Greatest Chase Scenes, Vol. 1 (Vehicular)

If the advanced reviews and word-of-mouth are any indication, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver looks poised to be a summer sleeper. For those unfamiliar with the film, the story revolves around a getaway driver with tinnitus (caused by a childhood accident), who, in order to drown out the constant ringing, listens to steady and eclectic stream of music via earbuds. Mayhem ensues. Of course, this being an Edgar Wright movie (he also directed Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End; if you’re familiar with those films you’ll know he’s a quirky fellow), the overlay of music isn’t just used as window dressing, but rather the film is cut to the beat of the songs. You follow? No? Go see it then.

Anyway, in anticipation of the film, I’ve lately had car chases on the brain. Let’s face it — most movie car chases suck. Whether unnecessary, predictable or poorly staged, they often grind a movie to a halt. Unless, of course, you’re a filmmaker of serious imagination and technical prowess. Then, and only then, can a car chase rise from cliche to centerpiece.

The following is a look at some well-regarded vehicular car chases, some familiar, some a little more obscure. They are in no particular order, although please note that the list culimates with my personal choice as the GOAT.

The French Connection (1971, Dir. William Friedkin)

NYC detective “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) survives an assassination attempt ordered by the man he’s trying to bring down, Marseilles-based heroin kingpin Alain “Frog #1” Charnier (Fernando Rey). A chase ensues, the would-be assassin hopping an EL, Popeye commandeering a car, which he drives at high speeds under the tracks to intercept the train at the next station.

My Two Cents
Undeniably tense, here’s a chase sequence made all the more iconic because of how it’s mostly shot under the EL’s superstructure, giving it a unique (and claustrophobic) look and feel. Director Friedkin, working with his cinematographer Owen Roizman, filmed much of the chase with a camera mounted to the front bumper of Popeye’s car, giving the audience a real sense of danger (and speed) as we see cross-traffic and pedestrians approach each intersection blissfully unaware that a cop is bearing down at 90 miles an hour. And who can forget the woman-with-baby-carriage-stepping-into-the-crosswalk moment, a split-second moment of truth nicely parodied in the 1994 thriller, Speed?

Ronin (1998, dir. John Frankenheimer)

The complicated heist of a briefcase, followed by a series of double-crosses too convoluted to do justice to in less than 20 paragraphs, sets in motion a high-speed automobile chase through the narrow streets (and tunnels and highways and sidewalks) of Paris.

My Two Cents
Director Frankenheimer’s return to form (click here for more on his up-and-down career) is on full display in these chaotic seven minutes of vehicular mayhem. As in The French Connection, Frankenheimer and his DP, Robert Fraisse, lean heavily on bumper-level POV to communicate breakneck speed and the dangers (cars, trucks, motorcycles, people) lurking at the corners of the frame. Adding to the scene’s verisimilitude is the fact that Frankenheimer filmed his actors (Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Jonathan Pryce and Stellan Skarsgård) in cars being driven up to 120 miles per hour. Although off-screen stuntmen were doing the actual driving, the sphincter-tightening effect of the speed reads loud and clear on the actor’s faces.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985, Dir. George Miller)

Another one tough to summarize. Suffice to say, Max (Mel Gibson), after his fallout with Aunty Entity (a surprisingly good Tina Turner), decides to free the mastermind behind Bartertown’s methane refinery, the once-mighty Master-Blaster now reduced, literally and figuratively, to simply Master. They escape in a train-truck (don’t ask), leading to a giant chase as they’re pursued by a fleet of Auntie’s Dr. Seussian post-apocalyptic vehicles. Note: the following is only a portion of the scene.

