The Best Car Chases In Movie History
It’s not a guarantee that the best action movies also feature the best car chases, but the better the car chase, the better the film. Plenty of action movies — and movies that you might not automatically associate with the genre — feature car chases, but too few of them know how to accurately capture the excitement, the propulsion, and the intense terror of being in a chase that’s certain to end with at least one of the participants getting badly hurt, if not straight-up killed. The 15 movies on this list all boast some of the most death-defying, suspenseful, and thrilling car chases ever caught on film, even if they’re not the 15 best action movies of all time. Rev up your mental engines, and let’s get into it.
15. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World wanted to be the be-all and end-all of comedies. Like several event films, it was incredibly long; the shortest cut is over 160 minutes, and the original cut was 210 minutes. And Mad also boasted a massive cast of comic icons, from Milton Berle to Sid Caesar to Jonathan Winters. The excess was all in service to a story in which a disparate group of oddballs try to find a hidden cache of cash buried under a big W, which meant they have to drive as quickly as possible. The types of car chases in the film vary, but the one in which Sylvester, the surfer-dude brother-in-law of Berle’s character, chases him down for treating his mother (Ethel Merman) poorly is the film’s ridiculous, manic height. Explaining the details would be enough for a whole article, but the wildness of this chase is impossible to ignore.
14. Drive (2011)
Nearly a decade after its release, the Nicolas Winding Refn genre exercise Drive remains a strange and haunting film in a lot of ways. It’s a riff on 80s-era thrillers like Thief, but also a film with extreme, unexpected moments of violence that Refn often enjoys to revel in. Drive’s best scene is its opener, as we see the otherwise nameless Driver (Ryan Gosling) get into gear behind the wheel of a getaway vehicle. It’s his entire reason for being, so there’s no surprise that the Driver is adept at avoiding the cops even in this tense chase. Drive alienated some viewers, with its promise of being all action, all the time. Certainly, this opening teased at something more exciting than the off-kilter drama that occurs afterwards.
13. Ronin (1998)
Some of the best car chases on this list — not all of them, to be fair — appear to be as real as life itself. Ronin is a perfect example of why a good car chase feels real. In this 1998 thriller, Robert de Niro stars as an American mercenary working with a multicultural crew on a foreign job that goes wrong. De Niro’s character Sam, with his pal Vincent (Jean Reno), are soon working against their presumed employers (including Natascha McElhone and Jonathan Pryce), trying to capture a MacGuffin-like case. This leads to a seven-minute car chase in Paris that eschews CGI, even when director John Frankenheimer cuts back and forth between the participants in each vehicle. (De Niro, particularly, never cuts a heroic figure as he drives, looking quite rigid if not a bit scared.) Frankenheimer’s precise direction and the editing of the chase makes it a breathless experience.
12. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
The idea behind sequels, no matter what genre they occupy, is the same: More of the same. The Wachowskis, with the first of two Matrix sequels, unquestionably leaned into the “more” part of that idea. Even before the climactic car chase, they stage a battle between Neo (Keanu Reeves) and an infinite number of Agent Smiths. But then you get to the big setpiece, in which Morpheus and Trinity try to evade Agent Smith and his minions. The car chase took the production so much work that they had to build more than a mile’s worth of freeway to replicate a real highway. Though Reloaded as a whole is a letdown from the original Matrix, this car chase is one of the series’ high points.
11. The Blues Brothers (1980)
Like basically every movie inspired by characters or a sketch from Saturday Night Live, The Blues Brothers has a paper-thin plot. The setup is simple enough: Elwood and Jake Blues (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi) are trying to save the orphanage where they grew up by reforming their band and raising the money in a short period of time. The complications that arise from that are mostly action-heavy, as the Blues go on the run from Illinois Nazis, a spurned ex, and more. But the film, which has a lot of excessive car chases, peaks early. The cops try to pull Elwood over for his suspended license, which leads to a manic chase through a shopping mall that ends with lots and lots of crashed cars. Just, not the one Elwood’s driving. It’s cartoonish, but the chase is still a hell of a lot of fun.
10. Fast Five (2011)
When the Fast and the Furious franchise began in 2001, it was a slightly unremarkable riff on Point Break, in which a cop gets close to a criminal and becomes more sympathetic to his point of view. This time, it was cars instead of surfboards. By the Justin Lin-directed 2011 entry Fast Five, the series had gone far beyond its humble beginnings. Now, Dom (Vin Diesel) and Brian (Paul Walker) work together to take down a Brazilian drug lord and get rich in the process. The film’s climax features our heroes dragging a vault full of the drug lord’s cash through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, which is both ridiculous and not remotely as ridiculous as the films following Fast Five are. It’s thanks to Lin’s energetic direction that the car chases in Fast Five, including the finale, remain the best of the series.
9. Mission: Impossible — Fallout (2018)
You’ve probably already heard that Tom Cruise is a fan of doing his own stunts. It’s one reason why the Mission: Impossible franchise gets better with age: Watching Cruise literally defy death by climbing up the tallest skyscraper in the world, or diving out of an airplane, or hanging onto the wing of an airplane is just shocking to behold. In the latest, excellent M:I film, at one crucial moment, Cruise is driving a motorcycle through the streets of Paris, desperate to catch up to Henry Cavill’s mustachioed CIA agent. The chase has the tangible quality of being very realistic. When Ethan Hunt is driving for his life, against traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, it’s hard not to feel an intense amount of vicarious stress as you wonder how the hell Tom Cruise managed to stay alive during this sequence.
8. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Raiders of the Lost Ark is the stuff of 1930s-era pulp, but it remains one of the greatest adventure films ever. Harrison Ford, as the iconic Indiana Jones, is searching for the Ark of the Covenant, both because he wants it to be preserved for historical purposes and because he wants to make sure the Nazis don’t get it first. That latter aim leads Indy to stop the Nazis at all costs, including in this 9-minute chase scene in the desert. This sequence is, in many ways, the film in microcosm: there’s action, terror, and even a bit of comedy. So many parts of this scene could’ve gone wrong, but Steven Spielberg knows exactly how to ratchet up the tension, put Indy in death-defying situations and allow him to survive them, and more. The worst thing you can say is that this isn’t the film’s best action sequence.
7. Baby Driver (2017)
Edgar Wright’s most recent film followed the oddly musical story of a young man with a preternatural gift of driving, and his attempt to escape a life of crime. As with Wright’s other works, Baby Driver is a heady blend of fast-paced action and comedy that makes a statement of purpose in its opening. Ansel Elgort, as the eponymous Baby, pulls a group of criminals near an Atlanta bank, then pulls out his headphones. He’s blasting the song “Bellbottoms”, and it curiously syncs up with his fellow bank robbers escaping, then with the ensuing evasion from cops through the city streets. There’s plenty of intense action in Baby Driver, but the opening, with its rock-heavy soundtrack and metal-crunching stunts, starts the film off with a bang.
6. The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan, unlike many other big-budget filmmakers, eschews CG effects whenever he can. That, of course, can make a film like his 2008 masterpiece The Dark Knight a challenge. How do you mount large-scale action scenes in a comic-book movie with practical effects? He figured out a way to make a nighttime chase through the streets of Gotham City almost jaw-dropping in its realism. Midway through the film, the Joker (Heath Ledger) is trying to take down DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) for good, in a semi truck. Batman (Christian Bale), of course, is on the hunt and uses one of his gadgets to literally yank the truck in its tracks, and flip it end over end. The effect, captured just one time (and thank God it worked), is chilling because there’s never any doubt that Nolan and his team really did flip an eighteen-wheeler upside down.
5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Anyone who loved James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi film The Terminator knew the Arnold Schwarzenegger-portrayed robot was bad news. In the seven years between the original and the sequel, though, Schwarzenegger had become one of cinema’s biggest stars and action heroes. So, for the sequel, Arnie’s Terminator was still unkillable, but working for the heroes in the future. The T-800 is sent back to the 1990s to save a young John Connor, while a more advanced Terminator is sent to kill him. John, though, doesn’t know who to trust at first, leading to a three-character chase that begins in a mall and ends on the embankments of the LA freeways. By the time the thrilling, slam-bang chase ends, the T-800 realizes that it’s met its match with the T-1000.
4. Death Proof (2007)
Quentin Tarantino’s scripts are known more for dialogue than action. Of course, by the mid-2000s, Tarantino indulged more in action-heavy stories with his two Kill Bill movies and his half of the Grindhouse double feature. Death Proof. Death Proof not only attempted to revitalize Kurt Russell’s image as a tough guy; his vicious Stuntman Mike seems content to victimize women with his tricked-out stunt car, until he faces off against a group of young women who fight (and drive) back. The film also culminates in an extended, life-or-death chase that culminates in the women finally getting one over on Mike, a satisfying payoff to a thrilling, death-defying finale. Tarantino here proved a flair for staging breathless action, equivalent to his ability to create indelible conversational sequences.
3. Bullitt (1968)
For some, this may be the be-all and end-all of car chases. Over 50 years ago, Steve McQueen made an icon out of the San Francisco cop Frank Bullitt (inspired by one of the cops who tried to track down the Zodiac Killer). The whole of Bullitt hasn’t entirely stood up to the test of time, but the car chase at its midpoint is an all-timer. Bullitt is chasing after some hitmen in a larger conspiratorial case, and the streets of San Francisco are famously designed in such a way that they’re built steeply. So if you’re driving fast enough, you’ll catch some serious air whether you’re driving up or down those streets. And that’s what Bullitt and his prey do, in a chase that takes up just over 10 minutes of the film. The scene took five weeks to shoot, and the film’s editor won the Oscar likely for this sequence alone. Hard to argue with such masterful filmmaking.
2. The French Connection (1971)
One of the very best cinematic chases came in a Best Picture winner, the 1971 crime drama The French Connection. There, New York cop Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman, who also won an Oscar) is trying to foil an international drug ring. At a key moment, he has to chase after a hitman who’s escaped on an elevated train. Hackman’s cop can only do so in a car through the very busy streets of the city. Director William Friedkin amps up the tension instantly, making clear that Doyle’s not full of derring-do; he rams into other cars and trucks, and nearly runs over a woman and her baby, to get his man. It’s one of the sloppier, more intense chases you’ll ever see, made all the remarkable because it feels so real.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
How can you choose just one scene from the latest entry in the Mad Max franchise? Director George Miller made car chases a hallmark of the post-apocalyptic action series from the first entry, starring Mel Gibson in the title role. But the 2015 revival of the franchise, a long-gestating idea, was when Miller and his team of filmmaking wizards went all in. Tom Hardy took over as Max, who we first see on the run before he’s captured by the demented Immortan Joe. Max is then used as a human blood bag on a car driven by one of Immortan Joe’s War Boys, in pursuit of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). The setup is an excuse for what is essentially an extended, two-hour car chase through the deserts of the dystopian future. Fury Road is as thrilling as cinematic vehicular mayhem gets.