The 7 best cinematic car chases ever (that aren’t Ronin or Bullitt)

J.G.
By J.G. Pasterjak
Mar 31, 2024 | Movies, Car Chase, Cinema | Posted in Columns | Never miss an article

Image Courtesy Sony Pictures

Whenever cinematic or television car chases come up, instantly the most boring person in the discussion screams “Ronin!” or “Bullitt!” If this person is you, we’re very sorry.

Look, those are fine car chases (actually, “Bullitt” is probably not as impressive as you remember), but we’re here to talk about all the awesome ones that get overshadowed by those two, even though they’re every bit as good–maybe better.

So sit back, relax and check out our list. Feel free to (wrongly) criticize our choices in the comments or add some of your own hidden gems.

“Death Proof” (2007)


Let’s start with the car chase that’s really a remix of EVERY car chase rolled into one. Quentin Tarantino’s half of “Grindhouse,” much like most of the director’s work, pays homage to films, directors, scenes and eras that formed his moviemaking vocabulary, and the final car chase is certainly a blend of great car chases past.

After all, you have the Charger from “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry” (with a “Convoy”-referencing rubber duck on the hood, no less) chasing the Challenger from “Vanishing Point” (at one point they even hit a boat, a reference to “Gone in 60 Seconds”) in a 20-minute pursuit that took nearly a month and a half to shoot.

Add to that stunt performer Zoë Bell grabbing onto the hood of the Challenger for much of the action–and the fact that the entire thing was shot with practical effects–and you end up with a chase that distills a generation’s worth of exploitation action flicks into a single reel.

“Déjà Vu” (2006)


Tony Scott defined the action genre for a lot of Generation X. His films are easily recognizable–just wait for any scene with light filtering through horizontal blinds into a smoky or hazy room while characters discuss their next move–and much of the look and feel he brought from directing music videos and commercials into movies is now common cinematic language today.

One of his final films, 2006’s “Déjà Vu” with frequent collaborator Denzel Washington, is a time travel thriller with an interesting twist on the genre–and an equally interesting car chase as a result of its take on temporal machinations.

In the film, the protagonists can’t actually travel through time, but they can see through it–but only to a specific point to watch events unspool in real time.

At one point, Washington has to follow the bad guy while his companions in the lab provide guidance–the trick being that the bad guy made that trip four days before. The chase–a mix of then and now–is more thrilling than it has any right to be, as it technically isn’t even taking place in the moment you’re watching it. However, the multi-timed action and the investment from the crew in the lab make the whole thing a tense and clever thrill ride.

“Baby Driver” (2017)


The 6-minute scene that kicks off Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” may be familiar from gracing the cover of our magazine (or, you know, theaters). That’s because one of our own message board regulars, Jeremy Fry, was one of the primary stunt drivers and coordinators for the picture. Despite our personal connection, though, this scene itself is objectively terrific.

[Inside the life of a stunt driver]

It’s directed by Wright not so much as an action scene but as a dance number. Action is cut beat for beat with the riffs of “Bellbottoms” by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and the camera moves in smooth, sweeping pans, orbits, flybys and chases instead of the shaky handheld aesthetic used so often to give urgency to car chases.

It uses downtown Atlanta as both a setting for the action and a playground for the various stunt sequences, at times seeming more like a Ken Block “Gymkhana” video where they forgot to call the cops in advance.

It earns bonus points for so much practical work and realistic physics, too. Steering wheels are moved at the appropriate angle and speed for the moves depicted, handbrakes work the way they’re supposed to, and everything feels very grounded in reality–just that the reality depicted is extremely awesome.

“The Batman” (2022)


While it’s easy to get cynical over the trend to reboot every franchise as a broody, grimdark slog, that’s really kind of Batman’s deal. Remember, Batman’s real superpower is that he’s rich, crazy as a loon and doesn’t care if he dies. That’s a dangerous combo if you happen to get on his bad side.

