Saturday, December 8, 2012

Cut to the Chase

Just caught up with Philip D'Antoni's The Seven-Ups from 1973. Coming right on the heels of The French Connection - it also starred Roy Scheider and went after that same hardbitten New York streets feel Connection nailed. There's a reason that Connection is the more revered picture, but to give D'Antoni his due - The Seven-Ups also has a fantastic car chase that is the most memorable part of the film. In fact, D'Antoni made three cop movies with show-stopping urban chase sequences: The Seven-Ups - as director, The French Connection and Bullitt - as producer.

Now, I'm no gearhead and cars themselves do nothing for me sexually, and I've been know to skip ahead through an extraneous car chase in films, but there have been a few that truly got my blood up over the years, and here's a quick list.

To Live & Die in L.A. (1985) - D'Antoni may have produced three films with car chases at the top of anybody's list, but as Peter Yates was a racer himself, and William Friedkin went on to direct many more fantastic auto-bits, the credit can't entirely be his. Exhibit A: the blistering, Wang Chung scored, pursuit at the heart of this adaptation of Gerald Petievich's novel is... amazing. Not only is the staging of the chase perfect - as quintessentially Los Angeles as Connection was New York (and Friedkin's Jade was San Francisco) - it's positioned perfectly within the film itself for maximum effect, hammering home a game-changing plot-point while ratcheting up the stakes as the mayhem unfolds. The audience and the characters are having to digest some tough emotional content while the shit is going down. I mean, you don't eat a Big Mack just before stepping onto a rollercoaster do you?

Jade (1995) - Easily the high-point of this intended sizzler which was something of a fizzler, the chase sequence stands out not just for Friedkin's by this time legend, but for a particular stretch of the chase set in a Chinese new year parade - and it's sloooooow. Teeth-grindingly tense with angry celebrants pounding on the windows, we're suddenly as concerned for the pursuers' well being as we are that they catch the mysterious killer in the slick... whatever the hell car it is he/she/it is driving (I mentioned I don't know cars, right?). From a script by Joe Eszeterhas, the setting and sexy-slasher conceit make it an easy-to-spot-not-even-gonna-bother-hiding-it cash-in on the success of his previous hit script Basic Instinct (which has a pretty decent San Francisco chase scene as well).

Way of the Gun (2000) - Before Christopher McQuarrie shrunk Lee Child's white-hatted Jack Reacher by a foot, he went to movie jail for following up his Oscar-Winning script for The Usual Suspects with a directorial debut that alienated everybody who went to see the Spanish guy say goofy shit again. Way of the Gun was a nasty blast of cinematic fuck-offedness that won over the lump of coal I have the good humor to call a heart before the opening credits. Rather than gabby criminals this time around, McQuarrie gave us hardcore, seldom-spoken assholes whose actions are verbose. The kidnapping that becomes a shootout that morphs into a rolling bullet swap sequence near the film's beginning is absolutely masterful. Two sets of professional gunfighters square off with cold-hearted intent and cold-blooded efficiency and more is revealed about every character in this action scene than in twenty minutes of mumbly exposition in your average art-house swill. And this one too is a slow-speed chase - an urban jungle hunter and prey dance that I never get tired of watching.

Sorcerer (1977) - You want to talk about slow-speed chases? You can't get any slower than my favorite Friedkin - an adaptation of Georges Arnaud's novel Wages of Fear. It's more a race than a chase, but the stakes are sky-high for everybody involved as two driving teams haul crates of sweaty, unstable dynamite through the South American jungle in rusted out shit-box trucks in order to put out a raging fire that has shut down a lucrative oil drilling operation. The first half of the film sets up each driver's character, spelling out exactly why each is desperate enough to go for such an outrageously dangerous job, and the second half of the film will leave your mouth full of powder, your teeth ground to dust. I'll go ahead and say it - better than the 1953 version Henri-Georges Clauzot's Wages of Fear (though that one is certainly worth checking out too).

