By Armond White
When Jean-Luc Godard showcased his great, long lateral-pan supermarket sequence in 1970’s Tout Va Bien, the metaphor provided an undeniable satire of the consumerist habit that typifies modern middle-class life even though no previous filmmaker had perceived the depth of such banality. Who could imagine that Godard’s memorable movable metaphor would reappear more than 40 years later as a nifty action movie sequence?
In Vehicle 19 a supermarket becomes a climactic setting for a combination shoot-out and car chase, featuring another Godard totem, the automobile (that ultimate symbol of bourgeois materialism in Weekend). Godard would like this outlandish B-movie conceit that condenses the absurdity of common life for Vehicle 19 ’s harried Everyman hero.
As American tourist Michael Woods, the great Paul Walker plays a man who picks up the wrong rental car at a Johannesburg airport and gets enmeshed in political corruption. Woods befriends a local prosecutor (Naima McLean) who has been kidnapped by a politician running a sex-trafficking ring. Reminiscent of the plot turns in Transporter 3, this isn’t nearly so good. Director Mukunda Michael Dewil isn’t a masterly stylist like Olivier Megaton but he starts the film by abstracting Woods’ blue eyes in a blur of speed that’s worthy of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Walker’s steely-eyed determination conveys a real sense of chivalry that gives Vehicle 19 some torque.
Ex-con Woods wants to reform and reunite with his estranged wife but just like the luckless hero of Edgar Ulmer’s Detour, fate sticks out its foot. Woods stumbles upon South Africa’s downtrodden and his empathy momentarily lifts Vehicle 19 out of the ordinary. As in Fast & Furious 6, Walker (who co-produced this film) finds multiculti consciousness and camaraderie through the action movie genre. The Johanessburg terrain is a moral testing ground and Woods’ desire for redemption parallels the Third World commonwealth.
Just before the supermarket spectacle, Woods escapes the police by driving into a car wash–a succinct baptismal symbol for his reborn resolve. When he confronts a worker and requests a new paint job, the worker’s surly dissatisfaction (played by a magnetic South African actor Welile Nzuza) transmits a more intense connection than Walker’s bonhomie with Vin Diesel.
Years ago, a film like Vehicle 19 would play on a double-bill with Fast & Furious 6 in neighborhood theaters to the delight of Walker’s silent majority fan base. He’s a genuine American icon, more a good will ambassador than the dubious sort Godard cast Jane Fonda to represent in Tout Va Bien. It’s believable that Woods’ wife tells the media “When it really mattered, he pulled through and I will always love him for that.” There isn’t a recent movie that would not be improved with Paul Walker in it.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair