Movie Review: “VANish”

Maiara Walsh, Austin Abke, Bryan Bockbrader, Adam Guthrie, Danny Trejo
Bryan Bockbrader

Here’s a tip for those hoping to get reviews of their new indie film by cold-writing movie critics: make sure your movie has Danny Trejo or Tony Todd in it, preferably both. “VANish” has both, and here we are.

“VANish” hits video and on demand this week. Writer and director Bryan Bockbrader tells us that he shot the film in 13 days, which brings to mind the story of how Robert Rodriguez shot “El Mariachi” on a $7,000 budget. The comparison is an apt one, as “VANish” is a warped wet dream of chatty Tarantino wise asses with “From Dusk Till Dawn” levels of bloodshed, and the entire movie takes place inside of a van, hence the capitalization in the title (and possibly a reference to the first half of “From Dusk Till Dawn,” which mostly takes place inside an RV). The majority of the acting fails the plot – and in some ways, the plot fails the plot – but it is a fun distraction, even if it pains us to think of a Tarantino/Rodriguez bloodfest like this as the two-decade nostalgia trip that it is.

College student Emma (Maiara Walsh) is kidnapped by Jack (Austin Abke) and Max (Bockbrader, the writer and director himself). They go to pick up their driver Shane (Adam Guthrie) with the intent of arranging a drop with Emma’s estranged father, drug lord Carlos (Trejo). Emma is not afraid of these guys in the slightest, and tells her dad as much in her kidnapping video. War veteran Jack, however, thinks he has everything under control, but as the job gets botched (on a number of levels), the three accomplices learn things about the other that cause mistrust to settle in. Oh, and did we mention that the damsel in distress is the daughter of a drug lord? (We did.) She is surely a delicate flower, and wouldn’t think of exploiting the circumstances at the first opportunity. Or the second. Or the third.

The kidnappers should have known they were dealing with a live one when they tried shooting Emma’s ransom video. (Suffice it to say, she does not make it easy for them.) What happens from there is like Stockholm syndrome in reverse, as Emma slowly but surely gains the upper hand in ways they don’t even see. The characters may talk a good game – there is a lot of pop culture babble, and it is entertaining – but their personality types are not unique to this genre or any other. Still, the movie gets by on enthusiasm and that whole ‘shot entirely inside a van’ hook. The staging is rather impressive. Bockbrader clearly wants to be a multi-hyphenate, but if this is any indication, his skills behind the camera are going to take him the farthest.

The biggest lesson for aspiring filmmakers to take away from “VANish” is that if you can secure the services of a couple of cult actors for one day, you can get your movie made. Trejo and Todd couldn’t have been on set for more than a day each (heck, that’s almost a sixth of the shooting schedule), but their presence in the movie makes a huge difference, mostly because it allows the audience to temporarily forget that the leads, by and large, are not pulling their weight. Walsh is actually great as the bloodless Emma, but the performances by the three kidnappers drop in order of their seniority. Abke is passable as Jack, Bockbrader has a Michael Shannon thing going on as Max (think “Premium Rush,” not “Revolutionary Road”), and Guthrie never balances his yin with his yang, as it were.

One could cynically look at “VANish” as a drinking game waiting to happen – drink when the criminal mastermind has lost control of the situation, drink two when criminal mastermind’s most trusted colleague admits that he betrayed him in horrific fashion, and mastermind had no idea – but we’re upbeat, well-adjusted people, and prefer to look at “VANish” as a well-meaning love letter to a sadly bygone era of high-minded thugs who occasionally spill copious amounts of blood. It doesn’t rise above its influences, but Walsh, Trejo and Todd keep things interesting, and with a 74-minute runtime, the thrills-per-minute ratio is surprisingly high. Watch it with a friend, and a ton of booze.