Nothing has grabbed an audience and pulled them to the edge of their seats quite like a car chase. Even gunfights and martial arts have nothing on it. Done right, a cinematic car chase can define a movie and make it a classic.
Lots of things can set a car chase apart from its competition: how it defines a genre (action, comedy), the types of cars used, cinematography, editing or just basic creativity.
These fifteen films have becomes classics for various reasons. Some contributed to the film’s success while others defined it.
15. The Bourne Identity (2001)
While each Bourne film as produced a classic car chase including Moscow in The Bourne Supremacy, New York in The Bourne Ultimatum and, most recently, Las Vegas in Jason Bourne, the original backstreet chase through Paris remains the true classic, the one that forever changed car chases in Hollywood.
What set Bourne apart from the rest of the competition was the character himself. Who would have thought that Will Hunting could make such a convincing action hero? With his boyish looks and small, quiet demeanour, Matt Damon seems the farthest thing from an elite CIA assassin.
But that does not stop the boy wonder from kicking some serious ass, starting with the police in the park, then the Embassy Marines and finally with a fellow assassin. The Bourne Identity changed the way audiences watched action films and barracked for their heroes.
The biggest change came with the car chase. This is not a character in aviators and a three-piece suit driving the latest sports car. Bourne makes his getaway in his girlfriend’s old mini. Not the flashiest spy car but that’s Jason Bourne. Not only able to blend in, but also able to adapt to whatever situation is thrown to him.
Whether he uses a pen or rolled up magazine in a knife fight or if he uses a mini to escape from the Parisian police through narrow alleys and down a steep staircases, Bourne is a chameleon, able to adapt to any situation.
14. The Seven-Ups (1973)
The success of The French Connection in 1971 led to a sequel and many imitators. The most underrated of these would be the ‘spiritual sequel’, The Seven Ups. Producer Philip D’Antoni, advisor Sonny Grosso and star Roy Scheider all return for what is essentially an homage to what made The French Connection so great.
One of these homages is a clear tribute to the classic car chase, this time with Roy Scheider behind the wheel of a classic Pontiac giving chase. From the back streets of New York to the open highways, director D’Antoni and stunt coordinator and fellow French Connection alumni Bill Hickman once again strike gold with a car chase that is every bit as thrilling as it is ground breaking.
Cinematographer Urs Furrer plunges straight into the heat of it, driving his camera directly into oncoming traffic at times. Today, car chases require permits; police assistance and other safety measures that ensure this type of magic can never be repeated in Hollywood.
13. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
Before he became a parody of himself, Burt Reynolds was the symbol of cool in the 1970’s and Smokey and the Bandit became Reynold’s swan song. Decked out in his oversized cowboy hat, thick mo and his ’77 Pontiac Trans Am, Bandit was the ultimate symbol of 1970’s angst.
The film was the directional debut of acclaimed stunt man Hal Needham so the film is essentially a 96 minute long car chase. However, it struck a chord with audiences, becoming the second highest grossing film of 1977 (after Star Wars) and created an entire sub-genre of comedy-chase films.
There are many memorable chase scenes, but the most iconic remains the Pontiac’s jump across the broken bridge. This single shot most likely inspired that iconic shot seen in nearly every episode of The Dukes of Hazard.
12. Thunder Road (1958)
Before the renaissance in the 1970’s, Robert Mitcham became a favourite at drive-in cinemas for his B-Grade thriller Thunder Road. Playing a Korean War veteran, Mitcham works in the family moonshine business, delivering illicit liquor across the Deep South, eventually drawing the attention of the US Treasury.
Thunder Road may have been produced back in the day when actors and their vehicles never left the studio lot, shot in front of a film reel, but Thunder Road compensates with a chrome cinematography, illuminating characters in a harsh yet haunting light. A stark contrast between the exhaustion of Mitcham and the steely determination of his opponents stands out, bringing character to the chase.
Mitcham went on to appear in classics such as The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear, but Thunder Road remains one of his most criminally underrated gems.
11. Vanishing Point (1971)
A cult classic that came to define the mood of the country in the early 1970’s. Best described as an existentialist car chase, the character of Kowalski, a Medal of Honor veteran, former racer and disgraced police officer, finds himself running not just from the police, but also from himself.
Quentin Tarantino cited the film as a key source of inspiration when directing Death Proof and it is not hard to see why. The enduring image of the white ’70 Dodge Challenger tearing down the Californian highway is hard to forget. Rife throughout the film are a collection of bizarre characters including disc jockey Super Soul, the old prospector and, of course, hippie Angel and his girlfriend, riding a bike completely naked.
There are many chases to pick from, but the most enduring would have to be Kowalski’s duel with the black Dodge Charger. Both cars toe to toe before a truck sends the Charger into the dirt, culminating in a dramatic barrel roll. Vanishing Point did not just redefine the cinematic car chase, it transformed it into poetry.
10. The Cannonball Run (1981)
Part It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, part Wacky Races, The Cannonball Run was Hal Needham’s second follow up to the classic Smokey and the Bandit. Just like its predecessor, the film is just a 95 minute long car race as various stars, including Burt Reynolds, Jackie Chan, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr all compete in a cross country race.
While the film is simply a remake of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and was followed by another, Rat Race, The Cannonball Run stands out as a true work of art in the world of car chases. While it embraces the absurd and hilarious, it is still a film created by some of the best stuntmen and choreographers.
9. To Live and Die in LA (1985)
By the mid-1980’s, William Friedkin’s star had burnt out. The wonder director failed to find the same success as his original classics, The French Connection and The Exorcist.
Sorcerer, released in the same week as Star Wars, was a box office failure and Cruising encountered severe criticism for its depiction of the LGBTI community. However, To Live and Die in LA was a return to top form of Friedkin. Essentially, the film is a revamp of Friedkin’s original classic. The urban decayed realism of the 70’s has been replaced with the paranoid pessimism of the 80’s.
The high point of course, was the car chase. Despite only a $6 million budget, Friedkin and his team worked magic, creating a chase that stood out due to one incredible fact: it occurs on the wrong side of a Los Angeles freeway.
Shooting on a freeway is difficult, but shooting it on the wrong side of a freeway on one of the busiest roads in the United States is almost impossible, yet Friedkin pulls it off with the same gusto enthusiasm that made his earlier films such a success. Even today, in an industry soaked in CGI and computer graphics, the key shot, with the camera panning back to reveal a wide shot of a freeway chase, is enough to get your heart racing.