The movie chase scene is a classic, vital and almost cliché component of any film that dares to call itself an action flick. These days, the best chase scenes feel more like a triumph of CGI, health and safety regulations and officious lawyers rather than a triumph of pure, raw driving skill – but whatever you think of these modern movies, the best car chases in film history are joyous to behold.
A great car chase gets the adrenalin flowing. A classic car chase can define a film. They are pure Hollywood with their high-octane, scarcely-believable, breakneck mayhem. Since the formative years of the movie business coincided perfectly with the formative years of the auto industry, the movie car chase has been a big draw for audiences the world over for the business end of a century.
These big-screen classic chases clearly make for fantastic entertainment, where for a brief moment you are transported into another world (or, in the case of Bullitt, it was almost 11 minutes of mayhem…)
For some, the car chase is about the chase itself rathe than about the fastest cars on the road. It’s about the cars, the driving, the skill and the stunts. For some it’s about the computer-generated insanity and the explosions, and for others it’s about the unadulterated destruction!
Just for fun, here’s a list of the car chase films that have destroyed the most cars:
Despite this wanton destruction, it’s true to state that many films have a good solid car chase scene, but very few have a truly great car chase scene. When it happens, it carves out a place in cinematic and automotive history. It’s the films that have great, memorable, famous, iconic and unforgettable classic car chase scenes that leave an indelible mark on our collective psyche.
When it comes to iconic car chases, Bullitt is hard to beat. It doesn’t matter that the green VW Beetle is overtaken seemingly dozens of times or that five (some say six) hubcaps fall off the Dodge Charger. This is the car chase to end all car chases.
The director Peter Yates puts the viewer front and centre and the race down the hilly San Francisco streets is so utterly engrossing your stomach flips from the point-of-view camera shots. It’s 10m 53s of cinematic mastery that hasn’t been improved upon in the near-50 years since it was filmed.
Steve McQueen – who played Lt. Frank Bullitt in this iconic film – was a serious petrolhead in real life and this must have been manna from heaven for the speed-loving actor. McQueen’s 390 V8 Ford Mustang GT Fastback chases the Dodge Charger R/T 440 up hill and down dale at speeds approaching 110 mph. At one point the Charger smashes into a camera and while McQueen did a lot of the close-up driving scenes, legendary stunt drivers Loren Janes and Bud Ekins (the same Bud Ekins who jumped the motorcycle at the end of The Great Escape) did most of the rest in the Mustang with Bill Hickman in the Charger.
This is the movie car chase by which all others are measured and while there have been some absolute pearlers over the years, Bullitt is the benchmark.
The Italian Job (1969)
With an all-star cool Britannia cast of Michael ‘you’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off’ Caine, Noël Coward, Benny Hill and John Le Mesurier, Peter Collinson’s The Italian Job is a proper cockney crime caper. When Charlie Croker’s (Caine) friend was killed in a Lamborghini Miura, he and his mates hatch a plan to steal $4m worth of gold in Italy and make their escape across the border to Switzerland.
The star turns were the red, white and blue Mk1 Mini Cooper S’s – now etched in history as among the most famous cars from tv and film – and with the city of Turin at a hooting, annoyed standstill (thanks to some clever tech that shuts down the city’s primitive CCTV), the stolen gold is transferred to the Minis and the chase begins.
Up and down steps, around the arcades of the Galleria San Federico, through Turin’s narrow back streets and then onto the test track on the roof of Fiat’s famed Lingotto building where the ‘three Mini jump’ was filmed. There was also a beautifully shot but deleted scene – known as the ‘Blue Danube’ scene – where the three protagonists raced back towards the Palazzo delle Esposizioni and ‘danced’ with the Italian carabinieri.
Arguably the best bit of the entire chase is through the underground sewers. The entrance and exit to the sewer was in Turin but – spoiler alert – the actual tunnels were the less than salubrious Birmingham-Coventry Tithebarn main sewer which is in Stoke Aldemoor in Coventry. Pioneering stunt co-ordinator and former rallycross and motorcross champion Remy Julienne attempted a full 360° in the tunnel but it didn’t come off.
After transferring the loot from the Minis to a coach they cross the border into Switzerland, but after the driver skids, the coach, Caine, his cronies and the gold are left teetering over a cliff….
This is pure, late 60s filmmaking at it’s very best and one of the most iconic car chases in movie history.
Not only was Ronin (the Japanese word for ‘samurai without a master’) a fantastic spy thriller from John Frankenheimer, it also gave us one of the most exciting, hair-raising car chases in film history.
As a former American intelligence agent attempts to locate a cliché mysterious package wanted by the Russians and the Irish, this twist-and-turn movie soon gets hugely complex as everyone double-crosses everyone else. It really is worth watching but this isn’t IMDB, it’s a story about a car chase. And what a car chase!
There are several, including a cracker through the back streets of Nice but the best of the lot is when the BMW 5-Series driven by Natasha McElhone tries to evade Jean Reno and Robert De Niro in a Peugeot 406 through the streets of Paris. It’s entirely believable since Frankenheimer was an amateur racing driver and he used his connections to hire a number of ex-F1 drivers. He shot the whole lot as live action (keeping the camera inside the car for a lot of the shots he wanted) rather than relying on the comfort of CGI.
