For years, if you wanted some car chase-action in your sitting room the only real choice for you and your remote was Police Camera Action. Admittedly, ITV’s police documentary (which featured video clips from on-board cameras in police cars) was new and different in 1994, but, over the years, the programme became repetitive and predictable. For instance, there are only a certain number of times you can watch a grainy clip from a Volvo, narrated by Alastair Stewart before you kill yourself. However, within recent years, the nation has been treated to a return in fictitious and aggressive cop-dramas, but this time of a very retro bent.
Arguably the BBC’s best drama for a very long time, Ashes to Ashes has returned to our television screens this month for one last outing before it is locked away in the TV cabinet of television greats. Soon it’ll have its own ‘special edition’ box set with ‘exclusive’ documentaries, novelty tea towels will be produced for Christmas, and it’ll have its own iPhone app not before long. It’ll also have that luxury that only the best can enjoy: its own afternoon on Dave. Probably.
However, as much as I like Ashes to Ashes – no, replace that with adore –the programme’s car chases leave a lot to be desired. I mean, watching the star of the show – the Audi Quattro – chase an Austin Princess and struggle to catch the wedge-shaped symbol of 1970s British Industrial doom and gloom was a little-limp wristed and improbable; and the same can be said for its predecessor, Life on Mars. The dramadepicted the platform-shoed, flared trousered, ‘70s Glam Rock era of police brutality with police cars upholstered in brown velour. But, even to the spine-tingling sound of The Sweet’s ‘Ballroom Blitz’, the car chases invariably involving Gene Hunt’s bronze Ford Cortina and an old Hillman Avenger, weren’t quite as good as they should have been.
It was probably due to the fact that the original police dramas of the seventies – The Sweeney and The Professionals in particular – had already been there and got the turtle-necked jumper. Moreover, a weekly television programme normally has to conform to a strict one hour time-slot, and if a car chase is to be included it has to be over as quickly as it has begun. That is why car-chase aficionados have always forgotten the television shows, and instead concentrated upon the silver screen.
And the silver screen has been the creator of, quite possibly, the biggest ever debate amongst pint-drinkers: ‘what is the greatest ever car chase?’
It was a question that I had always known the answer to. Without a doubt, the greatest ever car chase was the one to be found in the 1968-epic, Bullitt. Its combination of iconic cars, dynamic actors, and seedy settings all shot to the tune of a memorable music score, was legendary. Its director, Peter Yates, had already directed the classic film Robbery (1967) and the not so classic Summer Holiday starring Cliff Richard in 1963. Robbery quickly became a model for British crime thriller films and television programmes, as it was based on the true story of the Great Train Robbery, but its greatest contribution was its well-choreographed car chase scene involving a handful of Jaguars. The car chase was so well received that Yates repeated the style and the drama of the scene in Bullitt a year later. This time, however, London had been replaced by San Francisco, the Police were now in the shape of Steve McQueen in a Ford Mustang, and Robbery’s baddies in Jags had been swapped for henchmen in a black Dodge Charger.
However, Bullitt is not the greatest car chase movie for one, very good reason. Never mind how electrifying the sight of McQueen leaping his Mustang Fastback over the streets of San Francisco is, just try and remember the film’s plot. You can’t can you? That’s because the action before and after the chase is pretty perplexing. In my eyes, a good car chase film is one in which the story comes to a dizzying climax at the end with a good car chase. It’s as though the whole film as been building up to this momentous scene from the very beginning.
How about Vanishing Point, or The Matrix Reloaded, Thunderball, Terminator 2, you’re saying? They’re all good but just too improbable. Duel made an unusual appearance in my mind, largely because when you think about a car chase film Duel is mysteriously forgotten about. Despite the fact that it is a car chase from the very beginning, because it doesn’t involve guns or Americans trying to look cool everyone forgets about it. However, it doesn’t take the accolade because it is a little too scary.
Ronin is very close to being the best because it conforms to every rule about car chases; it’s fast, action-packed and is genuinely exhilarating to watch. However, for me, a successful car chase has to involve cars that make you go ‘wow’ and I’m sorry, a Peugeot 406 doesn’t do that for me.
So, the winner has to have a simple, cohesive plot and the car chase must not be a scene that looks as though it has just been added to the film as an afterthought. It also has to have a good soundtrack, good cars, and not be too scary. There’s only one choice: The Italian Job.
Let me clarify something, I’m talking about the 1969 original, not the sacrilegious 2003 American re-make that was a) not set in Italy, b) had no plot, and c) was American and therefore wasn’t meaningful.
Watching The Italian Job on Film4’s Easter Week highlighted a number of things to me. I’ve watched this film a thousand times but only now have I realized that this film is so much more than just a rather good car chase scene. In essence, it’s a 1969 romp through contemporary attitudes to sex, class, homosexuality, and nationalistic pride. It was filmed at a time when, three years earlier, England had won the World Cup, and the film revels in the depiction of how great the British were (in 1969) and why we naturally deserved to steal the Italian’s gold. The sight of those three Minis being chased by a succession of Alfa Romeo police cars creates waves of nationalist pride. The music, loved by every football fan since, has done its job in reinforcing the European’s view of us – lager louts who wear Union Jack underpants. That’s not necessarily a good thing but it makes us feel British nonetheless.
One thing is for sure though; if you think that films like The Italian Job harm our national identity, just think what the Americans think of us when it watches their versions of programmes like Police Camera Action. ‘We got a clip from the United Kingdom of England here; this drunk twelve year old from Scunthorpe, England, is driving a stolen Rover Metro and is being chased by the British Police in a Vauxhall Astra…’
Embarrassed? You should be.
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