Unsung Anniversaries #4: The Chase

The Chase

First, a brief correction from last week: I said that this week’s film would feature an obscure candy bar as an important plot point. I am sorry to inform you all that the candy bar I was thinking of was a Butterfinger. I would like to apologize to the makers of Butterfingers for calling them obscure. I got you guys and the candy bar used in the film confused with the Reese’s made NutRageous bar. I am deeply sorry to anyone I may have offended.

The Chase

Release date: March 4th, 1994 (20th anniversary)

Opening weekend box office: $3.4 million (#5, 1,633 screens)

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Other notable films opening that weekend: Greedy, a film starring Michael J. Fox and Kirk Douglas and written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel and directed by Jonathan Lynn, debuted at #2. Martha Coolidge’s Geena Davis starring pregnancy drama Angie had a very low key opening in 7th place. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective held onto the number one spot at the box office in its 5th week of release.

Days in theatrical release: Unknown

Final domestic box office take: $8 million

Estimated budget: Less than $5 million

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How I remember The Chase:

I know I watched it at least once on home video. Probably even more than that since I vaguely remember owning it on VHS. At least it seems like something I would have purchased on VHS if it was cheap enough.

The re-examination

Finally, it’s happened. I have watched a film that has actually improved over what I thought of it when I first watched it. Not that I particularly remembered much of anything about this Charlie Sheen and Kristy Swanson in a vehicle vehicle, but I guarantee I never appreciated how sharp it was as an unpretentious action comedy before. Adam Rifkin’s almost literal point A to point B story was something I probably appreciated when I was younger, but probably just because it was snappy, loud, brash, and it has Kristy Swanson in it who only two years prior I had watched as Buffy: The ORIGINAL Vampire Slayer several times in the theatre. I might have had a bit of a crush. Whatever. We’re all young at some point in our lives. (See also the now extremely ill advised number of times I actually saw House Arrest in theatres just to see Jennifer Love Hewitt.)

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Now that I’m older and (probably not that much) wiser, there’s a real economy to The Chase that I wish more movies would have. It takes less than five minutes to get started, only says what it has to, comes packed with excellent supporting characters that steal the movie from the leads, and it wraps up in less than 90 minutes. It’s a throwback to a time period two decades earlier when all a producer needed was a fast car and at least one attractive or charismatic lead to have a hit movie. But what makes The Chase hold up even better now than it might have in 1994 is how the film has essentially created its own time machine. With the exception of a couple of obvious 80s and 90s references that take only seconds off the film if you cut them out, it credibly looks and feels like it could have been from the1970s golden age of driving flicks.

The Chase was the seventh feature directorial effort for Rifkin, a still young filmmaker who specialized almost exclusively in B-movie schlock like Psycho Cop Returns and The Invisible Maniac, both of which were made under his pseudonym Rif Coogan and the latter of which actually provided some inspiration for Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man. (Rifkin’s film is better if you can believe it.) It came shortly after Rifkin, who was still trying to break into the studio system, had just made the most ambitious and most unceremoniously forgotten films of his career: The Dark Backward.

A 1991 film about a terribly unfunny stand-up comic (played by Judd Nelson) who grows a third arm out of his back and his experiences dealing with the sleazier side of the showbiz sideshow (including a memorably deranged Wayne Newton), The Dark Backward boasted an all star cast that also included Bill Paxton, James Caan, Rob Lowe, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Claudia Christian (who had previously worked with Rifkin twice before and who pops up in a small role in The Chase). It was a deranged, gleefully misanthropic and unapologetically nasty satire that crossed David Lynch with Joe Dante. It has since gained a considerably amount of cult notoriety, but the film never received a more than a token theatrical release when it wasn’t picked up by a major studio. Anyone who saw the film could have seen the potential for Rifkin to maybe not necessarily be an important new voice in filmmaking, but at least an entertainingly and almost endearingly nutty one to have around.

One of the people who quite thankfully saw value in Rifkin’s work was producer Cassian Elwes. A pioneer of modern independent cinema production and one of the first producers to be able to sell independently produced films to major studios for distribution, Elwes previously had producing credits on The Dark Backward and Psycho Cop Returns before working with Rifkin again on The Chase, which would ultimately find a home at 20th Century Fox after being an independently financed production. Elwes would step away from producing full time a year after The Chase in 1995, but he would return in a glorious fashion ten years later. He would go on to be a producer for Blue Valentine, Margin Call, Lawless, All is Lost, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and Dallas Buyers Club, just to name a small handful. From 1994 to 2009, he was also the co-chairman of the independent film division at the influential William Morris Agency. He’s responsible for helping to secure distribution and funding for over 300 independent film productions, including The English Patient, Sling Blade, Thank You for Smoking, Half Nelson, and Frozen River. When it comes to independent American film financing with a potentially massive upside, Elwes is the man to turn to. And, yes, Cary Elwes is his brother.

