Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Last year’s BMW Films shook up the industry because it was the first campaign to think outside at least two boxes. It eschewed TV to hit luxury-car buyers where they surfed—not with repetitive, annoying pop-up ads, but with five smart, engaging, exquisitely produced min iature movies, made by master directors using edgy actors. It also took BMW out of the traditional product-placement business, particularly the overtly commercial Bond films, and turned the ultimate driving machine into the star of its own revved-up art-house vehicles.

(Among the many breakthroughs, perhaps the coolest was that, in “Star,” Guy Ritchie managed to make a film starring Madonna as an un bear able bitch who gets her comeuppance—and it got rave reviews. Of course, unlike Swept Away, it benefited from being only eight minutes long.)

“Hos tage,” an action-thriller directed by John Woo, was unveiled on last week, with two more short films launching in the coming month. There’s usually a curse with sequels, but these three are clever, challenging and great looking—easily as good as last year’s batch. The third one, starring James Brown, is better, especially for those not so interested in heavy explosions and crashes. (Speaking of crashes, Fallon worked hard to improve the technology and offer new download possibilities.)

Driver, shrink, action figure and all-around chiseled guy—and the man who makes James Bond look like the true twit he is—Clive Owen is back as the central character, this time driving the zippy new Z4 roadster. “Hostage” suffers a bit in the timing. The opening shows Owen arriving at a creepy bungalow, followed by FBI snipers with rifles, an all too real sight these days. The visceral feeling is Chinatown meets CSI and Silence of the Lambs.

The female CEO of the Big Top burger chain is missing (played by Kathryn Morris, who’s a little too perfectly Hollywoodish). Owen arrives with a ransom, and the kidnapper rants about the moth and the butterfly and the flame. Miss Burger, it turns out, is in the trunk of a car in a river under a bridge, sinking fast. Our driver gets there after hair-raising turns—in one heart-stopping shot, the car rests precariously on the side of a bridge.

The second film, “Ticker,” directed by Joe Carnahan, is a cryptic, violent story somewhat marred by the cli chéd dialogue. As Owen drives a guy holding secret goods in a suitcase, they’re shot at in the open convertible from military helicopters. They make it to a hospital, where it’s revealed that the precious cargo is a human heart. It’s a gripping, upsetting narrative, made all the more sad by the fact that the story originated with Joe Sweet, a former Fallon creative who, tragically, died recently due to heart-related problems.

Directed by Tony Scott, the third film, “Beat the Devil,” is flat-out gen ius. Filled with funny lines and out-there visuals, it stars the godfather of soul himself, James Brown. As a boy in 1957, he sold his soul to the devil in the back of a Cadillac in return for fame and fortune. Now he wants to renegotiate the contract, because it failed to address the “aging process.” He can’t do his splits, and he’s scaring the kids. The devil is Gary Oldman, a mix of Mick Jagger and Beetlejuice (with some of Brazil in the sets). They end up agreeing to drag-race: If Brown wins, he gets “another 50 years.” The race is up roar ious, with the devil in a flaming Trans-Am. Marilyn Manson makes a hilarious cameo appearance at the end.

All the films are about mortality and money, and what a human life is really worth. The series manages to get BMW away from its ’80s yuppie image and into a thoughtful world of human possibility (where it helps to drive a really great car).

In the past two years, the films have humanized Madonna and given new life to advertising. Can reinventing the wheel be far behind?

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