brings us to the film’s one euphoric moment. As the long chase winds down in the early light of day and Magna seems to be closing in on the villain, Solomon risks his precious nanosecond ASL with a breathtaking 95-second shot captured from a RED One camera mounted to the front-end mask of the Shelby as it drag-races the villain’s Mercedes SUV at 90 miles per hour along the outskirts of town. While the speed of the shot is slightly ramped to enhance the effect, there’s nevertheless a palpable thrill to the credibility of what’s on display – the film, for all of its extraordinary flaws, has reconditioned us to trust in the reality of what we’re seeing. The movie cars dash through an intersection, narrowly avoiding real-life traffic by a matter of inches. It’s illegal, it’s insane, it’s utterly irresponsible, and it’s incredible. (Read’s interview with Courtney Solomon, where he discusses the unbelievable logistics of how they pulled it off).

The money shot is spectacle at its simplest, harkening back to the primal pleasures of early cinema. It’s about seeing rather than being shown, perspective rather than creation. It’s the best thing that mainstream cinema has produced all summer, and – damningly – it’s a moment empowered by digital technology but in no way enabled by it (as Claude Lelouch proved in 1976, Solomon’s feat is novel only in how much footage the director was able to chop off at either end of his long-take, thanks to a hard drive being able to contain more footage than a 35mm film mag).

The rest of the film’s use of digital technology is about seeing what otherwise could not be seen, placing cameras where they previously could not be placed, and destroying objects that were previously too costly to risk.  But to what end? Tools are but blunt instruments in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to wield them, whereas in capable hands they become conduits of expression. A camera can either be a device or it can be a medium, and the difference between the two is the only thing that “Getaway” is able to depict with an iota of clarity.

SCORE: 2.1 / 10