BMW Films are back, and 14 years after setting the internet ablaze the seminal series The Hire will return with an all-new installment directed by Neill Blomkamp, titled The Escape. In advance of Sunday’s release of the newest film, this post looks back at the 8 original short branded films which were spread across 2 seasons.
Starring Clive Owen as the unnamed “Driver”, the films are rip-roaring action pieces featuring a bevy of name talent on both sides of the camera that, to this day, is unmatched by any ad campaign in history. Famous name directors like John Woo, Guy Ritchie and Tony Scott took part, as well as onscreen talent such as Madonna, Mickey Rourke, Don Cheadle and James Brown. Adding to the star power, David Fincher served as Anonymous Content’s “showrunner” for the series in season 1, before handing the reins to Ridley Scott and RSA for season 2.
With this much talent it is no mystery why the films caused a splash initially, but do they still hold up? Which are the best? And how do they compare to branded films in today’s media landscape? To start, let’s watch the films! The 8 short brand films are embedded below in a playlist ordered by release.
With the very first film, released April 26th, 2001, veteran filmmaker John Frankenheimer was tasked by with setting the stage—he delivers. The film is lean and economic from the get go, getting its exposition out of the way elegantly, and the measured choice of initial shots, along with the editing rhythm to the start of the film, are sublimely tension-filled. The film does great work in establishing the nature of the driver with lines such as, “The deal was, no questions asked”, and through The Driver’s inherent honorability in choosing to protect his charge. The cynic would say that the chase runs like a check list of car features: maneuverability, acceleration, braking, safety (when he backs up into the van), but, kudos for busting a taboo for car adverts, as this vehicle gets thrashed. And goddamn if this just isn’t great action filmmaking. Nothing less to be expected from Frankenheimer though who, with Ronin, already had one of the great car chases in cinematic history on his resume. Unfortunately this proved to be one of his last films as he passed away shortly thereafter from a stroke. While the action finale is a bit of ridiculous let-down, the closing scene where Owen asks about the diamonds is a great bit of character development for The Driver, showing off his charismatic, roguish charm. Both as a stand-alone piece, and, as a crucial introduction to the series as a whole, this is a success.
Directed by Ang Lee
Written by David Carter
The format here is inherently a bit difficult for a director like Ang Lee who is more accustomed to quiet drama, but it’s more the material itself that marks this as a notch below the best outings in the series. The setup is lackluster as The Driver picks up a young Tibetan boy by the docks and immediately the chase is on. Lee’s handling of the car sequences though is quite interesting. Set to an eclectic, classical score, and employing more long shots than just about any other director in the series, the chase takes on a pleasing balletic choreography. The contrast of violence and beauty seems fitting, and honestly, almost funny. Tonally interesting, this is an enjoyable watch still.
This is the film that shows the true depth and malleability of the project, and is subsequently the most critically acclaimed installment, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival. I’m an unabashed fan of Wong Kar Wai, and, like in another branded work of his, There is Only One Sun, it’s amazing how his style so effortlessly adapts to commercial work. The film is unique in the series for a couple of reasons. Tasked with following the wife of a famous movie star, The Follow is the first to break the action format—no bad guys with guns here, and also by its decision to tell the the story through The Driver’s voiceover. This is no adrenalized-thriller, but instead a mournful, meditative affair. Shot by acclaimed DP Harry Savides, often utilizing WKW’s favorite technique of selectively framing his actors via foreground elements, the distant, but intimate connection of The Driver and his mark perfectly connects with WKW’s main cinematic preoccupations—isolation and longing in individuals as they make their way in an uncaring world. Owen was not a well-known actor at the time, having only recently had his breakthrough in Croupier, but this is when you knew he was a star. A true standout.
Written by Joe Sweet and Guy Ritchie
Guy Ritchie was riding high at the time of Star, coming off his successful transition to Hollywood with Snatch. After accepting this gig, he brought along his wife, Madonna, to act, playing a spoiled pop star who receives her comeuppance at the hands of our skilled Driver. Coming off her first #1 record in over decade, Madonna’s star power has made this one of the most well-remembered of The Hire shorts, which is a shame, as it is pretty bad. I won’t say Madonna is a poor actor categorically, but this is a dreadful performance, and the over-the-top feel and self-satisfied, winking humor of the piece has aged poorly. The driving sequences, utilizing a plethora of fish-eye closeups, has little elegance or ingenuity and feels the most like a car commercial of any film in the series. Adding to these drawbacks is the regrettable choice of music—Song 2 from Blur, which, while a fine track, was already played out at the time. It’s fascinating as a time capsule, but if there is any film to skip in the series, this would be my choice.
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo Arriaga and David Carter
This is an interesting one. The Driver finds himself in South America to rescue a war photographer injured while capturing images of a drug massacre. The cinematography by long-time Tarantino DP Robert Richardson is a wonderful example of a bygone era—unabashedly digital, with the tell-tale desaturated color palette. Richardson also employs the camera in a quick and dirty fashion—handheld with lots of closeups and zooms. Unfortunately that is probably the most intriguing aspect of the film. Iñárritu, who helped with the script, reaches for a sense of drama that he is unable obtain in the runtime, and in the process puts some clichéd dialogue into the mouths of Stellan Skarsgård and Owen. Worse, the film undermines the mystique of The Driver as he is chatty and less mysterious here, forced to emote in unearned ways while playing a more conventional hero-type. A fascinating approach to the project, and one of the clearest examples of the innovative, auteur-driven approach of the series, but ultimately a misfire.
