Audiences must be feeling the need for speed: how else to explain lackluster snorequel Fast & Furious’ all-time April opening box-office record — and biggest bow for 2009 to date — of $72 million in the US recently? Never mind that the movie’s barely 20 per cent car drone and closer to 80 per cent Vin Diesel straining to emote and explain his pie chart dream girl chassis (the funniest scene of the year, maybe). As Empire was nodding off we found ourselves daydreaming of the all-time greatest movie car chases — so buckle up, motorheads; here comes that magical clang of metal on metal…
Bullitt — Peter Yates, 1968
More than 40 years on, it still tops nearly every car chase poll. Why? Where plenty of road battles have trumped it for over-the-top stunts and spectacle, McQueen’s classic rollercoaster chase through the San Francisco streets endures on account of its style and realism. From Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy soundtrack setting the tone to the razor sharp editing and shotgun POVs, you’re almost in the passenger seat: every grunt of the Ford Mustang’s engine rattles your eardrum, every squeal of those Dodge Charger tyres feels like the car’s gonna break the fourth wall, and McQueen — still the coolest man behind the wheel, ever — is visibly battling to keep control of the car as it bounces and rattles over those treacherous summits.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines — Jonathan Mostow, 2003
Sure, we hear you: the original film’s pursuits were more tense and terrifying, and T2’s truck-vs.-dirt bike hunt through the LA canals undeniably more iconic. Yet for spectacular mayhem the lesser third installment boasts a road war that smashes anything in its predecessors into crumpled tin. Orchestrated with taut skill by Jonathan Mostow — who proved his auto control with the excellent Breakdown — T3 has John Connor behind the wheel of a rickety van, pursued by the Terminatrix in a massive crane truck remote controlling a fleet of black-and-whites that surround him. Enter Arnie astride a cop cruiser: he then gets hooked on the crane and dragged brutally for blocks through storefront windows, only to commandeer a fire engine, leap on to the crane, and anchor its cable to the road for an almighty upending crash.
Duel — Steven Spielberg, 1971
It’s every lone interstate motorist’s worst nightmare: a scary, unidentified diesel truck bearing down on your modest sedan without rhyme or reason. Dennis Weaver’s marooned salesman finds himself in just such a nightmare when a menacing rig selects him for the target of its road rage; like a cat playing with a ball of string, the semi driver (who, all the more frightening, we never see) delights in taunting his helpless victim as he pursues him relentlessly across the American highway — never pausing, and unable to be reasoned with. Spielberg’s first feature illustrated the director in precocious mastery of the action form, and would provide the template for his vigorous truck dust-up in Raiders of the Lost Ark a decade later.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior — George Miller, 1981
Let this be a warning to anyone who thinks the Australian outback is a relaxing place for a country drive. Outdoing even his first Mad Max film, George Miller piles on the trucks, buggies, V8s, motorbikes, gyrocopters and assorted other mutant vehicles for the climactic sequence of The Road Warrior, as Mad Mel attempts to outrun an army of badass bandits in a petrol tanker thundering across the post-Apocalyptic highway. Between all the crushed bikes, overturned buggies, crossbows and exploding cars, it’s frankly amazing that no one was killed for real. That’s how dangerous this looks.
Vanishing Point — Richard C. Sarafian, 1971
The movie-as-car-chase, Vanishing Point is nothing but rubber burning on road for 100 minutes — and the ultimate car trip for some. With only his wits, sideburns, and a superfly blind radio DJ to guide him, ex-con Kowalski makes a foolhardy bet that he can deliver a 1970 Dodge Charger from Colorado to Cisco in just 15 hours; meaning there’s a whole lotta fuzz coming his way. As memorable for its fatalistic reverie for the open road as it is for its killer highway action, Sarafian’s movie was also the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s thumping homage in Death Proof.
Batman Begins — Christopher Nolan, 2005
Earlier Batmobiles were stylish silhouettes that serviced the set design but lacked the maneuverability to open up the road (assuming we ignore Joel Schumacher’s toys, which did things like rocket vertically up skyscrapers — and we will). Nolan’s tumbling tank was a very different Bat-beast, however, leading an epic police chase through the streets — and across the rooftops — of the city while inflicting more damage to Gotham than nipples on a Batsuit. And he’d go on to match it with The Dark Knight’s action centrepiece: an out-of-control semi-trailer facing off with the Bat-pod en route to the movie’s heartstopping moment of airborne steel.
The French Connection — William Friedkin, 1971
Think pursuing another car is tough? Try catching a fugitive who’s aboard a subway train. William Friedkin’s ’70s hit has Gene Hackman’s cop gunning his car after a New York metro in which his suspect has escaped, forcing him to drive at breakneck speed on a congested road underneath an overhead train track. Not only does Hackman have to contend with keeping up with a runaway train surging ahead metres above him, he has to dodge oncoming traffic at the same time — with precarious, thrilling consequences.
The Italian Job — Peter Collinson, 1969
For visual wit it’s hard to go past the original Italian Job, whose jaunty ten-minute car chase plays like a cheeky continental postcard. Lead by Michael Caine, the gang of gold thieves and their trio of Mini Coopers escape the hapless Italian police pursuit by spritely going where more powerful — but less nimble — cars can’t: down bank stairs, into a subway, sideways across a town square, over the sails of a huge building, through an aqueduct and finally through a tunnel to freedom. All while barely breaking a jolly old sweat.
Ronin — John Frankenheimer, 1998
Veteran John ‘Gran Prix’ Frankenheimer’s solid heist pic may be most fondly remembered for its two blistering Euro car chases, echoes of which can be seen in the likes of The Bourne Supremacy. The best of them sees Robert De Niro’s Peugeot struggling to keep pace with Natasha McElhone’s nimble BMW as they careen at high speed through Paris and under the Seine. Impressive stunt driving (Formula One racers stepped in where the actors’ skills ended) reaches its peak in a daring flight through a bumper-to-bumper underground tunnel — in the wrong direction. Jean Reno even puts on his seatbelt midway.
The Blues Brothers — John Landis. 1980
If not the best, then maybe the biggest — or at least the most destructive, if we’re scoring per cop car eviscerated. Jake and Elwood’s comedic crash course through the Dixie Mall and surrounds just keeps getting more and more absurd, the police wreckage accumulating faster than Belushi and Aykroyd’s zingers that punctuate the action.
Originally published in Empire