Where Did All the Great Movie Car Chases Go?

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With this week’s release of The Fate of the Furious, we thought it’d be a fun time to do one of our occasional lists of the 25 best films of the last 25 years in a certain category. In the past we’ve done the best sci-fi movies, the best romances, the best sex scenes, and others. This time, for F8, the best car chases of the last 25 years seemed like a perfect fit.

Then we actually tried to find 25 great car chases from the last 25 years.

Typically when ScreenCrush makes one of these posts, we put together a shortlist of all the possible contenders; they can run upwards of 100 movies or more. The shortlist of the best car chases of the last quarter century was actually short; way too short, in fact, to make a respectable ranking. There’s barely a handful of serious contenders from the 2010s, and without the Fast and Furious franchise, there would be almost none. The consensus choice for the best “modern” car chase, the centerpiece sequence from 1998’s Ronin, is now almost 20 years old.

That incredible scene from Ronin would be near the top of any list of the best car chases of any era. But it’s a little alarming to consider that with all the improvements in technology there’s only really been one better car chase than this one in all the time since — and that was in Mad Max: Fury Road, a feature-length chase from a master filmmaker who literally spent years pulling it off.

This is a long and sad way from the heyday of the car chase in the 1970s and ’80s, when basically no action movie (and even some art films) was complete without one. These days a really good car chase is almost as rare as a Talbot Lago Grand Sport. Even the films that routinely feature car action, like the Fast and Furious series, focus much more on outlandish CGI effects (like cars fighting with tanks or falling from the sky and jumping between skyscrapers) than one car pursuing another.

That’s the biggest reason the car chase has fallen from grace, particularly in Hollywood. The studio franchise economy in 2017 is predicated almost entirely on the supernatural, the superheroic, and the fantastic, all of which are created by computers. Great car chases, in contrast, are created by real people doing real things with real cars. Big Hollywood movies these days aren’t about real people; they’re about aliens and mutants and transforming robots and boss babies and super soldiers and Vin Diesel as an immortal warlock with earthquake powers.

The Fast & Furious movies — which I should note I generally find delightful — provide an easy way to chart blockbuster action movies’ evolution over the last 15 years. In the first film, Diesel’s Dom, Paul Walker’s Brian, and the rest of their “family” were mostly cops and street racers. The big showcase moment in the film was when a car slid under a truck — a visual accomplished practically with a real car and a tractor trailer that had been raised off its wheels. In The Fate of the Furious, the big centerpiece is a showdown between a bunch of cars and a nuclear submarine in the Arctic.

Again, I enjoy the Fast & Furious movies. When they’re done right, they’re very entertaining. I have no problem with their increasing outlandishness. They do not owe us an accurate representation of automobiles, nuclear submarines, or even meaningful human interaction. As I wrote around the time of Furious 7, the franchise is about “the triumph of what’s awesome over what’s possible.” And that’s a fairly accurate description of most blockbusters of 2017.

That’s not a fairly accurate description of a great car chase though, which is all about the magic of what is possible. In The French Connection, Gene Hackman (playing NYPD cop Popeye Doyle) and his stunt drivers race after a hijacked subway. The chase isn’t slick and beautiful; it’s sloppy and scary and incredibly exciting. It also includes unplanned crashes, including one with a Brooklyn resident who didn’t realize there was a movie being shot on Stillwell Avenue and drove right into the middle of the chase. The poor guy left his house and almost immediately drove right into an accident. Director William Friedkin left that and other mistakes in the movie because they enhanced the sense of realism.

I’m not advocating that movies drag unwitting citizens into car chases against their will. Still, there’s a reason that scene in The French Connection is still considered one of the five best car chases of all time, and this is a big part of it. The collisions ground the action in a believable reality with big stakes; there is danger here for the actors and the stuntmen and even the random passersby. Every moment has a cause and effect. Everything happens for a reason — and not necessarily “because it would look cool.”

Watching The French Connection’s showstopper 45 years later, another striking difference emerges between then and now: The length of shots. Even when the pace accelerates, Friedkin still uses shots of several seconds in length, including the spectacular images filmed from the hood of Doyle’s car as it swerves through oncoming traffic. It’s always clear where the train is, where Doyle is, and where one is in relation to the other. That in turn ratchets up the suspense and the excitement.

Compare that with this chase from 2010’s From Paris With Love. It’s nonstop cutaways to multiple close-ups, multiple angles of cars spinning, cameras spinning, and the shots are all fractions of a second. Modern taste for chaotic, hyperkinetic editing does not jive with car chases. Even if there was impressive driving going on here, you can’t tell. If you can’t tell what’s going on, it’s hard to care about what’s going on.

There are still reasons for hope of a car chase revival. Fury Road became one of the most celebrated and beloved movies of the decade, and was even nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The Jason Bourne franchise has helped keep old-fashioned car chases alive; last year’s Jason Bourne featured a really good example set on and around the Las Vegas Strip (even if the rest of the movie was kind of a disaster). And this summer’s Baby Driver, from director Edgar Wright, promises to reinvigorate the format with some fresh ideas taken from musicals. Things tend to move cyclically in movies; this could be the start of a new cycle.

Nonetheless, it’s a little discouraging to see just how few great car chases are being produced these days, as if action cinema has shifted from an era of stunts to an era of special effects, which can be beautiful but also too perfect. The imperfections in The French Connection remind us that what Popeye Doyle’s doing in that chase is incredibly difficult. His car is bound by the rules of physics, which will only bend so far. Superhero and fantasy movies are about effortlessly breaking those same rules. And if you can break the rules effortlessly, why bother doing it the hard way?

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