Greatest Chase Scenes, Vol.2 (Bipedal) — Part One

This week marks 29 years since the CFS was involved in an exciting foot chase at college, the circumstances of which should elicit sympathetic nods from this blog’s vast readership. Because who among you hasn’t spent a long evening drinking beer before attempting to pilfer a painted bed sheet (“Welcome Dorsey Dolls!”) hanging from a freshman dorm to use as a slipcover?

Sadly, a campus security officer in a Dodge Lancer spotted the crime in progress and gave chase across the quad. Not on foot, mind you, but in his car, employing all four cylinders as he tore up thick chunks of sod while tailing the fleeing perp round and round a large pine tree. Why was the CFS running in circle? Actually, why was he running at all? Blame both on the precious documentation he carried in his sock, the kind that inflates one’s age to 21 and, therefore, must to be tossed into a dense tree before surrendering to the law. As to why the security guy gave chase in his car rather than on foot, one can only assume sloth.

Anyway, to honor this feat of youthful stupidity, it’s time to spotlight some particularly awesome cinematic foot chases. Surely I’ve missed some whoppers — for example, the CFS’s father will gripe that The Naked Prey wasn’t included. However, let me remind him that, as with the exclusion of 1971’s Duel from Vol. 1 because the whole movie is, in effect, one huge car chase, the same goes for The Naked Prey or, for that matter, 2006’s Apocalypto.

As with the vehicular post of late June, the following scenes are presented in no particular order, although the list does culminate in my sure-to-be-controversial personal vote for GOAT.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992, Dir. Michael Mann)

Setup
Kidnapped by the evil Magua (Wes Studi), a handful of our protagonists — Cora (Madeleine Stowe), her sister Alice (Jodhi May) and Maj. Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) — find their fates in the hands of a Huron wise man. Hawkeye (part-time cobbler Daniel Day-Lewis) storms into camp to intervene, pleading for the wise man to show compassion. The wise man complies, in a decidedly pre-Revolutionary America sort of way: Heyward and Hawkeye can return to the British army and the woods, respectively, Alice becomes the property of Magua and Cora gets burned alive. This isn’t what Hawkeye was looking for, especially because Cora, his love, would make for an ineffectual wife if she were dead. He selflessly offers to trade places. Heyward translates the plea to the chief, upping the selfless quotient by swapping his name for Hawkeye’s. Thus, the final tally: Hawkeye and Cora: free; Alice: sex slave; Heyward: BBQ.

Magua and company leave the camp, a bound Alice in tow. Hawkeye, after euthanizing Heyward, joins up with his adoptive father and brother — Chingachgook (Russell Means) and Uncas (Eric Schweig) — to retrieve Cora’s sister and mete out some frontier justice.

My Two Cents
No doubt eyebrows raised at the news that Chicago native Michael Mann would helm an expensive adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel. After all, both from a stylistic and genre POV, The Last of the Mohicans couldn’t have been farther from the director’s gritty crime fables such as Thief, Manhunter and TV’s Miami Vice. Any fears that Hawkeye would sport Armani or Cora would go heavy on the Aqua Net or Phil Collins would appear on the soundtrack were quickly dispelled with the unspooling of the film’s opening scene, a deer hunt, which establishes a visual style consisting of formally composed and naturally lit widescreen imagery rather than Mann’s trademark south Florida flash and gleam. Mann’s stylistic choices culminate in the final foot chase, a beautiful set piece in which the camera remains generally static as events unfold against the grandeur of Adirondack Mountains. (Actually, North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains acting as stand-ins.) This is epic filmmaking at its finest, David Lean-ian in its execution  — no expository dialogue, no visual effects, no superfluous bullshit. Only gorgeous visuals and sound as justice is served at a terrible cost.

Raising Arizona (1987, Dir. Joel Coen)

Setup
Recidivist Herbert I. “Hi” McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) promises his new wife, Edwina (Holly Hunter), a former police officer, to fly the straight and narrow, this despite the two of them kidnapping one of the Arizona quintuplets. Hi resists the urge for some time, but finally succumbs, stealing some Huggies from a convenience store. Edwina, in the car with the baby, drives off, furious. Coen brother zaniness ensues, including a pack of domestic dogs, incompetent police, a screaming guy in a pickup truck and exploding canned goods. (Excuse the quality of the clip. This was the best YouTube had to offer for the entire scene.)

