Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Hire

In 2001 and 2002 BMW released a series of short films featuring their cars. Rather than a series of extended adverts these were action shorts made by high-profile directors and writers, seemingly given free reign to work with whatever styles and conventions they wanted. So whereas it would be easy to write these off as simple commercial fluff the eight short films actually provide an array of interesting and evocative approaches to action. It's almost as if the intrusive product placement has been turned on its head with art now being the element that forces its way into commercialism.

Fancy seeing a new John Frankenheimer car chase? Well then check out Ambush. How about a balletic and charming vehicular pursuit? Go for Ang Lee's Chosen. There is a self-depreciating turn from Madonna as a petulant diva in Guy Ritchie's Star and raw, cinema verite political thrills in Alejandro G. Inarritu's Powederkeg.

These 10-minute blasts all feature Clive Owen as professional driver who finds himself on a series of intense jobs carrying people and products from place to place while always getting caught up in unexpected situations. The four shorts mentioned above are all solid and cinematic films that will happily sate any four-wheeled combat you might in be in the mood for. However it is the following four that really stood out for me.

As a bonafide John Woo nut the early noughties were not a good time. Gone were the Hong Kong days of The Killer and Hard Boiled and the Hollywood days of Hard Target and Face Off. No, John Woo fans were fully in a world of Paycheck, MI:2 and Windtalkers. So the notion that Woo was getting to make an action short featuring car chases was an exciting prospect. To be honest Hostage, a story about Owen's Driver racing against the clock to track a kidnap victim, isn't as exciting as his shoot-em ups. It's a neat little story and the action is fine but Woo's handling of motion doesn't quite thrill with cars in the same way it does with humans. Perhaps because humans are essentially awkward and chaotic creatures that seeing them, and the destruction they cause, gliding harmoniously is where the pleasure comes from. The thrill of cars in movies is seeing smooth running, finely tuned machines smash, crash and tumble their way through all sorts of obstacles, the reflective and sculpted bodywork mangled and twisted beyond recognition. So when Woo has these sleek machines gliding and spinning beautifully well... it doesn't quite excite in the way we'd want. Still, it's a cut above the other four from a stylistic point of view alone and a must for any Woo completists.

Wong Kar-Wai's The Follow is interesting primarily because it eschews action instead focussing on procedure and morality. Co-starring Forrest Whittaker and Mickey Rourke this short sees Owen hired to follow someone's wife only to uncover something that makes him question what he does and who he does it for. It's simple and effective and looks gorgeous.

Tony Scott, on the other hand, leaves the biggest imprint with his bonkers Beat the Devil. In this one Owen has a street race with the Devil (a lipstick and lycra wearing Gary Oldman) in order to return James Brown's youth. Seriously. Imagine telling Dracula/Leon/Fifth Element era Oldman to "go for it", then imagine Tony Scott trying to top that level of crazy with camera and editing. It is, to say the least, less conventional than the others but one you won't forget in a hurry.

Probably my favourite, however, is Joe Carnahan's Ticker. It's a stylish but exciting race against the clock as the Driver is hired to transport a mysterious package that looks like it could explode any moment. The action is brilliantly handled and a nice little twist in the tale makes for a narratively satisfying little parcel. Personally, I think it's the best thing Carnahan has done.

A new film has just been produced celebrating the project's 15th anniversary, this time directed by Keill Blomkamp. Owen goes up against Jon Bernthal as he transports Dakota Fanning from a secret facility. It's really just an excuse for a chase but when your centre-piece is a tug of war between a car and a helicopter it's difficult to feel short-changed.

As a collection these nine shorts give some great Directors the chance to flex their action muscles and the results are all fulfilling. They were also a little ahead of their time. As the website proudly boasts these films were released online before YouTube was a thing yet the template of giving top filmmakers free reign to play online is one few have followed. You can see the initial 8 shorts by following the links peppered throughout or head over to to watch The Escape. They are all well worth your time.

