15 of the Greatest Car Chases in Movie History
Nothing gets the blood pumping like a high-stakes, adrenaline-fueled car chase.
Cinematic history is littered with great chase scenes, but fast vehicles and breathtaking action don’t guarantee a classic. Yes, a perfect car chase has death-defying stunts, but it also builds drama, capitalizes on intensity and sufficiently leaves viewers teetering at the edge of their movie theater seats, wondering what’s going to happen next.
The below list of 15 of the Greatest Car Chases in Movie History presents the films in chronological order. You'll find thrills, pileups, hair-raising stunts and even some comedy. But they all feature people moving fast and courting danger and represent the history of one of the most exciting tropes to ever appear on the movie screen.
'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) – Rescuing the Girl and the Pearls
Surprisingly, the first entry on the list doesn't feature a car but a motorcycle. We're giving it a pass because the most important figure in early chase scene history is Buster Keaton, and the chase sequence in Sherlock Jr. helped set the bar for everything that came after. The film's story revolves around a movie theater projectionist who falls asleep and imagines himself to be the world's greatest detective. In the course of this comes a chase sequence that features Keaton riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle and engaging in the kind of stunts that will define mechanized chases like this for the rest of film history: He drives straight at a massive log that explodes just before he hits it, weaves in and out of automobile traffic and, in the sequence's most hair-raising stunt, crosses a train track milliseconds before the train comes barreling through. All of the stunts are performed by Keaton and filmed live. It's with sequences like this that the history of the car chase begins.
'Never Give a Sucker an Even Break' (1941) – Getting the Wrong Woman to the Hospital
The chase comes at the end of the movie, when W.C. Fields, playing himself, tries to get a pregnant woman's mother to the hospital (mistakenly thinking she's the one who's pregnant). Cutting between Fields' behind-the-wheel banter, through-the-windshield POV shots and live-action driving stunts, the film gives one of the greatest examples of how Hollywood began updating Keaton's concept of mechanized action for the mass automobile age. The stunts are dangerous and precisely timed. Unlike modern CGI scenes, the action and comedy seen onscreen rely on actual people doing real - and really dangerous - things.
'Bullitt' (1968) – The First Most Famous Car Chase in Hollywood History
By the late 1960s, the American muscle car era was in full swing, and the movies began to follow suit. Peter Yates's Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen, is a tightly scripted crime film that features a car chase many still regard as the greatest in cinema history. Beginning on the streets of San Francisco and ending in an explosion in rural San Mateo, south of the city, it features tremendous driving (with McQueen actually behind the wheel for a good deal of it), replete with drifts, power slides and jumping on the San Francisco hills, along with some great in-car footage and fabulous editing. Perhaps more than any other, this is the film that brought the chase sequence to the consciousness of the movie-going masses and initiated an arms race of action and suspense in auto-obsessed films.
'The Italian Job' (1969) – The Mini Cooper Heist
This lighthearted crime caper starring Michael Caine is a heist film about the attempt to steal $4 million in gold from a convoy stuck in a traffic jam in Turin, Italy. How will Caine and his fellow thieves escape the traffic that's holding everyone else in place? By driving souped-up Mini Coopers that, because of their diminutive size, can go places other cars can't. In the film's best and most famous sequence, these Minis drive across rooftops, ford a river and finally escape through a sewage tunnel. It's a fun, inventive and original sequence that left enough of an impression to inspire a 2003 remake starring Mark Wahlberg.
'Vanishing Point' (1971) – The Dodge Challenger in the Desert
A strange, existential movie that epitomizes the ennui of the early 1970s, Vanishing Point is essentially one long chase sequence. It tells the story of a guy trying to deliver a car from Colorado to California while high on uppers and dodging every policeman in a four-state radius. It's the film credited with introducing the Dodge Challenger R/T to the world of car chases and has become beloved by filmmakers, with Steven Spielberg singing its praises and Quentin Tarantino paying homage to it in Death Proof. Chock full of great driving moments - including a race with a convertible Jaguar and an escape from a motorcycle cop at the Colorado border - its high point takes place in a scene set in the desert of Nevada, where there's plenty of room of drive on the highway, in the median or all over the shoulder.
'The French Connection' (1971) – Under the Elevated Tracks
William Friedkin's realist masterpiece from The French Connection is as hard-nosed as they come. Here, as the centerpiece of a tale about two New York detectives (Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider) trying to bust a heroin smuggling ring, Friedkin came up with a sequence in which Hackman races a car underneath an elevated train track, trying to keep up with a fugitive who has boarded the train above. It's frenetically paced and perfectly edited, and one of the best scenes in terms of matching the action to the character performing it. The relentless intensity of the image onscreen perfectly represents the ferocious determination of Hackman's Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle.
'The Spy Who Loved Me' (1977) – The Lotus Supercar
No list like this would be complete without an entry from the James Bond franchise. While there are certainly many to choose from, our favorite is the Lotus Esprit sequence from the Roger Moore-era The Spy Who Loved Me. This chase has everything one could ask for in a Bond film: an exploding motorcycle sidecar, a sedan that flies off a mountain road and lands in a villager's house, and a moment in which Bond escapes from a helicopter by driving off a dock into the Mediterranean ... because this isn't just a car – it's also a submarine.
