Thursday, December 08, 2005

T#8: Car Chase


Hey hey, look at this - I'm posting early for once.

The reason being that I'm working on a bunch of other stuff, and as this is pre-prepared I'd rather try and get an early night than end up posting this at some God-forsaken hour of the morning. Plus I needed a break from writing about hydrogen. (Seriously.)

These here are the things I wrote as part of my application for this course. There's an edited and a draft version, both of which I'm posting in order to give you some idea of the process my mind goes through.

The fact that this comes after I posted the film review on Monday is, of course, entirely co-incidental... ;-)



Edit.

This is the edited version, 541 words in total.


I was watching The Transporter the other day when I started wondering, whatever happened to car-chase movies? In this film Jason Stratham is a wheelman, selling his talents to anyone prepared to pay the price, but as soon as the action gets underway this awfully underwhelming feeling sets in. The chase sequences are over-choreographed, too precise, and it ends, with a heavy sense of inevitability, in a climatic set-piece involving a ridiculously implausible jump stunt. And this is hardly the only modern film based around cars guilty of such sins. The remake of Gone in Sixty Seconds has the same choreographed unreality about it, and a awful jump stunt—but no-where near as bad as the one at the end of 2 Fast 2 Furious, where the protagonists manage to park their car precisely in a boat. These films—Sixty Seconds, and the pair of Fast/Furious movies—get to me particularly because their whole premise is based on driving cars quickly, and yet they fail to deliver in the excitement stakes. They are car movies that appear to have been made by people who don’t really care about cars.

A Top Gear presenter once said that the cars on that programme had to be thrashed in order for them to appear on screen as if they were going at any sort of speed at all. Watch any clip from The Sweeney where an old Jag or Ford is having its doorhandles driven off during a chase sequence and you begin to understand what he meant—the stunt drivers really were going for it. Maybe that’s what’s at issue here—you just can’t do that kind of thing with a modern car. Anaesthesia in the car movie is representative of anaesthesia in the car industry: the increasingly distant interaction available between car and driver.

It’s become almost clichéd to talk about the ever burgeoning amount of bhp available in unlikely guises, especially amongst certain makes of German car, as it has also become increasingly necessary for them to add more and more sophisticated forms electronic assistance in order to keep the things pointing in the right direction. This is the heart of the problem: with all this electronic intervention it has just become too easy to drive modern cars fast. To use motorsport as an example, just watch Petter Solberg’s eyes as he hurls his WRC Subaru towards the horizon. I by no-means intend to belittle his art, rather to point out how fast that car is capable of travelling—the man has no time to blink. And if you take this to extremes you just end up with Formula One—where by-far the most interesting race of modern times was at Spa two weeks ago, which was only good because so many drivers crashed.

Where my argument falls down is with the benefit that modern cars bring to safety. All those F1 drivers walked away from their accidents to tell the tale. Cars today are invariable safer than they used to be, which can only be a good thing. That doesn’t mean I can’t regret that such electronic distancing is necessary. And it definitely doesn’t mean I can’t feel sad that car-chase movies aren’t as exciting as they ought to be.



Draft.


This is the initial draft. I stopped writing it as soon as I was vaguely happy with the content since I was well aware it was beyond the word limit that was suggested. It is therefore a little rough around the edges! I have included it in order an idea of what I would do with a little more space.


I was watching The Transporter the other day—a not particularly good movie starring Jason Stratham and his “American” accent—when it suddenly occurred to me to wonder, whatever happened to the car-chase movie? The basic premise of this film is that Stratham’s character is a wheelman, pedalling (ahem) his transportation talents to anyone prepared to pay the price. It starts off ok, with Stratham spouting various nonsense about Koni shock-absorbers and the like when he arrives to whisk a band of robbers away from a bank job, but as soon as the action gets underway with the arrival of the inevitable posse of eurobox driving police officers this awfully underwhelming feeling sets in. The chase sequence itself is over-choreographed, too precise, and it ends, with a heavy sense of inevitability, in a climatic set-piece involving a ridiculously implausible jump stunt.

