The thing about motion pictures is that they move. Perhaps that’s a bit obvious, but sometimes the simple things are worth noting. Film excels at capturing objects and people in motion, and we react very strongly to the kinetic nature of the medium. That’s why we get off on both action movies and musicals – the distance between, say, Bruce Lee kicking six guys into their next incarnations and Fred & Ginger cutting a rug for our entertainment is actually pretty small.
And then there are car chases, which up the stakes by the simple act of motorising the motion. Not only are we excited by the action in a car chase, on some level we also appreciate the sheer craft involved – all those big machines and expensive cameras working in congress to produce a visual spectacle and hopefully not maim any of the crazy-brave stunt drivers actually behind the wheel. A good car chase is its own kind of beauty. Here then, are 10 of the most beautiful.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
One of the criticisms most frequently leveled at George Miller’s bravura return to the Mad Max franchise is that it’s just one long chase scene, which strikes us as completely missing the point. Yes, it pretty much is one long chase scene, pitting broken ex-cop Max (Tom Hardy) and reformed warlord Furiosa (Charlize Theron) against Immortan Joe (the late Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his horde. It’s also one of the best chase scenes ever committed to film. Yes, the whole movie – while you could break it up into discrete set pieces, really it’s the sound and fury of the whole thing that hits like an atom bomb, redefining the state of the art of action cinema in the process.
Fast & Furious 6 (2013)
If ever there was a franchise defined by car chases it’s the Fast & Furious series, following as it does the exploits of Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his “fambly” of outlaw racers and thieves turned international secret agents (the escalation in this series is wild). Pulling just one example to stand in for the whole is a difficult choice, but let’s go for the climax to Fast & Furious 6. Having battled rogue SAS commando Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) for the length of the movie, it all comes down to Dom and the gang having to chase down a giant Russian cargo plane before it takes off, resulting in an extraordinarily choreographed running battle down the world’s longest runway. Director Justin Lin brings his A-game here, resulting in an iconic scene in a series built out of iconic scenes.
Arguably the dawn of the modern movie car chase. Steve McQueen is the titular Frank Bullitt, a San Francisco detective hunting down the men who killed a mob witness on his watch. Unluckily for Bullitt, the mob are also hunting him, leading to an extensive car chase with Bullitt in his Ford Mustang GT Fastback trying to outrun two assassins in a Dodge Charger. Even today, the sequence is stunningly propulsive, incredibly edited, and if the Bullitt manages to shift up gears more times than is physically possible, who’s really counting? Filmed on the streets of San Francisco and with avid racer McQueen actually behind the wheel as much as humanly possible, it’s a landmark piece of action cinema, demonstrating that gritty realism can combine with extremely cinematic camera aesthetics to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
The French Connection (1971)
Three years later we got the even gritter The French Connection, director William Friedkin’s account of narcotics detective Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his struggle to bust an international heroin smuggling ring. The French Connection is a grim look at the seedy world of undercover policework, but it does boast one of the most imaginative chase sequences to come along in a while: having failed to assassinate Popeye, hitman Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi) flees on an elevated train. Popeye commandeers a civilian vehicle and the chase is on: car vs train. Friedkin famously shot the sequence on the streets of New York City without blocking them off, with Hackman driving and bellowing at unwitting pedestrians to get out of the way. Now, we wouldn’t let a director get away with that kind of behaviour today, but the resulting film makes us a little glad we did back then.
The Italian Job (1969)
Michael Caine recruits a mixed bag of career criminals to relieve an Italian armoured car of its cargo of gold bullion. The Italian Job is an absolutely seminal caper film that boasts a wonderful cast (Noel Coward, Benny Hill, John Le Mesurier, Tony Beckley, et al) and culminates in a wonderfully madcap chase sequence wherein Caine and the gang flee the scene of the crime in three Austin Mini Coopers. The sight of three Minis, patriotically coloured red, white, and blue after the Union Jack, haring through the ancient streets of Turin is one of the most straight-up joyous sequences in the history of cinema, although the story of sprightly Brits sticking it to stuffy Continentals certainly reads differently in a post-Brexit world.
