dir. Dominic Sena /// scr. Scott Rosenberg (based on a screenplay by H.B. Halicki) /// cin. Paul Cameron /// stars Nicolas Cage, Angelina Jolie, Delroy Lindo /// USA 2000 /// 117m

Many’s the time I’ve sat in a cinema waiting for a film to get going, to start to engage… to become, in a word, good. Gone In Sixty Seconds, however, provoked a very different reaction: alerted by the barrage of negative reviews, and unimpressed by the trailer, I’d feared the worst, and waited for the film to become embarrassing, to become bad. It didn’t happen. Gone In Sixty Seconds is no masterpiece, but it’s by no means as “perfectly dreadful” (Variety) as many critics might have you believe. It’s a full-on action thriller, one which makes no bones about its ephemeral disposability — the title tells you all you need to know. The film has been programmed to please its audience, and it does so for as long as it’s on the screen: there are hardly any dull moments, right up to the climactic car-chase which, crucially, hits all the right buttons.

If director Sena never goes any deeper than the most superficial level, at least that means he never gives himself a chance to display any of the offensive attitudes which marred his only previous effort behind the camera, the Brad Pitt/David Duchovny serial-killer pic Kalifornia (1993). Sena ruined that films intriguing premise by indulging in some increasingly crass and facile treatment of the criminal underclass, in the form of Pitt and girlfriend Juliette Lewis, as the film neared its conclusion.

No such pretensions here. Scott Rosenberg showed with Things To Do With Denver When Youre Dead that he’s among the more interesting Hollywood screenwriters around, combining structural ingenuity with inventive dialogue skills that he transferred successfully to the mainstream with a previous Nic Cage vehicle, Con Air. Though Sena is a marginally better director than that movie’s Simon West, Con Air is the better film if only because it offered such a marvellous platform for John Malkovich’s antics. In addition, much of Rosenbergs work here – notably a Tarantino-style discussion of TV characters’ registration plates – is drowned out by the soundtrack’s ear-splitting ruckus of screeching tyres and thumping rock.

The inaudibility of much of the dialogue isn’t a problem, of course, in such a relentlessly visual, cartoonish movie. And its fairly appropriate, given the fact that the film of which its a remake, Gone In 60 Seconds from 1974, was notable for its sonic dislocation. Like most people, I haven’t seen the film (it was mainly shown in drive-ins) but my appetite was whetted when I read Todd McCarthy’s comments in Variety magazine:

“a real oddity in that at least 75% of it was shot without direct sound. Whole scenes play out with extensive voiceover conversations among several characters, but with no visual clue as to who’s doing the talking; sometimes there’s no-one on screen or else some men might be observed working but not moving their lips.”

A one-man project by HB Halicki, who was killed filming stunts for a projected sequel, the original Gone sounds roughly similar in plot to its remake: shady gangster places order for 50 cars with young thief (now Giovanni Ribisi); young thief screws up; his retired superthief brother (Cage) must fulfil the order or else the kid gets it; mayhem ensues. The original (described by another reviewer as a “porn-like experience where you fast-forward through the dull expository scenes to get to the good parts”) was also notable for featuring among its cast George Cole, presumably the British character actor of St Trinians and Minder fame. If so, then Sena’s remake again stays faithful to its source with several English faces prominently on view.

The most high-profile of these in the film’s ad campaign is ex-footballer Vinnie Jones as Sphinx, a silent psychotic moonlighting as a mortuary attendant. But, unlike Treat Williams, who played a virtually identical character (except for the silent bit) in Rosenberg’s Things To Do In Denver, Jones is given very little to do — his silence is a gimmick, the set-up for a closing-scene punchline when he gets to speak. And, like bulky Scott Caan, he fulfils a primarily decorative function . Instead, it’s po-faced Christopher Eccleston, not the sort of performer you’d expect to see in a Jerry Bruckheimer production, who makes the biggest splash as bad-guy Raymond Calitri. Although, with a name like that, the character should be Glaswegian, Eccleston employs his own sneering Mancunian accent, with hilarious effect alongside the films prevalent drawling Californians: he’s only in two scenes, but he’s probably the main reason for seeing the picture. There’s a third Brit presence in Lindo, as the genial older cop determined to thwart Cage’s plans — he was born and bred in Birmingham, but has developed a fully convincing Yank accent and demeanour.

