As if it requires clarifying, I’ve never been in a car chase. I’ve never trafficked cocaine, I’ve never had to drive cross-country to stop a girl I loved from marrying the wrong guy, and I generally take a cab when I fear I might run afoul of Johnny Law.
That said, I love car chases, and I especially love them when the stakes are negated by the fact that, don’t worry, it’s just a movie. If Great Britain’s film history enjoys a foundation of dickish gumshoes and condescending superagents, our stateside answers are perps with nothing to lose and cops who scoff at the piling bodycounts of innocent bystanders. Movie car chases, if I might be allowed a small amount of hyperbole, rank just behind the Biblical book of Exodus for the most fun you can have while risking certain death.
Accordingly, crafting a great movie car chase requires care. You don’t just take a few sweet cars, smash them into each other and say, Fuck it, let’s all kiss each other now. If you did, you’d be Michael Bay. (Troubling corollary: You’d also be fucking rich.)
So how do you craft the perfect movie car chase?
Tip #1: Employ Iconic Landmarks
The best movie car chases–much like their spiritual sibling, movie sex scenes–aspire to a lone goal: make it memorable. As such, viewers respond to settings where they can lean over and say, “Hey, theatergoer-pouring-Bacardi-into-your-soda, I was once accosted by a homeless Vietnam vet on those exact same streets!” It probably isn’t realistic to assume that locations such as Egypt’s Pyramids, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa or our nation’s capital actually enjoy games of human cat-and-mouse more than anywhere else, per capita. But who wants to see cars running around grain bins or small towns? (Put your hand down, John Mellencamp.) So, to the city we shall go.
Tip #2: You Need an Audience Surrogate
No one I know has ever been in a car chase. The circles I run in, our lives suffer from a criminal lack of derring-do. However, we all know what a car chase would be like, because the most effective chases put you in the seat of someone involved. Whether you view from the vantage of Burt Reynolds’ furry upper lip in Smokey and the Bandit or from the brim of Popeye Doyle’s porkpie hat in French Connection, being inside the car makes the exhilaration real. Oh, and remember when Charlie Sheen simultaneously drove and had sex with a chick during The Chase? I remember that scene more vividly than I remember how cumbersome and ungainly driver-seat sex actually is. That, my friends, is a car chase worth sticking on the fridge.
Tip #3: Have a Clear Underdog
Some of the best car chase scenes only feature one car. In Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s criminally underseen Premium Rush, our hyphenated hero flees a pursuing cop on a bicycle. And in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s magnum opus Hard Target, he plays Chance Boudreaux, a mulleted and awesomely-named ne’er-do-well who flees by motorcycle, on foot, and on a goddamn horse. Now that’s a cause worth slow-clapping for. When one person is running for his life while a maniacal person with a deathwish does the pursuing, the audience can sense the enormity of the stakes, usually in their testicles. Amirite guys? Guys?! Hey, where’d everyone go?!
Tip #4: Stock your Scene with Memorable Vehicles
The car chases involving Will Ferrell’s Prius in The Other Guys work for only one reason: even Prius owners think that Priuses (Priusi?) are terrible and completely nutless. It’s a knowing wink to all other car chases, which routinely ratchet up the badassness to crazy levels using iconic vehicles, simply as a matter of course. Bullitt and Steve McQueen’s Mustang are basically synonymous. The General Lee in Dukes of Hazzard somehow manages to make the Confederate Flag fashionable again. And Gone in 60 Seconds even gives the central car a fucking woman’s name, which Nic Cage moans in his bedroom voice for 100 or so minutes. No one seems to think that all his breathless pining is even a little weird, simply because the car is so undeniably cool. Such is the power of “Eleanor.” Or maybe it’s the power of Nic Cage. No one can know for sure.
Tip #5: Have a Definitive Climax
Somewhere, far away, Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer just touched tips. This is the central hallmark of their entire oeuvre, from the stray streetcar in The Rock, to the devil-may-care highway carnage of Bad Boys, to the “Fuck it, why not” aesthetic of all four Transformers movies. It’s also especially true of the Fast and Furious franchise, which has managed to gross over $2 billion while only killing one Paul Walker. Vin Diesel has growled over countless chases, each of which ends in an explosion, a catchphrase, or–ideally–both. “Ride or die, remember?” Sure do, Vin. Sure do.
Tip #6: Raise the Stakes with a Tangential Life-or-Death Event
I’m of the opinion that there are two kinds of people: those who think Midnight Run is the greatest movie of all time, and those who have never seen Midnight Run. The story centers on Bob De Niro’s bounty hunter trying to deliver the dad from Beethoven to some shady dudes, and hilarity ensues. But it reaches all-time-great status because, apart from the classical chase elements, it’s understood that lives are at stake. This is also true of Nic Cage’s shithead brother in Gone in 60 Seconds, Charlize Theron’s deceased father in The Italian Job, and every harebrained scene in the National Treasure films. Because you know what’s even greater than a typical chase? Why, a chase involving the stolen Declaration of Independence, of course!
The only problem with movie chase scenes is, admittedly, that there are just so goddamn many of them. It gets tricky to distinguish the great ones from the also-rans that just had some spare WWE wrestlers and Corvettes lying around and said, “Hey, we’ve got a movie!” It’s best to follow the rules above, and maybe just leave John Cena out of it altogether.
Or, when in doubt, hire Nic Cage. That guy could film two chase scenes and be home evading his taxes by lunchtime.