The 10 Best Car Chase Films

As Furious 7 rapidly approaches, it's time to look back on the 10 films that created our concept of the car chase and its place in the modern action effort.

It’s almost here. No, not the summer movie season; that’s still a good month and a highly anticipated Avengers sequel away. In this case, we are talking about the latest entry in the fluke franchise known as The Fast and the Furious. What started out as a celebration of all things racing, including an unnecessary diversion into “drifting”, has now become one of the biggest multi-cultural action series ever. We can thank the various creative forces behind the scenes for transporting said narrative away from the illegal street car challenges of the original movie to the dizzying heist drama of Fast Five and the international intrigue and spy games of Fast and Furious 6.

With Part Seven promising to be a huge moneymaker at the box office (avoiding the May through August season all together), we’ve decided to go back and look through the history of film, picking the ten best examples of the “chase” movie ever made. Of course, during our research, we decided to bend the rules a bit. For example, The General, the brilliant silent film from Buster Keaton, would definitely belong on this list — if it wasn’t for the fact that his vehicle of choice is a train, not a car. We deemed that unfair. Similarly, we nixed including Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Matrix: Reloaded, and other similarly styled films as their purpose has more to do with other elements, with the car stunts merely adding to the narrative.

Of course, you’ll see at least a couple of entries here where the chase is secondary to the story, but in those cases, the sequences were so good and so endemic of the films in general that we had to include them. So while you get your motor running to head out on the highway, here are our Top 10 Car Chase Films of All Time. Gentle readers, start your engines.

10. Bullitt

While it is not necessarily a “car chase film”, on principle we had to include this. Like many of its time, Hollywood and its stuntmen were still trying to work out the complexities of non-CG physical effects, and the stunning result was this memorable bit of mayhem along the streets of San Francisco. The iconic Steve McQueen stars as a cop placed in charge of protecting a mob informant. When hitmen show up, a high speed chase ensues, leading to one of the most thrilling sequences in movie history. While the rest of the film is a boilerplate police thriller, the vehicular mayhem on display demands inclusion here.

9. Ronin

Yes, we’ve even included mediocre movies on this list. Robert De Niro, toward the beginning of his post-Oscar paycheck cashing career, plays a spy who gets together with a bunch of likeminded secret agents to steal the contents of a case. The resulting double crosses lead to some exhilarating action, included two memorable chases through the French cities of Nice and Paris. Again, the movie can’t overcome its inherent flaws (De Niro has yet to fully remove himself from the Method-ology which made him a superstar) but when the car action is as memorable as this, it’s easy to see why fans flock to its again and again.

8. Fast and Furious 6

Director Justin Lin has been credited with turning this otherwise ordinary series of car race films into some of the most amazing examples of vehicular stuntwork ever conceived (with or without CG help). While we will have to wait and see if James Wan tops his efforts, this movie in particular shows off the filmmaker’s panache for four wheel overdrive. Aside from the finale, which features actual car on carrier plane action, there are moments of jaw dropping, fuel injected insanity, including an elevated overpass sequence that is guaranteed to take your breath away. As part of his resume, Part Five is also very good. Part Six sets the standards, however.

7. Freebie and the Bean

During the ’70s, the notion of the “super cop” was born. Based in fact but limited by reality, the movie studios decided to showcase these risk-taking members of the badge with one inflated thriller after another (one was even called by that brand). On the opposite end was this confused comedy, a combination of gay panic and ethnic shaming that would be viable among the movies of 2015. James Caan and Alan Arkin are mismatched officers who seem to be complete incompetent and yet always seem to get their man (or in this case, man in drag). This film eatures one of the best car chase endings ever.

6. Vanishing Point (1971)

We now find ourselves in pure chase mode. As a matter of fact, this underrated gem (the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s entry on this list) features Barry Newman as a professional driver who, during a job from Denver to San Francisco, runs afoul of the law and other desert characters. As with many low budget drive-in efforts of the time, the film is really nothing more than a travelogue elongated with a convoluted plot and lots of counterculture commentary (mostly provided by a blind DJ played by Cleavon Little). The car sequences, directed by Richard Sarafian, are pumped full of Newman’s character’s favorite drug: adrenalin!

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5. The French Connection

Like Bullitt, this really isn’t a “chase” film. In fact, it’s one of the many hardboiled police procedurals made during the far more lax post-modern movement in film. With the MPAA in control of content, filmmakers like William Friedkin discovered a newfound freedom to invent and explore. In this case, Oscar winner Gene Hackman turned real life policeman Popeye Doyle into an amalgamation of the Establishment battling a belligerent counterculture (in the form of the out of control heroin trade in NYC circa 1971) and in one completely unscripted jag through the backstreets of Brooklyn, participated in one of the greatest chases ever filmed. It’s part of a particularly potent movie experience.

4. Death Proof

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to boil the entire action film/chase genre down to its basics. In essence, we have a two part narrative in which a psycho stuntman (Kurt Russell) chases down and kills a group of girls, only to have the tables turned on him months later. Both the beginning and end of this film feature vehicular mayhem that only a true student of the stunt sequence could create. The material with Zoe Bell on the hood of the car while Russell’s reprobate chases her (and her female companions) is guaranteed to have you on the edge of your seat and biting your nails down to the quick.

3. Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)

No, not the Nicolas Cage remake; that film is too interested in style over stunt substance. With just $150,000 as his budget, wannabe filmmaker H.B. Halicki crafted a clever B-movie classic in which a gang of car thieves must steal 48 cars in five days. The result is a series of heists (and chases) that still dazzle some 40 years after the fact. Indeed, this film is well known for the number of cars it destroyed, as a well as a 40 minute set piece that defies description. If you want to see where a lot of modern moviemakers got their well choreographed motor vehicle mayhem ideas, you need look no further than this film.

2. The Blues Brothers

Before recent efforts like Transformers and The Matrix: Reloaded, this feature length skit from Saturday Night Live alum Dan Akyroyd and the late, great John Belushi held the record for most vehicles destroyed (103, though Michael Bay would top that at over 500). The story is almost one continuous chase, with a recently released convict/musician meeting up with his sibling to save the orphanage where they grew up. One of the most memorable sequences takes place inside a late ’70s mall, featuring all the stores and scenery that Walmart would replace two decades later. By the end, the city of Chicago lost nearly 80 of its iconic police cruisers.

1. The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2)

Certain films follow the pop culture landscape. Others change them, often irreparably. This is one of those examples of an idea (a post apocalyptic world where gasoline is the gold) meeting amazing execution (director George Miller remains a dark, twisted action genius) that results in a rewriting of an entire genre’s benchmarks. After seeing what this Australian auteur could do with a bunch of makeshift vehicles, a long stretch of outback desert, and some carefully placed camera, the notion of what a viable car chase could be was forever changed. He’s bringing his style back now, 30 years later, for Mad Max: Fury Road. For those of us old enough to remember a time pre-Miller, we can hardly wait.