The Transporter is by no means the only modern film based around cars guilty of such sins. The remake of Gone in Sixty Seconds has the same choreographed unreality about it, and a awful jump stunt—but no-where near as bad as the one at the end of 2 Fast 2 Furious, where the protagonists manage to park their car precisely in a boat so far from land that terra firma doesn’t even show up in the following shots. These films—Sixty Seconds, and the pair of Fast/Furious movies—get to me particularly because their whole premise is based on driving cars quickly (and presumably dangerously), and yet they fail to really deliver in the excitement stakes. They are car movies that appear to have been made by people who don’t really care about cars: Sixty Seconds contains some fantastically emotive machinery, but some curiously fuzzy details (including the multiple appearances of an XJ220—which is either a homage to the green Beetle in Bullett or a very careless oversight); the Fast/Furious films expose a fascinating sub-culture but don’t really do a very good job of charging the watcher with the adrenalin of it. And jeez, the choice of vehicles and some of the paint jobs…just don’t get me started.

So what’s going on here? Am I being overly critical, or even falsely nostalgic for an era of car culture I’m not even old enough to have experienced first hand? I can’t really claim that all recent movies involving a car-chase have done a bad job of it, and let’s face it, the best scene in The Driver is where Ryan O’Neal’s character knocks every available bit of trim off a Mercedes in an underground car park, Vanishing Point goes decidedly weird in the middle, and what actually is so good about Bullett apart from the GT40 soundtrack? I can’t think of anything bad to say about The Italian Job, though—apart from its recent rehash—but I will just plain avoid saying anything at all about Smokey and the Bandit, and the Cannonball Run movies. However, there remains this sense in older car films that at least the cars were being driven honestly, and with a large amount of enthusiasm around the right-hand pedal. With most modern movies you just don’t get that sense that the cars are on the very ragged edge, and that’s something that no amount of ludicrously overdone oversteer or millimetre accurate j-turns can overcome.

One thing that does occur to me is something that an old Top Gear presenter once said, about how hard the cars on that program had to be driven in order for them to appear as if they were going at any sort of speed at all. Watch any clip from The Sweeney where an old Jag or Ford is having its door handles driven off during a chase sequence and you begin to understand what he meant—the stunt drivers really were going for it. And maybe that’s what the problem is—you just can’t do that kind of thing with a modern car. The anaesthesia in the car movie is simply representative of another kind of anaesthesia in the car industry, the increasingly distant interaction available between car and driver.

Now, I’m not at this point about to claim that modern cars aren’t any fun—for the most part that’s difficult for me to judge—but I can make some observations about how that fun is measured out. It’s become almost clichéd to talk about the ever burgeoning amount of bhp (or ps, or whatever the hell we’re supposed to call it these days) available in unlikely guises, especially to those privileged enough to be able to afford certain makes of luxury German car, as it has also become increasingly necessary for them to add more and more sophisticated forms electronic assistance in order to keep the things pointing in the right direction rather than trying to spit you off the road backwards into a bush. This is the heart of the problem: with all this electronic intervention it has just become too easy to drive modern cars fast (with the apparent exception of the Focus RS—a stark contrast to the universally praised SportKa, which appears as the very definition of a moderately powered yet fun to drive vehicle), they are just too capable of going quickly. To use motorsport as an example, just watch Petter Solberg’s eyes as he hurls his WRC Subaru towards the horizon. I by no-means intend to belittle his art, rather to point out how fast that car is capable of travelling—the man has no time to blink. And if you take this to extremes you just end up with Formula One—where by-far the most interesting race of modern times was at Spa two weeks ago, which was only good because so many drivers crashed.

But that’s where my argument falls down, of course. The benefit of all of this is that paramount human objective: safety. All those F1 drivers walked away from the accident to tell the tale. Cars today are invariable safer than they used to be, which can only be a good thing when there are so many of them about—and if you don’t believe me just take a look at the single-vehicle accident statistics for TVR, just about the only manufacturer left that doesn’t indulge in any electronic wizardry. That doesn’t mean I can’t regret that these things are necessary, when surely, as a recent reader of Evo pointed out in a letter to the magazine, the car industry could turn some of its attention and resources to the use of materials in order to reduce weight and up the interactivity. And it definitely doesn’t mean I can’t feel sad that car-chase movies aren’t as exciting as they ought to be.



I've recorded the date on these as 11/09/2004.


The fantastic picture was taken by Micke Fransson (REUTERS), though I found it on LeBlogAutomobile.

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