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Wild car chases now a cinematic art form

SHARE Wild car chases now a cinematic art form

In every James Bond movie, the reckless spy gets outfitted with a sleek new luxury car — complete with nifty gadgets and armaments — that he will inevitably smash up after a death-defying chase.

Audiences never tire of this ritual. It's like visiting a fancy auto showroom and getting permission to drive the shiny expensive toy irresponsibly and in the process wreck a bunch of other cars.

"Nobody is ever going to come out of a movie theater going, 'Oh, that was stupid,' as long as they crash stuff," notes veteran stunt coordinator and lifelong racing fanatic Artie Malesci, who oversaw the good bad driving in "2 Fast 2 Furious." "That's why people go to stock car races and demo derbies; they just wanna watch the crashes."

But doing nifty stunts and smashing up cars is no walk in the park — it has become a delicate cinematic art form. After all, cameras have been aimed at crazily careening cars since everyone from D.W. Griffith to the Keystone Kops saw their cinematic appeal in the last century's teens.

In fact, there have been so many chases since then most of them blend into a high-speed memory blur of Bond sequels, Joel Silver-produced buddy movies and weekly episodes of "Miami Vice," "The Dukes of Hazzard" and kindred TV fuel-burners.

Some chase aficionados have fond memories of such films as "Two-Lane Blacktop," "Smokey and the Bandit," "Death Race 2000," "The Driver" and various incarnations of "Gone in Sixty Seconds," but they are not necessarily landmarks on Hollywood's road map.

Certainly, a turning point in car chases came with "Bullitt" and "The French Connection," two films that seemed to put the audience in the middle of the action.

In "Bullitt" — the 1968 Steve McQueen film — hand-held cameras were used to film the near crashes through the streets of San Francisco. William Friedkin in his 1971 Oscar winner "The French Connection" mounted cameras in the back seat and on the front of the car that Detective Popeye Doyle used as he careened through Manhattan in pursuit of a drug dealer.

Since then there have been other memorable chase films — "The Vanishing Point," "The Road Warrior" and "Ronin" — but making car stunts seem new and exciting is proving a harder and harder assignment.

"Certainly, the last couple of generations of moviegoers have loved the thrill of the ride," notes "Italian Job" director F. Gary Gray. "But because we are so used to seeing car chases in films and on television, it was important for me to offer something unique. And that's tough when you can turn on 900 channels and see a car chase on every other one."

Not that this summer's filmmakers didn't try. Diametrically opposed philosophies aside, they really tried.

For "The Matrix Reloaded's" laws-of-physics-defying freeway shootout, for instance, the most advanced digital movie technology yet developed was employed to create impossible jumps and ridiculous wrecks.

"In the freeway, there are a number of shots in which a percentage of the frame is virtual, for getting stunts and cars to occur," explains the sci-fi franchise's visual effects supervisor, John Gaeta. "And some of the shots are 100 percent virtual, like when we do a corkscrew down to Laurence Fishburne as he's about to fight an Agent on top of a speeding truck.

"The truck collision is 100 percent CGI," Gaeta continues. "With that, suddenly, you're given this freedom not to do it realistically. We don't have to do explosions and destruction that way; we want it to be absurd to the point of almost funny. Like a comic book: Is it serious or is it not?"

The original "The Fast and the Furious," directed by Rob Cohen in 2001, pioneered the marriage of extensive computer-generated effects with street car grittiness. For the sequel, director John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood") wanted to throttle back on the digital assists and, whenever possible, rely on real drivers risking their lives on real Florida thoroughfares.

"Actually, I divorced myself totally from the first one," Singleton says. "I watched it over and over again and said, 'OK, they used these types of lenses in the film, so I'm going to use all really wide lenses and get in real close on the subjects so they kind of spread out and are more dynamic.' "

Malesci adds: "It's hard to break any new ground these days, but what we tried to do was not use as much of the computer generated issues like the first movie had. We definitely had some, there's no way to get around it, but we tried to do a lot of things with some really great drivers at high speeds, and the camera coverage was very innovative."

Not that Singleton was uninfluenced by the latest high-tech developments in entertainment.

"I started thinking in terms of other media like Japanese anime movies and video games like 'Gran Turismo,' " Singleton explains. "It was thinking about, through that, how to make it exciting by the way that I shot it and, also, by the juxtaposition of certain images, like going from the eyes to the speedometer to the tailpipes to the zooming. In that way, you have some type of montage that makes a speed gestalt."

Others have taken a more radical, old-school approach. "The Italian Job," like its 1969 British model, climaxes with three Minis scooting away with heist loot through parts of a traffic-jammed city where conventional-size cars wouldn't fit.

"We didn't rely on CGI or visual effects for our action," says producer Donald De Line. "And we figured, in the marketplace today, that this would really be like a new discovery for our audience because they've been so conditioned otherwise."

Of course, doing it this way meant teaching the film's stars — Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron and Jason Statham — how to drive like stunt pros at Willow Springs race track outside of Lancaster. It also required complex negotiations with city and state officials (not to mention local merchants) that enabled the production to shut down Hollywood Boulevard outside the Hollywood & Highland complex for a week. The never-before-filmed location became the key traffic jam location (the original film, more appropriate for its title, gridlocked Turin, Italy). And the Minis' main avenues of escape were actual Metro Rail tunnels beneath the city's clogged surface streets.

All of which sounds interesting. But how do you make it exciting?

"What I wanted to do with 'The Italian Job' was to put the audience in the driver's seat," says director Gray, whose team configured many of the 32 Minis BMW provided into tricked-out stunt and camera cars. "I felt like the best way to do that was to tie the actors into the stunts. That would make the danger very visceral for the audience.

"To do that, we created camera mounts like the slider rig, which is mounted to the car but is also remote-controlled. You could look at the point of view of the driver and then, all in the same shot without cutting, pan and reveal the actor driving at 100 miles an hour. That's very real for the audience."

Singleton believes the attraction is also philosophical.

"Life is like a chase, so it's a very simple tenet of moviemaking that two objects chasing each other makes people feel a rush. It puts people in the moment."

Stunt maven Malesci sums up. "I think car chases will be there forever or at least until we start running around in rocket ships."