I’ve finally got round to watching those BMW commercial short films (collectively called “The Hire“) that people have been raving about for years. Don’t bother looking for them now, because they’ve been taken offline. You can get them on DVD if you pay around 5$ shipping and handling, and for 5$ I’d say they’re definitely worth your time.
I had heard of them before but was never quite interested, mostly because the trailer I saw was for the Guy Ritchie-directed, Madonna-featured episode which seemed quite painful, squealy-tired stunt driving notwithstanding. Add to that a computer that has never quite mixed with streaming video, and I wasn’t exactly gagging to sit down and try to watch them.
Recently however, with their impeding removal from free circulation, my interest was piqued, as was the fact that I now realised the other films in the series were directed by such people as John Frankenheimer and John Woo, and even more interesting, totally strange choices like Ang Lee and Wong Kar Wai (whose work I’ve been curious about, but never actually seen).
The films pretty much follow the same basic scenario: ‘The Driver’ (played by Clive Owen) is some kind of for-hire expert — what else — driver, who has to transport someone or something in some model of BMW car. Usually bad guys show up, give chase, shoot stuff, and at the end of seven minutes or so the plot resolves itself in a tidy way. If this sounds sort of like the excellent Transporter movies, then yeah, Frank Martin from that series and Clive’s unnamed driver character have the same job description. Since the series more or less came out in the same time period (The Hire may have been a little before though) it’s hard to tell who is copying who, or if it was just a case of a two teams thinking up a good concept (that was probably ripped off some obscure Asian action movie).
Being short films, the plots are dead simple, so any entertainment will be gained from the individual director’s approach to the material, and this is definitely the case. Each film is unique in the way it handles the seven slender minutes it has. Let’s take a closer look:
Directed John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate)
This is the simplest of the films. Driver and passenger are ambling along a dark country road in a BMW sedan (I can’t really tell my 5 series from my 7 series, especially before Bangle started making them distinctly ugly) when a van pulls up along side them, masked men point guns and demand they stop and hand over the passenger, and a car chase ensues.
In Frankenheimer’s deft hands, this converts to a white-knuckle, pedal to the metal car chase devoid of a background score. He knows we want to hear that engine roar, hear each gear shift as Clive not so much tosses as precision-manoeuvres the silver bullet about.
Newton Thomas Sigel’s roller-coaster cinematography really drives home (no pun intended) the sensation of speed using low angles and POV shots illuminated only by the BMW’s headlights. Robert Duffy’s editing is crisp and clear; unlike a million car chases I’ve seen, you know exactly what is going on and the thrill is 120%. I actually tried to duck out of the way a couple of times. Ambush is a good, old fashioned chase like they used to make ’em.
Directed by Ang Lee (Hulk, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Sense and Sensibility(!))
Remember those videos of little French hatchbacks doing circles and figure eights set to ballet music? Well, that’s pretty much the case here, except it’s a BMW, an SUV and a Dodge Neon (Wha? Of all the cars to cast as a Bad Guy car in a chase, they get a Dodge Neon?!). Our driver picks up a kid dressed in Tibetan Buddhist monk outfit at the freezing docks, bad guys show up, lots of slippy-slidey, with a somewhat damp denoument post-chase that overstays its welcome and is awkwardly acted. Of all the films in the series, this feels the most as if the director was fully aware he was making a fluffy commercial and didn’t take it seriously.
In stark contrast to Ambush, Chosen is set to classical-style string music, and while it sort of works, the really fun part is in this extended bit set in a maze of cargo containers that could be straight out of a Looney Toons “corridor with many doors” skit. Things go downhill from here as said limp denoument overstays its welcome, then further annoys with a groan-inducing Ang Lee in-joke. It’s not a bad film on its own, but do watch it before Ambush, as it’s almost as bad as…
Directed by Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Swept Away(!))
Ugh. Tantrum-throwing star tantrums her way tantrumifically into Clive’s waiting sedan, proceeds to tantrum some more until he gets a call from the star’s manager who has hired our intrepid driver to do what he does best, which is make hair-raising three point turns in no points whatsoever and a clever use of the handbrake. It’s nice to see the driver character loosen up a bit and behave in entirely stupid ways, and the post-processing-heavy camera work is interesting (lots of those computer aided ‘car always in the centre’ type shots which make it look like a video game), but there’s so little driving here that it’s all for naught.
Ritchie seems to think at we’re all here to see Madonna (uncredited, for reasons unknown), so half the movie is spent in close ups of her scrunching up her nose and delivering bad dialogue in an awful manner. Look, I understand that the whole film is done over the top, and Madonna behaving like a bitchy diva rock star is — in theory, at least — funny, but she can’t act and she’s annoying. Give us more car and more Clive! Owen’s manic expressions during the stunts tip the scales back towards watchable, but still nothing I’m in a hurry to re-watch.
Directed by John Woo (Mission Impossible 2, Face/Off)
When this one starts up, you feel as if you’ve been dropped somewhere in the climax of a 90 minute Hollywood action movie. All the John Woo staples are there including slick, slow-motion macro shots of shell casings, well, just bouncing; revolver barrels primed for Russian Roulette spinning and dissolving to the icy-grey hubcap of a BMW Z4. Easily the most polished looking of all the films, Hostage follows the driver’s attempt to deliver a ransom and get the titular hostage back. It seems to be crammed with the most plot of all the films too, but in short films less is more, and here the more is definitely a bad thing. In a 90 minute movie you have time to get to know the character, you get to care about them. Throwing us in at the deep end only ends up giving the viewer emotional disconnection. We know what is going on, and we can maybe roll it back in our minds to see why we should care, but it’s only 5 minutes and we really don’t care about anything that happens plot-wise.
