FILM / The big bang theory

UNDERRATED: The case for small explosions

The recent broadsheet reviews of Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street were thrilled to announce a movie that "packs more power, more fireworks, than all the car explosions Hollywood can muster". Variations on this aphorism are wheeled out whenever s ome celebrated European makes a film in which everyone sits around and chats for hours on end: the implication being that explosions are low-brow kicks for the masses, and must therefore be frowned upon by all who consider movies to be art.

This disdain is relatively new. There was a time when no decent Jean-Luc Godard or Joseph Losey film was complete without some tangled wreck blazing away enigmatically, a savage indictment of our blazing middle classes. And I have checked my Sight and Sound Best Films of All Time list, and am delighted to announce that 18 of these acclaimed works include an exploding vehicle, not to mention seven exploding buildings and three exploding leading characters (if you count Robert De Niro's nose in Raging Bull). From the aesthetically magnificent decimation of Al Pacino's Sicilian wife and car in The Godfather (the turning point in Michael Corleone's development, transforming the man from War Hero to Ruthless Don), to the stunning fireworks of Die Hard, blazing vehicles are one of the cinema's most underrated art forms.

There are three distinct - and equally delightful - categories of exploding cars in the movies.

1: The blockbuster. Arnie blows up a refrigerated lorry and says, "Ice to meet you", or something equally witty.

2: The complex thriller. After a pleasant, bonding conversation, Harrison Ford's best friend gets into a car, and slowly turns the key. Suddenly, Harrison's face registers terrified bewilderment. "No!" he screams. But it is too late...

3: The French avant-garde. A car blows up for no particular reason in a forest, and a bourgeois family dances around it, their ties wrapped around their foreheads.

The doyen of the genre, however, fits into none of these categories. Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear is the purest exploding-vehicle film ever made, with a plot that rests solely on whether or not two trucks filled with nitro-glycerine are going to blow up en route from a verminous South American village to their oil refinery destination.Every stone in the road, every pothole, could (and eventually does) spell catastrophe. Clouzot realised the magnificent potential of the exploding vehicle, and the critics and public were equally wowed. Consequently, much as I relish the fiery word-play of Malle's Uncle Vanya, I can't help thinking that the movie would have been improved no end had some blazing truck smashed into the theatre during the third act, and showered the assembled cast with flaming debris. Now that would have been fireworks.

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