5:07 pm

On Classic Car Chases; or, the Lost Art of Auto-Calamity

As you may or may not know, I like cars. I like cars a lot. Much like a Canucks fan, I can't really justify or explain it. I salivate at the thought of owning a Ferrari Testarossa. My heart is occupied by expensive, impractical things with two seats and barely enough luggage space for one third of the toolkit needed to inevitably fix them. If a billionaire's trust fund baby has ever smashed one into a tree at 100 MPH, I guarantee you I both know what it is and want one. If I ever bought an expensive house, it would be a one bedroom, one bathroom bachelor castle with a garage slightly bigger than Rhode Island. If you cut me, I bleed coolant and start cursing in Italian.

"Il mio fondo fiduciario!"

The only thing I like more than cars with stupid faces are cars that go fast, and that brings me to my subject today: the car chase. Almost an institution in TV and film from the 60's to the 80's, car chases seem to have fallen out of style nowadays. Sure, you have your Fasts, your Furiouses (both of which I heartily approve of) and your James Bonds, but other than those, the art of organized automotive mayhem seems to be lost.

I'm not saying all old car chases were masterpieces. The chases in T.J. Hooker (starring William Shatner), for instance, were orderly, single-file processions that barely seemed to break 30 MPH. They had all the speed of Shatner himself and none of the inexplicable charm. If you accidentally fast-forwarded through them, you wouldn't notice until people started talking like drug-addled chipmunks.

T.J. Hooker, though, is not a shining example; Gone in 60 Seconds is a shining example. You've probably heard of it. The plot is a mess and the acting is sub-par, but neither of those things are what made it famous. 30 minutes of smashing, bashing, engine-roaring, car destroying poetry is what made it famous. 

You read that right.

30 minutes.

The movie spends the better part of your average hour-long TV show, minus commercials, on a car chase. You might think that would be boring; it's not. Every minute is tense, exciting, (mostly) well-shot, and most importantly to me, 100% practical effects. No CGI here, folks; this is 1974. Every wrecked car is a real wrecked car. Every jump was created with a ramp and the stuntman's testicles. It's ambitious, it's dangerous, it's expensive as hell, and it is awesome. If you've got the time and have the interest, watch it for yourself: 

If you don't have a solid half-hour to watch things go vroom, I'll try to explain it as best I can:

That about sums it up. The main character, Maindrian Pace (who the fuck names their child "Maindrian?") glibly espouses that he should've read his horoscope before immediately ramming into an unmarked Mercury police cruiser, igniting a chase that spans six California cities, from Long Beach to Carson. The cars are period barges, softly-sprung and wallowy. They pitch and roll like 4000-pound kayaks. The tires on them are of the era, meaning shit; traction is a pipe dream enjoyed only by race cars and people driving at the speed limit. Drifts, tire smoke and that good ol' V8 roar are the order of the day as Pace and the police try (and fail) to negotiate packed L.A. streets at high speed. Cars get hit. A lot. According to my old friend and teachers' enemy Wikipedia, 93 cars were wrecked in this film; the number seems about right. The sheer amount of carnage on display is incredible, featuring fires, flips, near-death experiences for cast members, and a hell of a lot of irresponsible stunts. It is, in my opinion, as close as any car chase can come to perfection--slightly wonky camera work and all.

What makes it even more impressive is the production; this wasn't some big-budget, star-studded Hollywood blockbuster. On the contrary, if it weren't for said chase, it'd be a forgettable B-movie. The brainchild of one H.B. Halicki (I'll go ahead and say it stands for "Helluva Badass"), Gone in 60 seconds had a budget of about $150,000; small potatoes, even at the time. For comparison, Bullitt had a budget roundabouts $5.5 million. Halicki was the writer, director, producer and star of the movie; he went so far as to do all his own stunts, one of which (the final jump) left him limping for life. He cast relatives and friends for the movie to save money, hence the sometimes-questionable acting. The movie only had a script for the main dialogue sequences; the rest was ad-libbed on the spot, making the act of putting the film together a headache for editor Warner E. Leighton. Even the chase sequences--something you'd think would be thoroughly hashed out beforehand--were sometimes done on-the-spot, explaining some of the seemingly odd cuts made during the scene.
So, this is a great chase. I don't think that's in question. Despite the lukewarm critical reception to the rest of the film, the final chase is widely regarded (not just by crazy, long-winded blog people) as one of the finest ever. Other contenders for that title include such company as The French Connection, Bullitt, Vanishing Point, and The Italian Job. Notice anything in common between those films? That's right, they're all old. Like, "I remember back in the day when L.A. was as smoggy as Beijing is now" old. Bee Gees old. William Conrad being famous old. So what happened to the classic, smoky-burnouts-and-cardboard-boxes car chase?

