20th Century Fox
What makes a great car chase? Is it the sheer spectacle, heart-stopping stunts, or technical innovation? Car chases are among the most purely cinematic components of action movies. There’s no dialogue necessary, no exposition. It’s entirely spectacle and acts as a real test of a director’s skill whether they can tell a story through images and editing alone. What makes car chases so unique is that each viewer brings their own preferences to them. One person might like the breakneck speed of the “Fast And The Furious” films or the goofiness of “Taxi,” while someone else might appreciate the slow build of tension in something like “Duel.”
Nowadays car chase scenes can feel a little rote, especially with the over-reliance on CGI and an increasingly formulaic approach to action sequences. They are too often reduced to a spectacle where you switch your brain off and just enjoy the visuals. This isn’t always the case, though, and below is a selection of the very best speedy chases cinema has to offer, ranked.
15. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Any number of James Bond films could occupy a place on this list, from the death-defying 180-degree spin in “The Man With the Golden Gun” all the way through to the epic chase in “No Time To Die.” However, our pick is one that has everything: a car full of gadgets, gun-wielding henchmen, a murderous motorcyclist with an explosive sidecar, a particularly adept helicopter pilot, and even divers armed with spearguns, all of whom are dispatched with Roger Moore’s trademark nonchalance and arched eyebrow.
The helicopter segment is especially impressive, as it pivots on a dime in pursuit of Bond. For a moment it genuinely seems like there is no escape, that is until Bond drives his Lotus Esprit into the sea to demonstrate exactly what it can do. The Esprit is one of Bond’s very best cars, with an incredibly cool design, and just as many gadgets as the Aston Martin, with the added benefit of being able to transform into a submarine! It’s the quintessential Bond car chase, and even ends with the classic “man sees something unbelievable, double-takes then looks at his drink in disbelief” gag. What more could you want in a Bond film?
14. The Way Of The Gun (2000)
Proof (if need be) that a car chase doesn’t need to be fast-paced to be intensely gripping, this sequence in Christopher McQuarrie’s underrated thriller wins a place on our list for sheer inventiveness. After kidnapping the pregnant Juliette Lewis, career criminals Parker and Longbaugh (Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro) attempt to give the slip to the clinically professional hired guns (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt) on their tail in a chase apparently inspired by an episode of Cops.
McQuarrie goes against convention in his depiction of the criminals throughout, and this scene is no exception. Parker and Longbaugh lead the pursuing bodyguards through a series of narrow alleys, slowing to a crawl and forcing them to stop and start, luring them out of their car only to quickly jump back into theirs and speed off again. They build a rhythm doing this time and again, until the bodyguards speed around a corner, where the kidnappers reverse straight into them, totaling the pursuing car and leaving the hapless bodyguards for the cops. It’s a short, abrupt car chase that also features some bizarre imagery. The sight of Diggs and Katt propelling their car forward with their feet is a surreal detail that sticks in the memory, even if it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.
13. The Blues Brothers (1980)
There’s a long history of car chases in comedy films, going all the way back to Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr,” but there’s none more madcap than the finale of John Landis’ “The Blue Brothers.” A protracted chase that was all shot practically using 13 different Bluesmobiles and 60 police cars, shutting down city and suburban streets alike, with a final tally of 103 totaled cars.
The Blues Brothers, Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd), race to deposit the money they have raised in a Chicago bank, pursued all the way by the state police, country musicians, and Illinois Nazis. Landis fills his chase with visual gags and heart-stopping stunts. In one incredible moment, the Bluesmobile launches over a police cruiser, just clipping the siren light, something the stunt driver only attempted once Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi each offered him $1,000. The chase ends with the police cars in a literal pile up, the Nazis plummeting to their doom from an uncompleted motorway bridge, and the Bluesmobile falling apart the second the brothers shut the doors. It’s the perfect punchline to one of the funniest, most anarchic chases ever committed to film.
