Hell on wheels

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 June, 2006, 12:00am

Job description: Where would directors be without that blessing and curse of modern life - the car - to spice up dull moments?

When in doubt, throw in a car chase to get the adrenalin flowing. And, on a deeper level, the automobile has become a handy metaphor for everything that's wrong with big city life, through images of gridlocked misery in fume-filled streets.

Recently seen in: Paul Haggis' Brokeback-busting, Oscar-winning best picture, Crash. Here, the tired trope of auto alienation is evoked as a metaphor for race relations in an ambitious and somewhat heavy-handed ensemble piece that says we're all racists deep down. A bunch of mostly unlovable characters crash into each other in various permutations, in a kind of psychic dodgem-car ride. Sandra Bullock puts in a nasty turn as a hostile racist socialite, Matt Dillon is an embittered racist white cop, Don Cheadle is a guilt-ridden racist black cop, and Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton are a well-to-do black couple who get the short end of the stick. But could 12 people keep crashing into each other with such regularity in a city as big as Los Angeles? Hmm.

Most likely to say: 'In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In LA, nobody touches you. We're behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other, just to feel something.'

Classics of the genre: Before Haggis' Crash there was that other Crash (above), David Cronenberg's 1996 adaptation of J.G. Ballard's weird classic about a bunch of sickos who get off on fender benders and disfigurement. James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger are pervertedly perfect, while Elias Koteas puts in a creepy turn as a chap who gets off on re-enacting famous car smashes, such as the one that did in James Dean. It turned off movie-goers, but reviewer Roger Ebert hit the nail on the head: 'Crash is about a sexual fetish that no one has ... it's about the human mind, about the way we grow enslaved by the particular things that turn us on, and forgive ourselves our trespasses.'

Closer to home, Wong Ching-po goes for a Blues Brothers-style car chase in Ah Sou (2005), with a 20-minute, slow-motion pile- up that brings a kind of heavy-metal poetry to a film otherwise roundly dismissed as a style-over-substance bore. John Carpenter gets creepy with cars, adapting Stephen King's Christine (1983), in which a 1958 Plymouth Fury takes on a malevolent life of its own.

An early Steven Spielberg classic, the 1971 made-for-television flick Duel, tapped into the dark side of an auto-obsessed society and was a classic example of road rage before the term had even been coined. The maddening effects of gridlock set the scene for the rampage of Michael Douglas as D-FENS in Joel Schumacher's 1993 chiller Falling Down, with the put-upon average Joe abandoning his car in the middle of an LA freeway.

Also worth a look is the little-known 1978 Ryan O'Neal vehicle, The Driver, directed by Walter Hill (48 Hours, The Warriors), for all-action car chases, as O'Neal plays the best getaway man in the business (far superior to Luc Besson's limp 2002 The Transporter and its 2005 sequel).

Ultimate avatar: The obvious choice is Mad Max, the 1979 film that made Mel Gibson a star and delivered a strikingly original post-apocalyptic, hell-on-wheels vision, made on a relatively shoestring budget yet featuring gripping chase scenes. Or perhaps it's the early Peter Weir cult classic The Cars That Ate Paris (1977), with its mixture of black humour, horror and social comment, revolving around a man who gets stranded after a car crash in a town that's soon in the grip of motorised mayhem.

Not to be confused with: The Love Bug (1968) or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).