Following on from the article a couple of weeks ago about Ford creating a new version of the Mustang from Steve McQueen’s legendary film “Bullit”, we got thinking about what the top movie car chases were.
That’s not an easy list to compile.
There are lots of great car chases throughout film history, and the question is, which are the best? There are hundreds to choose from – from the earliest recorded back in 1903 – a silent movie called Runaway Match, aka Marriage by Motor – to the mammoth two-hour car chase that is Mad Max: Fury Road.
OK, Fury Road isn’t ACTUALLY a two-hour car chase, there are bits in it that don’t take place in cars. Not many, but some.
In fact, the honour for arguably the longest, and most stylish car chase goes to the 1974 version of Gone in 60 Seconds starring HB Halicki and a yellow Ford Mustang called Eleanor.
What is it with Mustangs and car chases?
Another point to consider is the role of special effects. Many of the great car chases of the last 15 years or so, while slick, are incredibly reliant on CGI.
For some, that reliance on CGI can remove the sense of awe and wonder that we got from earlier chases in films like Bullit and The French Connection – that thing that makes you think “How on earth did they do that?!” or “That’s one hell of a driver” because you know that half of what you’re seeing is pixel manipulation, not driving skill.
So, these things in mind, here are our picks for the top car chases in films.
10: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Despite a sly dig earlier, Fury Road remains an absolute tour-de-force when it comes to car chases of the last few years. It’s thrilling, visually stunning, and ridiculously violent.
While CGI is used quite heavily, the vast majority of the car action is seen as shot, with only bits of colour tweaking, backgrounds, and people being blown up created by computer. If you want to take a look at what bits of Fury Road looked like without the CGI, take a look at the end of this piece. It’s great driving, no matter how you look at it.
With hi-octane driving, a guitar with a flamethrower and a four-man drum-kit on the back of a lorry, flaming spears, spiky hot-rods, and Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, what’s not to like?
9: Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Always a popular spot for car chases and races (To Live and Die in L.A and Grease, to name but two), the concrete channels that make up the L.A River and its overflow form the backdrop for the epic lorry-motorcycle chase from James Cameron’s sequel.
A boy deftly negotiating the pathways on his scrambler takes a turn for the worse when a giant recovery truck smashes off a bridge to land improbably intact before continuing the chase, followed by Arnie doing the same on a Harley Davidson while spinning a shotgun to reload it.
All the while escaping a shapeshifting metal monster. Magic.
8: The Blues Brothers (1980)
“There’s 106 miles to Chicago. We’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark out, and we’re wearing sunglasses.”
So starts one of the most entertaining car chases to ever grace the silver screen.
Director John Landis pushed the envelope of cliches with this classic scene, trashing more police cars than had ever been trashed before in a film.
Filmed in downtown Chicago, they got through 60 police cars and 40 stunt drivers.
7: Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
Something of a cult classic, this film launched Burt Reynolds into stardom and spawned a number of sequels.
Jumping a broken bridge in his Trans Am became an iconic scene, and dream of many others. Sales of the Pontiac Trans Am skyrocketed after the film’s release, while the catchy theme tune – Eastbound and Down – is as familiar nearly 40 years on as it was back then.
“You sum’bitches couldn’t close an umbrella.”
6: Gone In 60 Seconds (1974)
Featuring a 40-minute car chase and 93 wrecked cars, this ’74 original features a level of authenticity that the 2000 remake featuring Angelina Jolie and Nicholas Cage, along with many other films, somehow just failed to replicate.
The film itself wasn’t all that great if we’re honest – rather rambling and disjointed, but the sheer joy of the chase makes it worth watching alone.
The way traffic is through Denton, these days, it’s hard to imagine a 40-minute chase anywhere in Tameside!
5: To Live and Die in L.A (1985)
Both totally thrilling and utterly disconcerting, legend has it that one of the key moments of this chase, where the lead character finds himself on the wrong side of the road, is actually inspired by the real-life experiences of director William Friedkin who found himself like that after falling asleep at the wheel.
The precision driving and insanity of the whole situation all add to the tension, giving the viewer an insight into the mental state of the Secret Service lead.
It’s also hard to recall a film where the speeding vehicle has had to avoid quite so many forklift trucks.
4: Ronin (1998)
You can tell from watching this film that director John Frankenheimer likes his cars. He should do – he’s a former amateur racing driver.
Starring Robert De Niro and Jean Reno, the final chase took place on the streets of Paris and involved nearly 300 stunt drivers, some of which were Formula One drivers.
There’s a great selection of cars, too, featuring the Audi S8, BMW M5, and Mercedes 6.9.
Sometimes chases can feel a little fake, simply increasing the framerate to give an illusion of speed. Not so in this film, where cars were barrelling along at speeds of up to 120mph through the narrow Parisian streets.
Unlike Blues Brothers or Mad Max, this isn’t a chase about wrecking cars, it’s a chase of expert, precision driving that’s a wonder to behold.
Although some things just shouldn’t be done to a Peugeot
3: Vanishing Point (1971)
Like many car-heavy films, Vanishing Point is based on a bet. Set in the Vietnam war, Kowalski (Barry Newman) reckons he can get a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T from Denver to San Francisco by 3pm the following day.
That’s about 1200 miles, in case you were wondering.
The film suffers in the same way as To Live And Die In L.A. in that the storyline seems quite dated now, along with the existential hand-wringing that goes hand-in-hand with many ‘Nam era films.
That said, legendary stuntman Carey Loftin throws that white Challenger around the road like it’s nothing, and is a masterclass in expert motoring.
2: Bullit (1968)
The defining car-chase for the modern era, and in the eyes of many still the best, Steve McQueen and his Ford Mustang GT hurtle through the streets and hills of San Francisco in a 10-minute extravaganza pursuing a hitman.
It’s not a perfect execution by any stretch – McQueen seems to pass the same Volkswagen Beetle at least a million times, while surely a ’68 Dodge Charger doesn’t have more than 4 hubcaps to fly off.
Nonetheless, with Carey Loftin choreographing and driving, aided by stunt driver Bill Hickman who also piloted when it wasn’t McQueen, it’s still a benchmark for car chases even 50 years after it first hit the screen.
1: The French Connection (1971)
After lorry against motorcycle, man vs flamethrowers, car vs police hordes, we have car vs train.
One of the reasons Friedkin went all out in To Live And Die In L.A. was to try and top this chase.
Where many chases used cameras fix firmly to the cars, he broke the mould in this ’71 classic starring Gene Hackman by using hand-held cameras beside the lead, mounting them on the dashboard for real focus on the tremendous acting, and facing forward on the bumper for an unobstructed, stomach-churning view of the oncoming traffic.
Headlamp level footage as you chase a subway train along the streets of New York in a ’71 Pontiac LeMans gives you a fresh perspective and also helps you understand the obsession of Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle.
It’s no wonder that this film made Hackman a star with his Best Actor Oscar, and the film itself won 5 awards including Best Director and Best Picture.
These are the critics’ takes on the best movie car chases, but what are yours? There are some exceptions here, certainly, from the likes of The Fast & The Furious, The Transporter, Deathproof, The Driver, and others. How would you rate them?
And where’s Herbie?!
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Oh, and as promised, here’s what bits of Fury Road looked like without the CGI. Still pretty impressive!