Cars are cool. This mantra has been the focus of countless action pieces throughout cinema. Cars are cool, and the audience likes to see them go really fast. The car chase has a special place in cinema because it is, to an extent, the most relatable action scene in any action film. Most people have not ever been in a fight. Most people have never fired a gun. Certainly most people have never walked away calmly while things blew up behind them. However, most people know how to drive, and, as a corollary to that most people know what it feels like to drive fast. They have never been in a high speed chase, but they know the feeling of flying down the street. Thus, when a car chase is shown on screen, the audience is able to physically relate to the action shown on screen.
Bullitt, the 1968 thriller which contains one of the most famous car chases ever, works extensively on this principle. The chase begins very slowly with both contestants stopping at traffic lights, looking both ways before they go through intersections, and even remembering to put on a seatbelt before the exciting things start happening. The slow pace and attention to actual driving allows the audience to ground themselves in reality before the big chase starts. These are all things that the audience has done before. They know what it’s like to drive in a city. Steve McQueen’s car is almost definitely cooler than their car, but in the end it’s mostly the same thing.
Once the action starts, the sense that these men are driving through a city continues through the entire chase. From the very first moment where the hit men take off with squealing tires, Bullitt is stuck in the intersection as people won’t let him make the left turn. He misses turns and has to reverse in order to get back on track. He behaves like normal people do when they drive through a city; he’s just doing it at a much higher speed than the average person. The audience is able to recognize his behavior and thus they empathize with him through this action scene. Every driver knows the feeling of missing a turn or being stuck due to other drivers not allowing them to turn. These mistakes allow the audience to feel like the person driving the car could easily be them.
While the car chase strikes a familiar chord with the audience, it also serves to allow the audience to live out their fantasies and expand their horizons. As Bullitt speeds through the streets of San Francisco, he is launching off of the terraced hills that dominate the streets. This makes the chase more exciting as cars go flying through the air, as well as creating a situation that exists very specifically in San Francisco. People who have driven through the city know the feeling of going up and down the hills and know that they have to be careful in order to make sure that the car doesn’t go airborne or bottom out on the steep terraces. Bullitt is able to perform these dangerous stunts that the people in the theatre have only thought about doing but are too worried for their safety as well as the condition of their car. For those who have never driven in San Francisco, the film offers several point of view shots in order to immerse oneself in the experience of driving through the city. For either party, this car chase allows them to experience something that would only previously be possible in their minds.
The car chase as an awesome fantasy is used to great extent in the 1996 Michael Bay film, The Rock. Once again taking place in San Francisco, this car chase focuses less on immersing oneself in the car chase and heightening the common experience of the audience. Instead, it focuses on the fantastical elements of the Hollywood car chase and creates a situation that the audience wishes that driving was like.
The chase begins fantastically with the main participants, Goodspeed and Mason, encountering high end, really cool, cars right outside of the hotel in which they’ve been staying. The chase that follows is full of implausible incidents which serve to make the chase that much more exciting. The audience is treated to cars crashing through water bottles, other cars, and shop windows without seeming to get a scratch. Parked cars seem to be filled with c4 and nitroglycerin and explode into gigantic fireballs when the other cars crash into them. None of these elements can happen in a real car chase, but the audience accepts them as they make the chase even cooler. By departing from the real world, Bay is able to celebrate cinemas ability to look cool and move fast without the trappings and constraints of reality.
This chase also focuses much more on the participants as compared to the silent drivers of Bullitt. Mason seems full of one-liners as his humvee wreaks destruction on anything and everything that gets in his way. He doesn’t seem fazed as he drives away from several cop cars. Goodspeed, on the other hand, is much more nervous about what is going on. Though he performs death-defying stunts, he has to think about what he’s doing before he actually does it. Goodspeed represents the audience in this chase just as Bullitt did in his own film. Goodspeed is able to perform all of the cool driving stunts that the audience wishes they could while at the same time not being the typical testosterone fueled action hero. Goodspeed doesn’t own the cool car and he’s not technically a field agent. However, when the time comes to act, he is able to rise to the occasion. After the chase ends, the camera circles around Goodspeed as he delivers his final one-liner, cementing his role as cool even though he started out as a man completely out of his element. In his ascension from normal to cool, he has brought the audience with him as his position as the audience stand in has not changed.
The car chase is absolutely one of the most dynamic pieces in cinema. It often showcases cars that the audience wishes they could afford doing things that the audience wishes they could do. It showcases the ability of cinema to enhance reality in order to make things more exciting, and in that enhancement, it takes the audience along with it. But in the end, the reason that the car chase is so popular and enduring is one thing. They’re really cool.