A-List: Top Five Car Chase Scenes
By J. Don Birnam
April 6, 2015

They're on a mission from God.

Furious 7, the seventh installment in the Fast and the Furious remake franchise, obliterated box office records this past weekend. Perhaps fueled by renewed interest in the movies given the untimely death of Paul Walker, the six-time sequel became the ninth highest opening weekend of all-time, destroyed previous records for April openers, and assured the continued existence of the franchise in the post-Walker era.

The series, of course, is best known for over-the-top car chase sequences, thrilling rides, muscle cars, and beautiful women. Not that the car chase scene (or the vehicular chase scene for that matter) is the invention of the modern incarnation of The Fast and The Furious (there is a 1955 film of the same name). Indeed, chase sequences are at least as old as movies themselves - the first I know of is in the disturbing and now discredited) 1915 racist flick, The Birth of a Nation, which features a thrilling horse chase sequence.

The success of Furious 7 over the weekend thus begs the question: what are the best car chase scenes of all time? No easy question to answer, mind you, given the sheer popularity of car chase scenes in movies today. One can watch any James Bond movie and is almost guaranteed a car chase sequence. Indeed, some of them (the helicopter chasing the car that can become a submarine in The Spy Who Loved Me, or the motorcycle/Range Rover chase through the narrow alleys of Saigon in Tomorrow Never Dies) are worthy of honorable mentions on this list.

So are other chase sequences, not all of which strictly involve cars. For example, all three Back to the Future films arguably feature chase sequences, wherein the Delorean chases or is chased in some sense. In the first, Marty is chased by the Libyan terrorists, resulting in his unplanned trip to 1955. But the best of all has to be the train-pushing-the-car-while-the-horse-chases-them sequence of Back to the Future III, a fitting and thrilling finale to the series.

These examples, however, show that the type of chases can be burdensomely broad if not confined properly. The rule I will draw here will be a rather easy one: the chase has to involve cars. Speedboat chase scenes, for example, are out. So too is the entire Speed franchise, which involves two high-speed, thrilling chase sequences, but neither involves a car. The climax of Back to the Future III, is therefore also technically ineligible - it’s in reality a horse chasing a train.

But there are other honorable mentions that do fit the bill. I’m partial, for example, to Live Free and Die Hard’s car chase sequence - featuring a collapsing highway, mistaken target identity by a killer machine, and fighter jets. In an otherwise flat franchise revival, the primary chase sequence stood out as a lone bright spot.

I was also impressed with the car chase sequence in the original The Italian Job, from 1969, where three small Fiats successfully escaped the Italian police by running through rooftops, plaza steps, and sewers. It was a fittingly climatic end to an otherwise solid film. The remake’s chase scene was good on its own terms, but not really distinguishable from the plethora of other scenes that existed in movies by the time the movie was remade in 2003.

Finally, and just missing the cut, is the utterly ridiculous but deliciously campy Smokey and the Bandit, the 1977 comedy starring Burt Reynolds and Sally Field as a moonshine truck driver and a runaway bride (respectively!) who are engaged in a cross-country chase to transport a truck-full of beer. The entire movie is essentially a car chase scene, which makes it a worthy inclusion even if the premise and dialogue are somewhat outlandish.

Onward, then, to my favorite car chase movies.

5. The Bourne Identity (2002)

Although not yet considered a classic by many, I am partial to the chase sequence in Matt Damon’s thriller because it spawned a solid set of adaptations of the popular Bourne novels. This chase through the streets of Paris even has Damon going up and down pedestrian staircases. Although the other entries on this list will feature muscle and sport cars, the chase here involved a beat up Mini Cooper belonging to Damon’s on-screen girlfriend, as they are being chased by the French police. Also noteworthy is the vehicular carnage that Damon’s little car left in its wake. After going through all the one-way lanes and thoroughfares, down the cobblestones, and over many sidewalks, it was no surprise that the motorcycles and vehicles in pursuit of them crashed into dozens upon dozens of innocent bystanders. It seems as if the collateral damage crashes are a common theme in the modern day car chase scene, where they didn’t figure as a central part of the action in older sequences, as we shall see below.

Paul Greengrass’s subsequent effort, the Moscow chase scene in The Bourne Supremacy, was also impressive, but it was the opener that set the tone for the rest of the franchise.

4. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

William Friedkin’s 1985 thriller stands out for the sequence in which the lead character drives a Chevy Impala in the opposite direction on a Los Angeles freeway. The trick, apparently, was that Friedkin had the lead character (a troubled Secret Service agent played by William Petersen) drive in the right way on the street, and the traffic driving the wrong way.

As we shall see, it is clear that by the time he had made To Live and Die in L.A., Friedkin had been successful at directing thrilling car chase sequences. Nevertheless, the swerving maneuvers through the rapidly coming cars are impressive for many reasons, including the fact that it is clear that the director himself is riding in a car following Petersen’s car as it swerves through danger. Eventually, Petersen’s Secret Service agent successfully evades the gunmen who are pursuing him, but not before causing chaos to ensue on the freeway, and several cars to topple onto each other in a melee of stunt car crashes.

3. Ronin (1998)

Robert De Niro’s 1998 thriller is the second-newest film to make the list. I selected it for its car chase scene that was reportedly one of the most difficult to shoot ever. The scene features De Niro in a Peugeot chasing a BMW through the streets of Paris. At some point, a line of pedestrians have to literally jump out of the way of the wayward vehicles. This thrilling scene involves the tires of the BMW being shot at, and the vehicle rolling and crashing as it bursts into flames while the (female) driver maneuvers it.

But director John Frankenheimer, who first directed a car action thriller in 1966 with “Grand Prix,” was not content to have one climatic chase scene, opting instead for three. In all of them, other muscle cars such as a Mercedes-Benz 6.9 and an Audi S8 are expertly driven by stuntmen and professional race car drivers, whose driving was expertly captured by Frankenheimer’s steady and focused lens. In all, the chase scenes reportedly took nearly 100 hours to complete, making them some of the most complex such endeavors in film history. The film itself is quite good too, as the ruthless mercenaries chase each other across Europe in a battle of ruthlessness and callousness.

2. Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt is considered by many to be the definitive car chase sequence of all time. It is indeed impressive. Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, driving a gorgeous Mustang, is chased by two truants who are driving a Dodge Charger. Some of the most impressive scenes in this chase through the narrow, curvy streets of San Francisco occur when the cars bounce over the hills and continue.

The sequence was clearly meticulously shot and, since Bullitt is a movie from the 1960s, there isn’t an ever-present soundtrack. This is all for the better, however, as you can listen to the revving of the powerful engines in all their glory. It is also clear that these sequences were performed by stunt drivers or the actors themselves, rather than the more ubiquitous computer-animated chases today. You can see McQueen shifting the Mustang’s gears at precisely the accurate and necessary moments, maneuvering difficult turns and constant changes in speed.

Moreover, because the movie is older, it does not feature the excessive scene cuts that are common in movies (certainly action movies) today. Thus, the viewer is treated to a much more realistic chase scene - one that seems to be playing out before you (as it was) rather than being the productive of camera tricks by moving quickly and dizzyingly from car to car.

Bullitt eventually turns the tables on his pursuers and becomes the chaser, running the bad guys out of town and finally muscling their car into missing a turn, which leads them to crash into a gas station and blow up.

1. The French Connection (1971)

I am, however, partial to the 1971 Best Picture winner, the French Connection, and its impressive car chase scene. The movie deals with a drug smuggling ring in New York and, in the pivotal scene, Gene Hackman’s lead detective, Doyle, chases a killer as he attempts to flee in an elevated subway train in the city. The impressive sequences feature Hackman driving a Pontiac Lemans through narrow alleys and underneath the moving train.

It’s also noteworthy that William Friedkin also directed this movie, giving him two spots on the list. For The French Connection, however, Friedkin arguably did the best work of his career, having Hackman actually drive in Brooklyn at high speeds and for long distances. The stunt would probably have to be computerized in the uber-safe world of today, making the scene a timeless classic of a bygone era, and assuredly one of the movies that made a car chase scene a “thing” that has continued all the way through the Fast and the Furious franchise and beyond.