Wanna hear something that will make you feel old in under 60 seconds flat? As of June 10, seminal '90s high-octane hit Speed turns 20. You heard it right, Jan de Bont’s bonkers bomb-on-a-bus blockbuster debut starring the permanently glazed-eyed Keanu Reeves as a bomb disposal expert sent to the rescue of an almost packet-fresh Sandra Bullock and her fellow seriously unlucky PT users just hit the two decade mark.
We never trusted buses. They don’t have tracks, so can deviate at any moment. Or a nutsoid Dennis Hopper might just rig it to blow if the driver doesn’t put the pedal to the medal and keep it going over 50mph. It may not have been Oscar material, but it was a damn fine thrill ride.
Daft as a bus, it works ‘cause the action never lets up. Former cinematographer de Bont worked on Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October, Basic Instinct and Lethal Weapon 3, so he knew how to keep the pace ticking, so much so we’ll even forgive him for the ludicrous, gravity-defying jump when the bus runs out of freeway.
In honour of this most important cinematic anniversary, we take a look at some of the high-speed classics of our time.
Arguably the most iconic movie car chase of all time, the thrilling hoon round San Francisco’s outrageously hilly neighbourhoods in Bullitt seriously trashed twin Ford Mustangs and a pair of Dodge Chargers too, while the driver’s viewpoint camerawork set a new high bar. Screen legend Steve McQueen, as the eponymous cop, did the close ups in the Mustangs, while his stunt double from The Great Escape, Bud Ekins, handles most of the full on stuff. Fellow stunt driver veteran Bill Hickman took the Chargers, with the cars hitting maximum speeds of around 180kph, with the police alerted by terrified residents.
The French Connection, 1971
Over on the east coast, New York City set the scene for another cracking car chase that blazed a cinematic trail with the now classic pairing of car vs. train. Gene Hackman, as hard-as-nails detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle, commandeers a 1971 Pontiac Leman which takes a fair beating while chasing cop-killing French hitman Pierre Nicoli, who’s escaping on an overhead train. William Friedkin delivers a real nail-biter naked, as with Bullitt, with no music laid over the final cut. While the prangs were set-up, traffic wasn’t stopped for the shoot, so it’s a miracle there weren’t a few more.
Two-Lane Blacktop, 1971
1971 was a vintage year for car flicks, as it also saw the release of Monte Hellman’s drag racing hit Two-Lane Blacktop. Singer-songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson headed east across the States in a Chevrolet 150 before challenging another driver played by Warren Oates to race to D.C. Intriguingly, and setting something of a precedent, nobody gets named. Taylor is The Driver, Wilson the Mechanic, and Oates is G.T.O. Laurie Bird, as the hitchhiker who tags along, is simply The Girl.
The Driver, 1978
In writer/director Walter Hill’s The Driver, Ryan O’Neal plays the anonymous driver of the title, a man of few words who steals cars, with Bruce Dern’s also nameless detective hot on his heels. We’re not sure why so many of these films are set in LA. Is it their pathological aversion to walking and/or PT? Watch out for the hand break turns in one outstanding scene as the Driver picks off a procession of hapless police cars doomed to crash and burn spectacularly. Hill’s first choice for his anti-hero was Steve McQueen. Quentin Tarantino’s a big fan of this flick.
Riffing off O’Neal’s taciturn hero, Ryan Gosling drops the ‘The’ and is known only as Driver in the credits for Nicolas Winding Refn’s too-cool-for-school urban noir about a mechanic that also doubles as a stuntman and bank job getaway driver, working in cahoots with Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston. There’s a nice nod to Bullitt when Driver boosts a Mustang, and Gosling handles some of the pulsating chase scenes, but stunt driver Robert Nagle steers the majority from a built-in car pit.
