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Real pedals to the metal

When it comes to car chases, directors agree that chrome, rubber and sweat leave digital images in the dirt.

June 22, 2003|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

A single image ignited the modern movie car chase as we know it. As film aficionados might expect, it's from 1968's "Bullitt," but it's not, as they also might assume, Steve McQueen's Highland green Mustang GT sailing over the crest of a San Francisco hill or maneuvering a hairpin turn or barreling down a coastal freeway.

They're all memorable shots, but the kicker precedes them: Slowly tailed by McQueen's eagle-eyed cop, the killers in their black Dodge Charger opt to play hardball. How does director Peter Yates show this decision but also prep the audience for what's in store? The Charger's driver buckles his seat belt. Like the moment on a roller coaster when the first hard drop looms, this audacious cutaway says: "Here we go." Cue the squealing tires.

Yates and company wanted the music-less chase that followed to be exactly what it was: a stand-alone bit of bravura moviemaking whose real locations and real mph would forever make rear-projection, back-lot trickery and artificially jacked-up film speeds a thing of car chases past. Three years later, William Friedkin's "The French Connection" indirectly suggested that even "Bullitt" had its fake side: pedestrian-free streets? Friedkin upshifted the engine-gunning suspense by sending Gene Hackman's New York cop in a Pontiac after an elevated train and adding crazy weaving, imperiled bystanders and scarily real collisions to the car-chase vocabulary.

Over the years, hazardous driving has become an action-movie staple, but it's generally agreed that upon movies haven't been able to improve upon the scenes of McQueen and Hackman tearing up the pavement. It's why directors such as Michael Bay, McG and John Singleton -- all with movies out this summer -- cite the legacy of "Bullitt" and "The French Connection" when offering up their raging road set-pieces in the upcoming "Bad Boys II" and "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" and the recently released hit "2 Fast 2 Furious," respectively.

It's been a vroom-ful movie season: Already we've seen "The Matrix Reloaded" throw down a highway chase for the ages -- 14 minutes of the outlandishly real (1.4 miles of freeway built especially for filming) and the dazzlingly fake (loads of clearly computer-generated shots). "The Italian Job" offered up a serpentine Mini Cooper finale that substitutes the urban sprawl of Los Angeles for the ancient gridwork of Turin from the whimsical 1969 original. Toss in the chases in "Hollywood Homicide," "Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines" and even the British spy spoof "Johnny English," and it feels as if all the studios saw stunt-driving budgets escalate this past year.

"They're very difficult to do," Friedkin says of shooting car chases. "They represent pure cinema. You can't do a chase in a novel, on a canvas, in a piece of music, on the stage." With automobiles and cinema announcing themselves at about the same time, it was inevitable a courtship would develop, both being symbols of a burgeoning century's ingenuity. The high-speed chase would become a silent comedy standby, whether it was Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton or a Keystone Kop.

But the modern car chase -- in the years since Yates and Friedkin rewrote the rules -- has mostly come to signify something wanton, offering sure-fire thrills but laced with an appetite for destruction. "Popeye" Doyle doesn't want to hit other cars or garbage cans in "The French Connection": He's on a mission, and each obstacle, whether slowing him down or bringing him to a temporary halt, only increases the frustration and tension.

"The whole idea of the film was there was a thin line between the policeman and the criminal, that the best cops think like criminals," says Friedkin, who also filmed chases in "To Live and Die in L.A." and "Jade." Doyle's "drive to get this guy became a kind of game, so [the car chase] became a metaphor. It's obsession. It's that the guy doing the chasing is as oblivious to the rest of humanity as the guy he's chasing."

The wantonness, though, won out. After the '70s, which saw the rev-and-destroy likes of "Freebie and the Bean," Burt Reynolds' Trans Am oeuvre ("Smokey and the Bandit," among others), the pileups in "The Blues Brothers" and, to a more cultish extent, car enthusiast H.B. Halicki's self-financed crunch-and-run classic "Gone in 60 Seconds," audiences were conditioned to want to see autos meeting twisted ends rather than achieving exhilarating speeds. (An exception is Walter Hill's no-nonsense "The Driver," which featured beautifully deserted, dead-of-night L.A. streets ripe for long existential police chases.)

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