CGI, MTV-style editing and demanding audiences are killing the classic car movie, Gordon Torbet writes
The thrill of the chase
Depending on your age, there was a time when going to the movies as a kid was a major event. You would sit in an ornate auditorium in front of plush, long velvet curtains that would withdraw to reveal a huge screen. The ice cream ladies with their illuminated tray of goodies would punctuate the support movie - regardless of how laughable it might be - and the main two-hour action movie during which you were engrossed as American V8 muscle cars skidded down alleyways, wheels spinning in clouds of dust, and vehicle after vehicle was trashed in the name of wholesome entertainment.
But then during the 1990s, a peculiar transition took place, and the car chase movie suddenly became either nauseatingly confusing or fantastically manicured and clinical. The advent of high-powered computers, smaller and more agile film cameras, innovations in film rigs and filming techniques and the improvements in cars themselves have, in the opinion of a host of stuntmen and co-ordinators, resulted in removing the raw adrenalin driving sequence from many movies.
According to Rich Rutherford, a stunt driver in The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift and The Dukes of Hazzard, it's not the modern equipment that is at fault. "As far as speeds are concerned, we're probably faster now. Our equipment is better (engines, tyres, suspension, brakes etc.). Our camera cars nowadays are much faster, allowing us to get better shots at higher speeds." The problem therefore, seems to be how all this hi-tech paraphernalia is employed under the direction of the producers and the studios.
So what makes an engaging chase scene? "I still like to see stunts for real," says Vic Armstrong, one of the stalwarts of the movie stunt world who has worked on a number of James Bond flicks, as well as the more recent Mission Impossible III. "There's something about the physical body, the way it moves, the way cars move." Adam Kirley, the driver who rolled an Aston Martin DBS a record seven times in Casino Royale, adds, "Films from the 70s and 80s used wider shots in general and held on the action for longer." In The Driver (1978), for example, the final nine-minute chase sequence is dominated by long, wide shots in which you see Ryan O'Neal's Chevrolet pickup exchanging paintwork with the crooks' Pontiac Firebird at speed on city streets at night, for real.
Much of this rough-edged realism resulted from the fact that the directors had to be resourceful with shoestring film budgets, which rarely exceeded $2 million for a full-length feature. In the 1968 film Bullitt, the cars were unmodified except for stiffer suspension and Steve McQueen did most of the 175kph-plus high-speed driving himself. Meanwhile, in the $350,000 Mad Max movie from 1979, director George Miller sacrificed his personal Mazda Bongo van to a violent collision in the opening chase sequence.
Very few Hollywood directors were like John Frankenheimer, who recognised the role of the car chase as an integral element to the story, as in his Parisian rush-hour sequence in the $55 million thriller Ronin (1998), rather just an expensive set piece to advertise the CD soundtrack. He was also responsible for the seminal 1966 Formula One film Grand Prix, lauded for its innovative effects and editing.
Quentin Tarantino has also paid homage to the classic chase films in his 2007 movie Death Proof, using wide panning shots so the speed of the chase cars and the skill of the stuntmen can be appreciated. Compare that to the quick-cut opening sequence of Quantum of Solace, for example. "The Bond opening scene in Quantum is a great example of how to turn a potentially great sequence into a confusing mess," says Steve Truglia, stunt co-ordinator and driver in Entrapment and the earlier Bond movie The World Is Not Enough. "Unfortunately, this has to do with a misguided creative style choice."
Andy Armstrong, stunt coordinator on The Firm, Total Recall and the upcoming The Green Hornet, agrees that, when it comes to comparing classic and modern action sequences, the studios are responding to what they perceive to be the cinematic needs of the gaming generation. "Some of this discrepancy comes from an audience desire to see action depicted more and more familiar to material they grew up seeing in video games," he says.
Surprisingly, many movie stunt performers have no respect for pyrotechnic chase scenes just for the sake of spectacle. "They should be realistic, appropriate to the scene, and creative," says Truglia, while Marc Cass who co-ordinated the stuntwork on Speed and has been a stuntman in Terminator III, The World is Not Enough and GoldenEye adds, "I personally don't think that the stunts have to be any more extreme or dangerous or exaggerated, because when I care about a character in a film, I'm hooked. I want his action to be realistic so I can relate to it more. For this to happen, the filming of the stunt also needs to be compassionate and true to the action scenario."
And this is possibly the crux of the problem with more recent chase flicks. Cass believes that movie producers think they have to find more innovative methods to present the action, such as multiple cameras and angles, filming from a bystander point of view, hand-held or deliberately shaky close-up shots, hundreds of hours of overtime in the editing suite chopping the footage together in almost momentary segments and the integration of computer generated imagery (CGI). .
Kirley is obviously not a fan of the shaky camera technique. "I seem to always see camera men 'giving the camera energy'. This is a technique that is being overused to fool the viewer. Also, everything is shot incredibly tight. It's the MTV approach." This flustered style of camera work is exemplified in the Moscow chase sequence in The Bourne Supremacy between the Volga taxi driven by Bourne and the Mercedes G-Wagon of the assassin. The story of the chase and the artistry of the stuntwork are lost because of ever-changing POVs (points of view). So it's not that the quality of the stunts is poorer or that the driving and filming techniques are becoming any less ingenious, but that the studios are pandering to the movie-going PlayStation generation in the editing suite while alienating those with a more traditional expectation and film vocabulary.
But by far the greatest threat to the stunt community and to the cinema-going public who enjoy intelligent escapism is computer-generated imagery. Why pay a stuntman several thousand dollars to barrel-roll a car when you can get a team of animators to create it with pixels for around the same price and without the physical risk? Most action movies have an army of CGI animators in several studios being paid millions of dollars ($28.2 million in the case of Terminator III) to create whole sequences and give us artificial worlds as backdrops and camera angles that would otherwise be impossible to achieve. "You never know what the end product of a chase scene is going to be once the CGI guys get a hold of it," Rutherford laments.
Possibly the worst victim of CGI excess so far is Sylvester Stallone's outrageous Indycar flick, Driven (2001). Renny Harlin's movie was panned by the critics because of its gratuitous and obvious use of CGI during the accident-laden race sequences, despite the Swedish director's desire to "do for car movies what The Matrix did for action movies. "Our ability to digitally modify the action and cars enhances the live racing footage, allowing us to move the camera seamlessly and show you new things in new ways," he had said. But herein lies the rub: As soon as you create a viewpoint which the audience recognises as being impossible, for example flying through the air following the parabola of a racing wheel that has flown from a crashing Indycar, the director destroys the ability to suspend disbelief: we no longer willingly invest our imagination in the film. Conversely, with a realistic action sequence, it's possible for the audience to become intellectually and emotionally captivated.
The techniques and computing capabilities of CGI are only going to improve and become cheaper - which will please the studio heads enormously but frustrate the stunt community. But whether CGI will be used with subtlety, making it invisible and complimentary to the story and the real human skills of stuntmen and women, or whether it will continue to pander to the fantasy hungry young cinemagoers who are mesmerised by explosions and flying limbs, only time will tell.