FILM / The thrill of the high-speed chase: Coming soon (faster than you think) to a cinema near you, Speed is a refinement of that staple of the movie-goer's diet - the car chase. Ryan Gilbey on the guilt-free trip

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The Independent Culture
Jan de Bont's new thriller Speed must have been a breeze to pitch. It goes like this: a bus making its way through the downtown LA rush-hour will, courtesy of a mad bomber, explode if its speed falls below 50mph. It is this rush (with all the word's narcotic connotations), which drives the film: there is no chase. This simple premise duly yielded one of the summer's biggest box-office hits, with US takings standing at dollars 116,746,957, catapulting it into the major league with The Lion King, Forrest Gump and True Lies. Phenomenal business for something with a first-time director and no major stars. De Bont has refuelled one of the most popular genres of Seventies American cinema - the car-chase movie.

The genre dates back to Harold Lloyd and the Keystone Kops or Stagecoach. But it wasn't until the golden days of the drive-in movie - around the time when Mitchum was starring in Arthur Ripley's 1958 Thunder Road - that the car chase established itself at the heart of American cinema, from exploitation pictures to art movies. The chase provided perfect fodder for viewers watching from behind the wheel. Just as High Noon's audience left strutting like Gary Cooper, the roads shooting off from Odeons playing Bullitt were mad with little Steve McQueens. His 15-minute slalom through the steeps of San Francisco was the first truly glamorous treatment of the subject.

Before a glut of imitations kicked in, the gritty, hard-headed American chase movie set about cementing its reputation with The French Connection (1971), after Bullitt the most fondly remembered movie-in-motion. In the wake of these successes, studios began tagging car chases on to any movie where it was felt excitement might be waning. But when, in 1971, director Richard C Sarafian and screenwriter Guillermo Cain worked together on Vanishing Point, they stripped the chase to its bones.

Vanishing Point was the tale of an ex-cop who roams the highways in his Dodge Challenger, reflecting on his shattered life, pursued by police until he deliberately ploughs the car into a bulldozer. It was the first chase movie to signal an impending disillusionment - not of the genre, but of a country coming out of a war it couldn't win. It also had its main character die on the road in an astute attack on the genre's hedonism: in real life, there aren't any stuntmen to take your falls for you.

This sense of violent foreboding was shunted aside by exploitation studios like New World, who wasted little time in rolling mass- produced vehicles off the assembly line. And they made their own contribution to the conventions of this fresh new movie phenomenon: the smash-up.

Perhaps Hollywood thought its newest stars too precious to total. But the independent sector, shooting cheaply on location with scrapyard bangers, often setting themselves in demolition derbies, could indulge freely in a little light destruction.

Predictably enough, trash kings Roger Corman and Paul Bartel were behind some of those early efforts, each of which exhibited pathological thoroughness in ensuring that no member of their four-wheeled cast left the shoot in one piece. Bartel's most notorious excursion onto the roads was Death Race 2000. Until then, women had served only as accessories to the boy-racers, and weren't permitted to rev their own motors until Thelma and Louise, some 23 years after Bullitt. It became the accidental responsibility of Bartel and other no-budget directors like Michael Pressman (The Great Texas Dynamite Chase) and Mark Lester (the hilarious Truck Stop Women) to put a girl in the driving seat.

But whatever their grubby pleasures, these features failed to push women into the mainstream chase movie, which by this time had become monopolised by director Hal Needham's vehicles for Burt Reynolds. Co-starring a vacant, chipper Sally Field, these features (which, between 1977 and 1980 included Hooper and both Smokey and the Bandit films) truly ignited Reynolds' career - and tipped the car chase over the cliff.

There was something rank and reactionary and dishonest about Needham's films. Since before Kerouac, the open road had signalled freedom and individuality, an extension of the frontier spirit. But the sweaty, beer-swillin', hard- sloggin' rednecks who peopled his films ran the old disenfranchised misfits off the road. Dissidence gave way to decadence. Now it was the casual outlaw against the avuncular sheriff. The anarchic energy of the pioneers had dissipated in an aimless, harmless game. There was nothing to worry about anymore. It was time for America to put its troubles away and forget.

With hindsight, John Landis's The Blues Brothers was the harbinger of doom, creatively and commercially. Nothing in it was real, which meant that audiences were denied tension, the single crucial component of any chase movie. Its gravity-defying stunts were enough to test the suspension of anyone's disbelief. But the final, numbing 20-minute chase provoked only incredulous despair. When the brothers leave their vehicle, a single slammed door reduces its weary form to scrap- metal. The car chase had run out of gas. It was left to the Eighties to comment, with fashionably ironic distance, on the passing of the Seventies: works as diverse as Risky Business and Repo Man ('The more you drive, the less intelligent you are') dissected the automobile obsession with scant success. Even Tony Scott's devoutly mainstream Days of Thunder followed racing driver Tom Cruise round and round and round in circles, its dizzy action diffused by an underlying nihilism.

All we have been left with are the off-shoots of America's Reality TV. You can have your fix of Police Stop] on video or terrestrial TV (courtesy of Carlton, naturally): the format's popularity is no surprise. Comprised of real-life police pursuits, it possesses an authenticity absent in the chase movie since 1980. Add to this the media hysteria over joyriders and ram-raiders and you've got a guaranteed cocktail for success. The barrage of blood-lust culminated in last month's release of O J Simpson: Fugitive. It's not Simpson's desperate lunge at escape which appalls so much as the way this rush-released abomination, the original transmission of which had 70 million Americans hooked, has been packaged. 'This is the very best footage of O J Simpson's amazing adventure,' it sings, coming on like Bill & Ted.

Like the Simpson saga, Speed mixes guns and murder into the thrill of the chase. But Speed wins out over the real-life drama because it drains you physically, not morally. Speed doesn't have a yet- to-be-decided outcome which could put its leading man in the chair. It's a guilt-free trip where anything can happen, and it goes a damn sight faster too. Strap yourself in, it's going to be a hell of a ride.

'Speed' opens on 30 September

(Photographs omitted)