The Car Movie, A Little Appreciated Sub-Genre

The Car Movie, A Little Appreciated Sub-Genre

The Fast and the Furious, Need for Speed, and Smokey and the Bandit are all action movies that focus on driving fast cars, and in one way or another, playing fast and loose with the law. Action movies featuring cars are not new – high speed chases have been captivating audiences since pivotal 1968 when Steve McQueen’s iconic car chase in Bullitt and The Love Bug first premiered. Of course, these were not the first car movies – but their presence on film is still felt throughout car movies today. Long before The Fast and the Furious franchise started in 2001, the original Gone in 60 Seconds captivated audiences in 1974, with soon to follow Smokey and the Bandit, featuring the high-speed direction of stuntman Hal Needham in 1977. Smokey and the Bandit, “went on to become the second highest-grossing film in 1977, after Star Wars” (Miller, 2019, n.p.). It’s safe to say that Smokey and the Bandit was a success. While car movies have never been able to accelerate and gain enough momentum to carve out a genre of their own, their place in the action and drama genres has not been minimal. According to Vanity Fair, the men behind Smokey and the Bandit, Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds, were inspiration for Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton respectively in Quentin Tarantino’s acclaimed 2019 movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which has an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, one critic states, “[i]t is Tarantino’s best, bravest and most confrontationally impudent movie since Pulp Fiction” (Andrews, 2019, n.p.).

Need for Speed, The Fast and the Furious, and, Smokey and the Bandit all have family values at their forefront. All three movies have characters that are part of either “bromances” or have characters that are willing to risk a great deal for their chosen families. The plot of Need for Speed revolves around main character Tobey getting revenge for the death of “Little” Pete, his ex-girlfriend’s little brother, who is also a member of his garage crew. The Fast and the Furious also features a group of garage-buddies who refer to each other as “family” throughout the movie. While its never explicitly stated, in Smokey and the Bandit, Snowman and the Bandit are close-friends willing to travel across the country on a whim for each other – even at the displeasure of Snowman’s wife.  Like many other movies, these films show a common trend where, “Hollywood genres… favor settings that foreground structures of support beyond the biological family” (Tasker, 2012, 540).

Smokey and the Bandit features a cross-country chose between “Smokey” – the Sheriff Buford T. Justice who is chasing down his son’s ex-fiancée who left him at the altar – who has taken off in the car of the infamous truck-driver whose handle is “The Bandit”. Smokey and the Bandit is like a reverse-Western, where the good and bad are reversed in our eyes. Yes, the Bandit is a criminal – but, who is he really harming? In Need for Speed the cops are tracking down Tobey, but this is a sub-plot and of little concern as he races across the country to meet up with his rival at their final showdown. In The Fast and the Furious the main character played by Paul Walker, Brian O’Conner is an undercover cop. For Brian, in a way, he is challenged by his identity as a cop and his eventual bonding with Dominic “Dom” Toretto and his crew. In the penultimate scene, Brian allows Dom to get away scot-free, solidifying the pair’s bond.

All three movies, The Fast and the Furious, Smokey and The Bandit, and Need for Speed, have a romantic sub-plot. While action movies are generally considered “for men” while “romantic” films are for women – this is not necessarily true in the application of film. In-fact, romance plays a large role in the plots of Need for Speed, and Smokey and the Bandit, with the female characters being the only interactions with the main character for much of the plot – in two ride-along scenes, one as the Bandit rides across country to move illegal beer for a party, crossing county lines and effectively bootlegging, and the other when Aaron Paul’s character, Tobey, drives across country in a Mustang to join an illicit race. The movies could also be considered part of the “road movie” genre – a genre of films characterized as movies that mostly take place on the road.

