For decades, the car chase has existed as a timeless equalizer, settling scores with stomach-churning speed and velocity. The best of these chases employ vintage muscle-cars with practical effects and stunt work to achieve these amazing shots in camera. If CGI is used in the scene, it’s only to sweeten the practical effects and stunts.
The landscape is an equally essential ingredient, providing opportunities and obstacles for the drivers to embrace and overcome. The car chase grounds the action in an identifiable reality, menacing us with the ever-present possibility of death at high-speed. It also taps into something deep within everyone who’s ever gotten behind the wheel of a car: driving fast is as addictive as it is life-threatening.
The newest film from director Edgar Wright, Baby Driver, mixes the filmmakers love for the classic car chase genre with a killer soundtrack. To explain, the plot follows Baby, a getaway driver who suffers from tinnitus. While Baby uses his own personal soundtrack to combat the condition, it also makes him the best driver in the business. Our positive review states: “Wright doesn’t simply apply technical precision and innovation to genre-smart storytelling — he also makes what must be exhausting work look like so much fun.”
To celebrate the release of one of the year’s most highly-anticipated films, we decided to take a look back at the films featuring the best car chases in the history of cinema. Enjoy, and please include your own favorites in the comments.
Against All Odds (Taylor Hackford)
One of the elements that makes the car chase in the opening act of Taylor Hackford’s Against All Odds so surprising is its seeming lack of relation to the plot. It’s merely used to establish the competitive relationship between its two leads, a former pro-football player (Jeff Bridges) and an arrogant nightclub owner (James Woods). They’re headed to the nightclub to discuss a proposition, which eventually drags Bridges’ character into a film noir nightmare. But first, they find themselves racing to the club, driving like lunatics down Sunset Boulevard. Cutting off cars honking trucks as they laugh and trade insults, they sound like two stupid kids racing their parents’ cars, until Woods falls behind. Determined to win the race by any means, he wheels the car into oncoming traffic. At which point, the car chase becomes a sweaty-palmed classic.
The Blues Brothers (John Landis)
Glorious chaos and joyful destruction sums up John Landis’s car chase classic, The Blues Brothers, an upside-down celebration of smashing automobiles and ‘70s soul music. Not unlike Baby Driver, the soundtrack is a lead character in itself, which elevates each chase far beyond the realm of mere comedy. Gleefully tossing out the usual life or death stakes associated with car chases, Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) never feel as if they’re in danger, allowing each vehicular bust-up to remain in dizzying good fun. The smashing of cars becomes a dance, each smash-up building the comedic frenzy to a transcendental mania. The destruction of a shopping mall, the film’s most iconic chase, becomes a joyous musical number as Landis revels in the automotive anarchy of his own making.
Bullitt (Peter Yates)
The exhilarating car chase through the streets of San Francisco, which comes at the halfway point of Peter Yates’s Bullitt, is like a band that influenced a thousand others, playing notes that would eventually become endlessly imitated. Exploiting the streets of San Francisco for all their steep and treacherous pathways, Steve McQueen’s icy-cool detective Frank Bullitt wheels down a pair of shotgun wielding killers, blasting out his windshield as they careen down the highway. In hindsight, the sequence might lack the flashy fireworks found in other entries on this list, but this is the chase that spawned a thousand others. Finding the perfect combination of sequence and setting, Yates executed a coldly precise action scene, the brutal climax of which underlines the frigid detachment of its titular detective.
Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (John Hough)
After robbing a supermarket, Larry (Peter Fonda) and Deke (Adam Roarke), two wannabe race car drivers, find themselves on the verge of their getaway when Mary Coombs (Susan George) demands to come along for the ride. Larry and Mary slept together the previous night, a one-night-stand which morphs into an extended first (and last) date: Larry and Mary get to know each other, while they’re pursued by police cars and helicopters at every turn. While the chase sequences only last a few minutes, each one is lively and builds on the momentum of the previous. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry never hints at the bleakness at the heart of the film, racing headlong into a jarring climax without of a hint of the insurmountable obstacles in store for its heroes.
Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino)
Death Proof’s climatic car chase is actually two for the price of one. After the girls (Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson and Zoë Bell) hit the road, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) attempts to run their borrowed (in more ways than one) Dodge Challenger off the road with Zoë still riding the hood. Soon Stuntman Mike finds himself the hunted as the girls execute a vicious reversal on this twisted psychopath. Channeling the car chase classic Vanishing Point (also on this list) with the choice of vehicle, writer-director Quentin Tarantino miraculously pulls off one of the finest entries in the genre in his rookie attempt, while simultaneously paying homage to a muscle-car classic. Refreshingly, Tarantino mines this material for emotional resonance, not merely action-horror film posturing, making us fall in love with his characters before introducing them to Mike’s death proof Dodge Charger.
The Driver (Walter Hill)
Arguably the most influential film on this list, Walter Hill’s The Driver is a quintessential car chase film. It’s lead, a nameless driver (Ryan O’Neal) exudes a steel-nerved cool-headedness behind the wheel, no matter who he’s chasing, or for that matter, who’s chasing him. He works for hire as a getaway driver, never makes small talk, and refuses to carry a gun. The film is bookended by two outstanding chases. The first finds the driver on the run from the police through downtown Los Angeles, while the second reverses expectations, forcing the Driver to chase down two accomplices after a double-cross. Each reveals the Driver’s chilling modus operandi: a sickening game of chicken which only ends when one car flinches. Another unforgettable moment occurs when a gang of criminals meet with the Driver to discuss a potential heist. They ask the Driver: how can they be sure he’s the best? He replies, motioning to the car: “Get in.”
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Drive, not unlike Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, finds a fountain of inspiration in Walter Hill’s The Driver. Filmmaker Nicolas Winding-Refn and star Ryan Gosling adoringly channel the Ryan O’Neal classic in their stylized contemporary take on the genre. It’s interesting how Refn contains so much of these chase sequences within the car itself, cutting outside to the road only briefly in each scene, treating these short bursts of action with a grounded sense of reality. Even the film’s most talked-about image traps us inside the vehicle, Christina Hendricks’s face a mask of horror as the pursuing car crashes, bouncing tilted in midair, framed through the car’s rear windshield. Drive might dedicate the fewest scenes to classic car chase pyrotechnics of any on this list, but Refn designs each sequence for visceral impact, which allows these moments to continue reverberating through the rest of the film.
Duel (Steven Spielberg)
A lone driver encounters a seemingly psychotic trucker on a mountain highway. We never get a look at the trucker, instead represented by the rusted red exterior of his 18-wheeler, which lugs a massive tanker marked: flammable. Our protagonist, a bookish salesman (Dennis Weaver) on a routine business trip, is neither prepared nor equipped for the nerve-shredding onslaught in store for him. The film’s chase sequences are at their best when they’re at their smallest scale, finding thrills on a seemingly mundane road trip. Its small budget, less than half a million dollars, occasionally becomes evident, but director Steven Spielberg and editor Frank Morriss summon tension and dread simply from their beautifully conducted cuts, weaving real suspense from thin air.
Freebie and the Bean (Richard Rush)
They don’t make car chases like this anymore because they simply don’t make cars like this anymore. Big steel behemoths careening into each other, leaving gloriously crumpled dents in their wake. Indeed, Freebie and the Bean contains some of the finest analog car chase sequences of the decade (no small feat) as the two worst detectives in California attempt to play bodyguard to an organized-crime boss. Early on, Freebie (James Caan) and the Bean (Alan Arkin) are tailing their man when they notice a car with hot plates. Distracted from their duties, the boys decide to instead follow the stolen vehicle. What ensues is one of the most ridiculous and astounding car chases ever filmed, despite its seeming lack of relation to the plot. Bursts of sudden violence explode without warning as these two detectives deliver some of the finest mayhem to ever hit the streets of San Francisco.
The French Connection (William Friedkin)
Perhaps the closest Detective Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) ever gets to catharsis comes at the end of the famous chase sequence, in which he follows a subway train in a commandeered Pontiac LeMans. The chase, which is generally considered the best in cinema history, is messy in a wonderfully kinetic way. Friedkin’s bumper mounted camera hurdles the audience along mere inches above the pavement. Hackman’s performance as this aggressively single-minded detective, determined to get his man, conveys so much of the scene’s suspense. Doyle’s car smashes into obstacles at high speed, accidents that would cripple most vehicles, which only prove to briefly slow him down.
