Great Film Car Chases: Ronin

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This week is my last blog entry on great film car chases. While most of my posts this month have been about older classics,today I bring you a modern classic. This week’s chase comes from 1998’s Ronin.

To get you up to speed (pun intended) on the plot,here’s a brief summary:

A woman assembles a team of professional killers from all over the world to get a hold on a certain case with some mysterious content. The case is in the hands of some ex-KGB spies and there are many people and organizations that will do anything to get it.–IMDB

In case you’re wondering, Ronin is the Japanese word for a Samurai without a master. It’s a perfect title for this film. Among the cast are: Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Sean Bean, and Jonathan Pryce. Bonus? The film was directed by John Frankenheimer,a master of thrillers. Probably his most famous film is The Manchurian Candidate,a masterpiece in its own right. Now that you know the story,let’s talk about the great car chase.

It takes place on the streets of Paris. The five mercenary characters are all after a briefcase. When one of them double-crosses the others,the chase is on! The cars featured include: a Peugeot 406 and 605,a BMW 535i,an Audi S8,a Citroen XM, a Mercedes-Benz SW116…and quite a few others. Here are a few fun facts about the chase from Internet Movie Database:

  •  Skipp Sudduth requested to do his own stunt driving during the car chases and John Frankenheimer agreed. Frankenheimer told Sudduth “I don’t wanna see any brake lights.”
  • To make it look like Robert De Niro and Natascha McElhone were actually driving during the car chase, right hand drive cars were used, with the passenger side made up to mirror the real controls. The actors then mimicked the stunt drivers movements.
  • More than 300 stunt drivers were employed to give the real-time chase scenes an air of metal-crunching realism.
  • One of the stunt drivers was former Formula 1 driver Jean-Pierre Jarier.
  • 80 automobiles were destroyed during filming.
  • Director John Frankenheimer actually owned a similar brown Mercedes that was used in the second car chase scene. Although the script did not mention which car Vincent and Sam would use to chase the convoy, he suggested having the Mercedes being used in the movie.

And now,a moment of silence for all the cars that died to make this film and its iconic chase possible. Ronin is one of the great thrillers to come out of the 1990s,or any decade for that matter. The climactic chase alone is worth the price of admission. But with Frankenheimer at the helm and a cast that includes the likes of Robert De Niro,how can anyone pass this movie up?

That’s a wrap on my film car chases spotlight! Join me each day in July for my James Bond Blogathon. Each day I will watch and then write about the Bond films as I watch them in order. Break out the martini’s and tuxedos!

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Great Film Car Chases: The Italian Job

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So far in my June spotlight on great film car chases I’ve covered The French Connection and Bullitt. This week I’d like to take you all the way back to 1969. The movie? The Italian Job. Not the one with Mark Whalberg. This one has Michael Caine. Yes,you read that correctly. Aside from having one of our great modern actors,it also has a rip-roaring car chase with Mini Coopers.

Before I get to the chase,here’s a plot summary to get you up to speed. No pun intended.

Charlie (Michael Caine) has just left prison, and now wants to do a ‘big job’. The job is to steal $4m of gold arriving in Italy from China. Charlie’s job needs financing, so he goes to Mr Bridger (Noel Coward),a Mafia-type boss,who is in prison (Charlie has to break in ). In Italy, a clever plan is used to distract the authorities, while the raiders make their get-away in three Minis. This leads to an excellent car chase sequence through Italian streets, buildings, rivers, sewers, highways and rooftops which lasts for several minutes.–IMDB

The Italian Job is a breezy heist movie. It’s a lot of fun and it has a great cast. What’s cool about the iconic chase, is that instead of muscle cars it uses Mini Coopers. Because the cars are so small,there’s more freedom of movement and more possibilities. The whole sequence has a great comedic vibe. One of my favorite parts is when they take off down the steps of a tube station. The Mine Coopers also get to drive through the outdoor seating areas of cafes and through shopping areas. Sadly,the cars have to be disposed of later on. But they serve their purpose in the movie well. Here are some fast facts about the chase from Internet Movie Database:

  • BMC (British Motor Corporation), the owners of Mini, refused to donate any cars to the film. The boss of Fiat Motors offered to donate all the cars they needed including Fiat 500s in place of the Minis. The director however decided that as it was a very British film, it should be British Minis. Fiat’s boss still donated scores of cars for filming as well as the factory grounds and even though the authorities refused to close the roads, the Italian Mafia stepped in and shut whole sections of Turin down for filming, so the traffic jams in the film are real as are people’s actions during it.
  • The road used for the climactic cliff-hanger sequence led only to a restaurant. The first day of shooting was a Saturday, brilliantly sunny and the shoot went off without a hitch. On the next day, however, a huge line of cars appeared at the bottom of the road – the restaurant was hugely popular on Sundays. Some disgruntled drivers eventually broke through the police cordon and the shoot had to be aborted. Over the next two weeks it rained steadily and the snow-line came down the mountain by approximately 250 feet. By the time the shot was completed, the crew had to sweep snow from the road.
  • Some of the traffic jam scenes were real. The film crew blocked off some key roads. The Italian drivers became very annoyed but they did not notice who the culprits were.
  • The roof to roof jump was filmed on the roof of the Fiat factory. Some crew members walked off for fear it would end in a fatality and the Italian Fiat workers made the sign of the cross to the stuntman.
  • They filmed a scene for part of the Mini Cooper chase sequence on an ice rink, with the cars gliding past each other to the accompaniment of Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube”. The scene was cut for timing reasons, but was included in the Channel 4 documentary “The Mini Job” which later appeared on the Special Edition video. All DVD releases include the scene as an extra feature.

The 2003 remake of The Italian Job has its moments,but it doesn’t quite have the same sense of fun as the original. Director Peter Collinson does a good job of balancing action and whimsy. That’s why it’s one of my favorite heist films. If you’re looking for a fun film to pop in on a Friday night,The Italian Job is the film for you.

Great Film Car Chases: Bullitt

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Last week I began a month-long spotlight on great film chases with The French Connection. This week I will be writing about my favorite car chase in movie history: the iconic chase through the streets of San Fransisco in Bullitt (1968).

I must confess before I start discussing the chase that I’m a huge fan of Steve McQueen and Bullitt is my favorite of his films. McQueen had a love of cars and motorcycles in real-life,so the iconic scene in Bullitt is all the more amazing. In the film,

San Francisco Police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is asked personally by ambitious Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), who is in town to hold a US Senate subcommittee hearing on organized crime, to guard Johnny Ross (Pat Renella), a Chicago based mobster who is about to turn evidence against the organization at the hearing. Chalmers wants Ross’ safety at all cost, or else Bullitt will pay the consequences. Bullitt and his team of Sergeant Delgetti (Don Gordon) and Detective Carl Stanton (Carl Reindel) have Ross in protective custody for 48 hours over the weekend until Ross provides his testimony that upcoming Monday. Bullitt’s immediate superior, Captain Samuel Bennet (Simon Oakland), gives Bullitt full authority to lead the case, no questions asked for any move Bullitt makes. When an incident occurs early during their watch, Bullitt is certain that Ross and/or Chalmers are not telling them the full story to protect Ross properly. Without telling Bennet or an incensed Chalmers, Bullitt clandestinely moves Ross while he tries to find out who is after Ross, and why Ross has seemingly made it so easy for “them” to find him. As Bullitt enlists the help of his live-in artist girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) over the weekend and as she sees for the first time with what he deals every day, she wonders if he is indeed the man with whom she should be.–IMDB

The film’s iconic chase comes about when Bullitt is being pursued by the same hit men who came after Ross. When Bullitt tries to turn the tables on the bad guys,the result is an adrenaline-packed car chase through the streets of San Fransisco.

Like The French Connection‘s iconic chase that I discussed last week,Bullitt‘s iconic scene was shot on location with real cars. It has a grittiness that is lacking in the CGI-filled monstrosities we see far too often in today’s films. Here are some fun facts about the chase from Internet Movie Database:

  • Two Mustangs and two Dodge Chargers were used for the famous chase scene. Both Mustangs were owned by the Ford Motor Company and part of a promotional loan agreement with Warner Brothers. The cars were modified for the high-speed chase by veteran auto racer Max Balchowsky. Stunt coordinator Carey Loftin got Bud Ekins to drive the Mustang for the bulk of the stunts. Both of the Dodges were junked after the filming, as was one of the Mustangs. The other less banged-up Mustang was purchased by a WB employee after all production and post-production was completed. The car ended up in New Jersey a few years later, where Steve McQueen attempted to buy it. The owner refused to sell, and the car now sits in a barn and has not been driven in many years.
  • According to director Peter Yates, Steve McQueen made a point to keep his head near the open car window during the famous chase scene so that audiences would be reassured that it was he, not a stunt man, who was driving,
  • Bullitt’s reverse burnout during the chase scene actually wasn’t in the script–Steve McQueen had mistakenly missed the turn. The footage was still kept, though.
  • Frank Bullitt’s car is a 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback. The bad guys drive a 1968 Dodge Charger 440 Magnum. The Charger is just barely faster than the Mustang, with a 13.6-second quarter-mile compared to the Mustang’s 13.8-second.
  • Director Peter Yates called for speeds of about 75-80 mph, but the cars (including the ones containing the cameras) reached speeds of over 110 mph. Filming of the chase scene took three weeks, resulting in 9 minutes and 42 seconds of footage. They were denied permission to film on the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Although Steve McQueen was credited with the driving during the chase sequence it was actually shared by McQueen and Bud Ekins, one of Hollywood’s best stunt drivers. From the interior shots looking forward inside the Mustang it’s easy to see which one is driving. When McQueen is driving the rear view mirror is down reflecting his face. When Ekins is driving it is up, so his face is hidden.
  • At the time, San Francisco was not a big filmmaking mecca and the mayor, Joseph L. Alioto, was very keen to promote it as such. Consequently Bullitt enjoyed a freedom of movement around the city that would be hard to come by today, including giving up an entire hospital wing for filming, closing down multiple streets for three weeks for a car chase scene and taking over San Francisco International Airport at night.
  • Bud Ekins, who drives the Mustang, also did the motorcycle jump for Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.
  • Bill Hickman, seen as the baddie “Phil” who drives the Dodge Charger, actually did drive the Charger in the movie. The driving scenes netted him additional stunt work, which included yet another classic car chase for The French Connection (1971). In 1973 he drove the Pontiac Bonneville as Bo in the chase of Roy Scheider’s character Buddy driving the Pontiac Ventura Sprint coupe in The Seven-Ups (1973).

There are lots of reasons why this is my favorite film car chase. First is that it features Steve McQueen,the “king of cool,” and my dream car: a 1968 Ford Mustang. I would get the car in red instead of green,but I digress. Another is the great use of location. Seeing all those iconic San Fransisco locations,classic muscle cars cruising over those steep hills…it’s electrifying! The city is a character in the movie,and that adds to the realism. Finally,there’s all the great stunt work by legends Bill Hickman and Bud Ekins. The importance of their contributions cannot be overstated.

Bullitt stands the test of time because of the iconic chase,Peter Yates’ superb direction,and because it was a part that Steve McQueen was born to play. The McQueen swagger is on full display in his performance,the way he dresses,and,of course,the way he handles himself behind the wheel of a muscle car. I’ve seen Bullitt probably a dozen times,and the car chase is one of many reasons I will likely watch it a dozen more.

Great Film Car Chases: The French Connection

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Greetings, readers! All during June my special spotlight will be great film car chases. Today’s car chases have become bloated CGI abominations. But back in the old days the chases were done with real cars. They were grittier and a lot more fun. The first one I’m going to talk about is the iconic car chase from William Friedkin’s The French Connection from 1971.