Need for Speed shares something special, and often over-looked, behind the camera with its predecessor Smokey and The Bandit. Like Smokey’s Hal Needhamn, “Need for Speed director Scott Waugh was once himself a stunt performer and co-ordinator” (Failes, 2019,). The stunts in Need for Speed are completely real (albeit some help from FX and post-production to fuse scenes together). This includes cars flipping off bridges, cars ‘hopping’ from one patch of grass to another, and a scene where a Shelby GT 500 is picked up and carried by a helicopter. Real stunts in action movies provide an authenticity in the otherwise unauthentic. Viewers expect to come to these movies with a suspension of disbelief, but when they view stunts that are real – a less jarring scene can help the viewer remain uninterrupted from the story. The Fast and the Furious, the first in the franchise, did not have elaborate spectacle like stunts like the series has become known for – think cars jumping between skyscrapers, and instead focused on small car stunts for the most part, although there were some eighteen-wheelers involved. In The Fast and the Furious, series, though, “most of the big stunts in the … franchise were not done with CGI, but were actually made using practical stunts” (Barclay, 2018, n.p.). While the directors in the series (there are many), are not stunt men like Hal Needham and Scott Waugh, they do understand that CGI isn’t always the answer.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Dominic “Dom” Toretto’s team in The Fast and the Furious hijack 18-wheelers like the one Burt Reynold’s is distracting police from in Smokey and the Bandit. Still, it’s hard not to picture Burt behind the wheel of his Pontiac Trans Am, effectively weaving in and out of traffic when we see Dom’s team run-down these 18-wheelers. Like Cledus “Snowman” Snow’s character, Dom’s team is always ready to follow him – even if it means trouble and danger. The cars in these movies play just as great a role as the characters, almost a love-letter to the technology.

The motivation of the characters in these movies, while different, does seem to have a common theme. In an iconic scene in Smokey and the Bandit, Cledus asks, “How come we doin’ this? “Well, why not?” the Bandit answers. “Well, they said it couldn’t be done.” Cledus replies. To which Reynolds’ Bandit replies, “Well, that’s the reason, Son”.

Action movies – particularly those with street racing, often have blurry motivations for the initial plot spark. In Need for Speed, Aaron Paul’s character wants revenge after being framed for the death of his ex-girlfriend’s little brother during a race in which his nemesis is also driving. This motivation, though, would not exist if he weren’t racing – risking his own life – and for what? This risk is present in all these movies – Dom in The Fast and the Furious has an at least semi-successful garage, he could likely ‘go straight’ any time he wants. The Bandit and Snowman do stand to earn $80,000 for illegally running beer across state lines – but their plan for the money is to buy yet another truck. The common thread of these initial motivations seems to echo that of Smokey and the Bandit, “Well, why not?” and “it’s never been done before”. So, for Dom in The Fast and the Furious, hijacking 18-wheelers isn’t just about VCRs to resell – it’s reminiscent of stuntmen who enjoy the thrills because they can. Even the car in Need for Speed that Tobey builds, was, “billed in the film as the final car famed designer Carroll Shelby was working on at the time of his 2012 death” (Fryer, 2014, n.p.). While this is a fiction crafted for the film it echoes the same “never been done before” mantra. The stunts – and the film directors – in the case of Smokey and the Bandit and Need for Speed also have this mentality behind the scenes.

Why hang a car from a helicopter instead of figuring something out post-production through movie-magic CGI? Because they can. Need for Speed, despite its homage to a genre, well-crafted stunts, and A-list actors like Aaron Paul, does not come close to the critical acclaim of Smokey and the Bandit. Perhaps, these days, critics simply do not respect action movies. Fast cars, hot girls, and little substance might be all these critics see – somewhere between the decades, precision of stunts and an adrenaline-fueled experience have become lesser than critical darlings. One critic, Alex Pappademas says of the movie, “[t]here’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. At one point, Tobey even pulls the old chain-on-the-axle trick that got Richard Dreyfuss into the Pharaohs in American Graffiti” (Pappademas, 2014, n.p). The problem, perhaps, is not that Need for Speed is unoriginal, but that stunts are not respected in Hollywood as anything more than production. The days where Hal Needham is considered an important counterpart to Burt Reynold’s have been swept under the exhaust of the car, and now only the fumes of the movie star are scene. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows that this has been a problem since the 1960s, but the problem is certainly not getting better for stuntmen. An article on BBC documents the Stuntman’s lack of respect, outlining a campaign in Hollywood to have stuntmen included in the prestigious movie-awards, The Oscars. “Many of the films which are tipped for Oscar glory – Life of Pi, Django Unchained and Skyfall to name a few – have relied on the spectacular work of the stunt team to capture the imagination of the viewing public” (Price, 2013, n.p.), and yet, stuntmen are unrecognized in Hollywood’s hallowed award shows.

