The Greatest Movie Car Chases of All Time, Jesse Crosse

Motorbooks, 2006, 176 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7603-2410-4

I know, I know: A whole book about car chases? You’re either wondering what’s the point, pleased at the infinite diversity of subjects available to book buyers, of frustrated that you haven’t been able to sell that pitch to a publisher.

One thing’s for sure: there couldn’t be a more appropriate publisher for this title than Motorbooks, which specializes in exactly what you think they do. The Greatest Movie Car Chases of All Time is a book for car enthusiasts who happen to like movies more than the other way around: the focus, we quickly find out, is as much on the nuts and bolts of the chase than on cinematic techniques.

It’s also more than the titular list, which takes up only the last of the book’s eight chapters. Before we get to it, there is a lot of material about the special cars required to film high-speed mayhem.

This focus on the behind-the-scenes automotive knowledge is apparent from the first chapter, which traces the history of the car chase through the lineage of the people responsible for making them. It’s an unusual choice for a historical overview, and while it may offer an incomplete portrait of a grander canvas, the insider knowledge is interesting enough to distinguish the chapter from more superficial histories of the form that you can probably find on-line.

The second chapter, one of the book’s longest, is ostensibly about cinematography, but really becomes an excuse to look at the making of several of the car chases that will pop up again in the book’s final list. Chases from DIE ANOTHER DAY, BULLIT, RONIN and C’ÉTAIT UN RENDEZVOUS (featuring exclusive information from director Claude Lelouch) are extensively discussed.

The next chapter keeps up the technical focus with a look on the specially modified cars used in film chases. The two BULLIT hero cars get a lot of attention, as do the Mini Coopers in the first ITALIAN JOB. Chapter four is a bit of an oddball, focusing exclusively on the past few James Bond movies; the narrative flow of the book changes, and the result feels like a magazine article sandwiched between other things. The fifth chapter feels similar, looking at the works of a specialized British company called Bickers Action, with an emphasis on production techniques that segues well into the next “Lights, Camera, Action” chapter which tackles the technical challenges of shooting a car chase with special cameras and techniques. Chapter Seven offers a return to the human element as it takes a look at the lives of the stuntsmen and precision drivers so essential to the chases.

Chapter 8 is the long-awaited “Top Twenty”, and it’s an expected mix of big sequences (TERMINATOR 2), acknowledged classics (FRENCH CONNECTION), foreign imports (TAXI), car-centric films (GONE IN 60 SECONDS) and lesser-known films (THE SEVEN-UPS, ranking third right under RONIN).

You will not be surprised that BULLIT (1968) earns the pole position on the list: not when images from the film adorn the cover and the book’s first page. Not when the foreword is from the film’s director Peter Yates. It’s a safe, classic and historically uncontroversial choice, even though younger viewers may look at the movie nowadays and not be as impressed by the chase than audiences back then. But since some of the more extravagant chases since then are elsewhere on the list (including my own favorites from THE ROCK and THE MATRIX RELOADED), there’s something for everyone.

While I may not be as much of a car enthusiast as the usual readership of Motorbooks publications, There’s a lot to like in The Greatest Movie Car Chases of All Time, especially now that it’s hit the discount shelves. Abundantly illustrated, it can even find a way on your coffee table as a discussion piece. There’s solid information here in addition of the titular list, and even a few discoveries in the mix. Heck, C’ÉTAIT UN RENDEZVOUS is just a Google search away, and it’s almost as good as the book suggests.

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