The film follows two New York City cops: Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) a Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman). They work in the Narcotics Bureau and are trying to intercept a heroin shipment from France. On the receiving end of the shipment is Alan Charnier (Fernando Rey). All through the film you can see that Doyle is a powder keg. He’s a dedicated cop, but also a short-tempered and relentless one. In the iconic chase, we see that in full force.

Doyle and Russo eventually track Russo down and Doyle pursues him in 1 1971 Pontiac LeMans thorough the NYC streets. What makes the chase in The French Connection unique is that it shows a chase pitting an L train against a car. The part of the chase sequence where Doyle is following in hot pursuit underneath the subway tracks? Incredible! Another reason the chase stands out is the relentlessness of it. Doyle narrowly dodging pedestrians and anyone/anything that gets in his way ups the stakes. Gene Hackman’s facial expressions throughout the sequence sells the whole thing. All of this is even more impressive when you consider how it was filmed. Here are some fascinating behind the scenes tidbits from Internet Movie Database:

  • The car chase was filmed without obtaining the proper permits from the city. Members of the NYPD’s tactical force helped control traffic. But most of the control was achieved by the assistant directors with the help of off-duty NYPD officers, many of whom had been involved in the actual case. The assistant directors, under the supervision of Terence A. Donnelly, cleared traffic for approximately five blocks in each direction. Permission was given to literally control the traffic signals on those streets where they ran the chase car. Even so, in many instances, they illegally continued the chase into sections with no traffic control, where they actually had to evade real traffic and pedestrians. Many of the (near) collisions in the movie were therefore real and not planned (with the exception of the near-miss of the lady with the baby carriage, which was carefully rehearsed). A flashing police light was placed on top of the car to warn bystanders. A camera was mounted on the car’s bumper for the shots from the car’s point-of-view. Hackman did some of the driving but the extremely dangerous stunts were performed by Bill Hickman, with Friedkin filming from the backseat. Friedkin operated the camera himself because the other camera operators were married with children and he was not.
  • To save money on the budget and also because they didn’t always have permits, William Friedkin had the cameraman carted around in a wheelchair instead of using a camera mounted on dolly tracks for the moving shots. This is most noticeable when Gene Hackman runs to then enters the subway car. As the camera follows Hackman hurrying towards the car the film movement is smooth but then shakes noticeably as the cameraman has to get up from the wheelchair and follow Hackman into the subway car.
  • William Friedkin has said the chase scene wasn’t fully scripted, but largely conceived while they were doing location scouting. It was almost completely improvised and shot entirely out of sequence, over a period of five weeks. It did not involve solid day-to-day shooting, and all of the shooting was confined between the hours of 10am- 3pm. One reason was that they were given permission to use only one particular Brooklyn line, the Stillwell Avenue, running from Coney Island into Manhattan (the West End line). The entire chase was shot with an Arriflex camera, as was most of the picture. One brief shot, where Doyle’s car slams into the fence, was filmed in Ridgewood under the Myrtle Ave., or M, line.
  • The most famous shot of the chase is made from a front bumper mount and shows a low-angle point of view shot of the streets racing by. Director of photography Owen Roizman, wrote in American Cinematographer magazine in 1972 that the camera was under cranked to 18 frames per second to enhance the sense of speed. Roizman’s contention is borne out when you see a car at a red light whose muffler is pumping smoke at an accelerated rate. Other shots involved stunt drivers who were supposed to barely miss hitting the speeding car, but due to errors in timing accidental collisions occurred and were left in the final film.
  • The car crash during the chase sequence, at the intersection of Stillwell Ave. and 86th St., was unplanned and was included because of its realism. The man whose car was hit had just left his house a few blocks from the intersection to go to work and was unaware that a car chase was being filmed. The producers later paid the bill for the repairs to his car.

Can you imagine a car chase being filmed under those circumstances today? I sure can’t! If the name of stunt driver Bill Hickman sounds familiar, it should. He also did great work in two other famous film car chases: Bullitt and The Seven-Ups. The chase in The French Connection is great for so many reasons: the guerrilla-style way it was filmed, the on-location shooting, the incredible cinematography…I could go on. William Friedkin is one of our great directors. The French Connection is just one of many examples why.