Late one night in Orange County, California, elderly cab driver Long Mã (Hiep Tran Nghia) is persuaded to pick up a group of men and drive them around. It becomes clear rather quickly that the three individuals placed in the back of his cab are escaped convicts. Taken hostage, Long’s story could have turned out as a misguided buddy comedy or even a crime thriller. Instead, the director of The Accidental Getaway Driver, Sing J. Lee, gives us something more contemplative and complex, rooted in the American dream and an immigrant’s reality.
When first driving the convicts around, Long tries to get out of his dire situation. The group is led by the volatile Aden (Dali Benssalah) with the youngest Eddie (Phi Vu) as loyal wildcard Eddie. The older Tây is the liaison between Long and the others, translating Vietnamese into English (and vice versa) and brokering an uneasy peace between the two parties.
Best known for directing music videos for Alicia Keys, The Killers, Halsey, and Migos, you’d expect flashy visuals from Lee’s first feature. Instead, he sets a moody tone, one that takes its time to play out and fester. He focuses a lot on faces, mainly Tran Nghia’s who is able to convey so much longing with just his eyes.
Tran Nghia’s and Nguyen’s bond ties the film together. Best known as Harry Truman Ioki in the original version of 21 Jump Street, Nguyen’s performance is a surprise standout at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Able to connect the divide between Long and the rest of his posse, his Tây empathetic yet complex performance is mesmerizingly sincere.
The tension culminates in a sweetly placed motel scene while Aden is out of the room. Long, Tây, and Eddie play a game of sunflower basketball, where the players must get their seeds into a cup on the dresser without missing from the bed. This not only establishes a bond between the Asian characters of the group but also shows where their divisions lie when Eddie gets upset by Long’s laughter. Phi Vu masters Eddie’s emotional outbursts, able to ride his manic waves with electric energy.
Based on a true story and a GQ article of the same name, Lee brings us inside Long’s mind, where we see his life play out before his eyes as he is taken hostage. Flashbacks to his past with his estranged family members weave in and out of the present-day narrative, resulting in a clash with Long’s reality.
Lee composes a stellar first feature. The pacing towards the beginning is rather slow, but the director more than makes up for it with a composed and powerful story.