22 Chaser: Realist drama about a Toronto tow-truck driver could use a jump-start

By Liam Lacey

Rating: C

Before it slams into the narrative ditch, the first feature from Canadian filmmaker, Rafal Sokolowski - the Toronto-set 22 Chaser has a promising first half. 

It appears to be a social realist drama about a working-class husband and father, Ben (Brian J. Smith) struggling to stay above the poverty line as a tow-truck driver. The title refers to his truck number, and “chaser” slang for tow-truck drivers who work for kickbacks from auto shops.

Ben, is squeezed between a greedy company boss, out-hustled by his ruthless competitors and can’t cover the bills for himself and his family. He certainly can’t afford to help his wife (Kaniehtiio Horn) pay her tuition to cooking school, or find enough money to fulfil the boy’s dream of a bicycle for his birthday.

Brian J. Smith in 22 Chaser. A man's gotta tow what a man's gotta tow.

Brian J. Smith in 22 Chaser. A man's gotta tow what a man's gotta tow.

The quest for a bicycle (as in the Italian neorealist classic, Bicycle Thieves) rather than an X-Box or hockey equipment, is consciously old-fashioned. Ben’s portrayed as a throwback. Like Pete and Joey, in Donald Shebib’s classic Goin’ Down the Road, the main character has come to Toronto from small-town elsewhere-else.

As Ben, actor Brian J. Smith (Sense8) has a credible sincerity.  When he advises his son to stay out of fights and work hard, he sounds like he’s saying something he heard his parents say. All of this is a bit schematic and earnest, but promising — well-shot and acted with conviction.

Predictably, the machine starts to chew him up. The boss of the tow-truck company (John Kapelos) suddenly announces the drivers are required to “lease” their trucks, and to do, so Ben must borrow money from a crooked cop (Aidan Devine) who doubles as loan shark and enforcer.  

Meanwhile, Ben’s “friend”, Sean (Aaron Ashmore), is getting too friendly with Ben’s financially desperate wife. If this were a Ken Loach-style film, Ben might die, a sacrifice to the cruelties of the class system. 

Or he would do something inspiring, like unionize the tow-truck  operators and put the crooked cop in the slammer. Instead, 22 Chaser, undergoes a severe case of narrative whiplash, as the movie jumps lanes into a vigilante thriller. Ben discovers a capacity for ruthless cunning and brutality, and the movie ends up endorsing the view that nice guys finish last and bastards thrive and make their wives happy.

Because that’s a message we can’t get enough of.

Otherwise, 22 Chaser is marginally notable for the strained edginess of the dialogue. When one of his rival drivers, Elvis (Shaun Benson) sees Ben show up at an accident site, he snarls: “Take that perfumed vagina back to the knitting club,” a word cluster that’s too absurd to even work as an insult.

In another speech, a cynical driver, Wayne (Raoul Max Trujillo) offers Ben this life advice: “Civilization is men, shooting and raping and killing everything in their way. Civilization is a friggin’ highway of bones. You want a place on that road? Pay the goddam toll.”

It’s a minor point, but since there are no toll roads in the movie, it seems Wayne is just being pretentious. Given how closely the language resembles film noir parody, I’m surprised they didn’t just call it The Big Tow.

22 Chaser. Directed by Rafal Sakolowski. Written by Jeremy Boxen.  Starring Brian J. Smith, Tiio Horn, John Kapelos, Shawn Benson, Aaron Ashmore and Raoul Trujillo. 22 Chaser opens on July 6 at the Imagine Carlton Cinema.