Cut Scenes is Josh Wise’s regular column on the intersection between films and video games. This week, it’s GTA: San Andreas vs. Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
L.A. has been encased in film canisters stretching back to the black-and-white Mysticism of the 1940s and Film Noir (The Big Sleep), to the sun-bleached corruption of the ’70s (Chinatown, The Long Goodbye), and the lunar night of Michael Mann’s urban sprawl (Heat, Collateral).
Rockstar, ever the masters of landscape storytelling, the purveyors of pop culture pastiche, crafted ‘Just Business’ – one of the standout missions in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, indeed the entire series – to serve as a rollercoaster tour of Los Santos from the glitz to the ghetto. In doing so, the tour bus stops first at one of the biggest blockbusters of the nineties.
With Terminator 2: Judgement Day, James Cameron captured a saturated slice of that decade, a commercialised canvas of street culture and urban cool, of glamour and graffiti. The famous chase sequence sees John Connor fleeing from his icy, liquid-metal assailant from arcade to strip mall, before screeching out of an underground car park down a sun-baked boulevard on his dirt bike, and onto the parched concrete of the L.A. river basin.
‘Just Business’ adopts an on-rails approach – something Rockstar uses from time to time to take you by the hand through something they’ve built, offering up a director’s cut. It’s a glorious one, too: light is filtered here and there in an oily, amber hue, like you’re looking at the world through a glass of beer. Spitting bullets on a swivel as Big Smoke guides you both away from a hit squad of Russian mobsters, the action is crackling yet subdued. You can’t control your speed, only what you fire at, giving the entire scene a choreographed, filmic feel.
The way the mission progresses runs counter to the rags-to-riches rise of the rest of the game: from the skyscraper aspirations of downtown – chic, waif-like women, glass towers flanked with palm trees, dripping with wealth – down into the sewers, ultimately leading the duo back home to Grove Street, so many miles away. This is captured in a single shot at 2:49, as the camera pans down from the top of the elegant building, to the hot tarmac where a BF-400 motorbike waits to whisk the pair away.
T2’s chase, like all great action sequences, has an undercurrent of feeling that punches through the action facade, something elusive. At 0:51, as the truck bursts through the barrier and lurches down in slow-motion into the basin, slurred strings pierce through the score, puncturing the scene with despair – a reminder that John will never truly be free of his pursuers.
Rockstar fans the hammer and looses a cavalcade of cheap thrills in a vintage GTA action set piece: fire fights, motorbike chases, explosions, stunt ramps. There’s something else ‘Just Business’ manages to communicate as well. It’s peppered with references to T2 – the spiral exit of the car park, the pursuit of the truck, an unwarranted explosion seemingly for symmetry’s sake – but there’s one touch that resonates above all the others. It threads the mission through, not quite with despair, but with a bittersweet note at its climax.
In Terminator 2, Arnie shoots the locks off chain link gates with his sawn-off shotgun; it’s an act that brings him closer to John, of pushing toward safety and breaking down the barriers between them. In ‘Just Business’, CJ has to shoot out the gate leading into a culvert; it’s a move toward safety and seclusion, just as it is in T2, but it has a different undercurrent running through it.
It’s a reminder of where they came from, of where they belong. It’s a barrier between them and another world that can’t so easily be shot through. Rockstar pulls you across not just Los Santos’ physical geography, but its psychological geography too. It’s succinctly captured in a brief exchange between them: “I used to hate this tunnel when we were kids,” CJ shouts. Big Smoke snaps him back to the present, saying, “We can reminisce later.”