Long learns too late that Tây and his two friends are convicts who have escaped from jail and need to make a getaway. If you know the story of the real-life Long, you will know how this tale turns out for both Long and Tây, but if you don’t the setup might seem outlandish at times. Director and co-writer Sing J. Lee crafts a delicate story, one that doesn’t lean heavily into the crime drama aspect of the situation. Instead, it focuses on the relationship between these two Vietnamese men. Known for his music videos where he’s worked with artists like Migos, Donald Glover, Rich Brian, and Alicia Keys, there’s a distinct style that Lee imparts to the film. Dousing it in moody colors and dark shadows, there are often moments when The Accidental Getaway Driver feels plucked out of the Hong Kong cinema style of the 80s.
Visually captivating, the story at the heart of the film is one about connection. Both Long and Tây are Vietnamese immigrants who have gotten the short end of the stick in life. A far cry from the stereotypical trope of a model minority, these two men represent characters we haven’t seen before on screen. Long is a lonely man. He’s a war veteran and a survivor of prison camps in Vietnam. He’s estranged from his children and his wife, having spent 20 years apart from them. In America, he struggles to communicate with his children who can’t speak Vietnamese, and clashes with his assimilated family.
With Tây, he finds a sort of kinship. Tây was incarcerated for selling drugs, among other crimes, but at his heart is a good man. While his accomplices treat Long like a hostage, Tây bonds with the old man through their shared language. Although it gradually becomes more overt, Tây’s interactions with Long speak to both of their upbringings, with the younger man being respectful and looking out for the older one. Though we know that he is a convict, it’s obvious that Tây is protective over Long.
Hiệp Trần Nghĩa delivers a standout performance as Long, who primarily speaks Vietnamese with Tây. Though he is mild-mannered in the beginning, as the story unfolds we learn more about his past and see more of his personality shine through. Hiệp has a thoughtful approach to the older man and is able to act even in scenes where he is wordless. Similarly, Nguyen deserves praise as Tây, who struggles between doing the right thing or the convenient thing throughout the film. Nguyen feels naturally cool as Tây, often the most level-headed of the three escapees. As the bond between the two men strengthens, we also see a softer, more vulnerable side to the character beyond his chill veneer.
While there are a couple of scenes toward the end of The Accidental Getaway Driver that veers too far into melodrama, including one scene on the beach that feels starkly out of place, on the whole Lee’s first-time feature is a strong one. The careful storytelling is at its strongest when it braids together quiet vignettes of Long’s past with his present and his future with Tây. By the end of the film, the film that seems so much like Collateral on the surface is actually far more personal, reminding us of the unlikely bonds that we can share together as human beings and that it’s never too late to find a home and family beyond the conventional boundaries of what is expected.