LOS ANGELES — Surely, the world didn’t need a fifth installment in The Fast and the Furious franchise, but here it is — Fast Five, which roared into theaters this weekend. The impossible car chases and stunts, the muscular men and gorgeous women are all back. So hey, at least you know what you’re getting.
And it provides a good opportunity to discuss five great car movies — although what constitutes a car movie is up for debate. Is it a film in which the cars are the star, or there’s one thrilling chase scene, or the road trip is the destination? We tested several of them. Your mileage may differ.
- Two-Lane Blacktop (1971): A languid, existential journey rather than a heart-pounding adventure, and that’s what makes director Monte Hellman’s film so fascinating. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson play two nameless and meandering auto racers: a driver and a mechanic, respectively. They end up in a showdown in their ‘55 Chevy with a big talker in a ‘70 G.T.O. (Warren Oates). The pervasive feeling of detachment is meant to metaphor for a national sense of melancholy at the end of the 1960s. But you’re welcome to just enjoy the cars.
- American Graffiti (1973): The cars here serve as a reflection of not just who the characters are, but who they dream of becoming. Inspired by director and co-writer George Lucas’ own youth in Modesto, Calif., this coming-of-age comic-drama follows the adventures of a group of high school seniors on the brink of adulthood. Led by Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, and Harrison Ford, they cruise the main drag one last time in August, 1962 — joking, flirting, getting into trouble. But regardless of the setting, this is a time we can all relate to: when having a car equals freedom.
- Bullitt (1968): Peter Yates’ film features what is considered one of the definitive car chases in movie history — The French Connection has another — but just having Steve McQueen as its star makes it sufficiently studly. As a cop determined to find out who killed the mob witness he was protecting, McQueen zips up and down the hilly streets of San Francisco and skids around corners in his ‘68 Charger, trying to evade a couple of gangsters on his tail. The scene is shot and edited in such a clean, uncomplicated way, it’s 10 minutes of pure tension.
- Christine (1983): It’s a car! It’s a killing machine! It’s ... both! Director John Carpenter adapted the Stephen King novel — one horror master playing off another — and this tale about a bright red 1958 Plymouth Fury that does much more than get you from point A to point B remains darkly funny and deeply chilling. Keith Gordon stars as the nerdy teenager who finds the car with plans to fix it up. The car gives him confidence and makes him popular — but then she gets jealous when she realizes she can’t have him all to herself. Good, silly, twisted fun.
- The Fast and the Furious (2001): And here we are, back at the beginning, with the first movie in the series. Led by Vin Diesel, Jordana Brewster, and Paul Walker, everyone’s beautiful. The main draw, though, is the racing itself, full of souped-up cars in splashy colors. The competitions are shot and edited seamlessly. They are, hence the title, fast and furious.