The Italian Job is streaming at SBS On Demand:
Another tale of dodgy dealings on the continent, John Frankenheimer’s Ronin is a decidedly darker affair. Robert De Niro and Jean Reno are the disavowed secret agents leading a mercenary team to swipe a mysterious McGuffin, only to have one of their number betray them and swipe the briefcase for himself. Much double-crossing and subterfuge ensues, including a bravura car chasse through the streets of Paris. Frankenheimer, who pioneered modern racing filmmaking with 1966’s Grand Prix, pulls out all the stops here. He strives for realism, pitting a workaday Peugeot 406 against a BMW E34 rather than any fancy supercars, and sends them hurtling through the narrow Parisian streets at breakneck speed, narrowly dodging pedestrians and street furniture alike. The result is absolutely nail-biting.
The Blues Brothers (1981)
Now, while The Blues Brothers may climax with an extended chase sequence, the impact of their first big car sequence is greater. About to be pinged by the cops for unpaid fines, Elwood Blues (Dan Ackroyd) and his recently paroled brother Jake (John Belushi) take it on the lam, driving their ex-police car Blues Mobile through a shopping mile to give the fuzz the slip. What ensues is a gleeful carnival of anti-consumerist carnage as the Brothers tear through the mall, obliterating storefronts and displays, while the hapless cops try to keep up with the fearless musicians. It’s simply joyful.
Baby Driver (2017)
Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Spaced) masterfully explores the interplay between sound and vision in this, the tale of an innocent but highly skilled getaway driver, Baby (Ansel Elgort), who can outrun anyone and anything – as long as the right song is playing. Boasting a killer soundtrack and an ensemble of brilliant performers (Lily James, John Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Jamie Foxx, Paul Williams, Flea, and, er, Kevin Spacey), Baby Driver is a masterclass in editing, with Wright cutting each of the numerous chase sequences to the diagetic tunes on Baby’s iPod. But our money, the stand-out is this chase set to “Neat Neat Neat” by The Damned.
Steven Spielberg’s first film, Duel sees a traveling salesman (Dennis Weaver) quickly descend into hell when he inadvertently offends a truck driver. The truckie, who we never see, proceeds to hunt Weaver’s station wagon through miles of parched desert highway in a kind of twisted take on the old Road Runner cartoons. Yes, it’s another feature-length chase, but Spielberg is going for suspense rather than thrills, the ancient, dust-caked truck stalking Weaver like a lion stalks its prey. It’s a nightmarish scenario that culminates in a moment of pure catharsis, and put Spielberg on the path to preeminence.
The Villainess (2017)
A South Korean take on the old La Femme Nikita narrative model, The Villainess sees Kim Ok-vin as a woman recruited into a secret government assassination program. The plot is insanely convoluted, but the action is top notch, with director Jung Byung-gil giving you all the carnage you could hope for – martial arts, gun fights, and all points in between. For our purposes, the highlight is a kinetic, frenetic motorcycle chase through benighted streets and tunnels, the participants hacking away at each other with swords as they max out the revs. Shot largely with handheld cameras and minimal edits to reinforce that what we’re seeing is actual people performing these incredible stunts, it’s a jaw-dropping sequence and a clear influence on the John Wick franchise to boot.
The Villianess is streaming at SBS On Demand:
Every day at 5.30pm AEDT from Monday 4 January – Saturday 16 January, SBS will broadcast highlights of the 2021 Dakar Rally. An annual rally raid organised by the Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), the Dakar Rally is an off-road endurance race, famous for its difficult terrain and riding conditions. Featuring 12 stages totalling nearly 5000 kilometres, audiences will witness motorcycles, cars, quads and trucks traverse dunes, mud, grass, rocks and other off-road terrain in an effort to complete each stage of the race. The 2021 edition is being held in Saudi Arabia for the second time.