Ty Burr says the real star of these slick BMW-sponsored films is British smoothie Clive Owen

By Ty Burr
Updated June 08, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Clive Owen: BMW


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New short films by Ang Lee and others

You loved ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and you can’t wait to see Ang Lee’s next film? It’s already here — all six minutes of it. Lee’s ”Chosen” is the second of five short films that can be viewed in one place and one place only: on the Internet, at a website sponsored by German automaker BMW. The movies can be screened in streaming mode, or by downloading a proprietary video player (like the cars themselves, it looks incredibly slick despite the occasional crash) and then downloading the films in ”small” (about 25 megabytes) or ”large” (a Godzilla weight 75 megabytes) file sizes.

Three shorts are available on the site at this writing: John Frankenheimer’s ”Ambush,” Lee’s ”Chosen,” and ”The Follow,” directed by Hong Kong hyperpoet Wong Kar-Wai (”In the Mood for Love”). On June 7 the site will debut ”Star,” directed by Guy Ritchie of ”Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and Madonna fame. Still to come: one by Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, he of the jaw dropping ”Amores Perros” (in theaters).

All five films in the series — titled ”The Hire” — star ”Croupier”’s Clive Owen as the Driver, a silent, downright existential fellow who puts pedal to the metal for various clients. He drives a Beemer, naturlich. I’ve watched the three available films on the downloadable movie player, in the behemoth file version. Here’s what I’ve seen.

”Ambush” by John Frankenheimer
Owen’s Driver is ferrying a businessman who may be carrying stolen diamonds and who is being chased by ski-mask-wearing kidnappers in a dreary old van. It’s one long car chase, really — which is pretty fitting when you consider that director Frankenheimer made 1966’s ”Grand Prix” and 1998’s ”Ronin.” Other than that, nothing special.

”Chosen” by Ang Lee
The Driver picks up a young Tibetan boy who clearly is the next in the Dalai Lama line. More meanies give high speed chase. This is an Ang Lee film? Looks more like a videogame. Until the last scene, that is, which delivers a nice illustration of the maxim ”Never trust a Tibetan monk wearing cowboy boots,” then delivers a blissful little sightgag involving a Band Aid.

”The Follow” by Wong Kar-Wai
The Driver tails the glam wife of a sleazy movie star (Mickey Rourke, and I’ll let you make the typecasting joke here). Until he stops tailing her. There’s a reason, but it’s small, piquant, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. Of the three films so far, this is the one that is most recognizably by the man who made it. Unfortunately, Wong’s delicate palette of colors is exactly the kind of thing that doesn’t come across in these artifacty, stop and start digital films (even in the 75-MB versions). (There’s also, at the end of each short, a small film within a film: street scenes, really, with various characters uncovering phone numbers and website URLs that will presumably lead us onto a merry Internet snipe hunt. Me, I’ve got a life, but feel free.)

So, are these ads? Not really. Are they movies? Weeeelll…not really. In a way, the shorts are a throwback to the early days of television, when Philco would underwrite the classic teleplays of ”Philco Playhouse.” But they’re also extremely canny examples of modern product placement. BMW is getting (and deserves) props for footing the bill here, and in no way do the filmmakers stop and let the camera lovingly caress the curves of the 525I Sedan (Ang Lee apparently was miffed that he couldn’t show MORE of the cars). But make no mistake, the star of these films is Clive Owen — as the cool, antiheroic embodiment of the new Beemer image.

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