Driving your car to the movie theater: Bo-ring! Watching movies about other people driving? Exciting!
Film revs up the kinetic elements of driving -- motion, speed, noise, freedom. But to complete the picture, to give the car a personality, you need a charismatic driver. Someone who is himself driven by dramatic inner forces, someone who can make viewers enjoy the ride as much as the destination.
Brent Magna, Ethan Hawke's protagonist in this weekend's "Getaway," may fit that mold of the classic movie wheelman. He's a former race car driver who draws upon his old skills (and a purloined Shelby Super Snake Mustang) in order to rescue his kidnapped wife.
With "Getaway," the brooding Hawke makes a bid to join the following list of the movies' most iconic wheelmen -- and yeah, they're almost all men. Let us know if you think he belongs on this list of drivers who've made movie history by firing on all cylinders.
Gallery | 13 Iconic Movie Wheelmen
- Lucas Doolin (Robert Mitchum, 'Thunder Road')
Two signs Lucas Doolin is cool: One, he's played by Robert Mitchum. Two, he managed to get a Bruce Springsteen song named after his movie. He drives a custom 1950 Ford that has enough gadgets (oil slicks, breakaway fenders) to serve James Bond while still leaving plenty of room to haul moonshine. He sneers at both the law and the outlaws. Key move: flicking his cigarette in a pursuer's face, blinding the rival wheelman and sending him veering into a canyon.
- James Bond
He doesn't just have a license to kill, but also a license to drive. Over 50 years, Agent 007 has been in countless car chases, usually in a souped-up vehicle -- the classic gadget-laden Aston Martin DB5 of "Goldfinger," the submersible Lotus Esprit of "The Spy Who Loved Me," the remote-controlled BMW of "Tomorrow Never Dies," or the invisible Aston Martin V12 of "Die Another Day." There have also been some pioneering stunts, like the corkscrew jump of "The Man With the Golden Gun." Whatever he's driving, there's one thing for sure: Q branch isn't getting it back in one piece.
- Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen, 'Bullitt')
When you think of Steve McQueen, you tend to think of the King of Cool behind the wheel of a fast-moving vehicle. Most famously, he's maneuvering a Mustang GT through the vertiginous streets of San Francisco, pursuing the hitmen who are out to kill him, in one of the most famous car chases of all time, in "Bullitt" His cop Frank Bullitt is as stoic and casually callous as any McQueen character, but his prowess behind the wheel has been an inspiration for generations of movie wheelmen.
- Kowalski (Barry Newman, 'Vanishing Point')
One of those 1960s-'70s counterculture movies that's not really about the counterculture (see: "The Graduate," "Cool Hand Luke," "Five Easy Pieces," etc.), "Vanishing Point" is superficially about a pro driver named Kowalski on a mission to move a Dodge Challenger from Colorado to California in record time. But really, it's an allegory. What drives Kowalski? Existential angst? Flight from the Establishment and its rules? An all-American love of Detroit muscle cars? Or some other demons? At any rate, the chase is enough to turn Kowalski into a mythic hero.
- Bandit (Burt Reynolds, 'Smokey and the Bandit')
Of all the wheelmen on this list, Burt Reynolds' Bo "Bandit" Darville is the one least burdened by existential angst and the one having the most fun. He and his Pontiac Trans-Am are just trying to win a bet, break a record, bootleg some beer, and have a good time, not necessarily in that order. Not even a runaway bride (Sally Field) can slow him down, and the lawman on his trail (Jackie Gleason) isn't really much of a deterrent either, as Bandit discovers while toying with him at a roadside diner. He was an inspiration for leadfooted Southern drivers (notably, the Dukes of Hazzard) for generations to come.
- The Driver (Ryan O'Neal, 'The Driver')
Before Ryan Gosling and Jason Statham, there was O'Neal's nameless wheelman in this stirpped-down, streamlined thriller. (His adversary, a cop played by Bruce Dern, is simply known as "The Detective.") The Driver doesn't say much, so his motivations and his next evasive move are a tantalizing mystery to the viewer as well as to Dern's sleuth. Like Gosling and Statham's characters, he's a rare man of honor in a world where everyone seems to be lined up against him.
- Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd, 'The Blues Brothers')
His ex-con brother Jake (John Belushi) is appalled that Elwood is driving around in an old cop car, but the outlaw/musician develops a grudging admiration for the vehicle, along with Elwood's superior driving skills, during the movie's many chase sequences, whether the stoic Elwood is tearing through the inside of a shopping mall or the busiest streets in downtown Chicago, as hapless cops in newer cruisers pile up in his wake. "Car's got a lot of pick-up," grunts Jake.
- Hoke Coleburn (Morgan Freeman, 'Driving Miss Daisy')
Hoke Coleburn may be the greatest movie wheelman never to exceed 25 miles per hour. Just getting Miss Daisy to accept him into her household and let him be her chauffeur is a major accomplishment, one that takes him six days. (Same time it took God to make the universe, he notes.) He knows the shortest route to the Piggly-Wiggly, and he learns to be discreet when picking Miss Daisy up at the synagogue (she doesn't want to put on airs). And he does it all without knowing how to read (though Miss Daisy eventually teaches him). Most of all, at the heights of civil rights turmoil in his native Georgia, he never loses his cool (no matter how patronizing his boss is) or his dignity.
- Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock, 'Speed')
Los Angeles bus rider Annie may have lost her license for speeding, but that turns out to make her the perfect driver for the runaway bus rigged to explode if its speed falls below 50 miles per hour. For about an hour of screen time, Bullock (in her star-making role) handles the unwieldy vehicle with relative grace and aplomb, even managing to jump it over an incomplete highway overpass. No big deal, she quips. "It's like driving a really big Pinto."
- Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel, the 'Fast and Furious' series)
With a name like Vin Diesel, the actor was destined to play a wheelman. In the "Fast and Furious" movies, he's the most badass street racer on four continents. Nothing if not multitalented, he's also a heist mastermind, bounty hunter, and barbecue chef. In four features so far, he's driven dozens of cars, but he tends to favor vintage Dodges from around 1970, perhaps in tribute to Barry Newman's Kowalski in "Vanishing Point."
- Frank Martin (Jason Statham, the 'Transporter' series)
Courier Frank Martin has rules: Never change the deal. No names. Never open the package. Of course, he repeatedly endangers himself and his passengers by violating those rules. He also routinely violates the laws of physics, performing impossible stunts (in a BMW E38 in the original film, and in an Audi A8 in the sequels). No one portrays bruised, battered men of honor with more brutal efficiency than Statham; he was born to clench his jaw and stare into the distance while putting the hammer down.
- Max (Jamie Foxx, 'Collateral')
They say every destination in Los Angeles is 20 minutes away from every other destination, but cabbie Max can get you there in 12. He knows every shortcut, and he keeps his cool even when someone tosses a dead body on top of his cab. Sure, he has a hard time not panicking when hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise) commandeers his cab for a night, forcing him to chauffeur the killer around L.A. as he whacks various targets, but he still manages to keep from getting killed. All that, and he still has time on the same night to woo and rescue lovely lawyer Jada Pinkett Smith. Not too shabby.
- Driver (Ryan Gosling, 'Drive')
Like Jason Statham's Frank Martin or Ryan O'Neal's similarly nameless driver in "The Driver," Gosling's Driver has a few simple rules. A movie stunt driver by day, a professional accomplice by night, he doesn't speak much, and he doesn't get involved in the heists, just the getaways. But he's also more chivalrous than he has to be, especially when it comes to pretty neighbor Carey Mulligan and her kid, and therein lies his potential downfall. Nicolas Winding Refn's movie is primarily an exercise in style, a throwback to the "Miami Vice" 1980s of slick surfaces and shiny sportscars. Still, you don't hire Gosling unless you want to give your movie a romantic, tormented heart.