Runaway Train, 1985
Forget speeding buses, you know your adrenaline kick-flick has fine credentials when it’s based on an original screenplay by Japanese auteur extraordinaire Akira Kurosawa, adept at challenging fully-realised characters with tightly choreographed action sequences. Though a bunch of folks re-wrote Runaway Train, it’s still a fine addition to this list, directed with a tightly wound tension by Andrey Konchalovskiy (Tango & Cash). Jon Voight and Eric Roberts are increasingly desperate escaped convicts trapped on the title train hurtling out of control, with Rebecca DeMornay’s engineer stuck on board with them. Watch as it smashes through other trains and totals a helicopter too.
Gone in 60 Seconds, 1974
Hold your horsepower, we admit up front that this film, written and directed by its leading man H.B. Halicki about California crooks commissioned to hoodwink 48 cars by a South American drug lord, isn’t particularly great, but it could have been a lot worse – it could have been Dominic Sena’s dire 2000 remake starring Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie. No, the reason it gets an honourable mention is for its demolition derby of a climactic car chase that takes up 40 minutes of its 100-minute runtime and manages to destroy no fewer than 93 cars in the process.
The Italian Job, 1969
Right up there with Michael Caine’s exasperated line, “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off,” is the awesome red, white and blue Mini Cooper chase through the crowded arcades, underground passages and conveniently-placed ramps of a sumptuously shot Turin, with a cop bike skidding on freshly-mopped floors to boot. Starring Michael Caine, Noel Coward and Benny Hill, it’s a hoot that far surpasses the rubbish remake set in a decidedly un-Italian LA (again?) with Mark Wahlberg, Ed Norton and Donald Sutherland.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day, 1991
You can imagine the storyboard meeting with James Cameron and crew went something like this: crewmember, “What vehicles will we use?” Cameron: “All of them.” And so you have Edward Furlong’s John Connor leap on his hairdryer-like motorbike to flee Robert Patrick’s creepy shape-shifting T-1000, doing its very best Tom Cruise run. When the villain upgrades to a great big F-off truck, Arnie’s shotgun-totting bad-guy-gone-good comes to the rescue astride a Harley. Soon after the truck goes boom, cue Patrick’s awesome melty metal look. “Not enough, needs more helicopter,” screams Cameron, so we get the absolutely astounding reprise, with police chopper versus SWAT van followed up by liquid nitrogen tanker vs. gardening truck.
Quantum of Solace, 2008
We couldn’t celebrate blockbusting chase scenes and not have bit of 007th heaven, could we? But how to choose? It had to be an Aston Martin, and in the end we’ve plumped for Daniel Craig in, ironically, the dullest Bond flick to date. Picking up right where the infinitely superior Casino Royale leaves off, a seriously pissed Bond is not in the mood. It’s got it all, mountainous roads with twisting tunnels, stunning Italian lake backdrop, machine guns, trucks, police jeeps, diggers, cars that have already been run off the road falling back into play and a gorgeous camera swoop over the cliff’s edge as Bond guns down the final pursuer just in time to cruise into Sienna and pull his hostage out of the boot.
Mad Max, 1979
And from Blighty’s finest to Australia’s best hope for its dystopian future, Mel Gibson. Well, more specifically, road warrior Mad Max. George Miller’s trilogy (soon to be rebooted by him with Tom Hardy behind the wheel) again leaves us spoiled for choice when it comes to the wham bam thank you ma’ams, but we can’t go past his searing debut. Shot on a shoestring in and around Melbourne, there’s a rawness to it that feels viscerally real. You gotta love the steely glare on Gibson’s renegade copper as he barrels down the open highway in hot pursuit of the villainous Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) on motorbike, and laugh as the latter realises all too late he’s about to get a truck in the face.
Thelma and Louise, 1991
We couldn’t let the blokes have all the fun, could we? While this list may be a tad testosterone-heavy, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis kick many a man’s ass on their outlaw race across the desert, with their final destination one of cinema’s classic images: two women, one 1966 Ford Thunderbird, a procession of flashing cop lights behind them and the Grand Canyon (actually a Utah stand-in) ahead, hands held and ready for oblivion. Awesome.