Drive (2011) - Based on the James Sallis novel of the same name, Nicolas Winding Refn's film took Sallis' spare prose and pumped an awful lot of color and sound and flash. The result put a few fans of the book off, but I didn't hear any complaints about the opening getaway sequence. Another instance of actions revealing character - we know a lot about Driver just from that sequence, and we're good and economically ready to go on to the next development - time elapsed... less than 10 minutes.

Point Break (1991) - Probably the only character traits revealed in the robbery-interruptus scene here are the recklessness and doggedness of both bro-foes... but damn, it's an electric scene. Just balls to the wall action... and yeah, not entirely a car chase. In fact, it's probably more intense when they bail and burn the car and it becomes a foot chase. Hugely satisfying action film making though.

The Town (2010) - The other run and gun getaway gonna get talked about is (surprisingly not Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway - cause the car chases are outshown by two or three other scenes) Ben Affleck's Boston bank robbin hoods flick. Not overly clever, nor out-heating Heat, but the get across the bridge before it's shut down bit, it terrifically tense and culminates in an unexpected and fantastic fashion which I won't spoil for you. Good shit.

Mad Max (1979) - Probably more obvious would be the final act of The Road Warrior, but I'm going with the series-opening interceptor Night Rider chase that set the tone for the whole saga. Max's clear-eyed pursuit of the tweaked out, bright-burning, criminal fringe, and his ability to go right to the edge with them is highly informative and utterly re-watchable. Here's hoping George Miller and crew bring us something half as memorable in the next chapter.

We Own the Night (2007) - James Gray would probably shy from the label genre film maker, though essentially that's what he's thus-far been. He grounds his crime flicks in such seventies-esque gritty NYC reality and makes such down-beat features that even the marketing folks understand that they can't be teased as thrillers. Doesn't mean they're not thrilling though. There are three stand-out thrilling sequences in We Own the Night and one of them involves cars. And rain. And holy crap. If you haven't seen this film, I'm going to let the bit sneak up on you the way it's supposed to, but man, I love this scene... and this film... and Gray as a film maker... Even Two Lovers. There, I said it.

Death Proof (2007) - Sure, everything Quentin Tarantino does is highly derivative - a refraction of his entire life-long love-affair with the movies - but that doesn't get in the way of me enjoying the hell out of what he does... cause he does the shit out of it every time. So when he sets out to pay homage to and then out-do his favorite car-chase films... buckle up. I don't have anything to add. Underloved baby in his body of work.

Some honorable mentions including a few auto-centric flicks hard to pick out a single sequence.


Kevin Lynn Helmick said...

Two Lane Black Top, wow, was just thinking about this film, like yesterday, hadn't seen it since I was a teen. All I could remember was the GTO.
Some great flicks in here and some I haven't even heard of.
The Russian car chase in Borne Supremecy, for my money, left me feeling like I was actually in it. Maybe it was the lack of steady cam, but that was a good car chase too.

jedidiah ayres said...

Yeah, that was a good one... dunno why it didn't occur to me. I suppose it just felt like a natural extension of the rest of the film -essentially one long chase...

Though, the car chase in the FIRST Bourne flick should have made this list - stood out

Stephen Blackmoore said...

I have a soft spot for the car chase in Freebie and The Bean for all the chaos and carnage. And the way it ends.

"Could you send a tow truck, to 618 Elm Street? Third floor, apartment 304."

David Cranmer said...

I need to watch Vanishing Point and Duel again. Never saw The Seven-Ups but will now.

JJ Stickney said...

Gerald Petievich, the author of To Live and Die in LA is a former Secret Service Agent. In addition to To Live and Die in LA he wrote some remarkable hard boiled novels based on the Secret Service - Money Men, One-shot Deal, The Quality of the Informant and To Die in Beverly Hills. Well worth taking a look...
Money Man was made into a movie but I don't recall any chase scenes.

jedidiah ayres said...

I've got a copy of Money Men & the movie Boiling Point.

Kevin Lynn Helmick said...

My older bro took me to the drive in triple feature when I probly twelveish, for Vanishing Point, Black Top, and the original Gone in 60 sec.
He was always draggin me to cool movies. Dirty Harry, American Grafitti, Taxi Driver.

Paul D Brazill said...

Good post! Some tasty selections there.