My Two Cents
With four chapters of the Mad Max saga now under his belt, director George Miller truly has refined the car chase into an art form, as evidenced by 2015’s Fury Road, one of the year’s best reviewed films. However, because that film was essentially one gigantic chase rather than a chase-as-centerpiece like the other installments, I’m going to set it aside for Beyond Thunderdome, which, until Miller revisited his particular brand of vehicular mayhem 30 years later, was his high-water mark, the culmination of all he’d learned in the first two films. Plus, Beyond Thunderdome was made in the days before digital trickery, which makes its practical effects (real cars, real explosions!) and stunt work, especially the Keatonesque physical comedy (check out the guy with the strange headpiece hurtling over obstacles while hanging off a moving train by a pole) all the more amazing. 

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, Dir. James Cameron)

John Connor (Edward Furlong), future resistance leader against humanity’s war against the machines (see: Terminator, The), is being hounded through a mall by two fellows bent on an ass-kicking. One dresses like a cop, but is actually a T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a cutting-edge cyborg made of shapeshifting liquid metal sent back in time to make sure John doesn’t finish puberty. The other, dressed as Leatherman from Village People, looks suspiciously like that T-800 cyborg (Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger) who spent the entirety of the first film trying to kill John’s mother. John, suspicious of both, escapes on his minibike. The T-1000 pursues in a stolen truck. Arnold chooses a cool Harley. All three converge to raise holy hell on a flood control channel of the Los Angeles River.

My Two Cents
There aren’t too many directors who know his or her way around an action scene better than Jim Cameron. Whether you like his films (Aliens, True Lies, Titanic, Avatar) or hate them, there’s no denying he is a technical artist of the first order. Throughout his career, he’s thrived on surpassing his audiences’ expectations, bombarding them with imagery never
before seen on a movie screen, stuff like a giant Mack truck blowing through a concrete viaduct, dropping to the channel 20 feet below and, without missing a beat, giving chase; or Arnold cocking his shotgun by spinning it on his finger before jumping his motorcycle 50 feet; or the piece de resistance, the emergence of cinema’s first fully realized computer generated main character out of a huge fireball. Sadly, I’m going to have to dock a few points for the obviousness of the stunt person standing in for John Connor on the minibike. Sad!

Bullitt (1968, Dir. Peter Yates)

SFPD Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is in it up to his neck. The guy he was supposed to protect from the mob has been whacked and now the assassins are after him. He spots them, though, and, fastening his two-point seatbelt to some jazzy music, begins to chase them throughout San Francisco proper and, later, the highways just outside. 
Here are some highlights of the 10+ minute scene:

My Two Cents
Ask any cinephile of a certain age which movie features the greatest chase scene in film history and invariably you’ll hear, “Bullitt.” Personally, I don’t agree, but there’s no denying it’s a doozie. Between the guttural roar of those V-8 engines, the treacherously hilly San Francisco roads, speeds in excess of 110 mph and “The King of Cool” himself, what else could a chase-lover ask for? Still, there’s something about the late 60’s movie aesthetic — all those zooms; I hate zooms! — not to mention the fact that the bad guys look like a couple of insurance salesmen, that leaves me less than ecstatic. Call me a loser, but you’re not going to change my mind.

To Live and Die in LA (1985, Dir. William Friedkin)

In order to secure enough money to entrap counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Defoe), Secret Service agents Chance (William Peterson) and Vukovich (John Pankow) decide to rob a crook named Ling, who’s rumored to be traveling with $50,000 in cash. Problem is, Ling turns out to be an undercover agent. Making matters worse, during the “theft,” Ling is mistakenly shot dead by his own (law enforcement) people, the bullets meant for Chance and Vukovich, who they assume are legit bad guys. An extended car chase ensues through train yards, the Los Angeles River and a packed freeway.

My Two Cents
As with Frankenheimer, director William Friedkin fell into a creative rut after his one-two-three punch of The French Connection, The Exorcist and the underrated Sorceror. All was forgiven, however, when he gave us his return to form, 
To Live and Die in LA, especially its tour de force car chase that culminates with Chance and Vukovich driving the wrong way down a packed LA freeway. Wouldn’t you know it, the guy responsible for one of cinema’s definitive chases actually tops himself in his creative comeback.

Regarding the highway mayhem, Wikipedia notes that “[Friedkin] came up with the idea of staging the chase against the flow of traffic on February 25, 1963, when he was driving home from a wedding in Chicago. He fell asleep at the wheel and woke up in the wrong lane with oncoming traffic heading straight for him. He swerved back to his side of the road and for the next 20 years wondered how he was going to use it in a film. He told stunt coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker that if they could come up with a chase better than the one in The French Connection then it would be in the film.”

Besides the technical assurance of the scene (which is indeed better than The French Connection), another pleasure it affords has to do with character reactions to the situation. Throughout the ride, the by-the-book Vukovich looks like he’s in the throes of a panic attack, while his partner, Chance, a daredevil who bungee jumps off bridges in his free time, is all unperturbable focus.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Dir. Steven Spielberg)

The Ark of the Covenant, so laboriously secured by Indy (Harrison Ford) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), has fallen into Nazi hands, specifically Colonel Dietrich, Major Toht and French mercenary archeologist, Belloq. Their plan (after losing a plane to more Indy shenanigans): drive it to Cairo in a well-armed convoy for shipment to Berlin. Indy, setting off on horse, has other ideas.

My Two Cents
Yeah, this is it, my vote for the greatest chase of all time (vehicular). Let’s face it, nobody stages action like Spielberg. Staging refers, of course, to how the elements of a scene are aligned, arranged, and coordinated. According to Steven Soderbergh, no slouch himself, “[Spielberg] forgot more about staging by the time he made his first feature than I know to this day (for example, no matter how fast the cuts come, you always know exactly where you are—that’s high level visual math shit).” Kudos, also, to Spielberg’s longtime editor Michael Kahn and the cinematographer on this show, Douglas Slocombe.

Truly, this desert chase scene has it all:

  • a horse loping down an impossibly steep grade
  • a couple classic Hollywood stunt gags (horse dismount onto a moving truck; multiple guys crashing headfirst through windshields)
  • fistfights over control of the truck’s steering wheel
  • the Wilhelm Scream
  • a car being forced over an impossibly high cliff, little Nazis tumbling to their doom
  • a point blank gunshot to the arm
  • a miraculous crawl under a moving truck (a homage to a legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt’s stunt in John Ford’s Stagecoach)
  • a man squished under the tires of a truck
  • etc., etc.

And it’s all done with such imagination, technical assurance, tension building and general panache. Take, for instance, the moment Indy’s thrown onto the hood of the truck. He frantically reaches for something to prevent him from tumbling under the tires, the truck’s Mercedes hood ornament, which miraculously holds his weight. However, with a heightened squeak provided by sound designer Ben Burtt, the ornament bends and suddenly snaps off, dropping Indy from view. A quick cut reveals him grabbing at the truck’s grillwork, which, like the ornament, bends under his weight, leaving him lunging for the fender, the truck’s spinning wheel just inches away.

Or how about John Williams’ rousing score, the way it’s cut into the proceedings, a perfect marriage of sound and image? Note the moment (ooof!) before the chase begins when Belloq closes the car door, the slam timed perfectly to a beat of music. Or the musical crescendo when the soldier is crawling on the roof of the truck as it takes a curve in the road. Or the moment a soldier shoots Indy in the arm, the gunshot and spray of blood not only introducing a new, more urgent musical theme, but also a sharp change in the tone — until then the chase had been treated as somewhat of a lark. But now, with the stakes raised, the scene becomes darker, much more violent and deadly serious.

I could go on and on breaking down every little thing, but I’ll stop here. Suffice to say, it’s the one chase scene I never stop admiring and never get tired of watching. Truly 8.5 minutes of cinematic bliss!

There you have it. Were the unfortunate omissions to keep this thing at a reasonable length? Absolutely. (The Moscow car chase in The Bourne Supremacy immediately comes to mind. Duel. The Blue Brothers. Etc.) Anyway, next up, Greatest Chase Scenes (On Foot)!

1 Comment

Leave a Reply