Have wheels, will chase: The greatest film car chases

With Need for Speed rocking the box office, Shaun Munro at What Culture takes a look at some of the most awe-inspiring, hair-raising car chase scenes ever. Buckle up!

Bourne Identity

Doug Liman’s entry into the Bourne series might be the lesser of the three films, but it does feature the best car chase of the lot, as Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne gets Marie in tow and drives a Mini Cooper through the dreary Paris streets in an attempt to evade the authorities. Using his cunning as a wheelman, Bourne hurtles down stairways, taking advantage of the Cooper’s small size to run rings around his pursuers, mounting the curb and barely avoiding pedestrians as he does so. The best moment arguably comes when a motorcycle-riding cop isn’t looking where he’s going and hits a car, catapulting himself into the stratosphere as Bourne is free to get away. That the scene is backed by Paul Oakenfold’s excellent tune Ready Steady Go (also used in Michael Mann’s Collateral) is just the icing on the cake.

Even though we might have lost sight of it in the other two films, this scene is proof that you don’t need shaky cam to make a gritty and engaging car chase.

The Matrix Reloaded

Easily the most outright bonkers car chase on the list, and the only one that fully roots itself in non-reality, what with the various spawning Agents and also the Virii twins chasing Morpheus, Trinity and the Keymaker for the entirety of it. This 17-minute chase along a treacherous freeway cost roughly $40 million to shoot alone, but it’s clear to see where the money went with this barmy, exhilarating scene, which cements itself as one of the most brilliantly insane car chases ever filmed. Though this sequel had its fair share of critique, this car chase sequence received pretty much universal acclaim, with the highlights including Agents diving on cars and pancaking them, a fist-fight inside a car, a swordfight atop a lorry, a head-on collision between two of them, and of course, Neo showing up to take care of business. The fantastic score by Don Davis and the likes of Juno Reactor also accentuates the thrill factor considerably.

It’s unapologetically soaked in CGI, and this is one instance of filmmakers doing it right; it’s totally excessive and utterly, utterly brilliant.

Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)

Ignore the naff 2000 Nicolas Cage-starring remake – which did admittedly at least feature one competent chase scene – and go back to the 1974 version, which features one of the most ambitious chases in film history, with star and director HB Halicki getting totally carried away by having the film’s climactic chase go on for a whopping 35 minutes! As Halicki tries to evade the authorities over almost half a dozen cities, it’s a thoroughly exhilarating sequence, with perfectly peppered downtime to ensure that we don’t get exhausted of all the wheel-spinning and shunting.

Is it excessive? Absolutely, but it’s also an instance of a filmmaker playing with his toys with a complete lack of restraint, and that’s admirable; this is a film with a no-nonsense approach to its premise. Halicki doesn’t jerk us around for 90 minutes to deliver a brief 10-minute chase at the end; the film is the chase for the most part, and this bravura sequence is among the most crowd-pleasing of chases in cinema.

Vanishing Point

Again, ignore the naff 1997 remake and stick with the 1971 original, which might not be as technologically advanced, but it has a wealth more charm and personality, as well as a sure iconic appeal. If the film’s narrative was strange and uncertain – for one thing, it was surprisingly philosophical – it does feature some of the best stunt-driving in the history of cinema, and director Richard Sarafian was smart to allow stunt-driving legend Carey Loftin to actually design the vast majority of the film’s chase sequences. Watching the white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T tearing through traffic is a timeless, one-of-a-kind experience, and unlike many car-related films of the period, no speeding-up of the film took place to accentuated the speed; Loftin, crazy as he was, knew how to stage immaculate driving sequences, hence why he was still Hollywood’s go-to-wheelman right into his 70s.

The narrative might not be up to much, but there’s no denying the visceral, white-knuckle power of the driving scenes.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

The Terminator series has a number of excellent chase sequences, but the best unquestionably comes near the beginning of Terminator 2, when the T-1000 outs himself as a killing machine to John Connor, at which point he is forced to flee on his piddly little dirt-bike. The chase begins with the T-1000 keeping pace on foot, before commandeering a lorry and pursuing Connor through the streets, while the T-800 (yes, that’s Arnie), on his awesome Harley, attempts to catch up. Arguably the best moment comes when Connor rides his bike into the Los Angeles viaducts, assuming that he has evaded his pursuer, only for the lorry to come careening over a bridge and continue the chase. Just as it appears that John is about to be squished by the lorry, the T-800 shows up and saves John, placing him on the back of his bike and unloading enough shotgun shells into the lorry that the T-1000 loses control, and the vehicle promptly explodes.