Like most big budget action movies, things just happen that don’t make any sense, all for the sake of action hijinks (if Clive delivered the ransom with a SWAT team accompanying him, why then are city police chasing him not two minutes later as he tries to race to the bridge? Didn’t anybody tell them he’s on their side?). There’s an attempt at classic film noir plotting, but like Star and Chosen the film both suffers from a slow build up and a long, cold denoument. Unfortunately the car chase in between isn’t particularly exciting either. In Woo’s attempt to make it all look slick, the stunt driving also seems cold. The good performances by the lead trio of Owen, Maury Chaykin and Kathryn Morris can’t save Hostage from being a cold — but beautiful — film that may have made a great feature.
Unfortunately, it’s a short.
Directed by Joe Carnahan (Narc)
Ticker tries to play on post 9/11 paranoia, leading us to believe that Clive is transporting a terrorist and his bomb (that might just be going off riight… now), and for the most part it succeeds. There’s a lot of good car in this (the Z4 again) but it’s overshadowed — quite literally — by a large blackhawk helicopter that gets much of the footage.
Some lovely cinematography, especially the opening shot of bullets on tarmac, but the film is told in a melodramatic fashion that just doesn’t work for a 7 minute short. Like in Hostage, we haven’t really invested enough running time to care about what’s going on, and telling rather than showing us is not going to help just because you decided to stick a feature story in a short.
Don Cheadle and Owen are good, as always (Ray Liotta and a Dennis Haysbert show up as window dressing — and did I see Robert Patrick for a split-second?), but the lines are acted rather than said, and that’s not always a good thing. Worth it for the final shot of Clive back in the car, when, surprisingly — and only for a moment — the plot works and resonates.
But only just.
Beat the Devil
Directed by Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Top Gun)
Wowie, is this ever a weird one. I’d love to see what kind of substance Tony Scott took when he made this, but whatever it was, it worked. Beat the Devil is one of those mad, crazy films that teeters on the edge of being completely ridiculous (and hence off-putting), but manages to keep itself in check with such aplomb that you can’t help but marvel at it. The plot involves Clive, the Devil (Gary Oldman! In a leotard! Riding a motorised wheelchair!) and James Brown.
To say any more would be pointless, because Beat the Devil is all in the seeing of it. It’s shot with amazing energy (by Paul Cameron — no wonder, he did Collateral too), oversaturated, lots of motion streaks and warm lights, and edited with equal mastery (by Skip Chaisson). While Hostage may have been the most slick, Beat the Devil is better because of its controlled chaos.
It’s also laugh-out-loud funny, which is always a good thing.
Directed by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (21 Grams, Amores Perros)
The first thing that strikes you about this one is how it’s shot. Grainy, 16mm film on a handheld camera, desaturated, blown out …just lovely (thank you Robert Richardson. Again). Then, inexplicably, the story grabs you by the throat. It’s hard to tell a story in a short, as the other films in this series show, but Guillermo Ariga and David Carter have done it well, with Inarritu’s deft direction immediately putting you right there where you feel it.
It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is about Powder Keg that makes it work, but work it does, and how! You have a multi-layered plot — a truly multi-layered plot — acted to perfection by Owen and Stellan Skarsgard. The script hooks you with its emotional impact, be it the rounding up of the farmers in the field, the frantic run through the grass, Skarsgard’s dialogue about photograpy, the chase, the epilogue… all of it is just awesome, without ever descending into melodrama despite having every opportunity to.
This is one of the best films of the bunch. The other being…
Directed by Wong Kar Wai (2046, Chungking Express)
The lyrical, moody quality of Wong Kar Wai’s short is beautiful. It’s a simple film about the driver following this time instead of chauffeuring, and it tells its story with such simple brilliance that at the end of it the feeling of overwhelming contentment with cinema is just palpable. This is how a film should make you feel.
Harris Savides’s cinematography is top notch, with long, lazy shots that make you feel as if you’re floating along on a cloud, and when he comes to a stop in the airport, for instance, the work just keeps getting better.
Well, that’s it. I’m definitely going to try and see these again if they ever show up online or someone has a DVD I can borrow. The best of the bunch for me are The Follow (for being just perfect), Powder Keg (for being like a punch to the face), Beat the Devil (for its outrageousness) and Ambush (for being a pure, meaty car chase done well). Ticker, Hostage, Chosen and Star don’t work as well, but each has redeeming qualities — they don’t suck, for instance, though Star comes pretty close.
I hope that BMW continues this series or at least comes up with a new one some day. The imposition of a subject that has to be there (in this case the BMW cars) leads to some interesting films from directors who would otherwise not be telling many short stories. Short films are an important form of expression, as valuable as their feature bretheren, even if it’s brought to you by a seemingly heartless commercial corporation like a car company. It would be a shame to have a world without good shorts from established feature directors.
Bravo, BMW. Can’t quite afford your cars yet (and seeing how ugly some of them have got these days, I’m not sure I want to), but thanks for the good movies.