Car chases are a staple of action cinema. They can serve the story, or seemingly exist in a vacuum outside the plot. The best car chases in film history have a mixture of sharp camera work and visceral street-level anxiety. They make you lean to the left or the right in your chair, grab the armrest, or shield your eyes as the subjects narrowly avoid certain disaster. Obstacles and tricky street navigation, pedestrians and precarious situations all play into the best car chases, and here are ten of the very best.
Quick Disclaimer: There’s no need to include any Fast and Furious chases here. There are seven of those films already, and their entire existence is predicated upon the car chase. The best Fast and Furious car chases is a list that could expand beyond ten by itself. The same goes for Mad Max, The Road Warrior, or Fury Road… these are chase films, not films with chases in them. For the sake of diversity, let’s leave those on the side.
10. Jack Reacher – In the middle of what was an otherwise average film is a muscle-bound, three-pronged car chase. Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher is chasing the villains, while Reacher is being pursued by the cops, and Chris McQuarrie’s camera work is stellar. And more than anything else, this is a master class in sound design.
9. The Seven-Ups – this relatively unseen crime drama apes on the success of The French Connection two years earlier, and even has Roy Scheider to bridge the gap between the two. This busy chase is all screeching tires on the soundtrack and 70s cars, heavy, the size of small freighters.
8. The Blues Brothers – One of the rare car chases in film working on comedy rather than tension. This pursuit was famous for using more cars than any other chase, and the pursuit through a mall creates some wonderfully insane laughs.
7. Ronin – Much like Jack Reacher, this chase elevates what is an otherwise middling picture. The tight city streets of Paris and other foreign ports always welcome in an all new set of obstacles and potential for disaster, and John Frankenheimer plays up these elements to perfection.
6. Drive – The opening scene of Drive, incredible in its own right, might deserve a spot here. But that was more an elusive cat-and-mouse pursuit. And when held up next to the brief chase in the middle of the film, with Gosling’s car flying down the road backwards, it doesn’t have the same hard-charged muscle. Short, and to the point.
5. The Bourne Supremacy – Paul Greengrass’s frenetic camera work creates a sense of disorientation in this chase. This is a heap of twisted metal, racing along wet city streets and crushing cars and obstacles until the final crash in the tunnel, which almost comes as a relief.
4. The French Connection – This has always been one of the defining car chases in action cinema. William Friedkin opted to not worry about permits or any sort of legal permissions before he shot this inventive chase between a car and an elevated train. As important as this is in the realm of movie car chases, it’s not even Friedkin’s finest hour in this department.
3. The Dead Pool – What is often overlooked, mostly because this is the last and most forgotten Dirty Harry film, is the wonderful inventiveness in this chase. A remote control car wired with explosives chases Harry and his partner through the rolling San Francisco streets. Never mind the logistics of this, it’s purely delightful, amusing, and thrilling.
2. To Live and Die in LA – This is William Friedkin’s finest hour when it comes to car chases, and probably filmmaking in my opinion. It’s amazing to even think about the logistics of this chase, with so many cars in danger as our hero hurtles down the freeway on the wrong side. The chase builds and the scope expands the entire time.
1. Bullitt – Here it is, the godfather of car chases. Filmed three years before The French Connection, this is the template for cinematic car chases each and every chase of its kind was built upon. Steve McQueen’s Mustang screams off the soundtrack, and the extended chase moves with a rapid fire intensity.