The presence of such colourful figures in the cast is part of the reason Gone In 60 Seconds passes the time so painlessly. Theres always something going on, or somebody worth watching on the screen. This is, in fact, an enjoyably over-populated movie, with a wide array of characters popping up as gang members and assorted hangers-on, notably Grace Zabriskie – an actress capable of frame-bursting intensity in her work for David Lynch – on restrained form as Cage and Ribisi’s mother, and the magnetically bug-eyed Timothy Olyphant (by far the best thing about both Scream 2 and Go) who makes the most of the thankless role of junior cop.

These relatively minor names make as much impact as the star supporting cast, headed by Robert Duvall, idling in low Days of Thunder gear, Will Patton, and Jolie – who once again suggests that the Academy’s decision to honour her efforts in Girl, Interrupted last year (ahead of Chloe Sevigny in Boys Don’t Cry) will look increasingly bizarre with every film she makes. It’s no coincidence that the one scene which revolves around Jolie is also the films least effective:  a half-arsed romantic interlude with Cage, one in which the characters (they’re waiting to steal a car from a smooching Haagen-Dazs style couple) have as little interest in proceedings as the actors and the audience alike, generating as much heat as if they were rubbing their respective Oscars together in an effort to strike a spark.

Such static scenes are thankfully few and far between – Sena wisely keeps things barrelling along at a decent clip, following the lead provided by a script which gives only the most functional and cursory attempts at sketching in character and motivation. The death of Cage and Ribisi’s father is dealt with in an almost throwaway mention, and when Jolie makes an early 180 degree switch from snubbing Cage to helping him, she does so on the conditions that no questions are asked.

Ultimately the film stands or falls on its visuals, and while Sena has no great cinematic eye, neither does he commit any serious errors, apart from the occasional ham-fisted use of clumsy filters. Almost every scene is played out in a curious, slightly honeyed, slightly sepia light, with a result that’s often strikingly reminiscent of the Ford Puma advert which spliced footage of Steve McQueen from Bullitt into modern-day San Francisco. It’s as if Sena is acknowledging the quaint aspects of making a film in the year 2000 focussing on car theft — Olyphant taunts Cage with the comment that, by the time he’s released from prison, there won’t even be cars as he knows them. By no means a work of realism (even the original reportedly showed the real effects of car chases injured onlookers, ambulances, etc), Gone tips even further into the realm of fantasy thanks to this burnished visual sheen: Bullitt through multiple refractive lenses.

Sena’s other major influence is more surprising:  Michael Mann’s Heat, another sympathetic-cop vs sympathetic-crook movie with a nocturnal LA as a neon-lit backdrop. But this is definitely Heat lite, with nowhere near the geographical or psychological scope and intensity of that masterpiece. It’s hard to know what to make of Sena’s insistently obvious use of ominous Michael Mann-style music (so Mann-style, in fact, that at first I thought it was from Heat or The Insider) whenever Lindo and Olyphant are shown spying on Cage and his gang. It could be a) an hommage to a modern master, b) unconscious imitation of an influentual stylist, or c) a piss-take, but if some aspects of Mann’s magisterial style are seeping further into the mainstream, that’s not such a bad development. It’s also fun to tick off the nods to American Graffiti : Ribisi whispers “I love you” to a blonde in another car, in a reversal of the Suzanne Somers/Richard Dreyfuss exchange in Lucass classic, and later there’s a variation on that films “axle” trick, perpetrated against cops, here deployed by Cage and Ribisi precisely to attract Los Angeles finest.

These are nice touches in a film with a surprising number of grace notes. Most gratuitous, and nicest, is a moment during the climactic, entirely successful chase sequence (45 minutes long in the original) in which Cage speeds along, touching 150mph as he scads along the concete bed of the (cinematically inevitable) LA river. A series of contrivances sees him zipping along a city street backwards – proving, once and for all, that reverse really is the fastest gear on a car. He catches the eye of a little black kid who’s the passenger in a passing car, and they exchange a smile: it’s a moment at least as effective as the film’s set-piece stunt, soon after, when Cage speeds up a ramp and flies over an accident scene that’s blocking his path.

You’re still recovering from this stunt when the credits roll, and the film immediately starts to fade from the memory. For multiplex audiences who’ve driven to the movie, Gone may have a slightly longer resonance of that queasiness as they search out their precious Volvo, giving way to relief when they find it where they’d left it two hours before. Then, Nic Cage’s example still fresh in their mind, they put the key in the ignition – turn it – slip into first – burn rubber…

Neil Young
11th August, 2000 (seen 10th August at ABC Darlington)