When cabdriver Long (Hiep Tran Nghia) reluctantly sets out to pick up a fare near the start of The Accidental Getaway Driver, he has no way of knowing where the journey might take him. Even those of us in the audience, well aware of the title, might find it difficult to guess. Because although the film starts as the gritty crime thriller suggested by its core premise, it pivots, unexpectedly but effectively, into something much more tender.
From the minute we meet Long, it’s obvious what kind of existence he’s leading. He’s first seen alone in a shabby apartment, listening to an old CD so banged-up it hardly plays anymore. His neighbors can be seen and heard playing chess outside his window, but this elderly, worn-down soul seems to have no place among them. When he’s called for a job late at night, he grumbles but finally gives in. Anyway, it’s not as if he has anything more exciting going on.
The Accidental Getaway Driver
The Bottom Line
Taut thrills give way to surprising sentiment.
His three customers, picked up on a dark corner, prove a little harder to pin down. Tây (a magnetic Dustin Nguyen) seems the most approachable of the trio — but when Long, having realized these men are up to no good, tries to kick them out of his car, it’s Tây who calmly raises his gun. From the backseat, Aden (Dali Benssalah) radiates a cold menace, while young Eddie (Phi Vu) sits silent and surly. As Long discovers from a TV news report, they’re prisoners freshly escaped from an Orange County jail, looking to lay low as they plan their next steps.
For the first half of The Accidental Getaway Driver, director Sing J. Lee (who also cowrote the script with Christopher Chen, based on a 2017 GQ article by Paul Kix) dials up the suspense. Close-ups capture the fear flashing through Long’s bespectacled eyes, and the details they pick up — a spot of blood on the seat, a doorknob that could bring doom or salvation, the red glow of a car taillight illuminating Aden and Tây’s faces as they argue out of Long’s earshot. And despite some early, half-hearted reassurances that nobody needs to get hurt, Long’s terror is definitely justified; over one restless night at a motel, Aden promises Long a “quick, efficient” death with more than a trace of sardonic glee.
But things begin to take a turn at the next motel, where Long, Tây and Eddie are left waiting for Aden to return with the forged papers he’s promised will take them to freedom. As the hours stretch on, hostility and suspicion give way to just plain boredom, until the three Vietnamese men get to playing games and chatting. Long, who’d rebuffed Tây’s earlier attempts at conversation with a curt “Do I have to talk to you?”, listens to Tây recount the path that brought him here over a shared cigarette. Tây admits to Long that he enjoys talking to him, even if Long’s only engaging in hopes Tây will let him go.
Meanwhile, flashbacks and dream sequences woven throughout the 117-minute drama fill in the blanks of Long’s life: his fading memories of an idyllic childhood, his traumatic experiences of war and the years after, his estrangement from a family that no longer understands him (literally — Long barely speaks English, and when he’s reunited with his children in America after decades away, he discovers they’ve never learned to speak Vietnamese).
“The machine ate him up and spat him out, just like us,” Tây muses at one point, when Aden demands he explain his soft spot for the old man. And although some of the escapees’ justifications for their predicament ring hollow (“We are living proof that genuine, kind people make mistakes” would probably sound a lot more convincing to Long if he weren’t literally being held hostage by the guys telling themselves that), The Accidental Getaway Driver picks up on the parallels between Long’s predicament and his passengers’. All are men pushed to the margins by a society that’d just as soon forget about them altogether — whether due to their foreignness, their criminal records, their age or simply the misery they carry with them. With a little bit of compassion, Long starts to see it too.
It’s a testament to Lee’s confidence and his sensitivity that the shift from white-knuckle tension to earnest emotion works as well as it does, though the transition is not without casualties. As Long and Tây grow richer and deeper as characters, Aden and Eddie remain two-dimensional supporting players — and in Eddie’s case, one further flattened by an uneven performance. Meanwhile, the shift in tone is so thorough that by the last act, any real sense of danger has been leached away. A climactic brawl by the beach comes off more perfunctory than cathartic, as if some of these characters have yet to realize the plot’s already left them behind.
But Lee earns the tearjerking emotions of the final act by not overplaying his hand. The themes of family and connection are woven into the script with a deft touch. Nghia and Nguyen are given the space to grow their relationship organically, one small empathetic gesture at a time. It’s not hard to imagine the version of this journey that might’ve leaned too hard on its sentimentality, swerving toward the allure of some tidy Hollywood ending. The Accidental Getaway Driver stays its modest course, and ends up somewhere more surprising, more honest and ultimately more rewarding for it.