Last August, the production of The Chase cluttered our freeways and city streets -- and gave Houstonians a sample of Hollywood action. Star Charlie Sheen and the movie crew skipped from Kemah to north Houston, giving locals a glimpse of a genuine big-studio production.
One evening, strolling around his set in high-tops, faded black jeans and an untucked T-shirt, Adam Rifkin, boy director, was quietly directing his third movie. Near dusk along the Sam Houston Tollway, a dozen trucks that carried humming generators were parked along the railroad track; more than 100 people were busy with paint and props to transform the North Toll Plaza into the Tijuana border; camera operators, stuntmen and extras were preparing to work. Every second of this activity cost money, and the working budget was $16 million. "Is this," I asked the 26-year-old writer/director, "all your fault?"
Rifkin hesitated a beat, almost smiled, then answered with a fey deadpan. "Yes."
Actually, the extravaganza was not his original idea. "Nobody wanted a Charlie Sheen love story," Rifkin told me. Sitting cross-legged in the scoop of a bulldozer, Rifkin solemnly discussed writing a screenplay that required an army of cop cars, flashy accidents and D-9 Caterpillar bulldozers. "We had a script, we had Charlie, but what everybody wanted was a genre picture, an action picture."
Rifkin wrote as the market dictated, inserting the required pyrotechnics. "I like action movies," he said with a shrug, "so it wasn't all that out of character for me to write one." Ted Turner may have been his muse. Over the previous year Rifkin had been watching "a lot of news, a lot of CNN.... I kind of wanted to do an action movie inspired by television news, the L.A. riots and all the high-speed chases they cover in L.A."
The final product has all the marks of the genre. Piles of prop guns and 200 picture cars have roles in The Chase. (Count extra cars, and the total bumps to 1,000.)
The movie is a real-time, on-the-road chase. Those road scenes are why the company came to our town -- according to producer Cassian Elwes, Houston has the best freeways for the money. Rifkin said that after eight weeks of shooting he'd hate to say what he thinks, because "all I know is roadways and heat." Sounds like he knows our city like a native.
With a shadow of amusement in his wide, dark eyes, Rifkin offered his take on The Chase: "Personally, I think of it as a love story with an action backdrop." His lovers simply "fall for each other during unusual circumstances -- during a high-speed chase."
Not, he failed to mention, your standard chase. The main cop car carries a reality-based TV-show camera crew.
What sort of action movie did Rifkin have in mind? He says he has always loved all kinds of movies and after-school cartoons -- Underdog, old black-and-white Popeyes -- but he most admires Buster Keaton.
Discussing the silent-screen writer/director/ comedian, Rifkin became almost animated. "To me, Keaton is the pioneer of the action comedy. Charlie Chaplin movies are now more sad than funny, but Buster Keaton movies are really exciting, really innovative and really funny.... Seven Chances, with the rocks and the hundreds of brides chasing him -- it's unbelievable, that stuff, it's huge. You know, he jams dozens of gags into a 20-minute short -- if you took five of them and put them in a full-length movie today, people would hail you as a revolutionary comedic genius."
Rifkin's own action comedy follows a falsely accused party clown (Sheen) and kidnapped California bleach-blond brat (Swanson) in love and on the run. The characters are poignant, absurd and desperate -- and hopelessly romantic. Although they have definite echoes of the Keaton influence, Rifkin's ingenuous comedy arises from his own wry perspective. The director doesn't seem to be interested in emulating, or impressing, anyone (although his parents, visiting from Chicago, are clearly impressed by their boy).
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"We are never going to be able to out-crash what has been crashed or out-blow-up what has been blown up," he explained matter-of-factly. "So, what I am really concentrating on, to make this film different, is the characters.... That is what, I hope, will sweep people up into it and carry them along to the end, and then it will be over and they'll have enjoyed it."
The Chase's final tableau is a nightmarish scene of flashing lights and heavy artillery. An array of cop cars, SWAT vehicles, fire trucks, ambulances, live-action news vans and bulldozers stands between the lovers and their escape. It's terrifying from two points of view: this does not look like a happy ending -- or an easy shot.
When everything was good to go -- SWAT teams in place, cherry-tops and flares lit -- Adam Rifkin made time for one little detail. While the cast and crew waited, he walked out in front of the whole show and posed for a Polaroid with his dad.
"Nobody wanted a Charlie Sheen love story."
"I kind of wanted to do an action movie inspired by television news, the L.A. riots and all the high-speed chases they cover in