Accelerator (1999)

D: Vinny Murphy
S: Stuart Sinclair Blyth, Gavin Kelty

The first forty minutes of co-writer/director Vinny Murphy's debut feature live up to its title. It is a pacy, energetic slice of contemporary Irish life focusing on the adventures of two groups of disaffected teens from North and South of the border. When car thief Stuart Sinclair Blyth is run out of Belfast by paramilitary vigilantes he visits his cousin in Dublin, only to fall afoul of the local master joyrider Gavin Kelty. After some facing off, the two plan a Belfast to Dublin car race with a £1200 prize for the winner. Six stolen cars, six teenage couples, one goal, many destinies. Yes, it's Gone in 60 Seconds meets How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate, and propelled by rapid editing, a pulse-pounding techno score and more fast and slo-mo than Guy Ritchie could shake a stick at, it is a lot of fun. Unfortunately the pace flags once the race itself gets underway. In the tradition of the classic 1970s car chase movie, the story splinters into sub-plots which recount the experiences of the individual driving teams. This is where the dark underside also begins to come to the fore, and the moral wrist-slapping begins. Appropriate though it may be, the action becomes considerably more serious as the teenagers begin to encounter law enforcement and other perils of darkened backroads, wrapping with a melancholy montage of all of them in various states of injury or peril which acts as a sobering counterpoint to the first half of the movie. While one's sense of social responsibility applauds the commitment to making its point, it is a tonal inconsistency which makes the film less than satisfying.

The dramatic weight of the second half is not matched by sufficient depth of characterisation in the initial scenes. While there are some fleeting references to teenage frustration and a lack of parental guidance, the characters are mostly introduced as a colourful bunch of typically diverse (and semi-comic) personalities. There's the rock-hard one with the troubled family life and other painful secrets, the short-sighted one who's an excellent pickpocket but can barely see the road in front of the car, the techno-geek couple nicknamed 'Spock' and 'Ripley' who spout lines from films and TV shows, the one obsessed with Crunchie bars, etc. Yes the whole point of a dramatic narrative is to reveal more about such personalities as the plot advances, but the film is so playful in the first forty minutes that when it delves deeper the change of mood is very noticeable and not entirely welcome. It may be a question of the balance, as not all of the stories are equally bleak, but there is a pervasive feeling of increasing doom which comes with mounting jeopardy, and the film goes from being exciting to depressing. Yet paradoxically, the characters don't necessarily stand up under the dramatic weight piled onto them. This is especially noticeable when Kelty finally goes over the edge for no particularly good reason other than it ups the stakes. This suggests that the lighter tone might have proved the more useful one, although that would bring us back to the adolescent shenanigans of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels as a tale without consequence.

On the whole, Accelerator is very watchable. It bristles with life for the first forty minutes, and though it does slow down and get heavy handed, it has enough going for it to make it worth a look. The production is not on the scale of Hollywood blockbusters (to say the least), so don't expect too much pyrotechnics, but there are a couple of good action scenes and some stunt driving which provide the necessary adrenaline rush from time to time. It is also, laudably, a film with some moral content (albeit of the most basic and unsophisticated sort: kids, don't steal cars!), and there are lots of bright and inventive touches which are unique to the Irish setting. It deserves a wide audience, although so far it has been more or less confined to festival screenings and limited venues. Some mention must be made of the young cast, all of whom hold their own very well despite being unknown amateurs Murphy recruited from the ranks of Irish teenagers with whom he had contact. There is a youthful vibe about the film all round which represents the energy and enthusiasm with which it has been assembled, and the actors play a major part in this.

Catch it if you can (so to speak).

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.