It’s interesting the Pappademas chooses to vilify the movie for paying homage to Bullitt, American Graffiti and others, especially when he claims that in movies like The French Connection and Bullitt, “[t]hese were movies with a sense of place and chases that couldn’t have been staged anywhere else, whereas in Need for Speed, each new locale is just another level to be unlocked and conquered” (Pappademas, 2014, n.p.). Perhaps Pappademas was unaware that the ethos of Need for Speed is a need for speed – as in, there doesn’t have to be a location for these chases to be important. The cars, the stunts, and as Pappademas states, “[t]he steak is perfectly prepared. The cars go fast, the cars go boom, all without the aid of green-screen or other digital cheating”. Although, as he says, himself, “I’m not much of a car guy” (Pappademas, 2014, n.p.). Sending a critic to a film about cars who hates cars would be like sending an anti-war protestor to critique a biopic about the Vietnam war – even if the film meets all expectations there is no way that the critic will appreciate the effort of the piece.

Need for Speed does not feature original super-cool never-been-done-before action sequences. If the movie did, this would have to go beyond the bonds of real stunts. It’s no longer 1977 and everything that could be done with a car – a helicopter – and an 18-wheeler, has been done before. If we dive further, we could complain that most new movies do not have new or fresh ideas. Romeo and Juliet did star-crossed lovers first, but that does not mean that every film and play to succeed it is merely a rip-off. Art, of course, is derivative.

There is variation in the three films. The Fast and the Furious is an under-cover cop thriller in some ways – we do not know what will happen when criminal Dom realizes that Brian, the same man dating his sister and who saved him from the cops – is actually a cop trying to take him down. The Fast and the Furious also varies from the other two films as it does not revolve heavily on the “road movie” genre. Much of the film takes place at the garage, under-cover police hideouts, and numerous other locations in Los Angeles. All three films have an element of wish-fulfilment. The characters Tobey, Brian/Dom, and, The Bandit, are all driving fast because they enjoy it, and because they can. These films vary in plot and location – with Need for Speed and Smokey and the Bandit being road films, while The Fast and the Furious is firmly rooted in Los Angeles for most of the plot, but the high-octane motivations are similar. While car movies do not have an official genre, there is enough evidence that these three films – and numerous others – are similar enough to at the very least count as a sub-genre. Smokey and the Bandit, Bullitt, and other early movies provided building blocks for the modern movies we see today like The Fast and the Furious and Need for Speed. These car movies are not aiming for literary gold – they play on the human desire to do because you can – because it’s never been done before, or because, “Well, why not?”.


If you like cars as much as I do, consider checking out my street-racing fiction novel Acceleration.


Andrews, N. (2019, August 14). Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s best and bravest movie since Pulp Fiction. Retrieved from

Barclay, C. (2018, May 25). 20 Things That Really Happened Behind The Scenes Of The Fast And Furious Films. Retrieved from

Failes, I. (2014, March 18). How they made the biggest stunts in Need for Speed. Retrieved from

Fryer, J. (2014, March 15). Ford Shelby GT500 grabs starring role in ‘Need For Speed’. Retrieved from

Need for Speed (2014). (n.d.). Retrieved from

Miller, J. (2019, July 25). Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s Hollywood Bromance Was Inspired by This Friendship. Retrieved from

Pappademas, A. (2014, March 14). Badness, Without Brakes. Retrieved from

Price, A. (2013, February 21). Why do stuntmen not have an Oscar? Retrieved from

Tasker, Y. (2012). The Family in Action. In Film Genre Reader IV (pp. 254–542). Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. Print.

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