There is no shortage of action car and car chase scenes in cinema history. Even with televised Formula 1 and NASCAR races and YouTube’s catalog of rogue drivers fleeing the law, cinematic car scenes are still the medium of choice when watching humans hurtling at insane speeds and geometries in hunks of metal.
For the 20th anniversary of the original The Fast and the Furious film, we’re going to revisit some of the greatest action car scenes in movie history. We’ll also talk a bit about how these iconic car scenes were shot.
By no means is this list exhaustive. It’s just a collection of some underappreciated and some obviously classic car chases.
The original The Fast and the Furious film set a new standard for car action, updating races and chases for modern audiences. While there were plenty of great sequences, the police chase, in which dozens upon dozens of drivers zig-zag through streets to evade authorities, is perhaps the film’s greatest calling card. The other movies on this list also created exciting new standards for car action.
Now let's begin our list of favorite action car scenes;
The list begins with Ronin, one of Robert De Niro’s late 1990s gems that far too few people have seen. A movie about elite thieves, Ronin is one of his last great projects before slipping into acting autopilot mode.
Director John Frankenheimer spared no expense in shooting Ronin’s car chase scenes without visual effects. In the Paris chase, Frankenheimer used camera mounts on the hoods of cars (facing the road and drivers/passengers), interior camera mounts, and cameras on tripods to capture a chase through the Parisian streets.
De Niro and Natasha McElhone pretended to drive as Formula 1 driver Jean-Pierre Jarier and stunt drivers Jean-Claude Lagniez and Michel Neugarten were really behind the wheels, driving at insane speeds. Just look at De Niro and McElhone’s faces in this scene to know that they were probably terrified.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
First, let’s say that Mad Max: Fury Road is a work of cinematic genius. It elevates both the post-apocalyptic and action genres to the level of fine art, all while exploring themes of patriarchy and feminism in really novel ways. Yes, it’s loud, bombastic and almost unbelievable in parts, but it is a film that seems almost perfectly crafted at all levels.
And there are so many chase scenes! Well, to be sure, Fury Road is essentially one long chase broken up by moments of drama, tragedy and other on-screen action. We’ve chosen to highlight the film’s second chase here, with Max and Furiosa teaming up to fight Immortan Joe and his stooges. Monster trucks, tractor-trailers, and dirt bikes weave around each other in a hair-raising on-screen automotive dance.
Director George Miller shot the vast majority of this and other chase scenes with the absolute bare minimum CGI. To pull it off, there was a ton of storyboarding, choreography, rehearsal, stunt driving and biking, (practical) special effects and very convincing acting.
The 1968 film Bullitt, starring actor, icon and car enthusiast Steve McQueen, basically set the standard for on-screen action car scenes. All cinematic car chases, whether they know it or not, owe it a debt.
In the film, McQueen’s character, driving a 1968 Ford Mustang GT, chases the 2 baddies, who are in a 1968 375-hp 440 Magnum V8-powered Dodge Charger. Director Peter Yates filmed the car chase at speeds from 75 to 110 mph and used driver POV shots to immerse the audience in the action.
3 weeks of stunt car shoots yielded 9 minutes and 42 seconds of on-screen chase. That’s dedication!
The French Connection (1971)
Arriving in cinemas three years after Bullitt, The French Connection continued the new era of movie car action. Directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist, To Live and Die in LA), the chase scene is unique in that it features the character Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) pursuing an elevated subway train through Brooklyn streets.
Like Bullitt before it, the production used a car mount—in this case, a front bumper mount to create a low-angle perspective as Doyle’s car speeds through the city. The filmmakers also shot at a lower frame rate to create a greater sense of speed. All of this works to make the car chase one of the greatest in film history.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, is a rather deceptive title. While it’s about a stunt car driver who moonlights as a getaway driver, there are only 3 car action scenes in the film.
At about the film’s midpoint, a car chase unfolds between Gosling’s character, driving a Ford Mustang and his pursuer, driving a Chrysler 300 C. These 2 cars couldn’t be any more unassuming, and Refn opts for realism with the stunt driving, marking it as the complete opposite of The Fast and the Furious. It stands out because, like almost every frame of a Refn film, the chase is beautifully shot.
Baby Driver (2017)
Any film that features a car chase soundtracked by The Damned deserves to be on this list. Baby Driver also distinguishes itself with its getaway car—a Chevrolet Avalanche, a relatively funny-looking truck that one might expect a suburban family to drive when picking up supplies at the local big box store.
Although the getaway truck is unexpected, the character Baby drives it with reckless abandon and stylistic panache. What else could one possibly expect from director Edgar Wright, who choreographed an equally fun car chase in his 2007 comedy Hot Fuzz? To pull it off, Wright used pursuit cranes and in-car cameras to create his rollicking car action.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
No list is complete without the semi-truck and motorcycle chase scene from James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Anyone who saw it in the theaters as a kid or adult knows just how mind-blowing and ground-breaking this scene was.
The chase begins with teenage John Connor on a dirt bike, chased by a super-advanced, shape-shifting T-1000 terminator driving a semi-truck. Eventually, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) arrives by way of a huge jump from street level into the canal and places John on the back of his Harley-Davidson just before his dirt bike is destroyed by the truck. The chase continues in the canal to complete one of the most suspenseful pieces of vehicular action ever seen in movies.
While T2 is remembered for its advanced CGI, thanks to Industrial Light & Magic, Cameron and his crew created this chase with a real truck, motorcycles, and high-budget practical special effects. And it shows.
To Live & Die in LA (1985)
Another William Friedkin entry, the car chase in the 1985 crime film To Live & Die in LA is probably even less known than Ronin. Using various car mounts, in-car cameras, and street-level camera setups, Friedkin surpasses his work on The French Connection.
In one of the smoothest, most beautiful car action shots ever filmed, Friedkin’s mobile crane rig moves from shooting a car at street level to another car on an overpass moving virtually in sync. The cars reach the intersection at precisely the same time, and this is just the beginning of the chase.
Several years before T2, Friedkin takes viewers into LA’s flood control canals, using wide-angle camera mounts and in-car setups to really capture the space in depth and scale. The chase gets positively bonkers when the driver, played by William Petersen, merges his car the wrong way onto the freeway to face oncoming traffic.
Death Proof (2007)
Not to be outdone by any other filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof features several truly fantastic pieces of car action. The final chase, however, is perhaps the best. [SPOILER ALERT]
In this scene, the female victims of stunt driver and psychopathic murderer “Stuntman” Mike McKay pursue him to his death. Like the other films on this list, Tarantino filmed this and the film’s other chases with practical special effects. The director used a wide variety of car mounts at various angles to film the 3 women—in a 1971 Dodge Challenger—chasing down Stuntman Mike (driving a 1973 Ford Mustang) across dirt roads and paved highways.
DJ Pangburn is a New York-based journalist, videographer, and fiction writer, with bylines at Vice, Fast Company, Dazed and Confused, and other publications. DJ records ambient techno and IDM under the name Holoscene.