“Bullitt” (1968) – Normally, I make my lists in chronological order, but when there is an indisputable best, it goes first.
Mix Steve McQueen, a ’68 Mustang, a couple of hit men, and Oscar-winning editing, and you get a 10 minute definition of cool. Racing through the hilly streets ofSan Francisco at speeds of up to 110 miles per hour, Frank Bullitt turns from hunted to hunter. And it all ends as Bullitt rams his car into the Dodge Charger he has been chasing, catapulting it into a gas station and ending the chase in a spectacular fireball. While other car chases have been more elaborate, none have had the combination of intensity and the feeling of being natural. This is the chase scene by which all others are measured.
“North by Northwest” (1959) – Cary Grant vs. a biplane. Not your traditional chase, and one that doesn’t last too long, but noteworthy nonetheless. Grant’s Roger Thornhill gets sent out by Eva Marie Saint to BFE, only to find nothing but a small plane “dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.” After being dive-bombed a few times, Thornhill seeks refuge in a cornfield, but the pilot has another trick up his sleeve – pesticide. Thornhill is forced out into the open, almost becoming roadkill courtesy of a fuel truck. Fortunately for Thornhill, the pilot is unable to elude the tanker and explodes in a gigantic fireball.
“The French Connection” (1971)- This may be my favorite on the list. Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle almost gets snipped by Marcel Bozzuffi’s Pierre Nicoli, and then it is on. Doyle pursues Nicoli up and down a building, serving to wet his appetite. The main course is when Nicoli boards an elevated train. Unable to get the conductor to stop Nicoli, Doyle commandeers aPontiac and chases the train underneath it. Having to look upward to follow the train while he is driving, he sideswipes several cars and almost hits the obligatory “woman pushing stroller.” Fortunately for Doyle, things are not easy for Nicoli on the train as the conductor and others try to thwart his escape. The end result is the train ramming another stopped train, providing cover for Nicoli to escape amidst the chaos. Doyle, unwavering, corners Nicoli and shoots him dead.
“The Blues Brothers” (1980) – Multiple potential choices for this film, but who can argue that the venue of the first sequence made for a more interesting chase? On the run from the cops for unpaid moving violations, Elwood and Jake Blues lead the police through Toys ‘R’ Us into a suburban shopping mall, destroying a small piece of middle-class life and serving notice that anarchy will unsettle the establishment during the film. After a few stops and pirouettes, the Bluesmobile leaves one police car spinning on its top and another visiting Jewel. Exit through J.C. Penney and the first in a series of escapes is complete.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – The easy choice for this one would be the escape from the temple at the beginning of the film, with both the gigantic sphere and the native Hovitos chasing after our favorite archaeologist, Indiana Jones. But the better chase begins with our hero galloping down the dusty hillside to take on a convoy of Nazis.
Indy hitches a ride in the truck carrying the Ark of the Covenant, brushes off most of the guards, and delivers a few love taps to the caravan surrounding his truck. He then takes an unscheduled detour through the windshield and under the truck, only to remount the vehicle and show the replacement driver the path he just traveled (only with less fortunate results). Victorious for the moment, he speeds off and takes refuge in the nearest town.
“E.T.” (1981) – OK, so the cops now have walkie-talkies. But what bike-riding child hasn’t dreamt of escaping from the pursuit of the bad guys, no matter what they held in their hands? Elliot and associates take the police over undeveloped dirt hills as they try to help E.T. get to his craft’s landing site in the woods, unknowing that they are being funneled toward a roadblock. Seeing that they are trapped, they trust in their alien pal and he doesn’t disappoint. Lifted by John Williams’ surging score, they vault the roadblock and fly via moonlight to their destination. A little low on suspense, but the silhouette of the bikes against the moonlight is nothing short of magic.
“Jurassic Park” ( 1993) – The scene begins with the rippling of the water in a giant footprint. Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm, injured from the first T. Rex encounter, knows what’s in store and urges his Jeep-mates to return. Out of the darkness pops our pursuer, and the race in on down a dirt path. Along the way, we get a “must go faster” plea from Malcolm (repeated by Goldblum in “Independence Day”) and the unforgettable side view mirror shot with a nice little joke. Inevitably, the dinosaur grows tired of the chase and the Jeep speeds away, avoiding a dino-snack fate.
“Ronin” (1998) – Though a couple of these movies have multiple inventive chase scenes, the only one with two that could make this list is Ronin. The first chase scene, through the French Riviera and culminating in Nice, starts out with a nice bazooka shot by Robert DeNiro’s Sam, and slashes through the cramped alleyways of the city until finishing in front of a café in what would normally be the main set piece in another action film. But Ronin aims for “Bullitt” territory, and falls just short.
In a beautifully choreographed piece, Sam chases Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) through Paris, Peugeot versus BMW. Through circles, sidewalks, arches, and tunnels, this exposition of driving mastery ratchets the suspense to stunning heights. Because of the chase’s length and the constant weaving through and against traffic, the viewer keeps wondering when and how (and if) it will end. At last, Deirdre’s car flips over and is pushed off the end of an uncompleted highway ramp, landing in the construction area below.
“The Matrix Reloaded” (2003) – Following a sword/gunfight in a parking garage with two pigment-challenged ghosts (that sounds really campy!), our heroes Morpheus and Trinity, along with the Keymaker, head for the highway from hell. Chased in their bullet-riddled Cadillac CTS by the ghosts and ever-present agents, Morpheus splits from the group to take out the ghosts’ SUV in a nice samurai sword/Uzi combo that blows them back to perdition. Meanwhile, Trinity and the Keymaker jump off an exit ramp onto a motorcycle-toting semi and head into traffic, only to be turned back by agents in police cars. Morpheus, perched between two semis, snatches the Keymaker and flips him up onto the top of a big rig’s trailer. A fistfight with an agent sends Morpheus off and back on the trailer (with an assist by Niobe), where he eliminates the agent once and for all…or not. The agent then morphs into the driver and along with another agent, collides their semis headfirst in a bullet-time explosion. Morpheus and the Keymaker are rescued by a supersonic flying Neo, who grabs them mid-air as the trucks below them explode. (Panting)
“Casino Royale” (2006) – After the success of the Bourne movies (one of which just missed the list), James Bond needed a new style. Part of the establishment of the new, more physical Bond was the Madagascar chase scene with free runner terrorist Mollaka. Rather than have Bond jump into his typical vehicle with a million gadgets, Casino Royale has Bond on foot following Mollaka up, over, and down a construction site. Bond, battered by all of the acrophobia-inducing crash landings, demonstrates a grit heretofore unseen in the franchise. He tails Mollaka to the Nambutu embassy, fighting his way through guards, to capture his quarry. Ultimately finding himself surrounded, he shoots the terrorist and a gas tank and escapes with the information he needs in a cell phone.