Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Top Ten Movie Car Chases

While at a friend’s house this weekend, I noticed he had a copy of Bullitt on Blu-Ray, and when I commented on it, he said “best car chase in movie history”, and so it got me thinking about the car chases in the movies, and what actually was the best. That he was right, doesn’t bother me. But the other nine on this list are also great.

10. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
For some reason, some critics found the car chase in last year’s The Dark Knight to be confusing. I found the whole thing thrilling. We have Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent in a paddy wagon being taken to jail, Heath Ledger’s The Joker riding alongside him in a giant truck, and Christian Bale’s Batman on his motorcycle, all racing through the streets of Gotham, and causing general havoc. Expertly crafted by Nolan, the chase sequence is the action highlight of the film. And any car chase that uses a bazooka, gets extra points in my book.

9. Thunder Road (Arthur Ripley, 1958)
Robert Mitchum stars, co-wrote and apparently did much of the directing to this cult classic about a moonshine runner (Mitchum) driving a supped up 1950 Ford sedan on his moonshine runs. During the course of the movie, Mitchum has to outrun the revenuers (the government) and local gangsters, who want to take over the moonshine business themselves. But Mitchum has a moral code that will not allow him to give up. It’s hard to pinpoint the chase scene in the film that is the best. There are three wonderful examples - one where Mitchum is shot at, and only gets away because of the device he was installed in the back which allows him to spray the road with oil – perhaps the first time this was used in the movies, another where Mitchum crashes through a barricade of cars, and the final tragic one, where Mitchum tries the same trick, and fails. Really, the whole movie is made up of car chases, and a little dialogue in between to connect them. A wonderful B movie that became a HUGE cult hit.

8. Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971)
Spielberg’s first film is essentially one big, long car chase. Dennis Weaver stars as a mild mannered businessman, on a long car trip to a business meeting. On a lonely stretch of highway, he comes across an old transport truck, spewing noxious fumes. He passes the truck, only to have the truck then roar past him, and slow down again. When Weaver passes a second time, the truck driver gets angry – really angry. What follows is a high speed cat and mouse game, with the truck driver screwing with Weaver’s head throughout. He thinks he has escaped multiple times, but the truck is always just around the bend. Spielberg’s genius here is to never show the truck driver, never let us understand precisely why the does what he does. The movie made a name for Spielberg, and rightly so.

7. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991)
The chase through the Los Angeles, with Schwarzenegger and Furlong on a motorcycle, and Patrick chasing them in a transport truck, is probably the best single action sequence in the entire Terminator franchise. At first, it appears that Furlong will be overmatched, as his little dirt bike cannot outrun the truck, even as he veers off into the city barren ducts, but when Arnie shows up on his motorcycle, is when the fun really starts. Cameron has always been a master of directing action set pieces, and no matter how good everything else in his career is, this is probably the highlight in that regard.

6. To Live and Die in LA (William Friedkin, 1985)
At his best, William Friedkin can be an action filmmaker on par with Michael Mann. This underrated 1985 film is one of his very best. Two treasury agents want to get close to counterfeiter Willem Dafoe, to avenge the death of one of their own. But when the agency will not authorize enough money to get close enough, they decide to go rogue, and rob what they think is a wealthy man, but is really an undercover FBI agent to get the money. When the FBI agent is killed, it leads to a crazed chase through the streets and highways of LA. The chase itself, which runs the wrong way on the freeway, and featured actor William Peterson doing much of his own driving, took six weeks to film, with a stripped down crew. Friedkin said he would only do the chase if it was better than the one in The French Connection, and while I do not agree that’s its better, it’s pretty damn close.

5. Ronin (John Frankenheimer, 1998)
I would not consider Ronin to be one of John Frankenheimer’s best films, but there is no doubt that the chase sequences through the streets and tunnels of Paris are far and away the best car chase he ever filmed (and he did a lot of them over the years). Frankenheimer decided against using special effects for his chase, and also went without music for the chase, making the chase seem more visceral and real, as we hear little more than the constant revving of the engines, as they speed through the streets. While Ronin may not be a classic, the car chase certainly is.

4. The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981)
Really, the entire last act of the movie is a car chase, first with Gibson trying to flee in his car by himself – and failing – and then the most famous sequence, as Gibson leaves with the settlers, driving a giant tanker truck, he thinks is full of oil. This is action filmmaking at its best, and Miller really does stage it as a fight for their lives as Gibson and the “Ferral Kid” are the last men standing on the tanker, and the two bad guys will stop at nothing – until of course, that head on crash. Great movie, great chase.

3. Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)
Tarantino likes to try something different on every film, and in his segment of Grindhouse, he decided to try shooting a car chase like they did in the old days – using stuntmen in real cars, not special effects, and the result is one of the longest, most thrilling chases in history. While some complain that the opening of the film drags on too long, and gets bogged down in dialogue (it’s a freaking Tarantino for God’s sake! Of course they talk!), most everyone agrees that the last half of the film is action filmmaking at its finest. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who we have already seen kill a group of beautiful young women, sets his sights on another group of women, but he picks the wrong group. A thrilling chase between Mike’s supped up 1969 Dodge Charger, and the women in a 1970 Dodge Challenger, is thrilling, not least because real stuntwoman Zoe Bell (playing herself) is hanging on the hood of car, held on only by two belts. The scene proves that Tarantino can do car chases with the best of them.

2. The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)
At the time of its release, The French Connection was hailed a masterpiece, and won the Oscars for Picture, Director and Actor (among others), something almost unheard of for an action movie. While time, and countless TV cop shows, may have dimmed its impact somewhat, the chase scene at the heart of the film is a still a thrilling masterpiece of film construction. Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) is chasing a hit man who just tried to kill him. The hit man has hijacked an elevated train, and not wanting to let him get away, Doyle commandeers a civilian’s car (a 1971 Pontiac LeMans) and gives chase under the train on the crowded streets of Brooklyn. The five major “stunts” in the car chase – Doyle being sideswiped, Doyle’s car being clipped by a truck (who, humorously has a “Drive Carefully” bumper sticker, Doyle narrowly missing a woman with a baby carriage, Doyle crashing into a steel fence, and finally Doyle having to drive against traffic to stay with the train, are all masterfully handled by Friedkin. The only director with two films on this list, I guess that makes Friedkin the master of the car chase.

1. Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968)
They just don’t make me like Steve McQueen anymore, and they certainly do not make car chases like the one in Bullitt anymore either. Driving a dark green, 1968 Ford Mustang, McQueen tries to chase down a hit man, driving a 1968 Dodge Charger, through the streets of San Francisco. With all the hills in San Fran, it makes it the perfect place for a chase, as the cars jump the hills and come crashing down on the streets (if you watch, you’ll notice that the Dodge Charger actually loses 6 hubcaps during the chase, which just makes no sense). Although an accomplished driver himself, McQueen did not do most of his own driving, but the stuntmen who did, do an amazing job. As a movie unto itself, Bullitt is just an average police procedural with a great central performance by McQueen, but that car chase – which is the most thrilling in cinema history easily – ensures that Bullitt will be remembered forever.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed your post, Dave. I suddenly had some tiny flashbacks of these movies at the back of my mind while reading this. And it’s so amazing that you are able to take notice the models of the cars. Haha! But anyway, I must agree that it’s Bullitt that would always take the number one spot.

    Kyle Schmidt