Car Chases Are Broken

Yesterday afternoon I saw Unknown (Warner Bros., 2.18), the latest European-set Liam Neeson paycheck actioner. I haven’t time to review it now, but it’s not bad in a “somewhat better than meh” sort of way. It’s nowhere near the level of the Bourne films, but it’s actually a touch more plausible than Taken, for what that’s worth. And it offers a winning, at times amusing performance from Bruno Ganz, so at least there’s that.

I do think, however, based on the obligatory and run-of-the-mill car-chase sequence in this film, that it’s finally time to retire the two-vehicle chase once and for all. It’s always been a stupid fantasy that one car could chase another at ridiculously high speeds for ten or twelve minutes through a major city like San Francisco (home of the original Big Kahuna car chase in Bullitt) or Paris (where the great Bourne Identity and Ronin car chases occured) or New York (The Bourne Ultimatum) or Berlin (where Unknown is set), and not have something or someone put an end to it fairly quickly.

Car chases are fine, but you have to introduce (a) traffic jams, (b) much more chaos, (c) cops and (d) the sudden abandonment of cars and/or motorcycles and running on foot and then the pursued figuring out an escape or a hiding place (nobody ever hides in a dumpster!) as he/she runs along.

You need cops most of all. Never in the history of movie car chases has a cop car ever gone in pursuit of both the chased and the chaser and pulled one of them over and given them a ticket (or cuffed them) for reckless endangerment. Not once.

Every so often you need the hunter to simply lose the hunted because of traffic snarls or a slow truck or moving van. And every so often a hunted party has to abandon the vehicle and get out and run like hell, like Matt Damon‘s Jason Bourne has done (I think) at least once. And every so often a pursued party has to steal an unlikely vehicle — a U.P.S. delivery van or a kid’s bicycle or an ice cream truck. Or — here’s a good one — the pursued has to throw a 70 year-old lady out of her car and drive off with it, and then the car runs poorly or runs out of gas. And when’s the last time a chaser went after somebody who was riding a train, like in The French Connection?

And that was just off the top of my head, There are so many different ways to enliven or reshuffle the chase formula, and yet filmmakers, it seems, rarely throw in any wackadoo moves. Or banal ones.

21 thoughts on “Car Chases Are Broken

  1. Bob_Roberts on said:

    I think that they should have been retired after The Rock.

    Fruit Cart – Check

    Old People – Check

    Glass – Check

    Paraplegic Basketball Team – Check

  2. I think that they should have been retired after The Rock.

    Fruit Cart – Check

    Old People – Check

    Glass – Check

    Paraplegic Basketball Team – Check

  3. One of the things I love about Tim Burton’s Batman is how the big mid-film car chase ends abruptly because the Batmobile drives into the path of a stopped truck and well… there’s no room to go around, to out of the car they climb. Both Burton Batman pictures are good about filling the streets with cars and flustered bystanders during their respective chase scenes.

  4. “And when’s the last time a chaser went after somebody who was riding a train, like in The French Connection?”

    Unstoppable featured a pickup truck chasing a train, although Chris Pine was chasing the train itself, not Denzel who was on board.

    Speaking of vulnerable passers-by getting in the way of chases involving oddball vehicles, the original Speed featured a witty nod to the big chase in The French Connection, though I can’t believe I’m using the word “witty” to describe anything in a film starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.

    Gene Hackman narrowly avoids hitting a baby carriage in TFC, while in Speed, Sandra Bullock hits the baby carriage full on. My heart nearly stopped at that point in both movies, but Speed’s baby carriage turns out to be carrying a load of empty soda cans. After that, the baby carriage was ready for retirement from chase scenes.

  5. I was saying this in an earlier thread, but Taken was a surprisingly pleasant experience at the theater for me. Not sure why. Maybe I was just in a good mood that day or it was the low expectations or something but I remember really enjoying watching Neeson kick the shit out of people for two hours. His casting really worked. Make the exact same movie with Nic Cage or somebody and it’s boring, I think. And this one looks like it has an enjoyably Hitchcockian premise.

    I remember We Own The Night having a pretty bad-ass car chase, I should check that out again.

  6. I think I’m the only one that wasn’t impressed by the action in the Bourne sequels.

    BTW, Neeson recently did an interview talking about his wife’s death, and saying that he escapes by running away to work. So that does explain his sudden increase of popular fare. (Also Chloe was good smaller movie.)

    (a) traffic jams, (b) much more chaos, (c) cops

    The Bay has got you covered

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktclupjf35I

  7. Is your site filthy with banner ads? Do you work for free? Shut the hell up about Neeson cashing in. He’s a single father with kids to raise.

  8. And when’s the last time a chaser went after somebody who was riding a train, like in The French Connection?

    The Firm copied that scene, no?, switching out the good and bad guys. Either way, as with the French Connection, it wasn’t all that.

    Recently rewatched the first Bourne chase scene. JB would have killed about 30 people in real life.

    Fargo has the most realistic chase ever. Driver 1, scared shitless, and no professional driver, flips the car off the open road after 20 seconds and gets shot.

  9. “(d) the sudden abandonment of cars and/or motorcycles and running on foot and then the pursued figuring out an escape or a hiding place (nobody ever hides in a dumpster!)”

    Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw ended a chase by hiding in a dumpster in The Getaway, topped off with a trip in the garbage truck to the landfill. Sam Peckinpah must have gotten special satisfaction out seeing Ali MacGraw tumbling out of the back of that garbage truck.

  10. It’s not a hard-action movie, but in DRIVEN, Stallone and Kip Pardue have this idiotic car chase through city streets, and DO get pulled over, handcuffed and fined.

    When I was a kid, car chases were my favorite thing EVER, from Bullitt to Seven Ups to To Live and Die in LA. I think it was the cars themselves. Yeah, everybody talks about Ronin and Bourne, but those weren’t quite as awesome because they featured typical late-era European sports cars instead of GIANT ’70S BOATS like Popeye in that RED PONTIAC LE MANS, or THE CHARGER in the Bullitt scene (WAY cooler than McQueen’s ‘Stang.)

    I think I knew great car chases were strictly a ’70s deal when I saw Friedkin’s JADE, where he brought out all the stops for an awesome awesome car chase in the style of his earlier movies…

    Only Caruso was driving a FORD TAURUS.

    Not quite the same thing.

  11. I think you’re being unfair about Neeson. This is a guy who is apparently still mourning his wife, and he’ll clearly take any job, not for the money, but because it keeps him occupied (google “neeson esquire” to see his recent interview).

  12. “Ronin were by far the most realistic chases… involving both traffic and cops.”

    If you’ve been to the old quarter of Nice, you wouldn’t say there’s anything realistic about a car flying down those narrow alleys at more than 3 mph. Fun, but not believable.

  13. I’m with the “I Love Taken” crowd. “It’s a flesh wound!” “It was a trailer.” “Now is not the time for dick measuring.” That’s great stuff. Neeson chews those lines up.

    Re Ronin, my favorite line on the commentary was the director or DP saying he took the stunt drive aside and said something like “k, you’re going to drive into the tunnel, we’re going to blow some shit up, and you just need to figure out how to get through it”. Not exactly carefully planned, but it looks great.

  14. “Ronin were by far the most realistic chases… involving both traffic and cops.”

    If you’ve been to the old quarter of Nice, you wouldn’t say there’s anything realistic about a car flying down those narrow alleys at more than 3 mph. Fun, but not believable.

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