Playlist: 3 Essential Chase Scenes

December 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

1. WE OWN THE NIGHT (James Gray, 2007)

Action film enthusiasts bemoan the loss of skilled filmmakers like John Frankenheimer, who could be relied upon for clean, legible chase sequences like the standout scenes in Ronin. Nowadays, big-budget action films go to directors without the necessary experience within the genre to make their scenes really pop. James Gray, no TV-trained specialist in the rhythms of the B-picture, provides an alternative to the Frankenheimer school of car chases in his cop-thriller-cum-family-melodrama, We Own the Night. A couple of key decisions lead to the central chase’s distinctive style: first, the rainy atmosphere makes most of the action more difficult to read; second, Gray shoots the scene entirely from the perspective of Joaquin Phoenix’s Bobby, alternating between tight closeups of his face and first-person shots through the blurry windshield. Cars register only as thick, dark blurs through the glass, gunfire as starry bursts of light, and the sound of Bobby’s panicked breathing dominates the soundtrack. Abandoning the omniscient perspective of the filmmaker for this tight focus on a single character in a multi-car setpiece actually heightens the tension, as the collisions and turns dawn on the viewer almost as Bobby sees them coming, with only a minimal establishment of the physical stakes. It all leads to an inevitably violent conclusion that Gray dwells on as Bobby barely has time to process the events leading up to the film’s most affecting tragedy.

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures and for streaming purchase on Amazon.

2. SEVEN CHANCES (Buster Keaton, 1925)

This one has to be seen to be believed. Unlike the other two entries on this list, the film surrounding the great chase in Seven Chances isn’t necessarily a great one, the odd feature by Keaton that inspires more half-hearted smiles than real chuckles. But the plodding, episodic pace of the first forty-five minutes or so ends up, in hindsight, a clever analogue to the physical consequences of its climax. Keaton’s aggrieved broker must marry by sundown in order to inherit millions, and his partners’ last-ditch gambit of placing a classified ad to rescue their hopeless junior (and their own company) backfires when a mob of furious women show up, believing themselves victims of a hoax. The indirect consequence of his repeated come-ons throughout the picture, Keaton finds himself running full-tilt down Main Street, a basic movement he never failed to mine for belly laughs. The scene reaches a sublime comic crescendo as the women not only follow him to the outskirts of town, but end up party to a natural disaster as his attempt to hide beneath a large rock brings the hillside tumbling down around them.

Available on DVD from Kino Classics and streaming on Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime

3. POINT BREAK (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)

The foot chase that serves as the centerpiece of Kathryn Bigelow’s masterpiece has an almost unfair advantage over other scenes of its kind. The chase is actually the third act in a sequence edited with impeccable suspense, humor, and the right amount of ghastly peril. To begin, FBI (F!B!I!) agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) and his partner Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) stake out the bank where they have determined the gang of robbers known as the Ex-Presidents will attempt their next big score. Here the scene begins with a twist of irony as Utah goes to get a couple of sandwiches, leaving Pappas alone in the car for a long take in which the Ex-Presidents appear across the street, out of focus, and hold up the bank to which Pappas has turned his back. The second act of this sequence is a brief car chase, as Utah spots the Ex-Presidents on his return and gives chase along with Pappas, eventually sending them crashing into a gas station where their ringleader in a Ronald Reagan mask uses a pump as impromptu flamethrower to destroy their car, and the evidence. The surreal, frightening image of this tuxedoed ghoul wielding a wild torch segues into the muscular filmmaking of the sequence’s final third, as Utah alone pursues the robber who he suspects is surf guru Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), with whom he has reluctantly formed a brotherly bond. Handheld cameras dominate after the flamethrower has signaled a descent into anarchy, punctuated by humorous touches like the target turning to stall Utah by throwing a dog in his face. But the claustrophobia dissipates for this mini-epic’s climactic moments, in which Utah’s leg gives out on him after a jump into a reservoir where his target makes his escape atop a chain-link fence. Lying on the ground, aiming a gun straight at the rubber mask, their eyes match for the first time, Utah’s failure to shoot giving way to Reeve’s most potent, anguished expression of the script’s operatic overtones. The use of Lori Petty’s Tyler (the film’s only major female character) as a plot point in the climax, and her absence in the dramatic denouement leaves Bodhi and Utah’s as the film’s central relationship, this eyeline match its powerful and ambiguous turning point.

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video and for streaming rental and purchase via Amazon. – Brendan


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