Car chases have become de rigueur these days on most American made action films. If your protagonist is in peril (and they always are) and you have anything left in the budget after paying your above the line talent, then fill’er up and get ready for some high octane excitement.
As America became a car culture in the 1950’s and cameras became smaller and more mobile in the 1960’s, we saw the advent of more location filming and the ability to shoot action sequences from up close and even from the P.O.V. of those characters involved. We have seen an interesting progression of filming car chases in films like Thunder Road (where the action is shot from stationary distances in rural settings and with a filmed back drop in the studio) to contemporary urban locales with staccato styled editing.
In the 1980’s and 90’s car chases were rapidly becoming a victim of the bigger and louder extremes of stunt driving sequences until some recent films, that mostly avoided the clichéd; jumping washed out bridges, smashing into the well placed fruit cart or miraculously getting airborne despite hitting the back of a parked car. My criteria for a great car chase; intermittently show some establishing shots to give the audience some perspective of the environment and provide for some reality to the close up shots, include good quality diagetic audio or actual sound, and keep the fantastic stunts to a bare minimum for increased believability. Films such as; Vanishing Point, Cannonball Run, Smokey & the Bandit and The Gumball Rally are essentially one extended chase scene and were considered, but ultimately dropped from the list as they are a category unto themselves.
Within that framework, here are what I consider to be some of the best achievements in filmed car chases.
The Italian Job (2003) – The remake of the 1969 original, which also featured some impressive chase scenes, is a lighthearted thriller which balances its humor with action rather well. The updated version shot with Mini Coopers in the subway tunnels and paved drainage runs in Los Angeles is very creative, well paced and has a whimsical tone that will please both the gear head and regular audience members alike.
Against All Odds (1984) – More of a car race than chase. James Woods in the Ferrari and Jeff Bridges in the Porsche, race each other through the outlying Los Angeles area. The recurring leitmotif of high speed passing against oncoming traffic is utilized with great affect. Shot principally from behind with the intermittent reverse angle medium close up; the result gives the audience the sensation of chasing them.
The Seven Ups (1973)- The only film directed by Phillip D’Antoni, who learned a thing or two about car chases being the producer on both Bullitt and The French Connection. Roy Scheider drives a 1973 Pontiac Ventura Sprint Coupe (the muscle car alternative to the Pontiac GTO) through Manhattan’s upper west side with a truly grisly ending.
The Quantum of Solace (2008) – The rebooted Bond franchise get’s a first class chase scene with contemporary styles of editing; rapid cuts and tight framing and it mercifully eschews the humor that was so often instilled in previous incarnations. Daniel Craig absolutely beats the hell out the sleek and sexy 2008 Aston Martin DBS.
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) – Another William Friedkin film and one of the first films to utilize the driving against the traffic flow dynamic. The frenetic action sequence is strengthened by the fact that the driver/protagonist played by William Peterson is a federal agent and his pursuers (and their agenda) are unknown.
The Bourne Identity (2002) – The Bourne Supremacy (2004) & The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) – Paris, Moscow and New York serve as backdrops for each film’s car chases. There is no tongue in cheek action here and each chase stays close to the physics of reality (no cars jumping from building to building), with the last two ending with horrific crashes and death; the realistic result of high speed pursuits in an urban setting.
What’s up Doc? (1972) – A full quarter of the film’s budget and a month of shooting was employed just for this epic chase scene through the heart of San Francisco’s most challenging topography, including the famous Lombard street. The epitome of over the top humor (sorry Blues Brothers) in a chase scene that has everything but the kitchen sink (yes, there’s a Chinese dragon). It is also the first film to credit the stunt people in the end title crawl.
Ronin (1998) – John Frankenheimer’s thriller was shot on location in France and features several great chases, on foot as well as automotive. Over 80 cars were destroyed during the filming and features a former Formula 1 driver, Jean-Pierre Jarier. The one near the end of the film in Paris traffic is gritty, intense and beautifully shot.
The French Connection (1971) – The first film to mount a camera on the front fender, providing a heightened sense of intensity to the scene. A car chasing an elevated subway train through New York was a revolutionary idea executed flawlessly. Gene Hackman’s muted screams, the constant drone of the honking car horn and the reflection of the city off of the windshield helps to anoint this William Friedkin directed chase scene as one of the all time greats.
Bullitt (1968) – Still the bellwether chase scene, by which all others are judged. The audio plays a key role in setting the tone of the chase. As Steve McQueen enters his Ford Mustang, Lalo Schifrin’s score slowly builds giving way to the intense diagetic audio of the Mustang’s and Dodge Charger’s engines revving and tires screeching. Long distant establishing shots progress to car mounted and P.O.V. shots including the great zoom in of the Charger’s rear view mirror showing that the Mustang has switched positions and has now become the pursuer.
Freebie and the Bean
Gone in 60 Seconds (both versions).
The Italian Job (1969)
Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry
The Matrix Reloaded