12. The Italian Job (1969)
No list of car chases would be complete without this gem of British cinema. Everyone knows the literal cliffhanger ending of “The Italian Job,” but the car chase that precedes it is one of the most fun sequences ever filmed. Michael Caine’s gang leads the Italian police on a merry dance through the streets of Turin in three Mini Coopers as they try to get their stolen gold across the border into the Swiss Alps. It’s a witty sequence, often feeling like something out of a Jacques Tati film. The Minis drive in and out of buildings, through a mall, and into a car showroom where they hide for a few seconds. In a spectacular moment driving onto the roof of the still-under-construction Torino Palavela, disappearing from sight at the top and then driving back down as the police struggle to get their cars turned around.
It would all be incredibly cool if it wasn’t for the very British bickering going on inside the cars. Camp Freddie’s line “I think you might make an effort to keep up with the others, Tony” is a wonderful corrective to the wordless stoicism we usually see in car chases. As it is, this is a truly fun chase, with some incredible stunt driving, and it never outstays its welcome.
11. The Road Warrior (1981)
Warner Bros. Pictures
Until “Mad Max: Fury Road” made every post-apocalyptic action film redundant, the climactic pursuit in “The Road Warrior” was the definitive sci-fi car chase. As it is, it still mostly stands up as a brutally nihilistic sequence, with some truly jaw-dropping stunts. After months of being threatened by the Lord Humungus for their gasoline, the inhabitants of an isolated oil refinery make a break for it, driving an oil tanker away from their camp to give the rest of the group a chance to escape while they are pursued by Humungus’ marauders. The misanthropic Max (Mel Gibson) drives the rig, which is defended by a handful of guards, all of whom are killed quickly and without fanfare. There’s no noble final stands here, as characters are unceremoniously thrown under the vehicles’ wheels. Max is left alone (aside from The Feral Kid) as Humungus’ gang close in.
The dynamic camerawork is incredible as the bad guys overwhelm the rig, with the helicopter shots giving a perfect view of the action. The driving and crashes are largely done without huge explosions, but this only makes the stunts more impressive. One stuntman broke his legs during the chase, but George Miller kept it in the final film (unsurprisingly he’s the guy who flies through the air flipping head over heels). “Fury Road” might be the better film, but there’s a grittiness and sparseness to this chase that makes it a thrilling watch.
10. Drive (2011)
There are a number of chases in Nicolas Winding Refn’s breakout Hollywood movie, but the opening sequence remains the slickest road work of the film. As direct a reference as possible to Walter Hill’s “The Driver,” we see the unnamed driver (Ryan Gosling) pick up a pair of thieves and navigate his way through the streets of LA, all the while listening in to the police radio to stay one step ahead of pursuing squad cars.
It’s an unconventional chase, and there’s an admirable amount of restraint on display: Rather than engaging in death-defying stunts, the driver takes his time and hides underneath bridges to avoid police helicopters. It’s telling that the most suspenseful moment might be when the car is completely stationary with its headlights off, just waiting for the squad cars to pass by. He’s less interested in racing the cops than outwitting them … the stunts come later. “Drive” does the unimaginable and actually improves upon the scene it’s based on, and even more unthinkably, “Baby Driver” would again improve on it six years later. This sequence remains effortlessly cool, though, and sets up the driver’s character perfectly, all set to a pulsing score from Cliff Martinez.
9. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
This is technically a truck/motorbike chase I suppose, but we’re including it anyway because it’s one of the most heart-stopping sequences of the series. The teenage John Connor (Edward Furlong) tries to escape on a dust bike, hotly pursued by the sinister T-1000 (Robert Patrick) driving a tow truck, who in turn is being chased by the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) on a Harley Davidson, cocking his rifle in a reference to John Wayne in “True Grit.”
While the chase itself doesn’t re-invent the wheel, what makes the scene work is the sheer intensity that director James Cameron brings to it. The grimly determined T-1000 smashes his truck through everything that lies in his path to catch Connor, gaining ground with every second. Meanwhile, the Terminator is following both from above on the freeway. His jump from the bridge down into the storm drain is magnificent, but even more impressive is the supremely tense moment he speeds alongside the truck and overtakes just fast enough to avoid being crushed into the wall. Arnie grabs Connor, blasting the truck and blowing it up with the T-1000 inside. It might be a temporary victory, but the final moments of the chase are still immensely satisfying.
8. The Driver (1978)
20th Century Fox
A pulpy mixture of “Le Samourai” and “The Getaway,” Walter Hill’s stripped-back neo-noir is as taciturn as Ryan O’Neal’s lead character, with no character names and very little dialogue. Instead, Hill lets the action do the talking in a number of breathtaking chase sequences, most notably in a thrilling set piece where the Driver demonstrates his abilities by systematically smashing a car to pieces in a parking lot.
The best chase of the film, though, comes right at the end as the Driver chases down the thief who has stolen the crucial key to the locker that contains his stolen money. It’s an exhilarating, frenetically shot sequence as the Driver stays on the villain’s tail from the freeway to a deserted parking lot and ends in an abandoned warehouse. In a supremely tense final showdown, the cars stalk each other through the warehouse in silence, until they face each other down in a thrilling game of chicken. Hill has gone on the record saying all his films are essentially westerns, and this is especially true of “The Driver” and its finale in particular. The climactic chase is effectively a classic western duel, only using cars instead of guns.
7. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Warner Bros. Pictures
Upon seeing “Mad Max: Fury Road” for the first time, Steven Soderbergh commented:
“I don’t understand how they’re not still shooting that film and I don’t understand how hundreds of people aren’t dead.”
These are both fair points, as George Miller’s use of practical effects and stunt work is still pretty awe-inspiring, and it all contributes to what is potentially the best action film of the 21st century so far. It’s difficult to single out any scene in particular, as the entire film is essentially one big car chase. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) liberates the wives of dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) by stealing a War Rig, with the assistance of the captive Max (Tom Hardy), hotly pursued by Joe and his personal army.
Director George Miller manages to sustain the high octane energy level throughout the film without ever letting up. He introduces a whole bunch of set-ups which all pay off organically throughout the story, which is told almost entirely through the action with next-to-no expository dialogue. There are also some unique, vibrant visuals including Joe’s henchmen swinging onto the rig on poles, the War Boys leaping from one vehicle to another, and the whole convoy driving straight into an oncoming storm are all images firmly embedded in our memories.
6. Baby Driver (2017)
So far there have been a ton of spectacularly constructed car chases, but they are all primarily staged as action sequences. Not so in Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver,” where the car chases are choreographed more to resemble dance routines than anything else. There are a plethora of issues with the film as a whole, but Wright’s technical prowess is never in doubt when it comes to the chases. The opening set piece is pretty much a perfect self-contained piece of vehicular mayhem, set to “Bell Bottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
Every movement Baby (Ansel Elgort) makes behind the wheel syncs up with the song, and as the robbers make their escape the sequence builds in scale along with the song, to the point where Baby is knocking police stingers around and gliding his car in perfect time with the music. Other films might have more spectacular stunts or higher stakes, but none can rival the fluid, almost balletic driving on display here. It’s less a case of showing off than Wright demonstrating an inherently cinematic sequence. It’s amazing to watch, though it’s just a shame the rest of the film didn’t live up to this scene.
5. Bullitt (1968)
Warner Bros. Pictures
This is arguably the coolest car chase in cinema history, and the incredible stunt driving of Bill Hickman set the standard for every subsequent scene like it. Detective Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) chases down a pair of hitmen (Hickman and Paul Genge) through the streets and hills of San Francisco.
Lalo Schifrin’s languid score sets up the scene perfectly, building tension as the bad guys become aware of the cop on their tail. In a nice little touch, Hickman surreptitiously fastens his seat belt just before making a break for it. Once the chase starts in earnest, the music cuts out completely and is replaced with the sounds of car engines and squealing tires as Bullitt chases the criminals through the hills of San Francisco and onto an open road in Santa Cruz. This is where the speed really ramps up. Despite the logistics of the chase making zero sense (the continuity is so bad, the same Volkswagen Beetle appears more than four times in various positions) it remains thrilling today and proved to be the car chase to beat. If Spielberg is indeed working on a remake, he’s going to have his work cut out for him improving on this scene.
4. Ronin (1998)
John Frankenheimer’s stylish spy thriller has aged incredibly well and is another film overdue for a reappraisal, especially for its immersive, suspenseful car chases. There’s no reliance on CGI or camera tricks, just supremely talented stunt drivers and practical effects.
There is an abundance of scenes to pick from here (the central heist scene is also well worth a look), but best of all is the chase through Paris motorways with Sam (Robert De Niro) and Vincent (Jean Reno) which involved 300 stunt drivers. As the two cars eventually head the wrong way down a one-way motorway tunnel it becomes truly nail-biting stuff, made even more immersive by the POV shots Frankenheimer accomplished by mounting the camera on the car bonnets. Unlike many chases, this one feels as if the cars are genuinely going fast and often out of control, and a lot of that is because the cars were driving at around 120 miles an hour during these scenes, often with the actors sitting in the speeding cars. Those looks of apprehension and fear on their faces are very real!
3. To Live & Die In LA (1985)
In a neat inversion of the standard set up, this traumatizing chase has detectives Chance (William Petersen) and Vukovich (John Pankow) pursued by gangsters working for a psychotic forger (Willem Defoe). Shot at the very end of filming so if anything happened to the actors they would at least have the majority of the film completed, it’s a 15-minute sequence that escalates and escalates to the point of near-hysteria.
Starting with a gloriously fluid shot where we track the detectives’ car before lifting up to show the villains on the bridge above before both cars join the freeway and turn off for the chase to begin in earnest. Chance dodges through trucks in a yard before escaping their pursuer by outracing a moving freight train and exiting underneath the 6th Street Bridge, where it briefly turns into “Grand Theft Auto” with gangsters popping up and firing at the detectives, blasting the back windscreen and sending Vukovich into an all-too-believable breakdown (the terrified Pankow barely had to act). Chance finally gets back onto the freeway, only to be surrounded by gangsters, so he makes the unthinkable decision to drive straight into oncoming traffic, dodging and swerving to avoid the cars heading his way in a nail-biting scene that almost certainly inspired the similar chase in “Ronin.”
2. What’s Up Doc? (1972)
Warner Bros. Pictures
The late, great Peter Bogdanovich threw everything he could into this brilliant and breezy homage to classic screwball comedies. A disparate collection of oddballs try and get their hands on a specific plaid satchel bag, but there are four identical bags in circulation, leading to numerous mix-ups, culminating in one of the most chaotic, genuinely funny car chases of all time as the numerous cars hurtle down the hills of San Francisco.
The chase in “What’s Up Doc?” impresses on pretty much every level. Bogdanovich reportedly spent a quarter of the film’s budget on this chase, and it is money well-spent. The jokes are densely packed, and Bogdanovich manages to surprise his audience with every punchline, from the workmen gingerly carrying a glass panel across the street to a minivan getting gradually flattened as each car smashes into it, ending with the incredible stunt where one poor guy in a convertible puts his face through a canopy the entire length of the pier before diving off the end. It’s a technical marvel, managing to be funny, exciting, and unpredictable all at the same time. It’s reminiscent of Buster Keaton, with one overt reference to “Seven Chances” that serves as a nice rejoinder to the self consciously cool car chases that usually populate lists like this.
1. The French Connection (1971)
20th Century Fox
Well … it had to be this one, didn’t it? After narrowly surviving an assassination attempt, “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) chases after the hitman Pierre (Marcel Bozzuffi) who escapes on an L train. Undeterred, Doyle pursues the speeding train, absolutely thrashing his car as he attempts to catch it. The result is the rawest, most intense car chase of all time as Doyle screams and punches his dashboard in exasperation as various cars and bystanders dive out of his way. Legend goes that the first take of this chase was fairly lackluster, and director William Friedkin candidly told stunt driver Bill Hickman that he wasn’t impressed. Hickman responded, “You get in the car with me, and I’ll show you some driving.” He then proceeded to drive through 26 blocks at 90-miles an hour, with Friedkin filming the entire time.
While now primarily known for his work in genre cinema, Friedkin made his name in documentary filmmaking, and his genre films work so well because they are all grounded in scarily authentic realism. Of course, this wasn’t all by design. Friedkin shot the chase scene without the required permits and at one point it spilled out into actual traffic, leading to an unplanned collision which was kept in, giving the whole sequence a ragged, realistic feel that films are still struggling to capture today. It remains one of the most frenetic, exhausting sequences ever caught on film, and fully deserving of its iconic status.