It’s a stunningly-rendered scene that’s insanely chaotic and inherently dangerous; we’re scared for John, and we’re thrilled when the T-800 shows up, shotgun twirling and all, to save the day.

To Live and Die in LA

Proof that an actor being an actual car enthusiast can transpire into our visceral engagement with a chase sequence, William Petersen’s steely portrayal of a doggedly determined Secret Service Agent makes for thrilling viewing in this crackling car chase from William Friedkin, widely considered one of the best directors of car chases in movie history. Obsessed with catching an evasive target, Petersen’s character takes more and more risks as the film progresses, culminating in this daring, bravura sequence, which has Petersen pushing his car to the limit, scraping in and out of countless tight spots in pursuit of his target, ending with the most brilliant feat of all; Petersen drives his Chevrolet the wrong way along the motorway during heavy traffic, making the scene not only intensely thrilling, but genuinely scary too.

Nowadays all those cars would probably be rendered with CGI, but back in the good ‘ol days, Friedkin actually filmed it for real, and that is to be commended.

Bullitt

Bullitt remains the measuring stick for car chases almost 50 years on, an outstanding, exhausting sequence that made iconic use of various San Francisco locations, and has as a result been parodied in media as diverse as a Metallica music video (I Disappear) and the video game Driver. Though the heavy lifting in Steve McQueen’s Mustang GT 390 was performed by trusty legend Carey Loftin, the fact that McQueen looks so comfortable and badass behind the wheel enhances our engagement with what is going on, and also makes it more convincing that he actually did perform these incredibly stunts. Director Peter Yates manages to keep the chase more grounded and realistic than many of the chases on this list, so it’s a testament to his ingenuity as a filmmaker that it’s still one of the most thrilling on the list.

Hubcaps fly off, rubber is burnt, and there are countless near misses, both with regard to traffic and then, later on, some shotgun blasts as well. That it ends in the most literally explosive fashion possible, then, is just the icing on the cake.

The French Connection

William Friedkin pops up again with one of the best crime thrillers in film history, such that it ended up winning five Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture, and also helped propel Gene Hackman to worldwide fame as the beleaguered Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. Though the story of cops trying to take down heroin smugglers was plenty engaging enough for Hackman to scoop up that Best Actor Oscar, we like to think it’s the genius chase sequence, in which Doyle gets into a 1971 Pontiac Le Mans to chase down an enemy, who just happens to be in a train above the streets of New York City that clinches it. It’s among the most unconventional and iconic chase sequences ever filmed – again, featured in the video game Driver – given that it’s not even between two cars, and as visceral as the scene is, it also enhances Doyle’s character development, cementing how thoroughly obsessive and dangerously determined he is.

A chase that is at once incredibly nuanced and breakneck, Friedkin proves why he’s an A-list filmmaker of the highest order.

Ronin

John Frankenheimer directs the Hell out of this car chase, the most visceral and thrilling ever filmed, from Ronin, a competent thriller entirely elevated by chase sequences that emphasise speed like no other film. There are three exhilarating chases in the film, but it’s the above one that really takes the cake, and we attribute the film’s kinetic quality to Frankenheimer employing Formula One pilots as stunt drivers, tearing vehicles such as the Audi S8, BMW M5 and Mercedes-Benz 6.9 around the narrow Parisian streets with seemingly little regard for other vehicles or, indeed, other people. The incredible sense of speed and the precarious nature of the roads accentuate the sheer desperation of these characters to catch one another, especially when they’re forced to drive against traffic, and Frankenheimer keeps his camera inside the vehicle, giving us the ultimate view of some insanely awesome stunt driving.

It’s incredible that Frankenheimer got permission to have the cars driven so (seemingly) recklessly, but alas, that’s the real craft of an amazing chase; make it look dangerous even when it’s perfectly controlled.

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