Frankenheimer often rode along during the high-speed wrong-way pursuit through the Parisian streets and the use of exquisite gear-change sounds only added to the suspense and authenticity of the chase. A veritable army of stunt drivers were used, especially for the crashes, and the execution is near-perfect for the seven minute scene.
The real skill is making the chase look absolutely out-of-control and reckless – bordering on suicidal – when in fact the entire scene was perfectly controlled. The best movie car chase? It’s right up there with the most extraordinary, of that there is no doubt.
The French Connection (1971)
The French Connection was a cinematic masterpiece. Gene Hackman as NYPD Detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle won the Academy Award for Best Actor and William Friedkin (he of The Exorcist fame) won for Best Director. But what most people remember about this classic cops and robbers heist is the iconic movie car chase.
When Popeye commandeers a 1971 Pontiac Le Mans from a civilian (‘Police emergency – I need your car’) to chase an elevated train full of drug dealers, therein starts one of the most incredible car chases ever committed to celluloid. Steaming through Stillwell Avenue and 86th Street in the Brooklyn suburb of Bensonhurst, the chase offers everything the cinematic spectator requires. Speeding at up to 90mph in open neighbourhoods (often without permission from the NYC authorities) and goaded by the director, Hackman’s concentration and fear was very, very real.
The gritty reality was brought more real by ‘slight timing mishaps’ including a number of accidental collisions, narrowly missing a mother carrying a child and careering into piles of garbage that the director left in the final cut.
Cannonball Run (1981)
More of a car race than a classic car chase, Hal Needham’s The Cannonball Run is a star-studded screwball comedy starring Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore and Farrah Fawcett and ably supported by Jackie Chan, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Fonda and Dom DeLuise. Reynolds plays JJ McClure, an eccentric who organises an illegal Connecticut to California road race.
Pandemonium ensues in the film, which is based on the 1979 Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, an illegal point-to-point race run four times in the 1970s with just one rule: ‘all competitors will drive any vehicle of their choosing, over any route, at any speed they judge practical, between the starting point and destination. The competitor finishing with the lowest elapsed time is the winner!’
Naturally, the film is more about the cars that the flimsy plot and there are some absolute beauties – Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, Aston Martin DB5, Chevy Monte Carlo, Chevy Chevelle Laguna, Subaru Leone, Lamborghini Countach, Mercedes 280 SEL, Ferrari 308 GTS and of course JJ McClure’s Dodge Tradesman ambulance.
This film can generously fall into the category of ‘OK’. It’s a good ol’ boys film full of Hal Needham, Burt Reynolds and their mates and legendary film critic Roger Ebert was quoted as saying ‘The Cannonball Run is an abdication of artistic responsibility at the lowest possible level of ambition… they didn’t even care enough to make a good lousy movie’.
Whatever Rog – it’s got some cracking driving scenes, some awesome rides and some seriously dirty tricks!
The Blues Brothers (1980)
‘Joliet’ Jake and Elwood Blues, played to perfection by John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, embark on a ‘mission from God’ to raise $5,000 in property taxes to save the St Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage they grew up in. They decide to ‘put the band back together’ after a visit to the Triple Rock Baptist Church. Hilarity ensues throughout the film, including Belushi’s Joliet Jake evading his former girlfriend (played by Carrie ‘Princess Leia’ Fisher) at every turn.
After trying to locate their former bandmates and upon finding out they’ve all taken straight jobs, Jake gets upset and runs a red light. After being pulled over by Illinois State Troopers who find out his licence has been suspended, Jake speeds off into the Dixie Square Shopping Mall. In real life it stood as an empty shell but was reactivated for the film. Almost inevitably the brothers, in their 1974 Dodge Monaco Bluesmobile, cause mayhem as they try and evade the police.
As good as that car chase was (and not forgetting the jump over the 95th Street drawbridge), it doesn’t hold a candle to the final scene where Jake and Elwood are en route to deliver the five grand to the Cook County Assessor’s Office. Elwood famously says ‘it’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses’ to which Jake simply replies, ‘hit it’. And hit it they do.
Driving at breakneck speed through Chicago, the Blues Brothers cause a phenomenal amount of mayhem, often hitting 120 mph and wrecking over 100 police cruisers in the process, then a world record and forever etching The Blues Brothers as one of the most outstanding car chase films. The minute they get out of the car, it literally falls to pieces, a stunt that took months to rig and two seconds to do!
Vanishing Point (1971)
This may be the least well known of the car chase films on the list but it is essentially one long car chase. Directed by Richard C Sarafian and starring Barry Newman (Kowalski) and Cleavon Little, it’s the story of a car delivery driver (Newman) who arrives in Denver on a Friday night with a Chrysler Imperial and is eager to get on with his next assignment, the delivery of a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum to San Francisco by Monday.
After seeing his dealer to score some Benzedrine to stay awake, pill-popping Vietnam veteran Kowalski bets him that he’ll arrive in San Fran by 3pm the following day, a distance of near-on 1,000 miles.
There are some great races between the Challenger and an E-Type and the Challenger and the police and with the local radio DJ (Little) monitoring police frequencies, he urges Kowalski to evade the rozzers. The Challenger is driven expertly by legendary stunt driver Carey Loftin who pulls some super-high speeds, drifts and avoids traffic by mere millimetres.
Beautifully accompanied by a rock-soul soundtrack and a fireball of epic proportions – as the Challenger smashes into two bulldozers – Vanishing Point is a petrolhead film for the purist!