Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Top Five Movie Car Chases

Do I like car chases? Well yes and no.

I certainly like cars, but if you've stood ten feet away from Colin McRae as he guns a 400bhpish Subaru Impreza through the trees, or seen a genuine Lancia Stratos in action, watching the Second Unit crew on a back lot driving a bog-standard yank tank into cardboard boxes doesn't really impress.

Cars and cinema are technologies that have grown up side by side. Given the ubiquity of cars to films, from plot devices to symbols of the leading man's vitality, picking a top five car chases should have been tricky. However because so many of them are awful, it was actually pretty easy.
Plus some of the best chases involve lorries or buses, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Speed, or are races not chases, such as the wonderful scenes in Grand Prix, Le Mans and Rush.  Mobile battles can't really count either, so bang go the Mad Max and Marvel Superheroes films (literally). Finally the films have to actually be good enough for me to watch, which rules out the entire Fast and Furious franchise.

So what does that leave us with that involves cars and chases and a reasonable film? Here's my top five.

(Click the header to view the chase)

5. The Gumball Rally (1976)

So why did I chose this clip over, say Ronin or Bourne Identity or countless other, and better, scenes? Easy, because of the cars. You see as a rally fan I see cars skidding and crashing all the time, and usually they do it a lot faster and a lot more spectacularly on the stages than they do in the movies.

But a pair of iconic sixties/seventies supercars being driven fast? You don't see that every day.

Okay, so it's not much of a chase, but look at - and listen to - the cars. That's a 1966 Shelby Cobra 427 and a 1972 Ferrari 365 GTS/4 - a real one, not a replica like in Miami Vice. The rest of the film is a bit of fluff, and whilst some of the cars are memorable, the story isn't. Inspired by a real illegal road race, won by racer Dan Guerney in a similar Ferrari 365, the only thing that can really be said in its favour as a film is that it's not as bad at the two Cannonball Run films which mined the same source.

4. The French Connection (1971)

Great though the cars are, you can't get away from the fact they are just in a storm drain. Most cinema car chases though don't take place anywhere you'd recognise.

However a film director who that wasn't afraid to take the action to the real streets was William Friedkin for his Academy Award wining The French Connection. For this chase, just like the rest of the film, conventional cinema techniques were thrown out of the window in place of extreme realism - and I mean extreme.

To film Gene Hackman's character 'Popeye' Doyle chasing an elevated train in a Pontiac Lemans, Friedkin took top Hollywood stunt driver Bill Hickman and persuaded him to drive at 70-80mph for 26 city blocks through Queens, New York. Freidman filmed from the back seat himself, on the grounds the rest of the crew were married and had children whilst he was expendable. There was a certain amount of traffic control and some of the scenes were choreographed, but ...
...they illegally continued the chase into sections with no traffic control, where they actually had to evade real traffic and pedestrians. The car crash during the chase sequence, at the intersection of Stillwell Ave. and 86th St., was unplanned and was included because of its realism. The man whose car was hit had just left his house a few blocks from the intersection to go to work and was unaware that a car chase was being filmed. The producers later paid the bill for the repairs to his car.
It was all insanely dangerous and we should be grateful they don't make films that way any more.

3. The Italian Job (1969)


The mean streets of Queens certainly suited the gritty realism of The French Connection, but a really good car chase needs a somewhat more exotic background. 

The Italian Job was written as a serious crime drama written by serious screen writer Troy Kennedy Martin. However to make it a little more interesting it was played a variety of comic actors from John Le Mesurier to Benny Hill. It also helped of of course that they used Mini Cooper Ss for the getaway. Had they made their escape in Lotus Cortinas the film would probably be forgotten by now.  

The Minis aren't even the most interesting cars on display. The opening credits roll over a Lamborghini Miura climbing the old St Bernard's pass, and an Aston Martin DB4 and a brace of E-Type Jaguars have a cameo slot before being squashed by a digger.

However it is the Minis that steal the show as they duck, weave and handbrake turn their way across Turin via several of it's better known landmarks. British Leyland stupidly refused to supply enough cars whilst Fiat begged the producers to use their vehicles, even allowing filming on their famous rooftop test track. Little wonder BL isn't around any more.

Fun though The Italian Job is, the cars are really just doing tricks. A pity really because the Cooper S wasn't just a novelty but a rally winning machine. It would have been nice to see, even briefly, the cars really driven in anger.

  2. Bullitt (1968)


Because that is exactly what we got the year before in the Steve McQueen film about a cop with a ridiculously macho name: Bullitt.

Bits of it still look staged - count how many times that green VW Beetle gets overtaken - and being American cars they seem to have lot of trouble getting round the corners, but overall this looks like exactly what it is: two fast cars being put through their paces by skilled drivers.

The 325bhp Ford Mustang GT really was driven by petrol-head actor McQueen for the close up scenes scenes, but the high speed work was done by a trio of real stuntmen. McQueen's quarry was supposed to have been a Ford Galaxy, but the heavy cars proved not to be up to the job. Instead a 440bhp black Dodge Charger was used, driven by the best man in the business - Bill Hickson. Yes, him again.

In real life the Charger was reportedly so much faster than the Mustang that Hickson had to back off to let the pony car catch. It seems even a macho name is no match for cubic inches.

1. SPECTRE (2015)

So what am I looking for then in a car chase? Supercars, real streets, exotic locations and top drivers putting the machines through their paces. So which film has all of this? Well, the one I saw last week.

Sam Mendes probably put more effort into the car chase in SPECTRE than any director ever has before, which is one reason why the film went massively over budget.

He started with two very exotic cars. Showing that he still hasn't got the hang of the 'secret' bit of being a secret agent, James Bond drives a unique Aston Martin DB10. The 'baddie car' is even more interesting. The original Jaguar C-X75 was a strange hybrid with an electric motor for each wheel. The film versions have V8 engines from the F-Type and suspension from a rally Porsche GT3.

There is not a pixel of CGI in the chase, which takes place on the real streets of Rome. You can tell. The shots that had me baffled though were when Daniel Craig and villain Dave Bautista (Drax the Destroyer from Guardians of the Galaxy) actually appeared to be drifting their cars across the cobbles themselves. The effect was created by building a brace of very special stunt cars. These pod cars were the real thing, except that they had special cockpits on the roof so the stunt drivers could drive whilst the actors posed. As for the stuntmen themselves, I was surprised to find I'd actually met one, in the form of three times British rally champion Mark Higgins.

Okay, there are problems. Dramatically it serves no purpose whatsoever in the story. Bond is even relaxed enough to take a phone call during the chase, but that's a problem for the film not the chase.

Maybe next week I'll change my mind, but at the moment this is the chase that ticks all the boxes for this petrolhead.