There is, perhaps, no scene more divisive in a movie than the car chase. Some consider it an essential for any action movie; others think it's an opportunity to slip out for more popcorn. And true, some of them are pretty unoriginal, or take off into ridiculously exaggerated flights of fancy (here's looking at you, Bad Boys, Gone in Sixty Seconds, and, ahem, 2 Fast 2 Furious) -- but others acquit themselves with such dramatic and technical aplomb they instantly become the stuff of legend.
What makes a car chase legendary, you ask? They're the ones that keep you at the edge of your seat, contribute to the film's exposition, and actually fit in with the rest of the plot. Without further adieu, here are the 10 greatest car chases in movie history, ranked.
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H.B. Halicki Mercantile Co./Youtube
Unlike so many movies that simply slow down the film to make the cars seem faster, everything in this scene was shot at full speed. When "full speed" means between 80 and 100 mph on narrow, single lane, parked car-lined cobblestone roads in ancient European towns, the level of car control skill required is so great that a former Formula One racer was hired to do the driving.
No, this isn't the computer-aided remake wherein Nic Cage (did you know he was Francis Ford Coppola's nephew?) squares off against Doctor Who. The original Gone in 60 features over 100 car crashes, with zero CGI. It doesn't tie the plot together, so much as the "plot" ties the nearly 40 minute chase together -- much like dialogue in porn movies.
It was so good, it inspired writer/director/producer/stunt coordinator/driver H.B. Halicki to go broke for the production of Gone in 60 Seconds 2. He died during the filming of one of the stunts, tragically sealing the legacy of the original, and still epic, chase.
There's an urban myth about Bullitt that Steve McQueen did all of his own driving, which is a big reason why this chase sequence tops many a similar list. Just one problem: he didn't. McQueen was an outstanding driver, but he wasn't a stunt driver -- that's a very different discipline. He did drive a lot of it though, much more than most actors would, and the chase remains a riveting affair though the streets and hills of San Francisco.
I know I'm going to get backlash on this one, but hear me out. You have a Bond sendup starring Richard Grieco, in a correct-to-007 Lotus Esprit with all the usual refinements, chasing down a then-20yr old Gabrielle Anwar in a Nissan 300Z while trying to get her number. In the course of events, he inadvertently fires rockets fore and aft, taking out a baddie in a Saab and some innocent person's barn, before self-destructing his own tires, sliding to a halt, and rolling down his windows.
It's not only the best shot comedic chase scene you'll find, it's relevant to the plot, as the audience begins to realize that Grieco's in far over his head.
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Youtube
If you're watching out of context, the way Vanishing Point is shot might seem a little... off. But if you pay attention to the driving, you'll realize you're watching is an incredibly realistic street race. That's because it well and truly is. The stunt coordinator and driver of the white Challenger is the same guy that worked on Bullitt... and Grand Prix... and Slaughterhouse 5... and about a billion other films.
Take a good, close look and appreciate some very real, very dangerous driving.
A would-be pro driver on the run from an overzealous law enforcement officer -- it's not a stretch to think of this as Smokey and the Bandit if you swap Peter Fonda for Burt Reynolds and a bank robbery for a beer run. The driving -- and flying -- in DMCL obliterates anything you saw Bandit do, though. This clip has big jumps near real humans and a helicopter flying sideways at highway speed about three feet off the ground. Insurance companies will never allow a major motion picture to be filmed like this again. That's a loss.
For those unfamiliar with arguably the single greatest car-guy film ever recorded, director Claude Lelouch stuck a camera on the front of a Mercedes, then proceeded to spend eight minutes blasting across Paris at the break of dawn en route to a very important date. Overlay the sounds of a vintage Ferrari at the same time, and you've got a short film masterpiece without a single spoken word.
Little known fact about Gene Hackman: he was a damned good driver in his own right, and after this film, took up racing at some of the highest amateur levels. For the French Connection's iconic chase scene, in which he drove dozens upon dozens of city blocks across largely non-closed roads to chase after a hijacked train, director William Friedkin had to play mind games with him in order to psych him up enough to drive the sequence... shot with the director in the back seat filming, over a single take.
That it syncs up perfectly with Santana's "Black Magic Woman"? That's just an intentional bonus.
Why does Ronin get the nod twice? Quite frankly, the answer is because it needs to. The earlier chase is a remarkable display of skill by the drivers and the cinematographers, but the final chase is rightly one of the more impressive feats ever filmed. Over three hundred stunt drivers participated, most of whom were themselves amateur race car drivers with the requisite car control to dodge the oncoming Peugeot and BMW at just the right time.
That's really De Niro you see in the car, too. Director John Frankenheimer had the cars converted to have a duplicate steering wheel, so the actors could be filmed in the car while everything was going on around them.
Shot in the days before the onboard camera was really a thing, the shooting of Grand Prix's race sequences (yes, I'm stretching the word "chase," but this movie was a technical breakthrough, deal with it) necessitated several innovations: mounting the camera on the car, using cameras mounted on helmets of actual F1 drivers like Sir Jackie Stewart, using the single most badass camera car of all time -- a GT40, and low flying helicopters moving as quickly as they could. The sound was remastered later, using American world champion Phil Hill in an actual Formula 1 Ferrari, accelerating and braking at precisely the right times to sync up with the shot sequences.
Without Grand Prix there would be no Rendez-Vous, and director Frankenheimer wouldn't have made Ronin three decades later. Just put your headphones on, and watch some of the most beautiful cinematography of the 1960s.
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Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter. He'd watch a lot more action films if directors would return to the old way of doing things, wherein driving mattered.