This anthology of short films features directors such as Ang Lee, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and John Woo. And lots of BMW product placement.
In 2001, BMW commissioned a series of short films from some of the hottest directors of the decade. Staring Clive Owen as The Driver, a mysterious man with a taste for high-priced danger and higher priced BMW vehicles. A second season followed in 2002, and a much belated third season added a few more films in 2016.
The quality of the films cover as much territory as The Driver himself. Some feel like relics from the high octane days of 1970’s car chase films, while others aim for a more art-house style. Depending on the tastes of the director, the product placement can feel either clever or egregious. Fans of high-octane cinema should find themselves at home here, while those less mechanically inclined will enjoy seeing contrasting styles from the pantheon of directors.
BMWFilms: The Hire.
Season 1, Ep 1: The Ambush.
Directed by: John Frankenheimer.
As The Driver (Clive Owen) transports a mild mannered man, an unmarked van pulls up alongside them, guns drawn. The masked men instruct The Drive to tune his radio to their signal, where they explain that the man is stealing 2 million dollars worth of diamonds that these men are very willing to kill for.
Frankenheimer directed some of the absolute best car chase thrillers throughout his career: Grand Prix, The French Connection II, and Ronin in particular are classics. So its no surprise that his offering is just eight minutes of solidly paced, professionally shot car chase footage with very little ornamentation. It certainly won’t displace any of his best sequences from the history books, but its fun just to see a master craft yet another fantastic car chase.
Season 1, Ep2: Chosen.
Directed by: Ang Lee.
The Driver arrives at the docks to pick up a young Tibetan boy, who gives him a golden case. A squad of hostile cars arrive just as the boy gets in the car, and The Driver must navigate the twists and turns of the dockyards to get his young ward to sanctuary.
This short is what put The Hire on my radar, as Ang Lee and Clive Owen collaborate again this weekend on Gemini Man. Lee’s style is more car ballet than turbo-boosted car chase. I’m sure BMW was pleased to have directors who were willing to show other features of their cars besides just how hard you could mash the accelerator. The stunts are pretty, but not exactly pulse-pounding. The ending is cute, where the little monk’s gift turns out to be a band-aid that perfectly matches the cut Owen gets on his ear while saving the boy. This precognitive bandage is also adorned by Ang Lee’s other early 2000’s project: The Incredible Hulk.
Season 1, Ep3: The Follow.
Directed by: Wong Kar Wai.
A slippery Hollywood agent (Forest Whitaker) arranges for The Driver to follow the wife of an erratic star (Mickey Rourke), on the pretense that she is being unfaithful. As he methodically tails her, he discovers that this cover story doesn’t hold water.
Wong Kar Wai is known for somber, elegiac films, so seeing him do what has been a pretty one-note car chase series seems odd. WKW opts for a noir inspired story, with heavy narration by Owen and more focus on the events happening outside of the vehicles than in them. Each maneuver The Driver pulls off becomes a metaphor in the directors steady hands. When our protagonist discovers the real story behind his job, we finally seem him also become a real character.
Season 1, Ep 4: Star.
Directed by: Guy Ritchie.
A pushy diva (Madonna) commandeers a spot in The Driver’s vehicle, but it turns out that her put-upon manager had arranged for him to take her on a wild ride all along.
I’m frankly surprised that Owen and Ritchie hadn’t hooked up before this collaboration. Owen channels his cocksure persona from films like Shoot Em Up, and Ritchie goes to gleeful lengths to abuse his then-spouse Madonna. Madonna seems to be having the most fun in the piece, putting on a Cruella De Vil performance raking everyone around her over the coals. The short features a tad too on-the-nose soundtrack, but treats us to some really fun camera angles and frantic cuts, only to slow things down for a magisterial Blues Brothers-esque flight through the air. It’s cocky and unsubtle, but backs up its swagger with some fantastic cinematography.
Season 1, Ep 5: Powder Keg.
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu.
The Driver heads to a violence torn country to retrieve a photojournalist (Stellan Skarsgard). He finds the man badly injured – he’d been shot covering a mass killing, and now both the cartels and the military want him dead.
After Ritchie’s flippant offering, the series lands hard into brutal realism. The photography is grainy and nearly mono-chromatic. Skarsgard is haggard and covered in gore. There is a bit of fancy driving, but mostly the camera is concerned with catching the desperate sights of the blighted country. It feels like an actual wartime expose than a car commercial. I have a feeling that may be why this is the only video of the season flagged on YouTube.
It feels ridiculous to talk about “Oscar Worthy” and “BMW sponsored content” in the same breath, but yeah, there’s a reason Iñárritu is a perenial Oscar favorite. Skarsgard gives a powerful presentation, and Owen matches him step for step, finally making The Driver feel human and vulnerable. I doubt that this short sold many cars, but its a tremendously impactful short film with all of Iñárritu’s trademark techniques.
The BMW series doesn’t always aspire to art, but several directors show that they can make art out of anything they choose. Iñárritu’s short is a body blow of cinematic expression. Several other directors manage to ferret out interesting takes and nuances to the simple premise. I’m actually interested in going further with the series to see how the likes of John Woo and Neil Bloomkamp handle the idea.
If you’ve ever wondered how different directors would handle very similar material, this series is for you. I wish somebody besides BMW had the kind of cash to burn to get so many talented visionaries together to riff on a theme. Well, at least they used to have that kind of cash before Dieselgate…