With The Hire already a sensation, a second batch of films went into production, this time under Ridley Scott’s RSA production banner, as Fincher was reportedly tied up at the time editing Panic Room. Debuting roughly 18 months after the first film’s release, it fell on John Woo to show that the series could live up to its newfound hype and demonstrate that switching production companies wouldn’t harm the series. Unfortunately that was not demonstrated at all.
Saddled with a pretty mediocre script, which, in my mind, fundamentally undermined the premise of the series by turning The Driver into an action star working alongside the FBI, Woo nonetheless did not do anything to elevate the material. Generic in just about every way, marred by cheesy directing moves and a phony “twist”, the film reminds one of TV — and by that I mean the kind of bad, early 2000’s TV that used to allow cinema auteurs to turn their nose up at the medium, not, Clive Owen-in-The Knick golden-age TV. An ominous turn for the franchise.
With this installment the worrying shift of the series into a vehicle for full-on action spectacle became undeniable. Working off his own script, Carnahan, known now for shoot ’em ups like Narc, Smokin’ Aces, and the upcoming third installment of the Bad Boys franchise, pulls out all the stops, as The Driver is forced to outrun a helicopter, and a blown up bridge among other catastrophes.
For all the pyrotechnics however, the film is oddly boring, as a faux-conflict between The Driver and Don Cheadle gets milked for too long in a saggy middle third of the film in order to sustain the mystery of what is in the briefcase. Meanwhile expository flashbacks meant to develop Cheadle’s character don’t really land. Good action could redeem, but Carnahan’s action feels rote and predictable. The film’s reveal of what is in fact in the briefcase is nifty and goes a long way to redeeming what came before, but a ponderous voice over drives home the point a little too hard. The best of the second season, but it feels like the well is running dry.
The best that can be said about Tony Scott’s effort is that it is admirably faithful to what he was going for. Just, what Scott was going for feels horribly misguided. James Brown hires The Driver to accompany him as he seeks to renegotiate a deal he made as a young man with Devil (Gary Oldman)—an homage to the famous legend of bluesman Robert Johnson. The Devil accedes to a drag race down the Sunset Strip with The Driver’s soul as the stakes.
It seems unfair to criticize Scott and the writers for fully exploring the narrative possibilities of this anthology format when I praised previous deviations by Iñárritu and Wong Kar Wai, and maybe it is simply personal taste, but this veers so far from the original appeal of the series that it borders on parody. The hypercolor look, and kinetic, glitchy effects of Scott’s style are recognizable to fans of his later period films, just with little of the moderation a feature film imposed. Awkward freeze frames, weird sequences of underwater audio, speedramping—Scott just goes wild with affectations, and it is garish. The freeze frame of Owen’s awkward, horribly forced laugh, is a fitting closing shot to this bummer of an ending to the series.
The Hire series will always be a landmark in advertising and thus is essential watching for that fact alone. Additionally, it is unlikely that we will ever see short films made with these kind of production budgets and talent again, so fans of the short format owe it to themselves to check them out. Formally it is fascinating to see an anthology format that is not stand alone, where each of the filmmakers have common elements that they must incorporate, thus comparing the entries and their respective styles is excellent film education for aspiring filmmakers. Finally, for fans of the individual directors, it is an undeniable treat to see more, and varied, work from their favorites.
I had a great time revisiting each of the films, even the ones I was blasé about, as the ones I felt were bad were generally bad in an interesting way. That said, it does feel like the novelty of the project, and the mythology it subsequently took on, has overtaken the an honest appraisal of the quality of the product over the years. The Follow by Wong Kar Wai is the only truly standout piece, though Frankenheimer’s The Ambush is quite good as well, and I have no reservations recommending Lee’s Chosen. Even Inarritu’s Powder Keg and Carnahan’s Ticker have their moments. Still, that’s only just over half of the 8 films which I would call creative hits.
People have long wondered why such a successful series was allowed to die off, and most presume the extravagant expense of the project to be the reason. Reported in some places as $17M, that is a chunk of change, and certainly could have been a factor. However there were likely many reasons, including the fact that Jim McDowell, the innovative VP of BMW North America who greenlit the project, moved over to the company’s MINI division in 2004. Another simple reason could be that the series dipped badly after leaving Anonymous Content and moving to RSA. The fundamental appeal of the The Driver character, a mysterious, hyper-competent man of few words, a possessor of a code of honor, yet who continually found himself getting mixed up in shady situations, feels like it was slowly being lost as the series progressed. The majority of the scripts and story credits belong to creatives at Fallon, BMW’s advertising agency at the time, and who originated the idea for the campaign. Despite some great ideas, perhaps an ad agency was not the best source for frequent quality screenplays. It is telling that the two best entries were both written by Andrew Kevin Walker, a professional screenwriter who had written Fincher’s Se7en. Faced with a declining product, BMW and/or Fallon could have decided to pull the plug.
While upon revisiting it may seem that the lofty reputation of the The Hire does not quite hold up to scrutiny, its legacy is undeniable. It is generally regarded as having invented the branded short film, and certainly was a forerunner of viral content sharing as a strategy. It’s hard to imagine Spike Jonze’s 27min film for Absolut, Dior’s “Lady” series, Intel’s Beauty Inside, or any number of other acclaimed branded films existing without The Hire’s precedent. In honor of that breakthrough, the campaign was the recipient of the very first Titanium Lion presented by Cannes Lions advertising festival in 2003, and the films are part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. While tastes vary, the way the series blended commercial innovation with artistic merit while still being purely entertaining is a remarkable achievement, and it is hard to say that it has yet been exceeded. Come back tonight to check out the latest installment and see if BMW, Anonymous Content and Blomkamp have what it takes to capture lightning twice.