My Two Cents
What can one say? Pure silliness. Tons of fun. Just like the whole movie. For those interested in more snobbish technical matters, I will add this: note how the Coens use the camera, how they move it to and fro like a drunken bee. Now, you could argue that all those steadicams, handhelds and dollies were artistic decisions meant to heighten the zaniness of the proceedings. Fair enough. But one could just as easily contend that young filmmakers lean too heavily on dazzling technique. (This was the Coen’s second feature.) Why? Because they’re not yet fully formed as filmmakers. In other words, they’re not yet confident enough in their storytelling abilities to let the material speak for itself. Paul Thomas Anderson is another case in point, the auteur employing an ants-in-the-pants camera strategy in Boogie Nights and Magnolia. However, as his career progressed, he quieted down, first with Punch Drunk Love and then, most especially, with his magnum opus, There Will Be Blood. As for the Coens, they toned down the ADHD camera stuff when they started working with the great Roger Deakins on Fargo. Since then? Some mighty fine films, including O Brother, Where Art Thou?, A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis, No Country for Old Men and True Grit.

The Third Man (1949, Dir. Carol Reed)

Setup
The jig is up for the mysterious, elusive Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Once assumed dead, the authorities are closing in on this racketeer notorious for trading in watered-down penicillin. To help lure Lime from hiding, they’ve called upon Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an old friend of Lime’s but now disgusted by the other man’s amoral profiteering. However, Lime’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), warns him just in time, leading to a chase through Vienna’s handsome sewers. (Ed. note: regarding video, I couldn’t find the whole chase on YouTube so this will have to suffice. Also, the guy who posted it swapped out the Anton Karas’ famous zither score for something he whipped up himself. Sad!)

My Two Cents
They just don’t make ’em like they used to, do they? Note the way Welles overacts in that way that actors overacted back in the day. More importantly, check out that glorious high-contract B/W photography, film noir’s best friend, courtesy cinematographer Robert Krasker. And look at the way he and director Carol Reed use nutty angles to add to the disorientation. And, if the score were intact, I’d say listen to the way Reed employs music to ratchet the tension.

Oftentimes, what makes or breaks a chase has more to do with its setting than its construction. A foot chase is a foot chase, after all, someone chasing someone else. So what’s the special sauce that makes it memorable? In The Last of the Mohicans it was the sheer face of a picturesque mountain trail. In Raising Arizona it was suburbia — houses and grocery stores and back yards. And in The Third Man it’s the incredibly photogenic Vienna sewer system. The perfect place for a rat to meet his fate.

Point Break (1991, Dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

Setup
FBI agent and unlikely TigerBeat hunk — since when did that dopey guy from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure get so ripped? — Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is hot on the trail of a group of bank robbers led by Bodhi (the incomparably coffied Patrick Swayze) and known as the “Ex-presidents.” Ironically, in the course of his undercover investigation, Utah has become a surfing buddy of Bodhi and admires the man’s outlook on life. Other than the robbing banks part, of course. However, friendship only goes so far when Bodhi et al decide to take down another score.

My Two Cents
A movie can spend multi-millions on an extravagant car chase that results in nothing more than the audience collectively shrugging — been there, done that. On the flipside, a movie can stage a relatively simple, super-kinetic foot chase that causes the same audience to sit up straighter in their seats. In Point Break, a generally silly but fun actioner, director Katheryn Bigelow throws at her pro- and antagonist seemingly benign everyday objects — dogs, women vacuuming, kids biking, garbagemen, fences, kiddie pools, traffic — and has them negotiate their way around, over and through while running at full speed. It’s a simple conceit but one that works great. One wonders if Bigelow was influenced by the foot chase in Raising Arizona.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Dir. Paul Greengrass)

Setup
After a failed attempt to stop the murder of a CIA Station Chief with insight into Jason Bourne’s (Matt Damon) true identity, Bourne must negotiate the packed streets and cluttered rooftops of Tangiers to prevent his accomplice, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), from the same fate at the hands of humorless assassin Desh Bouksani. (Ed. note: again I had trouble locating the entire chase on the usually reliable YouTube. The first clip presents in crummy quality, and with another weird homemade rescore, most of the first part of the chase. The second clip presents in higher quality the last part, culminating in an epic fight between Desh and Bourne.)

My Two Cents
This one’s a whopper, a veritable travelogue of the streets, rooftops, apartments and bathrooms of exotic Tangier set to percussive action music. Director Paul Greengrass, in his second Bourne outing, finds the perfect set piece to employ his unique cinéma-vérité style — his camera hustles behind Bourne, lurks near Desh, swoops across rooftops and leaps from windows as our protagonist is chased by police and our antagonist stalks Nicky. Note the great moment when Bourne, without breaking stride, grabs clothes from rooftop lines and spins them around his palms to protect his hands from being cut as he pommel horses a glass-lined wall. And then there’s that final jump, the camera defying gravity as Bourne leaps through a window to go mano-a-mano with Desh, an epic fight that features my all-time favorite blunt weapon, a hardcover book. Who knew?

Phew. That’s five so far, plenty to chew on for now.

In Part Two, which will follow shortly, I will present a handful more doozies, including my pick for GOAT.

Try to stay calm.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply