Log On A Drive-In Movie

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An old man carrying a load of priceless jewels must escape some thieves with a fast car and heavy artillery. The next little Buddha must reach his lamasery with his aura intact. A film actor on location needs to know if his woman is cheating on him. An incriminating photo has to be smuggled out of a nation in civil war. The planet's bitchiest rock star--yes, Madonna!--needs a speedy comeuppance. Five tough assignments; zero sweat. Because the man at the wheel of each endangered vehicle is a chauffeur for all reasons...the Hire.

He's the star of five new films by five major directors, all coming soon to a desktop near you. From BMW, the German luxury-car manufacturer, the ultimate in new-media, high-end branding has arrived: six-minute melodramas, featuring some cinematic swank and a lot of expensive heavy metal, that are available only on the bmwfilms.com website. With a budget in the low seven figures and only a few company rules--the recurring character of the Hire (played with rugged poignancy by British actor Clive Owen of Croupier) and, well, a BMW here and there--each auteur can put his stamp on his project. "It's a chance to make a student film again," says director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), the project's executive producer, "but also to have the resources, to have the cranes and the beautiful cars to destroy. Things like that."

The nub of each film is the chase--the simplest story line requiring the most sophisticated art craft. But instead of asking Jerry Bruckheimer for some car-crash outtakes, Fincher lured a U.N. of directorial talent: Hollywood's John Frankenheimer (Reindeer Games), Taiwan's Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Hong Kong's Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love), Britain's Guy Ritchie (Snatch) and Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros). Frankenheimer's short, Ambush, premiered last week on bmwfilms.com. The next two, Lee's and Wong's, will appear in May.

Why would top directors agree to make cine commercials? "Basically, they get to do a film every two years," says Steve Golin, whose company, Anonymous Content, is producing the series. "For this, their time is going to be four or five weeks, they'll get paid good money, there won't be much interference. They jumped at the chance, especially people who didn't have jobs because of the looming writers' strike." Frankenheimer, who hadn't made a short film since he directed Air Force documentaries in the early '50s, sees his film as nearly commercial free. "We banged the car up and shot it full of holes. That's not really a hard direct sell."

And why would BMW foot a big bill for an Internet campaign? "Our purchasers are driven, work-hard, play-hard people," says Jim McDowell, vice president of marketing for BMW of North America. "They're very time pressured." You know the type: a CEO who moonlights in ER. "But about 85% of them are on the Web before they buy a BMW. We wanted to do something that would get their full attention."

It surely deserves the attention of discerning movie watchers. The Hire, an automaton hero at the wheel of his automotive avenger, is a solid yet supple arche- type--a creature out of existentialist literature. He is what he drives. And he always wins. Except when he doesn't want to.

Ambush is no more than a straight (and twisty) demolition derby, but Lee's Chosen, about the little Buddha, has a burlier and jollier tone than his features. And Wong's The Follow is a fine, full movie in miniature, a perfect showcase for the director's obsessions: voiceover, slo-mo, the glancing connection of two lonely souls in the night. The Hire does his job, trailing a beautiful woman (Adriana Lima). When the two meet, they don't speak or touch; he gazes at her as she sleeps. But her loveliness persuades him to let her escape, and he drives off alone. "There's always something at the end of the road," our man muses. "If you're not willing to see what it is, you probably shouldn't be out there in the first place."

We look forward to Madonna's turn in her husband's film. Meantime, congrats to BMW for getting these directors on the Internet superhighway. And to Wong, for being out there in first place.