Showstoppers. The MINIs of 2003’s The Italian Job.
When you need a high-speed chase through a busy city with cars that don’t just turn up the excitement but turn on the style, you go for the MINI. It was like that in the original The Italian Job, as well as its modern remake. Check out how these cars became the real stars of the movie, and all the magic that went into making the action happen.
the car becomes a star of the movie itself.
Cars in movies usually play one of three roles. Often, they’re just a prop helping to define a character or a scene, but not something to be thought of too much. Then other times they take a more active role, with perhaps a scene or two where they get to share some of the limelight with the stars of the film. Think of the famous Mini chase with Matt Damon and Franka Potente from 2002’s The Bourne Identity. The 1989 Mini Mayfair that Jason Bourne drives may not be in the best shape, but that just adds to the excitement as it navigates narrow pathways and staircases like nobody’s business.
But today, we’re talking about a third category, where the car becomes a star of the movie itself. These special vehicles become so iconic, that you just have to say “DeLorean” or “1968 Mustang” and everyone knows you’re talking about Back to the Future and Bullitt. And of course, there’s the classic Mini, which has had many great roles, but none as prominent as in 1969’s The Italian Job. So, it was fitting that the new MINI would make its first starring appearance in the 2003 version of that classic caper movie.
Of course, this was not the first new MINI to have its debut appearance be in a major motion picture, that honour goes to the Union Jack-clad MINI in 2002’s Austin Powers in Goldmember. But it was the Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, and Jason Statham led movie that gave the new MINI just as big of a role as any of the aforementioned actors. Indeed, critic Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal at the time famously called it, “the best car commercial ever, [...] and great fun as a movie in the bargain”. This is not a huge surprise as director F. Gary Gray and cinematographer Wally Pfister watched car commercials and photoshoots (as well as classic high-speed chases) when coming up with the look of the movie. And if you have cars that are as instantly iconic as the MINI, well it’s difficult to make them not look good.
DOING THEIR OWN STUNTS.
The first Mini to appear in the movie is a 1997 Mini Cooper Mk VII, driven by Charlize Theron. The car is reminiscent of – and thus a homage to – one of the cars of the original The Italian Job. Interestingly, it’s Charlize Theron’s character who drives the first new MINI in the movie too. And it’s a great introduction, as she does a reverse 180° turn in a cramped warehouse. It immediately shows off the MINI’s agility and handling, and the car’s action star status just grows as the movie goes on. Among other things, the MINIs drive through a Los Angeles canal, descend a flight of stairs into the Metro, navigate the narrow underground maze, get into a shootout with motorcycle riding baddies, and play chicken with a helicopter under an actual freeway overpass. All in a day’s work.
While audiences only ever see three MINIs do the stunts (a red, blue, and white MINI Cooper), there were actually 32 vehicles used during production. There was also a repair crew always on hand to fix injured MINIs ASAP, as the MINIs tended to get damaged doing the stunts. Interestingly, most of the time any of them were seen on screen, they were actually being driven by the actors themselves. Mark Wahlberg, Jason Statham and Charlize Theron spent multiple weeks in driving school so they could do most of their own stunts. According to the producers and the other actors, the best driver among them was Charlize Theron, who was pretty happy with her abilities, saying about that first reverse 180° turn, “That was the one I was most proud of, because I nailed it every single time, and I didn’t kill anybody. So, I was very happy about that.” A sentiment probably shared among everyone else who was on set that day. Mark Wahlberg’s experiences were less victorious as he admitted that after the first 10 minutes of driving the “intensely-powered Go-Kart” which was incredibly fun, he did throw up in it. He didn’t fare too well in the passenger seat either. The filmmakers actually had to get rid of a scene where he was sitting next to Charlize Theron, as he kept getting sick from all the sudden movements.
TheY had no choice but to build tHE first ever electric MINIs.
THE FIRST ELECTRIC MINI.
With almost every stunt being done practically, it’s no surprise the MINIs had to be modified according to what was required for a shot. A very common modification that cars in movies go through is the addition of a second steering wheel. This is where the qualified stunt driver sits and drives the car, while, of course, never being seen on screen. The actor in the driver's seat just pretends to control the vehicle, as they perform their scene. In truth, it would be difficult to perform a stunt while delivering lines perfectly, hence why this method is used all the time. Other MINIs for the movie had their suspensions changed (for jumping sequences), had extra horsepower put into them, or were just simply sawed in half, all depending on the needs of the scene.
But during production, the crew also had to perform a very different type of modification, one which resulted in the first ever electric MINIs being created. During the great heist sequence that serves as the movie's climax, the three MINIs drive down into the Los Angeles Metro, jump in front of a train and continue down the tunnels. The location of the second half of the sequence, where the MINIs drive deep into the tunnel system and collapse the road above, was one of the few sets built for the film. However, the first part – just like most of the rest of the movie – was shot on location, at the actual Los Angeles Metro. This meant that those MINIs really had to drive down the stairs into the underground. The only problem was, local authorities required that only vehicles with no exhaust fumes be used in the Metro.
With such requirements, Director Gray of course first called MINIs parent company, BMW. “They wouldn’t allow us to shoot in the tunnels with cars that had combustion engines. So, I said, ‘Okay, great, we’ll just get electric MINIs and that’ll be fine.’ We called BMW and he said there aren’t any electric MINIs, they don’t exist.” Transportation coordinator John Carpenter had no choice but to engineer and build three completely electric MINIs – the only electric MINIs that existed in the world at the time – that could perform perfectly in LA’s underground. In the end, he managed it perfectly, putting together 2 electric-powered MINI Coopers and 1 MINI Cooper S (the red MINI driven by Charlize Theron). And Gray was incredibly thankful. “It’s one of my favourite moments with the MINIs because of the size. I mean, you can’t imagine any other car doing this stunt except the Minis.”
Although the first production MINI, the MINI Cooper SE, wouldn’t come out until over a decade later, the MINIs of The Italian Job helped popularise this new iteration of the classic British small car and create a new generation of fans. The US market also saw a 20 percent increase in sales after the movie’s premiere, which signaled to the world – and all those who might have doubted the new MINI – that there was no need to worry. A star was born.
If you’re inspired to check out what a real production MINI feels like to drive, you can check it out here.
Images: Keno Zache; Maximum Film / Alamy Stock Foto; Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Foto; AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Foto
The MINI One-Off Series.
Our history is enriched by a long list of one-off cars. Whether they were created for movies, noble causes, or designed by celebrities to show the world the many faces of MINI’s personality, we love them all equally. That is why we wanted to look back at these cars, and share their unique stories.
Check out other cars in the series: