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