Let's cut to the chase."
Those five simple words have become the driving force of most summer movies.
2 Fast 2 Furious opened June 6 to a $50 million-plus weekend despite reviews that felt the sequel ran on empty. And other summer flicks feature enough car chases to make viewers' heads spin.
As for the best current chase scene, it's a virtual toss-up between The Matrix Reloaded and The Italian Job.
The Matrix's elaborate chase features top-of-the-line Cadillacs, Impalas and Oldsmobiles on a freeway built especially for the occasion. The Italian Job's intricate and clever twists occur in Mini Coopers on the streets of Los Angeles. We'll give Matrix top berth for its imagination, although the chase scene is so long, it threatens to make the extravaganza play like Smokey and the Bandit.
Hollywood Homicide, which opened last Friday, earns the worst-chase raspberry, with Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett zooming from Beverly Hills to Hollywood with lots of chaos but no sense of geography.
Who knows what the rest of the summer will bring? The Hulk is probably too ungainly to occupy a driver's seat, but Angelina Jolie will be behind the wheel of a Jeep Wrangler in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.
As for Charlie's Angels, they definitely will not be sitting on the sidelines.
Last summer, Minority Report audiences witnessed law enforcer Tom Cruise navigating America's space corridors circa 2054. On ground level, The Bourne Identity featured the refreshing novelty of Matt Damon consulting a map as he careened through the back streets of Paris.
The cinematic enshrinement of cars arrived simultaneously with the 1950s' awareness of teens as an economic force. For teens, cars mean freedom and empowerment, not to mention an outlet for sexual tension. The "chicken run" scene of Rebel Without a Cause (1956) reflected the adolescent angst and sexual competitiveness of its participants.
The car also served as a freedom symbol for drivers long past their teen years. In 1991's memorable Thelma & Louise, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon's '66 Thunderbird convertible is the vehicle for both their attempted getaway and their terminal escape.
For many moviegoers, the chase scene as a centerpiece production number started with 1968's Bullitt. Anti-establishment cop Steve McQueen drove a Mustang through the windy streets of San Francisco, all the while pursuing and being pursued by a pair of killers in a Dodge Charger GTO. The scene was choreographed as carefully and intricately as any musical production number. Hollywood had a new kind of showstopper.
Bullitt also stressed the importance of the driver. McQueen's car showed more vitality than he did, but the merger of minimalist actor and maximus auto fit well. Ten years earlier, in Thunder Road, another minimalist actor, Robert Mitchum, hauled a carload of moonshine in a '50 Ford Coupe. It, too, was a perfect match, but Thunder Road faded at the box office, later to gain a cult following. Bullitt went through the roof.
But a lack of facial facility isn't a surefire asset. The somnolent Ryan O'Neal played an existential hero in the heavily allegorical The Driver (1978). Public and critics agreed that mere somnolence cannot pass for existentialism. More convincing was Barry Newman as the symbolic last free spirit of the counter-culture in 1971's Vanishing Point, fleeing from police with his '70 Dodge Charger.
Robert De Niro proved equally deft in Ronin (1998), outracing foes in an Audi S8 in Nice and a BMW M5 in Paris. The Paris chase caused shivers of recognition from viewers who recognized the locale as the same roads where Princess Diana had taken her final, fateful ride a year earlier.
Moviemakers' infatuation with special effects enhanced the lure of chase scenes. From Goldfinger to Goldeneye, no James Bond film was complete without several splashy chases. In Goldfinger (1964), Bond's Aston Martin DB5 outraced the villain's Rolls-Royce. In Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Vegas police are no match for Agent 007's Ford Mustang. Coinciding with the release of 1995's Goldeneye, Neiman Marcus' holiday catalog featured the film's BMW two-seater for $35,000. The car was a sellout.
Sometimes chase scenes become a director's signature. Steven Spielberg's impressive 1971 made-for-television Duel followed a 40-ton-truck's devilish stalking of a lesser vehicle's driver. This pursuit served as template for the director's later cat-and-mouse triumphs in such fare as The Sugarland Express (1974), Jaws (1975) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
For William Friedkin, the chase scene served as both blessing and curse. His navigation of the spectacular chase in 1971's Oscar-winning The French Connection showed his mastery of film technique. But 24 years later, his placement of a chase through Chinatown in the tawdry Jade only emphasized how mundane the rest of the film was.
Friedkin has said in interviews how he enjoys filming chases, comparing the direction of such scenes to the composition of a symphony. In 1985's To Live and Die in L.A., he created a chase scene with the vehicles going top speed the wrong way down a freeway - definitely a recipe for dying rather than living in L.A. Yet in making that sleek, cold movie, Friedkin apparently ignored the truism that audiences will not root for chase scenes unless they care about the characters involved.