When did Ethan Hawke become such a hard case? Since 2008, he has starred in “What Doesn’t Kill You” (Boston criminal), “Brooklyn’s Finest” (sleazy cop), “Daybreakers” (vampire), “Sinister” (guy battling a serial killer) and “The Purge” (gun-toting father protecting his family). His career has turned into “Dead Poets Society” without the poets.
Now he plays Brent Magna (what a name!), a former NASCAR driver living in Bulgaria. An unseen villain (Jon Voight) kidnaps Brent’s wife and orders him to execute a series of bizarre tasks, most of those dependent on his driving skills. The first is to steal a car that has been armored and fitted out with cameras and microphones so the kidnapper can track him.
After Brent creates havoc around the capital city of Sofia, he ends up in a parking garage at the wrong end of a gun. It’s held by a girl (Selena Gomez) who claims the cops told her to wait there and take back her car from the thief. Now she’s along for the ride, which is lucky for Brent; this co-pilot, known only as The Kid, turns out to be a computer wizard who supplies the brain to match his behind-the-wheel brawn.
If anyone has directed a film in which auto action occupies a higher percentage of the running time, I haven’t seen it. I’d guess almost 45 of the 90 minutes consist of high-speed pursuits, explosive crashes and vehicular assaults. (OK, the car has armor so thick it’s bullet-proof. Surely incessant sideswipes and bumper-smacking would disrupt sensitive electronic equipment, especially stuff mounted on the outside.)
Director Courtney Solomon handles these scenes well enough, though their inevitable sameness takes us from excitement to exhaustion. Yet writers Sean Finegan and Gregg Maxwell Parker try to anticipate our questions and craft a story that will make sense, once we’re past the incredible four-wheeled mayhem.
We know why everyone behaves as he or she does, and the bad guy’s plan eventually takes shape for us. (We don’t know why Voight, seen only in close-ups of his grizzled chin, speaks with a German accent, but you know those crafty German financiers.)
Gomez is a nonstarter as an actor, alternating dully between petulance and indifference. Hawke compensates with a vivid, ferocious performance that doesn’t go over the top. I used to think such flicks represented breaks from his sensitive work in the likes of “Before Midnight,” but I’m starting to believe these tough, jut-jawed roles are his destiny.