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
While each film in George Miller’s Road Warrior series overflows with thrilling car chases, Mad Max: Fury Road out-thrills them all: a transcendental struggle of man and machine, hypnotically extended across its two-hour running time. Sustaining the audience’s engagement and the sequence’s geography with such an expansive chase is a remarkable feat, which Miller and his team enhanced with over 2000 invisible CGI shots, seamlessly blended to craft this race across a barbaric landscape. What makes Miller’s film stand out is its handmade quality. Each element from the War Boys and their rigs, to the scavenging hoards who emerge from the desert feels loving conceived from some waking nightmare. The chase escalates into a surreal and kaleidoscopic explosion of sand and steel, creating countless unforgettably hellish images.
The Seven-Ups (Philip D’Antoni)
The thrilling back and forth of The Seven-Ups’s infamous car chase sets it aside from every other entry on this list, as much as it also owes a huge debt to Bullit’s iconic scene. Instead of the ultra-cool, turtleneck-clad Bullit behind the wheel, we have Roy Scheider in another of his pressurized-every-man protagonists, racing after two violent criminals in a frenzied panic. Coming only a year after The French Connection won the Oscar for Best Picture, producer turned director Philip D’Antoni endowed his first car chase with a playful sense of snowballing intensity, introducing a third car into the scene halfway through to raise the stakes for the villains. McQueen’s detective feels almost invincible compared to Scheider’s character; though an experienced cop, he’s a rookie in the car chase game.
Smokey and the Bandit (Hal Needam)
Of course, the finest car chase movies of Burt Reynolds’s filmography include catchy country songs which name-check the titular characters as they scream across an unmistakably American landscape, and Smokey and the Bandit is no exception. The plot itself, a midnight run to deliver a truckload of beer across the Georgia state line, is just a good old boy excuse for vehicular mayhem, as the Bandit (Reynolds) outsmarts and outdrives Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) at every turn. The charming story of how stunt coordinator Hal Needam found himself elevated to the director’s chair by Reynolds is true. The star all but shrugged and said: “Why don’t you just direct this one,” after reading an early rough draft of Smokey and the Bandit. As the southern fried chase ensues, it almost becomes more fun to see Gleason’s antagonist fail than it is to see the Bandit and company succeed.
To Live and Die in L.A. (William Friedkin)
For director William Friedkin’s second entry on this list, he moves his action to the west coast. Two cops (Willian Peterson and John Pankow) plan to steal a bag of money from one criminal in an attempt to take down another one, an infamous counterfeiter (Willam Dafoe). But the robbery goes awry and the criminal gets killed. The cops realized they’re in deep trouble, at which point, the car chase commences, adding insult to injury as these two frightened men find themselves on the run. First, it’s just one car. Then, two and three and four, the chase escalating wildly before these cops have no choice but to turn onto the freeway, driving against traffic. While Friedkin doesn’t quite top the white-knuckle suspense of The French Connection chase, To Live or Die in L.A.’s freeway run comes incredibly close.
Vanishing Point (Richard C. Sarafian)
Vanishing Point is a nearly feature-length car chase across a barren terrain, a landscape which mirrors the life of Kowalski (Barry Newman) a man stripped of everything important to him, reduced to delivering cars from one side of the country to the other, as fast as he can. Fighting dust, sand and police pursuit, he’s guided by the voice of Super Soul (Cleavon Little) a blind radio disc jockey who hopes to build Kowalski into a folk hero. As Kowalski evades capture, Super Soul spins a celebratory radio soundtrack to encourage the driver, including Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen.” As influential as Vanishing Point is, the film is not merely a muscle-car classic, it’s also a dazzlingly stylized and existential counter-culture experience.
What’s Up, Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich)
Perhaps the funniest cinematic car chase, What’s Up, Doc? climaxes with this marvelous payoff; itself a parody of sorts of the infamous scene from Bullit. The world created in Peter Bogdanovich’s film is a screwball comedy crossed with a live-action version of a Looney Tunes short with a blistering joke-per-minute ratio. Throw a car (and bicycle) chase into this manically hilarious setting and you’ve got one of the finest action-comedy sequences ever filmed, which playfully toys with the audience’s expectations over and over again. Unlike the sketch-comedy tonality of The Blues Brothers, the scene builds breathtaking moments of suspense amongst its seemingly endless punchlines.
Baby Driver is now in wide release.