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Set in Southern California, but shot almost entirely in Texas on a relative shoestring budget, The Chase was a modest success despite the low domestic box office take. It might be one of the more unsung films of the year (the 107th highest grossing film overall for 1994), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the final results led to the studio or the filmmakers being all that unhappy.

Rifkin explains it quite well in an interview done with Film Threat back in 2001:

“I made (The Chase) in direct response to The Dark Backward. Everybody who saw The Dark Backward said, ‘Not only will we not hire him for this movie, we won’t hire him ever!’ So, I needed to make something that studio executives could watch and see money-making potential from. So, I wrote and directed, purposely, a really brightly lit, simplistic car crash movie that I wanted to be the polar opposite of The Dark BackwardThe Chase was made for a very small amount of money as an independent film, but it was released by 20th Century Fox, and Hollywood is all about perception, as you know. For some reason the perception of the film, whether it was the way it was marketed or the way the film looked, I don’t know, was that it was a studio film that didn’t do well. The actual reality was that it was an independent film that did great. It was made for a few million dollars, it was put out by 20th Century Fox, and it made a huge profit for them. Somehow the perception was that it was a film that 20th Century Fox made and it just didn’t particularly perform. There’s no way you can put any spin on that and this is the way it’s perceived. Consequently, it didn’t really help me, but had I done another film like The Dark Backward it certainly would have hurt me more. It was probably the right film to do at that time just so I had something different than just a dark movie filled with circus freaks to show for myself as a director.”

The Chase also marked a reunion of sorts for Rifkin with Charlie Sheen, having previously directed the Sheen penned and narrated Tale of Two Sisters and who managed to get Sheen to cameo in his debut feature Never on a Tuesday (which also has cameos from Nicolas Cage, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, and Cary Elwes, and features filmmaker and actor Peter Berg in one of his earliest roles). Everything about The Chase feels like an indie-film outsider trying to make a major studio film on a surface level – something akin to John Waters making something like Hairspray or Cry Baby. But it actually isn’t very far off from Rifkin’s indie sensibilities. It’s a low key, but decidedly entertaining and wryly humorous joyride that Roger Corman would be proud to have thrown a $50 bill at. It’s also a reunion for Swanson and Sheen who previously collaborated on the successful parody Hot Shots!.

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The Chase - 2

The film hits the ground running immediately with a twitchy ballcap wearing Sheen pulling up to a convenience store gas station in a shitty Volkswagen Rabbit to get five bucks on the pump and some snacks. Some cops walk in and hear over the radio that the car is stolen. The situation escalates and Sheen thinks fast, grabbing a Butterfinger bar and snatching up a magazine browsing Swanson as a hostage. He gets the guns from the cops and takes off in the woman’s BMW, keeping her hostage as an insurance policy.

The film’s chase starts five minutes in and before the audience really even has a chance to figure out what’s going on. But more than a threadbare primer on the film’s almost see-through plot, the opening sequence functions as a chance for the audience to get acclimated to the kind of over the top humour they can look forward to over the next 80 minutes. The reactions of the hilariously slow moving and still somehow overreacting cashier (played by Chamblee Ferguson, making the most out of being in a film for only a single scene) and the astoundingly ineffective and unassertive cops are practically bug eyed. Everything in the scene takes longer than it should because it’s just funnier to draw out a bunch of tiny gags instead of running one single gag into the ground. The film has a single gag that it already knows it’s going to run into the ground, so the key then becomes finding those smaller gags to make sure that the film doesn’t start to feel tiresome.

Short story short: Sheen plays Jack Hammond a 28 year old part time clown (seriously) who has wrongfully been accused of armed bank robbery. He recently slipped custody and disillusioned with how the justice system let him down he heads for Tijuana. As his captive, Swanson plays Natalie Voss, daughter of feared real estate developer Dalton Voss (Ray Wise!), a.k.a. “the Donald Trump of California.” She’s initially terrified, but eventually goes along with Jack’s plans, eventually falling for him somewhat inexplicably because her life is just that much of a mess.

That’s it in a nutshell, and while the film hardly asks Sheen or Swanson to do too much heavy lifting, they’re at least putting in quite an effort. Their on screen chemistry is pretty great despite the film not giving them much more to bond over than a silly sing-along to cover of The Village People’s “Macho Man” for no good reason other than some quick laughs. Sheen nails the role of a roguish antihero without sleepwalking through the film, and Swanson does the same with her “spoiled little rich girl with a heart of gold” act.

If there is a downside to The Chase it’s that outside of the core conceit, there isn’t a heck of a lot to really talk about when looking at the stars of the film. They banter, bicker, fight, and make-up, but they aren’t the most entertaining things in the film. Neither is the titular chase itself, which thanks to the low budget saves most of its thrills for a couple of well placed action beats, most memorably involving a monster truck getting smashed up by an 18-wheeler, a news reporter hanging out the side of a van, and in perhaps the films biggest stroke of genius (and one that comes very early on) a medical supply truck spills cadavers all over the highway – a gag that Michael Bay would either consciously or unconsciously steal for Bad Boys 2. There’s also a late film sex scene so knowingly ludicrous that Rifkin might have a case for suing Kanye West for ripping him off in his “Bound 2” video. (Even though that video takes more cues from Mario Van Peebles’ little seen 1995 erotica short Vroom Vroom Vroooom, you kind of see what I’m getting at here.)

