Liam Neeson has some atoning to do.
Not because of his hell bent pursuit of vengeance in "Taken" and its sequel, but for the lamentable cottage industry of cheap, imitation thrills those films hath wrought. "Taken" was by no means a groundbreaking achievement. But it was sturdy genre moviemaking, aided by the veteran weight of Neeson.
"Getaway," starring Ethan Hawke, is not that. Its chief tension derives from the question many moviegoers will ask, biting their nails: Is this the worst movie I've seen this year?
Hawke plays former race car driver Brent Manga, a name that even a cartoon character would be ashamed of, and that translates literally as Brent Great. In our first introduction to Brent, he's motoring furiously through a European capital in a manic car chase.
It brings up an intriguing existential question: Is it still a car chase if we don't yet know the fleer, the pursuer or particularly care about either of them? It's an early hint of the overriding trouble with "Getaway": It tries to put the throttle down before turning the key.
We quickly learn that Brent's wife, presumably Mrs. Great, was taken in Sofia, Bulgaria. (The setting is arbitrary, except for its low production costs.) The kidnapper (Jon Voight, mostly only heard and seen as lips on the other end of a phone line) demands Brent drive around Sofia, careening through marketplaces and, under his specific directions, causing various havoc.
Brent has little time to deliberate how this will save his wife, and the movie, too, makes scant effort to consider the harm he's causing. Miraculously, he doesn't run over anyone despite high-speed maneuvers that would realistically slaughter bystanders like bugs on a windshield.
At some point, Selena Gomez gets in the car, first appearing to be a hoodie-clad carjacker, then revealed as another puppet in the mysterious scheme. Her entry to the film is as smooth as a pop star being shot out of a cannon.
Cribbing from countless adrenaline-fueled concept films, from "Speed" to any Jason Statham movie you like, "Getaway" (not to be confused with the two "The Getaway" films based on Jim Thompson's novel) tries to ride its thin concept, hoping the fumes of constant engine revving are intoxicating. Director Courtney Solomon splices together footage from cameras inside the car (from which the kidnapper eyes his pawns) and from exterior stuntmen-enabled wide shots.
The action (all at nighttime) is messily and crudely filmed. The plot mechanics are often laughable.
How, then, to explain the film's sudden elegance in one (and only one) shot that appears toward the end of the film like a parting of the waters? Suddenly, the frantic cutting and the relentlessly grating score dissipate for a lengthy first-person perspective of a car speeding down a rolling, suburban road, gracefully sliding around traffic at dawn.
It's a diamond that can't make up for the other 89 minutes of rough.
"Getaway," a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "intense action, violence and mayhem throughout, some rude gestures and language." Running time: 90 minutes. Half a star out of four.