UNDERRATED: The Chase (1994)

The Chase (USA, 1994)
Directed by Adam Rifkin
Starring Charlie Sheen, Kirsty Swanson, Rocky Carroll, Henry Rollins

In this celebrity-driven world, what happens to actors off-screen is often deemed just as important as their work on-screen - sometimes it is even deemed to be more important. It's very hard to ignore the all-pervasive coverage of celebrity meltdowns, scandals and general misbehaving, and now with the internet at our fingertips, what once was confined to The Daily Sport and The National Enquirer is available to everyone, all day, every day.
Four years after his ranting about tiger blood and being "bi-winning", it's still very hard to take Charlie Sheen seriously. His ignominious departure from Two and a Half Men and the numerous parodies prompted by his statements in interviews could lead us to completely write him off, either as yet another casualty of a merciless industry or as an overrated, immature attention-seeker. But believe it or not, there was a time when Sheen could hold your gaze without getting on your nerves - and that brings us on nicely to The Chase.
The Chase is, at its most elemental, a B-movie. It has a straightforward set-up, goes about its business in a no-nonsense fashion, has a clear beginning, middle and end, and doesn't overstay its welcome. Most of its plot is actually lifted from the 1955 film The Fast and the Furious, which was written by B-movie maestro Roger Corman and which gave its name to the franchise featuring Vin Diesel (though those films do not share any aspect of Corman's plot).
Both Corman's film and Adam Rifkin's film have one major thing in their favour: efficiency. Looking at it 21 years later, against a Hollywood full of bloated, over-long and ever-increasing sequels, it is so refreshing to find a film that can tell an entertaining story in 90 minutes and that isn't self-conscious about its brevity. But where Corman's compulsion for efficiency could occasionally work against his attempts to generate atmosphere - for instance, on The Little Shop of Horrors - Rifkin knows exactly what's he doing and sticks to his guns, at least until the last 10 minutes.
Had The Chase been made with a higher budget, or with bigger names in its cast, it's fair to assume that it would have been much less taut and exciting. If the budget had been, say, $50 million rather than $4.5 million, we would have had to sit through a long prologue hammering home how Jack was innocent, probably coupled with a contrived escape sequence which eventually leads to him kidnapping Natalie. While filmmakers should always be encouraged to show rather than tell, The Chase is a good reminder that we don't always need to see everything.
Like all the best B-movies, The Chase offers a little bit to chew on in amongst all its spectacle. It is, in one sense, a close cousin of Duel, using a chase premise to explore how people cope under pressure and how they deal with a seemingly unstoppable force that is pursuing them. There are also clear through-lines with The Hitcher: though Rifkin's film is far less nihlistic than Robert Harmon's, both films have a protagonist who become progressively more unhinged and constantly wonders why he deserves such a fate.
The main focus of The Chase's subtext is the sensationalist nature of modern media. It uses the increasingly bizarre series of accidents that befall the characters to make a point about how TV news in particular is so innately hysterical. The journalists and the police quickly transition from reporting on what they see to increasingly wild speculations, more concerned about viewing figures than telling the truth.
Much of the film's best comedy comes from a small act or mishap, such as Jack shooting out a police car's tyre, being blown out of all proportion by the media. Jack shoots the tyre out completely by accident, and only a few seconds later the man in the traffic helicopter declares that he must be an expert marksman, or possibly an ex-marine. Because Jack cannot simply pull over and explain the banal nature of what actually happened, the media have a free rein and depart from the truth to degrees so absurd that you can't help but laugh.
Ultimately, there is a limit to the amount of insight that the simple plot of The Chase can generate. You're not going to find as deep a commentary here as you will in Network or Broadcast News, and it's not up there with the best of the Mad Max series in terms of both thrills and thematic storytelling. But the film pursues its main idea to a largely satisfying degree, and even when its ending fudges things slightly, you still don't feel completely cheated.
Equally, to accept the basic premise of The Chase does require a reasonably large amount of suspension of disbelief. We have to accept, for instance, that Natalie's car could get all the way to Mexico on one tank of fuel; had it been a Mustang or Dodge Charger rather than a BMW, this would have been harder still. Likewise, if you don't believe that the police and Natalie could really mistake a chocolate bar for a gun when Jack holds up the petrol station, there's really no point carrying on.
As the film wears on, the diversions or obstacles that are introduced become increasingly outlandish. Most of these feel like natural continuations from a given situation: it is just about conceivable that Natalie could throw up that much as a result of Jack's driving. But when Anthony Kiedis and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers turn up, things get very rocky. Not only are the pair not all that funny, but the casting draws too much attention to itself and distracts us from the central pairing.
Having held its nerve for so long, The Chase begins to lose its way as the pair get closer to Mexico. Firstly, the film shifts from playing out in real-time (or close to that) to a slower, more languid and more montage-driven feel. And then, there's the infamous sequence where Jack and Natalie make love while Jack is still driving the car. While it's perhaps not as ridiculous as the similar sequence in Basic Instinct 2, it's still completely nonsensical.
The ending of The Chase is also a botched affair. The film is caught between the rock of Thelma and Louise and the hard place of Easy Rider or Vanishing Point; it can't decide whether to end in a blaze of glory or to have its characters get away in a gripping manner. In the end, it settles for a happy ending which feels both forced and improvised, finishing on a damp squib which insults our intelligence.
The Chase is an underrated action comedy which plays its ideas through to the fullest that it can and offers a good amount of entertainment while doing so. Despite its cop-out ending, the film is ably sustained by Sheen and Kirsty Swanson, and Rifkin directs very capably with a good deal of pace and efficiency. It won't be enough to entirely convince nay-sayers to rehabilitate Sheen as an actor, but for anyone seeking to do so, it's a very good place to start.


NEXT REVIEW: Shrek (2001)


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