The first reason, I think, is that people got tired of 'em. They're all well and good when done right, as seen above, but more than half of car chases during their heyday were rote, by-the-numbers affairs that were only really done because they seemed requisite at the time. Watch one 70's detective show, and you'll like it; watch 'em all and you'll be screaming incoherently about conveniently-placed trash cans and bad camera angles. The movie and TV world just became oversaturated with the things by the 80's, contributing to what I must imagine was a general bumper-cam-induced fatigue.

Reason number two are the cars themselves. 60's and early 70's cars were perfect for chases due to the reasons I described before; namely, high power, low grip and a big drama factor. Every corner was a precipitous dangle over the edge of grip, heavy with engine roar and squealing tires. Skip ahead to nowadays, and you have family sedans that have to be pushed to 80 MPH and over to make a squeak. Low-speed drama is almost nonexistent due to modern tires and suspensions; what was a hairy, edge-of-the-limit maneuver in 1974 is almost a lazy Sunday drive now. Another consequence of those modern suspensions is ride height; see all the off-roading, hill-climbing and bump-clearing shenanigans that went on in the chase above? That wouldn't work with modern cars. Carmakers figured out long ago that lower suspensions meant less body roll, and better on-road performance; since most cars aren't meant for off-road use, there was no drawback to bringing them closer to the ground. A modern Mustang could barely hop a curb, let alone go running free in a construction site like its 70's counterpart. That restricts filmmakers to using only SUVs and trucks, jacking up sports cars to a ridiculous (and obvious) degree, or keeping things on the road--for the most part.

So in order to create drama, filmmakers now have to increase speeds, choreograph more elaborate stunts, be better directors, or gussy things up with CGI. Guess which route most take. I know, I know. "Computer-generated effects have gotten good enough that we can't tell the difference anymore." Except we can. If not by the effect, then by how it's used. For a quick example of how NOT to CGI, consider and shake your head at the following:

Look at that corny-ass shit. It's from 2008, yes, but CGI was good enough by then. It wasn't technology that handicapped the makers of that scene, it was taste. The gaudy panel-switching with no seeming place for the panels to go. The dumb magic blueberry engine juice. That fucking badge. It's awful. Transformers did the same thing, but they actually made it look good. Even then you have the issue with applying CGI in chase scenes; it kind of kills the point of them, to me. Chases are enjoyable to watch for the driving skill, the speed, the choreography and the stunts, sure; but a big part of why I love them is the pure physical mayhem. The destruction. The fact that every beautiful car you see wrecked was an actual car. The difference between having two computerized martial artists fight and hiring some real ones. This sounds almost hipster-ish, but it feels more authentic when I know there's been no fudging of the action, just grinding metal and shrieking tires.

The original Knight Rider, starring David "Chest Hair" Hasselhoff, was corny to the point of constipation, but it certainly did one thing better than the remake; the jumps. Sure, they usually had awkward camera cuts, or obviously fatal damage to the car, or the ramp was obviously in the shot, but I still like them better than the new ones. Why? Because something real, something tangible, got smashed. Well, except for the ones where they just throw a Hot Wheels into a sandbox, but nobody's perfect.

Nobody except Hasselhoff-senpai.