Matt Reeves’ 2022 take on the character, and in particular our first glimpse of the Reeves-verse Batmobile pursuing Colin Farrell’s Penguin, is shot more like a horror movie than an action thriller.

The sequence has more in common with “Jaws” than it does with “Bullitt.” We don’t even see a full nose-to-tail view of the Batmobile until nearly 3 minutes into the chase, and even then, it’s for fewer than 2 seconds.

Until then, the heavily industrialized machine is presented mostly from Penguin’s POV. He catches quick glimpses of the screaming monster that’s coming to devour him, like he’s watching his impending doom through the fingers clenched tightly over his eyes.

Even some of the sequence’s most elaborate stunts, like the climactic truck jump, are shot in a distant third-person view. This was probably as much to hide effects as anything, but the result is turning the Batmobile into a worthy character of its own, not just a cool accessory.

“Miami Vice: Brother’s Keeper” (1984)


Your first reaction to the scene–and let’s face it, you know the one I’m talking about–in the pilot episode of “Miami Vice” that vaulted Phil Collins back into the zeitgeist is probably that it’s not a car chase. Okay, maybe technically you’re right, but I’d argue that the principles in this scene are all chasing something–many things, in fact–and doing it in a car gives it a whole other level and visual language that elevates it past anything we’d seen on TV to that point.

The main characters share exactly six words of dialogue–none of it expository–during the nearly 4-minute scene, but you still know what everyone is after: Tubbs is chasing revenge, Crockett is chasing redemption, and both of them are chasing Calderone, who now knows that they’re both cops, but they’re going to the meet anyway–and likely to their own demise. Crockett’s conversation with his ex-wife are the words of a dead man who’s chasing one final shot at meaning in a life he fears he wasted.

Also, notice that there’s zero background noise during the street scenes: No screaming engine, no whipping wind. The only thing that breaks the silence is Tubbs loading his shotgun and a few terse words between the primaries.

There are no quick cuts–many of the views are simply rig shots of parts of the car that last nearly 10 seconds–but somehow the tension is as high as any handheld and chopped-up “Bourne” flick. It’s a crash course in broody, minimalistic cinema that just happened to be on TV.

“Hooper” (1978)


Remember when you were a kid (or for some of us, last week–no judgment) and you’d just dump out all your action figures onto the ground and have a free-for-all? Captain America and G.I. Joe would team up to fight Darth Vader and the Micronauts while Rom the Space Knight and some GoBots provided support via the Mattel VertiBird.

It was a narrative mess and showed no respect for scale, but it was nonetheless the most awesome thing ever.

Yeah, that’s the final car jump scene in “Hooper.”

Okay, again, it’s not technically a chase, but every one of these lists needs to include Burt Reynolds in a Trans Am, and I’ll argue that this climactic sequence, where stuntmen portrayed by Reynolds and Jan-Michael Vincent race toward a bridge jump in a rocket-powered Pontiac through the chaos of a movie set shooting the final “big scene,” is better than anything Burt ever did behind the wheel of his other Trans Am.

Objectively, the scene makes zero sense. It allegedly depicts a film stunt sequence being shot, but the result is a metatextual soup of chaos and explosions that doesn’t need to make sense to be good. Forget breaking the fourth wall. This sequence sets up fifth, sixth and seventh walls and blows right through them, too.

The only thing more impressive than the actual sequence must have been the mountain of cocaine on the table when the filmmakers pitched it to the studio and asked for some additional budget.

“To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985)


No list of car chases is complete without at least one William Friedkin film. While “The French Connection” is certainly a strong nominee, I think the nod needs to go to the criminally underrated “To Live and Die in L.A.”

Only one ventures into the L.A. River, and any car chase that uses the L.A. River gets instant bonus points. I don’t make the rules.

Perhaps the most “blue collar” chase on the list–maybe even in film history–this one doesn’t use sexy cars, exotic locations or even the most elaborate stunts to get its point across. It just combines a lot of great shooting techniques, like first-person views, long lens compression shots, crane shots, tight interiors and in-your-face reaction shots to continue to ramp up the tension, chaos and paranoia through the entire scene.

Friedkin’s chase plays less like a scene and more like a growing anxiety attack, but despite the chaos you never really lose the sense of geography or narrative that the scene establishes.

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Comments
Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
6/14/23 9:18 a.m.

SV reX
SV reX MegaDork
6/14/23 9:30 a.m.

Baby Driver is still a major win for me!!

Pretty sure I will now waste most of the day on these! devil

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
6/14/23 9:32 a.m.

I’m going to add two to the list, and they involve a little history lesson.

All the way back in 2001, a car company–BMW, perhaps you’ve heard of them?–promoted its latest wares through, yes, car chases. And car chases involving all the usual ingredients, including crashes, gun play and even more crashes. Think more 007 than CHiPs.

You could watch the shorts on a dedicated site. This was before YouTube and all of today’s social media. Old school.

But, if you were one of the chosen, you could get your hands on a DVD containing the series. I got mine from my dad–I think he got it via the BMW CCA.

To make these shorts, BMW enlisted some of the biggest names possible: Madonna, James Brown, Ang Lee, John Frankenheimer, Guy Ritchie, Don Cheadle, Gary Oldman, Danny Trejo, etc., etc.

The series starred Clive Owen as the nameless “the Driver.”

“The Hire” series debuted with “Ambush,” and I think it’s the star of the original run.

Why I still put these features on a pedestal all these years later: Each short contains a full narrative that happens to contain a chase. It’s more than just gratuitous cars crashing into things; the chase is needed to move the plot from here to there.

Also, the sound work. Listen as the car knocks over the orange traffic posts. You can feel that hollow “boink” as each one bounces off the BMW’s front bumper.

And then there’s the central character. Despite not saying much, “the Driver” brings in ethics, warmth and humanity. His simple “Buckle up” goes far. 

BMW ended the original run in 2002 but brought back “the Driver” for one more appearance in 2016’s “The Escape.”

“I might be a little rusty right now, but I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m very good at that.”

I can relate, mystery man, I can relate.

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
6/14/23 9:56 a.m.
Colin Wood said:

Came to post exactly this.

 

Gone in 60 Seconds (1974) FTW

johndej
johndej SuperDork
6/14/23 9:57 a.m.

The transporter and borne series have some good ones.

JG Pasterjak
JG Pasterjak Production/Art Director
6/14/23 10:04 a.m.

I'll throw a few of my personal honorary mentions in the thread, starting with Wheelman.

It's a gimmick movie. The whole thing is shot from basically a GoPro mounted on a rollbar POV. But they lean into the gimmick brilliantly, and Frank Grillo deserves an award for performing an entire movie with basically the back of his head and pretty much killing it. It's the rare gimmick movie that uses its gimmick as a superior narrative device instead of just a goofy affect.

The_Jed
The_Jed PowerDork
6/14/23 10:16 a.m.

The chase scenes may not be that iconic but, the sound of that '68 Barracuda is magnificent in Highwaymen. 

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
6/14/23 10:26 a.m.

I'll toss in an honorable mention: Drive (2011)

 

BoulderG
BoulderG GRM+ Memberand Reader
6/14/23 10:38 a.m.

"To Live and Die in LA" is famous for its car chase using dozens and dozens of stunt cars and drivers. They did a scene of a car chase going the wrong way on a Los Angeles Freeway! That always stands out to me.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
6/14/23 11:15 a.m.

I first saw Akira in Japanese. My friend Steve recalls that he got the tape from our local Blockbuster. I know, how cosmopolitan for 1988 Athens, Ga.

No subtitles, either, as I remember. 

Didn’t matter. That opening chase scene had us sitting there with our mouths agape. (Soon after, though, I saw the theatrical, English-dub version.)

So, here’s the opening to Akira as I first saw it.

 

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