Car-mageddon! ‘The Last Chase’ (1981)

❉ Road rebel Lee Majors seeks a libertarian utopia, with Burgess Meredith in hot pursuit.

“This is standard made-for-TV fare, and yet is somehow continually intriguing… It’s as if an outline by Nigel Kneale was adapted by Troy Kennedy Martin”

If I told you that Lee Majors and Burgess Meredith made a sci-fi movie together in 1979, you’d be interested, right? You’ve probably never heard of the movie The Last Chase, and in all honesty, the blame for that lies most squarely with the movie The Last Chase. But we’ve all got the time to give dodgy movies a chance these days, and this one deserves the effort – just about. It certainly starts off with a frisson of topicality…

In the mid 1980s the USA is devastated by a viral pandemic, which significantly reduces the population. It is simultaneously hit by an oil crisis. The results are sketchily explained, but involve a form of de-federalisation, with some states left seemingly autonomous. The remains of the national government use the fuel shortage to entirely ban fossil-fueled engines, meaning no more cars, or planes; the government, you see, is more powerful than the oil lobby in this American nightmare of the-future-that-liberals-want. 20 years later, populations have retreated to large eastern cities which appear benign but sterile places, patrolled by police in electric golf carts; which looks entirely as daft as it sounds. It’s the standard dystopian conundrum; everyone is safe, but no-one is happy. With no personal vehicles available except bicycles, mass transport caters for all, and is evangelised by the state.

One of the instruments of this propaganda is Franklyn Hart (Majors), a former racing driver who lost his family to the pandemic. Hart now lives and works in Boston as a spokesman for Mass Transit. He privately longs for his lost freedoms and is secretly rebuilding one of his old race cars in his garage.

State television begins to be interrupted by propaganda broadcasts from seemingly independent state of California, casting doubt on the truth of the oil shortage, and announcing their return to the old ways. Hart is clearly tempted, but his hand is forced when another misfit – a rebellious teenage boy named Ring – seeks him out, inadvertently leading the police to him. The pair escape in Hart’s racecar and begin an odyssey to cross the continent and find their libertarian utopia.

The implausibility shoots off the scale here, as the state has clearly practiced what it preaches, and possesses no vehicles capable of pursuing the car! Instead, they recruit a retired airforce pilot named Williams (Meredith), equip him with an antiquated F-86 Sabre jet fighter, and let him loose to stop Hart.

You can pretty much guess the plot from thereon. This is standard, sometimes even sub-standard made-for-TV fare, and yet is somehow continually intriguing. The main plot is a transparent individualistic protest at the “Nanny State”, and all do-gooding liberal interference in the American Dream, perfectly timed for the rise of Ronald Reagan. Yet the script constantly tugs against this, showing Hart as a damaged man racked with doubt, while his pursuers are far from authoritarian robots. It’s as if an outline by Nigel Kneale was adapted by Troy Kennedy Martin, and the contrast keeps things interesting. The character of Hart is well within Majors’ limitations, and Meredith is always watchable, although he does nothing remarkable here.

Back in Boston, the local autocrat Santana (Dianne D’Aquila) and her tech sidekick Morley (Ben Gordon) are soon upstaged by Hawkins (George Touliatos), a visiting official “from Washington”, in the only firm implication of a surviving central government. From this point, it is amongst this character triumvirate that nearly all the fun is to be had. All three are written and performed well beyond the demands of the one-note storyline, and ultimately it’s these three performances that keep the movie interesting.

Santana is a cold bureaucrat but with an almost bizarre soft side; she carries a single red flower wherever she goes, and speaks her authoritarian mantra with a sensual relish, like some kind of ‘Civvy Street’ Servalan. Hawkins is far more dangerous, a schizoid autocrat who is all awkward, disarming diffidence one moment, and chilling righteous fury the next. Morley is the pick of the bunch; constantly befuddled by challenges to his previous technological omniscience, he seems more amused by this than irritated. Clearly empathising with both Hart and Williams, his open enjoyment of the chase endears us to him, yet takes on a sinister edge in remaining unchecked when people actually start to die.

On the road, matters are less interesting. For a movie about a chase, there’s precious little chasing. Hart’s car is a flimsy, unimpressive thing that looks more like a rich child’s toy than a speedster. We’re told that it’s going above 100mph, but it has no windshield(!) and the actors look clearly uncomfortable as they pootle along at obviously no more than 30.  Things are rather better in the air, with some nice shots of the Sabre in action over some spectacular scenery; but it’s fundamentally difficult to get a 30mph car and a 300mph plane into the same shot, and this constantly hampers any excitement.

There is one attempt to stop Hart with a roadblock but otherwise the government seems implausibly impotent, even though they have satellite surveillance and know exactly where Hart is and where he’s going. This only gets sillier as the dramatic demands of the chase require Williams to continually lose track of the car from the air, despite it following a single-track road.

There are regular lulls in this monotony to allow for some off-the-shelf character development, as the obvious metaphor of Ring replacing Hart’s dead son cements a bond between them. Meanwhile, Williams’ frequent refuelling stops allow him repeat his signature character trait of flying a toy kite for relaxation, just to remind us that he’s no cold killer and don’t worry, he’ll do the right thing in the end.

The aforementioned deaths are an odd tonal mis-step in what is otherwise a cosy tea-time caper: A native-reserve-cum-hippy-commune where Hart and Ring have sheltered (and which has provided Hart with a laughably perfunctory love interest) is attacked by the authorities, and shots are fired. Even now, a moral ambiguity is maintained as one of the villagers actually shoots (and kills) first.

Whatever, by the end there are bodies everywhere and the stakes have been raised to a degree that the story is not equipped to cope with. Indeed, the events are largely ignored thereafter, save for Santana’s affecting, isolated moment of doubt: “Was that REALLY necessary?” she demands of Hawkins. “YES!” he hisses with maniacal zeal. Brrr…

By this point Hart and Williams have reached their entirely predictable rapprochement and Williams is actually trying to protect the car rather than destroy it. Hawkins activates a laser-gun emplacement that was installed in the desert decades ago because as Morley says “You know… the Russians”. Ludicrously, this can’t engage targets in the air – because obviously the threat from Russia was attack by road! But Williams is unable to destroy it with his guns, so instead sacrifices himself in a kamikaze dive, because suddenly choosing to die for a stranger you’ve just met is how these characters always go, even when it makes no sense.

Their path clear, Hart and Ring make it over the rainbow (almost literally; they cross a bridge into a matte painting) into sunny, free California, now presumably a lost American paradise of traffic, pollution and five-figure road fatality statistics. Santana and Morley seem sanguine, even amused by the thought, but Hawkins gives a sad speech about how all this will “send us back to the 1980s”. Are we supposed to sympathise? Or see this as the ramblings of a defeated despot? And is this ambiguity deliberate, or an emergent property of a hopelessly confused script? I’m inclined to be kind, and credit The Last Chase with a thoughtfulness belying its status as cheap rubbish, without going so far as to declare that status entirely undeserved.

❉ ‘The Last Chase’ (1981, Park Circus/StudioCanal). Director: Martyn Burke. Cast: Lee Majors, Burgess Meredith, Chris Makepeace, Alexandra Stewart, George Touliatos, Diana D’Aquila. Running time: 101 minutes. The film was released on DVD in May 2011 via Code Red featuring a commentary by director Martyn Burke.

❉ Rob Stradling is a Swansea-based professional actor. Twitter: @robstradling

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