When a production benefits the Bulgarian economy as much as "Getaway" apparently did, it might seem mean-spirited to knock it. And when its wall-to-wall car stunts are the real, metal-on-metal deal, shot in the streets of the capital city, that's worth noting. But unless you're a demolition-derby fetishist or a connoisseur of vehicular mayhem, none of that will buy you a thrill in this video game posing as a movie, a preposterously plotted kidnapping story starring a high-performance Mustang.
Behind the wheel of that tricked-out automobile is a weary Ethan Hawke, as a onetime race-car driver named Brent Magna. Riding shotgun with him is Selena Gomez, playing another American living in Sofia, a rich brat whom the screenplay refers to as "the Kid," as though to imbue her with toughness.
The machinations that place them together are best left unexplained — not because of potential spoilers but because the particulars would only induce a low-grade headache.
Magna's considerable headache begins when his wife (Rebecca Budig) is kidnapped, her safety dependent on whether he can steal an exceptionally pricey car, follow orders to drive like a lunatic bent on destruction and evade arrest. Dormant skills return in a flash as he puts the machine in gear and floors it.
The customized Shelby Super Snake is rigged with cameras facing inside and out — a detail that amps the points of view available to director Courtney Solomon but doesn't make the action any more involving for the viewer.
Like a contestant in an exceptionally cruel reality show, Magna must pull off a series of ostentatious "tasks" amid a crowded Christmas-season city. He gets his instructions from the anonymous architect of the scheme via dashboard technology, a malevolent GPS: "The water truck — smash into it."
The voice is supplied by Jon Voight (no stranger to transportation chaos, having manned a "Runaway Train" in the '80s); he affects Mitteleuropean inflections that suggest a tranquilized Werner Herzog.
While Magna dutifully-reluctantly mows through flocks of pedestrians, the Kid, who just happens to be a tech whiz, stops complaining long enough to hack into servers using her iPad. If there's any lesson to be derived from "Getaway," it's that computer tablets come in handy when you're in the clutches of a tech-savvy evil mastermind.
On the evidence of this and his previous film, "An American Haunting," Solomon places visual effects head and shoulders above characterization. Deploying an ace stunt team led by Charlie Picerni, he plunges straight into the action and doesn't let up. The ludicrous pileup of crushed chassis, mostly from cop cars sent colliding, flying, rolling and burning, grows quickly numbing.
The human element — Hawke's efforts notwithstanding — amounts to an afterthought. Grafted-on ideas about redemption and loyalty are hokum; the only true object of love and admiration here is that Shelby.
Gomez occupies a register consisting of one note, and it's not a convincing one. Hawke has considerably more range, although when worry crosses his face, you suspect he's thinking about the script. And who could blame him, published writer that he is? If the banter in "Getaway" had some edge or dazzle or humor, the destructo-overkill might be bearable. But the wan excuse for verbal sparring in the screenplay, by first-timers Sean Finegan and Gregg Maxwell Parker, has all the gleam and precision of a rusty butter knife.
A few Sofia locations are well used, but the inky nighttime palette keeps most of the sliced-and-diced action in an undifferentiated murk. Arriving as too little too late is an atypical continuous shot, racing out of the city at dawn — an inkling of a better movie and the road not taken.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense action, violence and mayhem throughout, some rude gestures, and language
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In wide releaseCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun