The automobile and the cinema are roughly the same age. Concidence? Please. True card-carrying cognoscenti know the real story: Karl Benz invented the car, then Lumiere invented the movie camera so we could have car chases. There are no other conclusions to be drawn.
After careful study, I’ve compiled what is—in the same relation my Benz/Lumiere cause and effect theory has to actual history—the definitive list of the greatest car chases of all time. I’m up to discuss any that I might have “missed,” “overlooked,” or “not seen.” But, before any of that, a few preemptive words about one very bad movie that I do not want to hear mentioned once in any discussions about great car chases:
Ronin (dir. John Frankenheimer)—1998
What a fucking mess. Let’s tie one hand behind our back, shall we, and not even mention that the movie itself is murky, unpleasant, incoherent, about nothing, about no one, and a waste of a great cast. Lots of shitty movies have great car chases in them; in fact, a lot of times, the shittier the movie, the better the odds of the car chase being good.
But what makes Ronin so unforgivable is this: the car chase sucks elephant dick. Frankenheimer mounts the cameras on all kinds of weird stupid places on the car for no other reason that to have a camera mounted in a weird place. The editing is terrible. There’s no rhythm to it. You can tell the cars are really only driving about twelve miles an hour (which judicious cutting can hide).
So that’s that. If the word “ronin” ever appears on this blog again, it had fucking better be in the context of samurai movies.
Now, after a deep breath and reacquiring my inner serenity, a few honorable mentions:
The Bourne Identity (dir. Doug Liman)—2002
What the car chase in Ronin (whoops) should have been. Matt Damon races Franka Potente’s rickety old Mini through the streets of Paris, ducking the much-more-agile cops, squeezing the little fucker down staircases, and, most impressively, warping the space-time continuum—Matt Damon screeches around a corner and ends up on the other side of Paris a couple times over the course of the chase, all the more support for Jason Bourne’s campaign to win Badass of the Decade honors—before finally shaking the fuzz and wrapping things up with some characteristically terse spy-speak. Beats out the car chases in the sequels because, while Paul Greengrass’ choice to shoot car chases with handheld cameras was ballsy, it did mean the audience misses occasional potentially cool elements due to not being able to see.
The Matrix Reloaded (dir. The Wachowski Brothers)—2003
Morpheus fights Agents on tractor trailers, Trinity steals that mouthwatering Ducatti, and the Agents are hopping from car to car (and driver to driver). Although it’s a little unsettling to consider how much this one must have cost, it’s still a cool car chase. Loses points for a couple factors: it was shot on a closed set (see just about the whole top 5 for explanation of why that lacks balls), there’s a fuckton of CGI involved (ibid), and I love Harold Perrineau, but when Niobe catches Morpheus on her hood, and says “gotcha” (which was pretty hot, by the way), they wrecked the moment by cutting back to Harold saying “She’s good.” Yeah, we know she’s good. We just saw her catch Morpheus on her hood and barely even spider-web the windshield.
Vanishing Point (dir. Richard C. Sarafian)—1971
1970 Dodge Challenger . . . fapfapfapfapfapfapfapfap . . .
My memory is a little rickety as far as this one is concerned, due to the mildly altered state I saw it in. But the car is awesome, and Barry Newman drives it well. Also there are naked hippie chicks in it, and Cleavon Little plays a blind DJ.
Smokey and the Bandit/The Cannonball Run/The Dukes of Hazzard
Again, rickety memory, but for a different reason: youth. Back when I was a little movie nerd, all three made me very happy. I believe cars fly through the air in all three.
The Transporter 2 (dir. Louis Leterrier)—2005
Jason Statham has a bomb on the bottom of his car. Smart move: get out of the car, right? Wrong. Statham floors it, jumps the car through the air at such an angle that it does a half-barrel roll, a huge hook grabs the bomb, Statham completes the barrel roll, sticks the landing, the explosion goes off behind him, and he carries on driving fast with the stressor of the bomb now no longer present. Bullshit? Sure. Awesome? Absolutely.
And now, the top 5 car chases of all time. Drumroll, spoilers, popcorn . . .
(5) To Live and Die in L.A. (dir. William Friedkin)—1985
Secret Service agent William Petersen and his partner are undercover trying to bring down Willem Dafoe (always a good idea, nearly always harder than it seems), and in so doing accidentally end up doing business with an undercover FBI agent, who accidentally gets killed, and William Petersen has to do some fancy driving, eventually going the wrong way up an L.A. freeway. (Watch here)
(4) Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior (dir. George Miller)—1982
In this case practically the whole fucking movie is a car chase. It’s post-apocalypse, post-Peak Oil, and bands of murderous Australian leather queens are roaming the desert stealing every bit of gasoline they can find so they can keep their cars going to keep roaming the desert stealing every bit of gasoline they can find . . .
Turned out to be a terrific metaphor for American foreign policy in the Bush administration (and all the more apt in light of the dozens of Republicans who ended up in gay sex scandals, not to mention Mel Gibson’s religious mania).
For those of you who like your car chases kinky. By which I mean me. (Watch here)
(3) Bullitt (dir. Peter Yates)—1968
Any list about anything remotely pertaining to testosterone has to have Steve McQueen somewhere on it. Most lists of the greatest car chases of all time have this at the top, and while that’s a respectable position—it’s a great fuckin’ car chase—it gets a little too much credit for being the first really badass car chase. The continuity is flawless, the camera angles are excellent, and there’s no way about three-quarters of it could have been done without the actual actors doing the driving themselves. And it ends in an explosion, which, I mean, come on . . . (watch here)
But in spite of all this, there’s a bit of aloofness to the whole affair. The craft is impeccable, but it’s a little difficult to care about Steve McQueen catching the bad guys, aside from the given that he’s Steve McQueen and they’re the bad guys. Also loses out to number (2) because Bullitt is kind of a ho-hum movie aside from the car chase, while (2) is one of the best movies ever made, completely independent of its awesome car chase.
(2) The French Connection (dir. William Friedkin)—1971
Two car chases in the top 5? Take a bow, Mr. Friedkin.
Placing this above Bullitt does create a chicken-and-egg problem. Without the motivation of “doing a better chase than Bullitt” Friedkin probably wouldn’t have been as driven as he was, probably wouldn’t have gone as far over the line of what was ethical or even safe to get his result. But, ultimately, he was, and he did. And, to date, this is the only car-chase movie to win Best Picture (not to mention Best Actor for Gene Hackman, Best Director for Friedkin, Best Adapted Screenplay, and, of course, Best Editing).
Gene Hackman is already pretty hot on the trail of the Frogs by the point the car chase starts. Frog One has—being Frog One, the Moriarty of the 70s—eluded him, and has ordered Frog Two to take Gene Hackman out. He misses him and, tries to escape on the elevated subway (yeah, I know it’s an oxymoron). Gene Hackman commandeers a car. And then . . . oh, sweet deities of cinema . . . Gene Hackman chases a subway train in a car. Some points before we go any further:
a) Gene Hackman was doing his own driving.
b) Friedkin was shooting without a permit, so no one was clearing any traffic, or even knew Gene Hackman was going to come bombing through.
c) Gene Hackman was doing his own driving.
d) That woman with the baby carriage? Actually terrified to see Gene Hackman barreling toward her at a zillion mph.
e) Gene Hackman? Actually shitting himself (figuratively, I think) when that happened.
f) All those times Gene Hackman crashed the car (while doing his own driving)? Not
The fact that any of this bullshit worked without someone getting killed, sued, or de-nutted by a pissed-off Bensonhurst local is a miracle in and of itself. And part of the batshit adrenaline rush the scene provides is transferred from the “are you fucking kidding me?” creative process. (Watch an excerpt here)
It does not, like Bullitt’s chase, end with an explosion. But it does end with Gene Hackman lighting Frog Two’s ass the fuck up, which is barely even a compromise. An all-time classic, and only bumped from the top spot for very special reasons.
(1) The Blues Brothers (dir. John Landis)—1980
“It's got a cop motor, a 440 cubic inch plant, it's got cop tires, cop suspensions, cop shocks. It's a model made before catalytic converters so it'll run good on regular gas. What do you say, is it the new Bluesmobile or what?” –Elwood Blues
This movie is the best argument yet mounted for the legalization of cocaine. Every idea down to the tiniest background detail is carried to its most baroquely over-the-top conclusion. It’s a comedy that’s almost two and a half hours long. There are endless celebrity cameos (the musicians among whom nearly all get their own showstopping musical number). And, of course, there is John Belushi, which is where the legalization argument falls apart.
It all starts when Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) picks up brother Jake (Belushi) from Joliet, fresh off a stint for armed robbery to pay back their band the money he owed them. Elwood runs what he thinks is a yellow light (if he’d taken his fuckin' sunglasses off he’d have seen it was red), and all variety of hell breaks loose. The cops pull him over, and when they run his ID they get a truly terrifying list of moving violations. Rather than get caught by the fuzz, and get Jake sent back to the joint on his first day out, Elwood floors it. The cops pursue, and the second-greatest car chase of all time ensues. They absolutely fucking destroy, I mean they lay waste to, a suburban shopping mall. Every frame of it brilliantly filmed, every frame of it hilarious.
But what’s that you say? The second-greatest car chase of all time, and yet this movie is ranked #1? That’s because the concluding car chase (after the boys have accepted their “mission from God” and raised the money they need to keep the orphanage they grew up in from being demolished by throwing a kick-ass rhythm & blues show) is one of the greatest achievements in the medium of cinema.
Elwood: “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.”
Jake: “Hit it.”
From there, our heroes elude what has to be every law enforcement officer in the Midwest—forget Chicago, forget Illinois—as well as an RV full of pissed-off country musicians and even, oh yes, Nazis. The sheer number of cop cars that get destroyed, and the almost cheerful way Landis always throws three or four more onto the pile when one gets wrecked, short-circuits the rational part of the brain and sticks its thumb on the pleasure center, pressing down with a slightly stoned chuckle. Cop cars end up piled in a stack of twenty or so on a highway median. Cop cars end up embedded in truck trailers. And our heroes keep taking full advantage of that full tank of gas, flooring it til they get to Chicago. That road in Chicago, which I think is Lower Wacker Drive, where they always shoot car chases in Chicago movies (see also the scene where the Joker is firing rocket launchers at Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight), sees a fair bit of fast driving, judicious undercranking of the camera, and a few dozen more destroyed cop cars. The boys drive through a crowded square, with people and pigeons flying out of the way. EVEN MORE cops join the chase. The Nazis somehow end up higher than the Sears tower, plummeting through the Chicago skyline, and the henchnazi turns to the alpha Nazi and says, “I’ve always loved you.” They then crater spectacularly.
When the boys finally get to the tax assessor’s office and get out of the Bluesmobile, the fucking thing just dies. The panels fall off, the doors fall off, it clunks to the ground, it just says “fuck it.” Landis beautifully cuts to a series of shots of the classical statuary on the building, as if the statues are mourning the Bluesmobile. Elwood holds his hat over his heart, before Jake gets him to haul ass. And that’s the end of the car chase proper, though they still haul ass through the building to the tax assessor’s office, where they manage to get the clerk—played by a hilarious Steven Spielberg—to sign off on everything, saving the day just in the nick of time before every single law enforcement agent in the world (somehow packed into the office), arrests our heroes at machine gun point.
The brilliance of the climactic car chase in The Blues Brothers is at least partly due to the “wait . . . there’s a car chase in this movie?” factor. Unexpected pleasures always have an extra bit of zing to them. It’s a parody of car chases, coming as it does on the heels of the Hal Needham classics, all the Burt Reynolds pictures, and The Dukes of Hazzard. But the best way to parody something is to be better, which Landis does here.
John Landis, in his prime, was a fucking force to be reckoned with cinematically. He may not have the critical cachet some of his peers enjoyed and still enjoy to this day, but the man has some great pictures under his belt. Animal House. An American Werewolf in London. Trading Places. But, at the apex of the pyramid, is the batshit marvel that is The Blues Brothers, which seemingly for the sheer hell of it, is the best car chase picture of all time. Its nuts will forever be on Ronin’s chin.