‘First Date’ Review: Modern Action Romance Propelled by a ’65 Chrysler

“First Date” is a boy-meets-girl, boy-and-girl-evade-goon-squad action romance from Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp, a debut filmmaking team putting their faith in Jean-Luc Godard’s maxim that “all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” Hey, that cliché sold Quentin Tarantino’s first scripts, and this likable homage moves at a clip, as though the young writer-directors are impatient to introduce themselves to producers beyond their immediate families. Calculated? Absolutely. Yet, “First Date” endears itself to the genre by knowing when to lean into nostalgia (the heroine Kelsey, played by Shelby Duclos, adores surf rock eight-tracks) and when to veer off-course (she’s also a boxer).

Kelsey’s fisticuffs come in handy when she makes a date with Mike (Tyson Brown), a wallflower who impulsively buys a busted-up 1965 Chrysler to impress his kitsch-obsessed crush. Mike’s new car is bad luck twice over. Not only was the Chrysler’s previous owner, a drug smuggler (Todd Goble), fatally shot by a gang of violent dimwits determined to get their hands on the keys, but the car itself is bait for two nosy cops (Nicole Berry and Samuel Ademola) certain there’s something suspicious about a Black teenager purchasing a rust bucket. As the deputy says, “That just don’t sound like sober decision making to me.”

What follows is a barrage of gunfire, wah-wah guitars and a surprising amount of novelty and heart for a film that can feel as if it’s a road trip through the directors’ inspirations. Crosby, who also shot and helped edit the movie, manages to capture the vibe of David Lynch’s suburban surrealism, albeit hampered by a visibly lower budget. Crosby’s sly camera movements and pacing choices are funnier, however, than the dialogue — which isn’t hard when Mike is so passive, he barely speaks. When will filmmakers realize that there’s little thrill in a bland underdog eventually rising to the occasion if the character wastes much of the running time being flatter than a Kansas freeway? Kelsey, at least, lands a dozen zingers, telling one suitor she’ll see him “the second Tuesday of next week.”

The script is so crammed with oddball characters that it threatens to become a clown car. There’s a fast-talking salesman, his strung-out wife and their deranged robot vacuum, which has a mind of its own. Plus the drug smuggler Tony’s bossy best friend, Brett (Josh Fesler); a Porsche-driving jock named, of course, Chet (Brandon Kraus); and a pair of sentimental retirees with their own claim to the Chrysler. It’s too cute by half that the pistol-waving heavies are also in a book club where they bicker over “Of Mice and Men.”

Still, even in a film populated with cartoons, the carnage is never played for laughs. “First Date” pauses to give each death emotional weight, and that empathy — more than gags about “Titanic” VHS tapes and winking insertions of the Wilhelm scream — is reason to give Crosby and Knapp the green light to squire us on a second adventure.

First Date
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, FandangoNow and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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