Summer cuts to the chase
Movie car-chase scenes are turning more elaborate, from flying Mini Coopers in 'Italian Job' to neon cars in '2 Fast 2 Furious.'
Director John Singleton loves fast cars, especially when they're chasing other cars. This summer, the moviemaker who made his mark with the urban drama "Boyz N the Hood" is finding his heat under the hood with "2 Fast 2 Furious," a movie that could best be described as one long car chase.
Nearly every big title this summer features cars charging after carburetors in some form. The comedy "The In-Laws" opens with Michael Douglas being chased by six cop cars. The "Italian Job" features a fleet of Mini Coopers flying through underground sewers. Even the metaphysically meaty "The Matrix Reloaded" has a 15-minute car chase filmed on a specially built private highway.
Mr. Singleton says there's a good reason Hollywood has had this love affair that dates all the way back to the slapstick Keystone Kops of the silent-film era.
"Chasing and being chased is really primal," says Singleton. "Car chases are all about freedom. They're completely and fundamentally American."
The car chase has become a staple of celluloid lore, with film buffs and casual fans alike reverencing sequences in films that few may watch any more but everybody has heard of: "Bullitt," in which Steve McQueen whizzes through the streets of San Francisco, and "The French Connection," where Gene Hackman tears apart the underbelly of a New York elevated roadway.
Nowadays, says Singleton, people are so familiar with the car chase from the evening news, that chases have become the most accessible parts of movies.
"People watch them, their mouths drop open and they think, 'That could be me, or someone I know,' and their hearts start to pound and their palms sweat," says Singleton. "They can't take their eyes off the screen."
But there's a big difference between the artless mayhem of the real-life criminal and the movie car chase, says stunt director John Edward, who says he learned from Buzz Bundy, the stunt master who brought the world the ultimate TV car-chase show, "The Dukes of Hazzard." "The key to a good car chase is coming up with something new," says Mr. Edward. Bundy, he adds, was famous for the two-point stunt. "Whenever you saw a car up on two wheels, that was Buzz."
Use of computer-generated effects has created new challenges for the stunt coordinators. "The trick to a really good stunt," says Edward, "is making people believe real people really did it. It's no good if people just say, 'Oh, that was done by a computer,' because then you lose the sense of risk."
An amazing stunt, says Edward, runs on the razor's edge of risk. "People want to see the real death-defying stunts, but they also want to see the people get up and walk away at the end."
On the other hand, computer enhancements allow for new on-screen stunts that would never be possible without some help from the special-effects teams.
"The only way that camera could zoom up under the truck the way it does in 'Matrix Reloaded' was with a computer," says Wilson Tang, art director at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). "What we have done for directors is give them the confidence that whatever they can dream up, we can now do."
Cars are much easier than humans to generate with a computer, adds Tang, who points out that the auto industry was a leader in using the computer to generate new hardware ideas.
Tang has just wrapped up his work on another summer release, "Hulk," a movie that features a lot of military hardware such as helicopters and tanks chasing the movie's title character.
The actors who drive these cars say the pressure to come up with a new twist on a familiar bit can give them a real kick, sometimes literally.
In "Bourne Identity," Matt Damon did much of the driving in the tiny red Austin Mini as it dodged police through the crowded streets of real-life Paris. He says he took a physical beating from the close quarters of the car. "It was tough, but fun," he says, adding that he learned all kinds of new driving tricks, most of which he won't be able to use in real life.
Paul Walker, who plays the ex-cop who takes to the streets in "Furious," says he worries about trying to keep kids from trying on-screen driving stunts at home.
"I'm telling people, 'Don't try this,' " he says, adding that he has created public-service announcements, hoping to get that message across. Mr. Walker has been conscious of his profile since the first film came out. "I drive my truck around nice and slow," he says. "The fastest I've ever been ticketed for driving is 87."
Car chases have traditionally been a guy thing, but actress Devon Aoki takes over the wheel in "2 Fast 2 Furious." The model stars as Suki, one of the regular crew, who races in a hot-pink Honda.
She says her character may look like tokenism, but she spent some time in Miami, where the film is set, learning the ropes from real female racers. "I was inspired by the women I met in Miami - the drivers and the stuntwomen," she says.
Learning to drive for the movie changed Ms. Aoki's attitude toward cars. "There's a rush to driving fast," she says.
She is quick to point out that the stunts her character pulls in the movie are not something she would imitate in her own life. That would be hard to do because the 19-year-old Aoki doesn't even have her license. Besides, after putting the pedal to the metal of the movie's tricked-out cars, she adds, "it would be really hard to find a normal car I could be happy with."