Ah, Drive. Den Of Geek’s film of the year in 2011 (and no film has ever won the poll by some many votes), it seems a fitting one to start our look at a selection of crossing the line movie car chases with. Don’t forget to vote for your favourite of the ten we’re choosing, as we’re screening the winner at a special event – in conjunction with Need For Speed Rivals – in London on November 21st.
On with Drive, then…
Released in 2011, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s drama thriller Drive was hailed by many as an instant classic. Starring Ryan Gosling on heroically terse form as an anonymous mechanic (credited only as Driver), Hollywood stuntman and occasional getaway driver, it’s a violent story of crime and passion, shot through with a minimal, stylish look inspired by thrillers of the 70s and 80s.
It’s interesting to note that, despite the title and the film’s marketing, there isn’t a huge deal of driving in it. Instead, it’s punctuated by two or three beautifully shot and edited moments – the first, a cat-and-mouse introductory scene, shows the Driver’s icy calm and cunning when avoiding the police. The second, and our chosen scene for this article, comes shortly after the film’s mid-point.
The Driver’s sitting in his black Ford Mustang, waiting for ex-convict Standard (Oscar Isaac) to finish the task of robbing a pawn shop. Along for the ride is Blanche (Christina Hendricks), a gangster’s partner in crime who’s there to take delivery of the stolen money. But as Standard emerges with a bag of cash, something goes gorily awry: the shopkeeper appears with a gun, and shoots the fleeing robber in the back.
With barely a moment’s hesitation, the Driver spins his Mustang around and hurtles off at top speed, a black Chrysler 300 C in hot pursuit. What follows is one of the coolest car chases in years.
We don’t know who the driver of the Chrysler is, but we know one thing from the way they’re handling it: they mean trouble. As the Driver flees through the dusty streets of Los Angeles, the Chrysler remains just a few feet away, apparently determined to smash him off the road.
As the pair emerge onto rougher terrain on the outskirts of the city, the Chrysler’s movements become more aggressive – forcing the Driver to resort to some fairly risky strategies to keep the bad guy at bay.
This sequence has much in common with the classic Bullitt, in that it’s more about the sound of the engines and the drama of the situation than gonzo stunts and wholesale destruction. Drive eschews the city-wrecking madness of, say, the Fast & Furious franchise almost entirely, going for an air of relative realism in its depiction of the drama’s precise driving technique and risk-taking.
Sure, there are repeated moments where both the Driver and the bad guy at the helm of the Chrysler head onto the wrong side of the road and straight into on-coming traffic, but their driving decisions are all based on split-second and ultimately quite logical judgements rather than implausible kamikaze runs down one way streets.
It’s stuff like this that makes this relatively short chase (weighing in as it does at about one minute 30 seconds in total) so nail-biting and memorable – in the moment, with the cinema lights down, it feels real. After all, we’ve seen cars drive the wrong way down a highway numerous times in the movies, and their car seldom emerges with so much as a scratch. We’d imagine you wouldn’t last more than a few seconds if you were to try this in reality (so for goodness’ sake, don’t bother).
This isn’t to say that everything in Nicolas Winding Refn’s masterfully orchestrated chase hews to the realities of driving entirely. You’ll note that about a minute or so into the chase, a desperate Driver does a hand brake turn, and then proceeds to drive backwards up the road at almost the same speed as he was driving in forward gear. Listen to the soundtrack, and you can hear the revs change as the Driver continues to drive backwards. Exactly how many reverse gears does this car have?
Oddly, this brief moment shares something in common with John Singleton’s 2 Fast 2 Furious. That film sees cop turned illegal street racer Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) try to impress a rather bored-looking Eva Mendes by driving backwards up a freeway. His Mitsubishi appears to be fitted with a similarly bizarre gearbox to Ryan Gosling’s Mustang.
Crossing the line
All car chases have to end eventually, and most of them end with one car pulling off some sort of cunning, dangerous manoeuvre in order to lose their opponent, or force them to crash. In Drive, Gosling flips his car back round after his bit of reverse gear mania and skilfully takes a hard right turn with the tail of the Mustang still sliding.
The pursuing Chrysler can’t quite make the turn, and skitters sideways into some red roadside furniture. It’s here that Refn displays his affinity for cool framing and editing; as the Chrysler slides into its crash, the camera cuts to the interior of the Driver’s Mustang. Here, time slows down, and we get a shot of Christina Hendricks’ character sitting in the back. We watch through the rear window behind her as the Chrysler bounces up into the air, all sound gone now, before it comes back to the ground with a final crunch.
If you look at the scene from beginning to end, you come to realise that the stunts in it are quite low-key by modern movie standards. Even that final crash isn’t particularly spectacular – it’s the sort of thing you’d probably see on a real road, on those rare occasions where a driver completely misjudges a bend and hits a lamppost.
It’s Refn’s skill as a director that gives the sequence real drama. By setting up the dramatic stakes for the characters before the pursuit even began – we knew as soon as Standard was shot that the Driver was in terrible danger – the resulting automotive action becomes all the more nail biting, and when the chase ends with the Driver’s smoothly executed turn and the Chrysler’s clumsy bump into a big red plastic container, it isn’t an anticlimax, but an unspeakably cool full stop.
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