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Jack Reacher's car chase is a gritty, visceral thrill ride

We’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of Jack Reacher, a film adaptation of Lee Child’s 2005 novel, One Shot, following the various trailers and publicity stills showing glimpses of a promising car chase starring a Chevrolet Chevelle. Having now seen it myself, I can vouch that the chase sequence in Jack Reacher lived up to my lofty expectations and was undoubtedly the standout scene of the film. It’s a gritty, visceral piece of filmmaking that harkens back to the car chase glory days of the 1970’s, where flashy CGI, overblown stunts and shameful shaky-cam were non-existent.

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Even the initial setup has echoes of Bullitt and Gone in 60 Seconds. Suspected for murder, Reacher, who is already on the tail of who he believes to be the culprit, pulls up to the scene of a crime surrounded by police officers. There’s a tense moment as Reacher and the lead pursuer knowingly stare at each other while the sound of the Chevelle’s ticking engine pre-empts the action about to unfold.

Jack Reacher’s chase firmly focuses on that most vital ingredient of a captivating car chase: the driving. Unlike most films where the director will do their utmost to disguise the stunt driver who's obviously wearing a wig to resemble the main actor, the film goes out of its way to constantly remind you that it is indeed Mr. Cruise performing his own stunts behind the wheel.

Those who saw his appearance on Top Gear will already know that Tom Cruise is blessed with some considerable driving skills, but, to me, hurling a lumbering old Chevrolet Chevelle around 90 degree corners is a more impressive feat than driving a Kia C’eed around the Top Gear test track with the aid of power steering. Indeed, the Chevelle certainly gets an exhaustive workout, speeding down highways, sliding round corners and torturing the tyres with copious amounts of burnouts.

And yet Reacher isn’t portrayed as a perfect driver. He makes mistakes, just as you and I probably would in the midst of a tense police chase, bumping into walls, clipping oncoming cars and misjudging corners, pushing the car to its limits. In one scene, Reacher slams into a row of barrels after barrelling round a corner too fast, before stalling in his haste to chase after his elusive target. According to Cruise, stalling the car was completely unintentional, but I’m glad they kept it in the final cut – it all adds to the immersion and plausibility of the scene.

The Chevelle sustains a hefty amount of damage throughout the chase, becoming a battered wreck fit for the scrapyard by the end of the Jack Reacher chase

scene, but the destruction never feels gratuitous. A high speed and brutal tussle between the Chevelle and Jack Reacher’s target in an Audi across a bridge causes the most damage, but a few police cars also find themselves on the receiving end of the Chevelle’s front end for good measure. There are no exceptionally flamboyant stunts to speak of, but this would detract from the gritty realism the director intended to achieve.

Watching the chase in a packed cinema was an absolute aural assault. Like the very best car chases that repeatedly crop up in top ten lists, Jack Reacher’s chase is completely devoid of incidental music, allowing the almighty sound of the Chevelle’s guttural engine to dominate the scene, along with the wailing of sirens, crashes and screeching tyres. The sounds are used to full effect, creating one of the most visceral chase scenes in recent memory.

There’s an element of suspense, too. At one point, Reacherends up in a cat and mouse sequence, creeping through alleyways after losing sight of the Audi which, unbeknown to Reacher, is hiding in the shadows ready to pounce. 

Considering this is the first film Christopher McQuarrie has directed since 2000’s Way of the Gun, the director has little prior experience of directing a car chase, and yet the directing of Jack Reacher’s car chase is superbly slick. The cinematography is completely devoid of shaky cam and rapid-fire editing to create spurious tension as seen in many contemporary chases, instead opting for lingering shots that focus on Cruise’s driving prowess.

This is best exemplified where, in an inspired piece of driving, Cruise performs a swift u-turn, mounting the Chevelle over a center divider, before darting back around to exit the highway in a glorious tyre-shredding tailslide. The entire manoeuvre is seen in one clean shot, whereas many movies would most likely cram in three or four.

To some, the ending, which you will already have seen in the trailer anyway, may come across as something of an anti-climax. We have a perception that all car chases must end with a spectacular stunt, such as the death of character or a devastating car crash full of carnage and explosions. And yet Jack Reacher’s chase couldn’t end on a more casual note.

After all that drama, he simply pulls up, blends in with a nearby crowd and whisks away on a bus with the help of a passer-by’s camouflaging cap. It’s a fitting end, however, that befits Jack Reacher’s mysterious character. In fact it’s not too dissimilar to the conclusion of Drive’s introductory chase which ended in a very similar fashion – it’s no coincidence, since both characters share similarly shadowy personalities.

Much like last year’s Drive and 2010’s The Town, Jack Reacher proves that relying on realism over flamboyance can create a truly thrilling, suspenseful, and gratifying car chase that fully immerses you. A sure contender for the best chase of 2012, then – find out if Jack Reacher came out on top in our annual VaRaces awards coming soon.

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