In Defence of Death Race

Death Race 2000 feels like the ultimate cult movie, mixing outlandish ideas, bold choices and exploitation without letting its modest budget hold it back. With a belated sequel out in the U.S. and not far off a UK release I thought it timely to launch one of my ill-advised defences. On trial this time round is the much maligned Death Race remake and its little-seen sequels.

Death Race has more money to spend then the story it is retelling had yet what is gained in production value is lost in smarts and balls. Gone is the satire and the black humour. This movie is straight, uncomplicated action movie making with a grimacing Jason Statham, fight scenes, girls in hot pants and tank-tops and a rock soundtrack. It pisses away its inheritance spectacularly. Just for one moment, though, imagine Death Race 2000 never existed and let me pitch you Paul W.S. Anderson's version.

Fired from his low-pay manual labour job and framed for the murder of his wife an ex-race driver is sentenced to a privately owned prison facility that forces its inmates to compete in televised gladiatorial battles. Rather than fighting these battles with fists or melee weapons these warriors must race each other down in heavily armoured battle cars. Starring Jason Statham, sweary Joan Allen and Ian fucking McShane.

That is an awesome sounding movie right? And you know what? It pretty much delivers. Judged on its own terms this is a rollicking action spectacle that realises its premise totally. The "sport" itself makes sense and the need for Joan Allen's sadistic warden to get higher ratings gives justification to raise the stakes of each race making the escalation of action satisfying and logical. It wears its influences on its sleeve: the finale features a giant battle truck that seems to have driven straight out of The Road Warrior and onto the set. The cars look great, the drivers distinct enough to be interesting and there is enough going on between races to keep you engaged.

The film does suffer from the dreaded close-up shakey cam which, at times, muddles the action a little. Although the cars look great the colours are muted so that when the visuals get intense you're not entirely sure what car you are looking at. There is no sex or nudity but the parade of girls in push-up bras and skimpy clothes are reduced to eye-candy rather than being given any complex roles. This movie doesn't push boundaries of representation or action film-making, yet as a fun b-movie it is everything you could possibly want.

Death Race 2 replaces Statham with Luke Goss, but seems to not replace any of the action scenes. Watching it I was sure they'd just lifted most of the shots from the first movie. The problem with that theory is that they are worse on every level. A meandering story, lack of any charisma on screen, weak car stunts and a finale that doesn't feature any car action Death Race 2 is the kind of bullshit even I am not willing to defend.

Thank Jesus then for Death Race: Inferno, a movie that not only improves on its predecessor but maybe even on the original (the Statham one I mean). This one actually features an interesting story that comes together like a Danny Ocean plan at the end and a much-needed injection of scenery chewing from always reliable Dougray Scott. The ladies in little clothing element hasn't been reduced, but instead pushed to such a ludicrous level that it feels less exploitative than the earlier movies.

Yes, there is a completely unwarranted shower scene for lead Tanit Phoneix, yes her entire arch is to go from not being in love with Luke Goss to being in love with Luke Goss and yes Danny Trejo gets off with a fan-girl a third of his age. But the all-girl cage fight (which involves fists, bladed weapons and at one point a flame-thrower) is absurdly fun and although the combatants are wearing their usual lack of clothing the televised reality show element of it all just about allows them to have their cake an eat it (just). They also introduce the first female driver which, although barely a gesture, at least shows some degree of movement in the right direction.

It's the action, however, that is the real draw. The races have been moved to the deserts and shanty towns of South Africa giving it much more of a post-apocalyptic aesthetic. The vehicles have more distinctive designs while the action, and blood, are almost entirely practical. It is wonderfully gory (an entire person explodes at one point), exciting and all shot with clarity. Its low budget is evident but in the world of straight to DVD action it looks positively opulent.

Death Race and Death Race: Inferno lack any of the bite and humour of Corman's original classic but judged on their own merits they are two thrilling b-movies that are well worth you attention.

Death Race 2 is proper horse shit though. Seriously.