'The Driver' (1978) – Ditching the Cops
The title of The Driver says it all. In Walter Hill's stripped-down thriller, Ryan O'Neal plays a criminal who has one great skill: He's the best getaway driver there is. Pursued by a detective and forced into a heist that doubles as a sting, the Driver has to rely on the thing he's the best at to survive: driving. There are several great sequences in the film, but the most exciting is when he carries two thieves on their getaway. Shot on location in Los Angeles it combines real filmmaking verve with a cleverness that's unusual in these films. The Driver doesn't just outrace the cops; he outmaneuvers them and outthinks them.
'The Blues Brothers' (1980) – The Race to the Tax Office
In The Blues Brothers, Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi play a pair of ne'er-do-well siblings and musicians who need to put their band back together to raise money to save the orphanage where they were raised. It features perhaps the best car scenes ever contained in a musical, including a great driving sequence in a mall, a jump over a drawbridge and a memorable moment when the attendees of a Nazi rally are forced to jump off a bridge into a creek. On top of this, it closes with a fantastically good chase sequence, in which the brothers try to reach the tax office in Chicago with police troopers, SWAT teams and those despicable Nazis trying to stop them. It features not one but two massive pileups of cop cars, an homage to the famous chase from The French Connection, a moment in which John Candy (playing a cop) is in a car that jumps into the side of a train car, and a fantastically absurd fate for the Nazis.
'The Road Warrior' (1981) – The Semi vs. the Marauders
One of the greatest chase sequences of all time comes from George Miller's post-apocalyptic masterpiece The Road Warrior (originally titled Mad Max 2). Taking place in the bleak Australian outback, the film is about an antihero named Max who wanders the wastelands simply trying to survive. When he runs into a group of refugees who need his help, he eventually agrees to drive a tanker full of gasoline through a gauntlet of leather-wearing, motorcycle and buggy-driving homicidal maniacs. Shot with virtually no special effects (in-camera or otherwise), it's one of the most kinetically accomplished action sequences ever put on film. Miller did his trick again with the reboot Mad Max: Fury Road, which essentially functions as one long driving sequence, but it's the original that has to be seen to be believed.
'Police Story' (1985) – The Shanty Town Sequence
In what might be the greatest film of his storied career, Jackie Chan plays a Hong Kong police detective named Chan Ka-kui who's out to stop a nefarious crime boss. Chan co-wrote and directed the film as well as starred in it, and it includes many fantastic moments. Among them is a stunning opening car sequence, in which Chan chases the bad guys down a steep hill over, under and through the shacks of a shanty town. (It's a moment Michael Bay would unceremoniously rip off a few years later in Bad Boys 2). The carnage is impeccable, the stunts are fantastic and the whole thing is inflected with Chan's distinctive sense of humor.
'To Live and Die in L.A.' (1985) – Chase Through the City of Los Angeles
To Live and Die in L.A. is one of the great forgotten masterpieces of '80s action cinema. Telling the supremely cynical story of a secret service agent (William Petersen) who goes over the edge in pursuit of a counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe), it features a taut storyline and several tough-minded action scenes. The centerpiece of these is a nearly eight-minute sequence (which reputedly took six weeks to shoot) in which Petersen and his partner are chased by the Feds after accidentally killing an undercover FBI agent. It starts in a warehouse district, moves through the concrete bed of the Los Angeles River and finally ends up hurtling through oncoming traffic on a freeway. The scene has a similar feel to the one in The French Connection that director William Friedkin had constructed a decade before and shows that the master still had his touch.
'Ronin' (1998) – Chase Through the City of Paris
John Frankenheimer's Ronin tells a classic tale of a group of thieves organized by a shadowy figure to steal a MacGuffin they don't know the contents of. It's full of tough characters, tough dialogue and many double-crosses. It also features one of the best car chases in film history. Robert De Niro drives one car, Natascha McElhone drives the other and although neither did the driving in the actual stunt sequences, the editing and construction of the scene is so good that we forget that entirely. They're in regular sedans, racing through the surface streets and tunnels of Paris, and the whole thing has an aura of realism that's unforgettable.
'Drive' (2011) – Opening Sequence
Although it's based on a 2005 novel, Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive also functions as a direct homage to Walter Hill's The Driver. Ryan Gosling plays a getaway driver who gets pulled into the orbit of a sadistic mobster while he's also falling in love with his neighbor. There are numerous great car scenes, and as befits its relationship to Hill's film, Gosling's character is a man of very few words, known only as "The Driver." The opening sequence here is a stunner, not so much for its four-wheel pyrotechnics (although there are some of those) as for its inimitable atmosphere. Gosling picks up a pair of crooks after a robbery, evades the Los Angeles police, and disappears into the crowd coming out of a Clippers game, all without ever speaking a word. It's a perfectly constructed five minutes, immediately establishing both Gosling's character and the film's tough, stylish atmosphere.
'Fast Five' (2011) – The Bank Vault Heist
How could a list like this not include at least one moment from a Fast & Furious movie? The choice here is the flabbergasting scene from Fast Five. Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson and the gang attempt to steal millions of dollars stored in a police evidence vault. Now, usually, when thieves come up against this kind of vault, they break into it, but here they decide to take the entire thing. The heist includes driving into (and then through the wall of) the basement of a police station in Rio de Janeiro, attaching a cable to the vault and then dragging it through the city behind a pair of cars. A trail of destruction is left throughout the city as the heroes evade wave after wave of cops. It's a cheeky, thrilling sequence and as good as any that the franchise has produced.