The Chase - 4

The real joy in watching The Chase comes from a stacked cast of supporting actors essentially allowed free reign to be as nutty as they want to be. It’s a blast to watch someone like Ray Wise ranting and raving like a madman about the safety and well being of the daughter he clearly doesn’t give a shit about. Cary Elwes shows up to get his Ron Burgundy on as a shit-sucking news anchor in a brief cameo. Red Hot Chili Peppers members Anthony Keidis and Flea almost inexplicably show up out of nowhere as a couple of amped up redneck stoners with a bizarre desire to “stop those yuppie punks.” One of my all time favourite character actors, Marshall Bell (Hamlet 2, Rescue Dawn, Starship Troopers, Diggstown, Total Recall, and the gym teacher from Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge), gets a chance to play Jack’s concerned lawyer and cheerleader.

The Chase - 3

But by far the film’s greatest ace in the hole is punk rock and spoken word icon Henry Rollins in what has to be the absolute nerdiest performance he has ever given. Rollins plays a cop in the small town of Newport Beach where the chase begins. He and his partner (played by Josh Mostel, son of Zero and an accomplished comedic character actor in his own right) are being profiled for a Cops styled reality show (being produced by a gum chewing a ridiculous shades wearing Miles Dougal, another Rifkin regular) when they get the call to try and apprehend Jack and bring Natalie back to safety. Working with a not so menacing overbite and an almost distressingly affable personality, Rollins spouts off ludicrously highfalutin philosophical responses in the softest of voices to the producers about the “violent” nature of his job and being a “standard issue foot soldier.” They’re answers spouted off by someone who clearly prepared for television, but from someone who doesn’t want to seem like an asshole so they punctuate every line with a shrug or an affirmation that they somehow just thought of something like that on the spot. It’s a largely improvised performance from Rollins and one unlike any other that he has given. People who are used to seeing Rollins as a cocksure tough guy should have a blast watching his decidedly out of character turn here, and he plays off of Mostel and Dougal wonderfully.

Rollins and Mostel’s subplot, however, plays into the film’s greatest satirical bent; one that holds true today and was actually even slightly ahead of its time in 1994. Shot and released not too long before O.J. Simpson went on his now infamous White Bronco chase from the law in June of 1994, The Chase was already taking a look at the growing infatuation that the media had with tabloid journalism, and specifically the need for TV news crews to capture and speculate upon every minor freeway chase that happened in California. (It’s a period gag that would come up again in the 80s set Anchorman 2 with somewhat diminished returns.) Reporters are hanging out of vans and helicopters to try and get a closer look at the insides of a car that’s so innocuous that it’s believable to be a part of an LA freeway chase instead of a stock “movie chase” that would have used sports cars. News anchors are spinning the story as one of pure terror with Simpsons-esque title cards like “Terror on the Freeway” and “Kidnapped at 100 M.P.H.” written in Times New Roman or vaguely bloody looking text. Reporters are calling on the BMW car phone to try and get a word with Jack. Perhaps most hilariously (for me at least), several vastly different news outlets are all trying to lay claim to the moniker “Hardcore news.” That faux-punk aesthetic that was starting up in the early 90s and the desire for the news to be as XXXtreme as possible goes quite nicely with a knowing soundtrack of punk tunes from REAL punks like NOFX, Rancid, and Rollins Band.

As for Rifkin, he keeps what little story he has moving along quite logically before a late third act slowdown that feels a bit more muddled and abrupt than it should (probably out of budget constraints), but he never lets his film lapse into outright parody. He has crafted a career for himself that in many ways mirrors that of fellow “vulgar auteurist” James Gunn, a man who can also balance silly popcorn nonsense in various different genres, including family films, with the ability to still push boundaries and gross people out. In recent years, Rifkin has written big-budget studio family films like Zoom, Underdog, Mouse Hunt, and the incredibly underrated Joe Dante film Small Soldiers, but he has also found time to make a daringly perverted film about how people are under constant visual security watch in Look and he directed the memorable killer sperm section of the horror anthology Chillerama a couple of years ago, lovingly called Wadzilla. (He also started directing the Pamela Anderson starring comic book adaptation Barb Wire, but was fired over a disagreement over the direction of the film with the production company.) No matter what one thinks of his career before or since then, none of that changes the fact that The Chase is about as sharp as no-bullshit, car crash filmmaking can get. It’s entertaining, thoughtful, and never a waste of time.

Should we be celebrating it?: Why not? It’s a fun movie, and one that was actually a lot more entertaining that I remember it being when I forgot about it well over a decade ago.

Next week: It’s Christmas time in Connecticut, the fifth ring of hell.



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