The art of the car chase movie comes down to copious amounts of blood, guts, bullets, and octane.
1968 saw the birth of a very specific sub-genre. The “car chase film” had its genesis in the moment Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy, cool score dropped away to the raging engines of that Ford Mustang in Peter Yates’ Bullitt. The whole film screeches to a halt, socking the audience in the gut with a cacophonous roar of guzzolene and reorienting their entire interest to the outcome of this dialogue-less pursuit. Reaching speeds of over a 100 MPH, Steve McQueen and driver Bud Ekins tapped into our primordial need for zoom and reminded us of the silent cinema artistry routinely displayed through the extreme stunts of Buster Keaton. Then in 1971, just three years later, here comes William Friedkin and Gene Hackman to up the ante. The French Connection dropped jaws and heartbeats with its showstopper train chase. The entire sequence is there to highlight the relentless obsession of Popeye Doyle, and to mystify viewers by the levels of destruction this maniac cop is willing to commit upon New York City. The appeal to recreate such spectacle is absolutely understanding, but also devilishly masochistic. How can you possibly top Bullitt or The French Connection?
Today marks the Netflix launch of the next entry in a long line of wannabe rubber burning thrill rides. Wheelman nearly confines the entirety of its action to one cockpit, strapping its audience behind the wheel and skull of Frank Grillo’s driver. While it may be the typical heist-gone-wrong scenario, Jeremy Rush’s debut feature finds its excitement in execution. Why attempt to top that which cannot be topped? If you can’t go bigger then get smaller. It’s obvious if you’ve read our interviews with Grillo and Rush that they greatly admire and respect the cinematic classics that came before. Wheelman does not pretend to surpass or supplant. Its success comes from proudly aligning itself with its sub-genre, and asking us to keep it in our thoughts when discussing the great car chase films.
So much of a great car chase film depends on what our hero is driving. In Wheelman, Grillo’s night starts off sour when he discovers that the BMW M3 he’s been supplied by his handler has a conspicuous red trunk. While it may stick out in the crowd, that cherry caboose does add a lot of character. However, the car with the most personality of any car chase film has to be the terrifying nightmare that is the 1950 Mercury Monterrey piloted by Sly Stallone in 1986’s Cobra. What was originally meant to portray luxury and class is transformed by director George P. Cosmatos into a freeway bullet penetrating the slasher film psychopaths that dared to block the byways of Stallone’s festering city. Crime is a disease and the Mercury Monterrey is the cure.
Sometimes, in order to stand out, a filmmaker simply needs to embrace the oddity of their concepts. The weirder the better, right? Paul Bartel, while he was a head professor in the rock n roll movie school of Roger Corman, cranked out a pair of strange roadster flicks in 1975 and 1976. Death Race 2000 imagined a dystopian satire in which champions competed in a cross-country blitzkrieg that squashed both willing and unwilling roadside bystanders for reality television entertainment. David Carradine starred as Frankenstein, the undefeated masked murderer with a secret agenda to explode the President. Beneath every knowing wink is a sick and hostile anger directed towards our ever-crumbling united nation. The film remains a trash classic because it satiates our societal self-loathing. Thank you sir, may I have another? Bartel followed up Death Race 2000 with a more traditional adventure in Cannonball. Again, starring David Carradine. Here is the cross-country race once more and while the crackups don’t really reach any levels of memorability, the movie earns its runtime through oddball character interaction. If nothing else, Bartel knew how to populate his films with watchable weirdos like Mary Woronov and Dick Miller.
Thinking back to that bold proclamation of Dirty Harry’s ultra-silly pursuit of the RC Mustang over the hills of San Francisco in The Dead Pool highlights the film fanatic’s desire to experience the new. We see ourselves as weary veterans never satisfied with regurgitation. Slap me across the face with an absurdity and I’ll perk up. Clint Eastwood fleeing in wide-eyed alarm from a toy car hooks your attention through confusion and nonsensicality. Dumb? No, it’s an “I Dare You” assertion from the filmmaker. “Join us.” I welcome the nudge, nudge, wink, wink tip of the hat towards Yates’ originator, but I mostly applaud the audacity of the gimmick. I haven’t seen it before.
The more movies I watch the less important narrative originality interests me. Decades of living and absorbing stories has taught me to appreciate variation more than anything else. You can’t reinvent the wheel. You can slap it with a really rad hubcap. When you fall in love with a genre, or better yet a sub-genre, the manipulation of minutia becomes your kink. Every moment is compared to another moment from another film that you hold in hyperbolic (no doubt) regard. It’s a terrible position to place yourself in but one that’s also impossible to avoid.
In Wheelman, I recognize the DNA of Bullitt. I see the honor being paid tribute to all those films that I’ve loved before. That’s a satisfying recognition, but it’s not enough. Jeremy Rush is lucky to have a face like Grillo’s behind the wheel. He offers a necessary dose of authenticity to his actions that you typically don’t see in your average Hollywood movie. I believe every skid and swerve perpetrated by Grillo. Trapping us in the driver’s seat with him is more than a nifty experiment, it’s an exhilarating injection of empathy. None of us have been placed in this situation (although I am ready for my close-up, Michael Mann) and in planting us on Grillo’s lap Wheelman connects us to the joyous mixture of thrill and terror.