Call it the curse of misleading marketing. Yes, trailers for Changing Lanes are selling it as a pedal-to-the-metal, balls-to-the-wall action thriller. That's not what you'll be watching at your local multiplex: Changing Lanes is actually an intense, intelligent and gripping moral drama.
A random roadway shunt collides the lives of two very different men. Ben Affleck's Gavin Banek is a high-flying lawyer at a seemingly perfect practice with the requisite sexy wife (Amanda Peet), wise-ass attitude and flash motor. Chopping across lanes on a busy highway on his way to deliver a crucial court document, Banek crumps bumpers with Doyle Gipson (Samuel L Jackson), a man seriously down on his luck.
Alcoholic and desperate, Gipson's also on his way to appointment with a judge - but he's fighting to stop his estranged wife moving across country with their kids. The guys become embroiled in a unsatisfying exchange before Banek drives off, leaving Gipson stranded on the highway - and a crucial document behind. Gipson picks it up and decides to use it, sparking a cat-and-mouse conflict that escalates frighteningly out of control.
The rising tension offers the perfect chance for the two actors to showcase their skills, and both grasp the challenge. Jackson swaps his Teflon-coated cool for the grimy demeanour of a beaten man at the end of his tether, making his actions those of a desperate father, not a movie loon. And Affleck slowly turns off his trademark charm, instead picking away at the layers of Banek's seemingly ideal life to reveal the darkness lurking at his core. By the time his conscience starts to prickle, events have slid irretrievably out of control, and by now it's a case of trying to ruin Gipson's life before the harried dad can destroy his first.
That Changing Lanes makes for such painful viewing is testament to a script that trades on authenticity, scribblers Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin ensuring that their characters' rage is steadily fanned. The pressure is applied steadily and constantly, meaning there's no time when either lead's actions, however vindictive, are anything but understandable.
If there's a wrong turn - or turns - it's in the supporting characterisation, the capable likes of Toni Collette and Sydney Pollack having to make do with skeletal roles designed only to propel the plot. There are also at least two endings too many, the story coming to a natural finale only for another batch of scenes to appear around the bend.
But that can't derail the positives, including those strong performances and a narrative that refuses to lower itself to action clichés for a cheap thrill. Ignore the hardcore testosterone sell: you're getting something much more satisfying.
Thoughtful not throbbing, shaded not shallow, Changing Lanes will turn off action junkies but will satisfy anyone after a decent drama that ratchets the tension.