After all this nostalgic mustache-waxing about a time period I wasn't even alive in, I think it's only fair that I talk about some modern car chases that I particularly enjoyed. Starting out with a franchise that somehow got better by the third movie, we have Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift. Unfortunately, the only full video of the chase I could find on Youtube is a music video, so unless you like rap, just turn the volume off and make engine noises with your mouth. Also, spoiler alert for a movie from 2006. Time travelling blog readers and extreme slowpokes, you have been warned.

For a series that previously treated physics like ISIS treats captured journalists, that sure is a hell of an improvement. Big, beautiful drifts, perfect cinematography, lots of cars, some good fender-benders; it's all so graceful I could almost call it a ballet. Remember, this is what the last movie was like:

"I'm so good at driving my car goes 80 MPH backwards!"

So I regard Tokyo Drift as somewhat of a miracle; the movie as a whole is cheesier than a Saskatchewan dairy farm, but damn. Just look at those drifts. LOOK AT THEM.


Next up is Jack Reacher, directed by Christopher McQuarrie and starring Tom Cruise. The choice of Tom Cruise is amusing, because Tom Cruise is 5'7" and Jack Reacher is 6'5". I assume that either his ego or his fascination with volcano aliens filled the missing 10 inches.

As much as I may poke fun at the man who will be forever known mostly for believing in scientology and participating in unintentionally homoerotic shirtless volleyball scenes, he does a damn good job in this movie. Sometimes I forget he's actually an actor, and not just a crazy man who sometimes wanders onto movie sets. The chase is good, too. It's pretty low-key, with no dramatic trumpets or multi-car pile-ups. It doesn't need them; the cinematography is fantastic, with a very heavy atmosphere and some great camera angles. Something about it is just captivating, and I'd say the lack of music makes it all the more tense. Besides, the Chevelle's rip-snorting 454 is more than capable of providing a roaring soundtrack all by itself. I especially like the low, rumbling idle while Reacher and one of Hollywood's patented Serious Black Men (tm) stare each other down. It's like an old cowboy flick, just with horsepower instead of the horses themselves. It's all wrapped up with a neat little bow as the chase ends with Reacher's incredibly casual escape from the police. Seriously, the guy's exit is smoother than a heavily-lubed midget sliding down a laundry chute.

Last but not least, we have Death Proof. This one's got blood, swearing and Kurt Russell being balls-out, pants-on-head crazy, so be warned if you have an allergic reaction to awesome; this will kill you. The rest of the movie is pretty meh, with Tarantino trying to pay homage to stuntmen and slasher films at the same time, leaving the plot with about as much substance as a dehydrated marshmallow. The final chase scene absolves any and all sins of the previous hour, though. Trust me, this one's a ride from start to finish. When Tarantino gets things right, he gets them so right that somewhere in the world, Angela Merkel gets aroused and does not know why. You think that's an incredibly strained connection that makes almost no sense? Well, you're right, but watch the goddamn chase. It's awesome.

That was something, huh? The combination of music, cinematography, acting... everything just works. It's exciting, it's dramatic, it's aggressive, and it's not safe for sensitive ears. There's probably more swearing in those 17 minutes than there is in a day of living with the Iron Sheik, and that's saying a lot.

Aside from the above examples, car chases seem to be a dwindling art. Maybe it's because of waning viewer interest, or waning director interest. Maybe it's the difficulty of smoothly fitting 15 minute speed-fests into most plots, or the difficulty of convincing studios to spend more money on said 15 minutes than on the rest of the movie combined. Maybe it's all of the above. Regardless, some directors, stuntmen and co-ordinators strive to put great car chases in movies today. To those people, the brave souls standing proud against a background of smashed bumpers and needless explosions, I salute you. Your months of work, sweat and fractured bones is my mediocre blog post. Jesus Chrysler bless.


More notable car chases that I might write something about, and you might enjoy:

- Freebie and the Bean
- The Seven-Ups
- Short Time
- The Driver
- Ronin

There you have it; my first and most definitely not last automotive post. This one's been sitting in my half-assed, half-finished folder for quite a while, so it's nice to finally let it out of the airlock like a fart in a crowded movie theatre.

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