The 15 Greatest Movie Car Chases

Steve McQueen drives a 1968 Ford Mustang Fastback in Bullitt (1968).
Steve McQueen drives a 1968 Ford Mustang Fastback in Bullitt (1968).
Warner Bros.

The car chase is a time-honored, frequently practiced piece of the language of action cinema, and the rise in digital wizardry in filmmaking has only helped to bolster its place on the big screen. For many moviegoers there’s nothing more thrilling than watching two or more cars pushed to their absolute limit, whether on the open road or while weaving through crowded city streets. Many movies try to get it right, and lots do, but there are a select few who nail it on a masterpiece level. These are some of the greatest movie car chases ever staged.

1. Bullitt (1968)

For many film fans, Peter Yates's Bullitt is still the gold standard by which all other movie car chases are measured. The legendary showdown between Steve McQueen’s Ford Mustang and the Dodge Charger occupied by a pair of men trying to kill him still holds up as a beautiful display of 1960s automotive muscle, in part because it doesn’t adhere to a predictable structure. Yes, the chase begins in the iconic hilly streets of San Francisco, but it ends out on a more open road, where the cars get to really show off some speed and, finally, some spectacular crashing. It’s that contrast between cramped and open, hilly and flat, that really puts the chase over the top.

2. The Italian Job (1969)

A lot of car chases rely on speed above all else to sell the action, whether it’s the speed of the cars or the speed of the editing or both. The Italian Job, a lighthearted heist film about a crew of British thieves (including Michael Caine) trying to get a big pile of gold bars into the Swiss Alps, certainly has speed going for it, but what makes its car chase particularly memorable is its palpable sense of humor. The idea of a trio of Mini Coopers zipping down stairs is funny enough, but then throw in things like a marriage ceremony, a stalled police car on a roof, and guys calmly steering through a pitch black tunnel like they’re on a Sunday drive, and you’ve got something unforgettable. The Italian Job doesn’t have the fastest car chase ever, but it certainly has one of the wittiest.

3. The French Connection (1971)

When producer Philip D’Antoni and director William Friedkin were gearing up to make The French Connection, D’Antoni had one particular demand: The film’s car chase had to top the one from Bullitt, which he had also produced. The two filmmakers brainstormed and eventually hit upon the idea of a car chasing an elevated train. After a few weeks of permit-free shooting on the streets of New York City, Friedkin had all the footage he needed to produce an all-time great action sequence. From the first-person camera perspectives to the obstacles under the train tracks to Gene Hackman’s screaming face, it packs just as much adrenaline today as it did in 1971.

4. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

James Bond films were tailor-made for car chases featuring the sexiest vehicles of any given era, and nearly every film in the franchise has a chase scene worth remembering. We could do a whole list composed of nothing but great Bond car chases, but if pressed to pick just one we have to talk about the merry procession of pursuers in The Spy Who Loved Me’s centerpiece chase. In a sleek Lotus Esprit, Roger Moore's Bond and Russian Agent Amasova (Barbara Bach) are chased first by a motorcycle with a killer sidecar, then by a car carrying new villain Jaws, then by a helicopter. It’s this last obstacle that proves particularly tricky, but Bond’s always got one more trick than the bad guys, and this time the trick turned out to be that his Lotus was amphibious. Yes, this is the movie where the car turns into a submarine, and that’s something no one who saw The Spy Who Loved Me will ever forget.

5. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

No discussion of great movie car chases is complete without Smokey and the Bandit, the film that made the Pontiac Trans Am an essential part of American pop culture forever. Hal Needham’s classic road movie is packed with wonderful car moments and great stunts, so much so that it’s difficult to pin down just one as the best part of the film. The task is made more difficult by the sheer amount of swagger that exists in the film between Burt Reynolds's performance and Needham’s direction. Even when the danger is dialed up to 11, the film is so breezy and light that you almost forgot someone could die doing this kind of driving. The jump across Mulberry Bridge feels like a perfect encapsulation of these seemingly opposing ideas, as Bandit quips “that’s not good” upon seeing the roadblock and then “That’s worse” upon seeing troopers speeding up from the other direction. It’s a brilliant blend of comedy and great stunt work.

6. The Blues Brothers (1980)

The Blues Brothers, the John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd vehicle that remains one of the most successful Saturday Night Live sketch adaptations of all time, leans heavily on a sense of outsized action that runs through the whole film. The story is ostensibly about a pair of well-meaning guys who just want to earn some extra money to save the orphanage they grew up in, but along the way they run into explosions and car chases that they have to somewhat calmly steer through on their way to fulfill a relatively simple “Mission from God.” The film has not one, but two great chases that lean into the lunacy of this, and while the early chase through the mall is a masterpiece, the sheer cartoonish absurdity of the final pursuit through the streets of Chicago is the one most people remember. It’s just too zany to forget.

7. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

Only one director has the honor of being on this list twice: William Friedkin, who masterminded the car chase in The French Connection and then somehow produced another all-timer more than a decade later. To Live and Die in L.A. is not a masterpiece in the same way that The French Connection is, but its centerpiece chase scene—in which a pair of Secret Service agents flee two gunmen after an operation gone wrong—is a masterpiece for the 1980s in the same way the train versus car chase was for the 1970s. What begins with weaving through trucks in an industrial area soon explodes out onto L.A.’s freeways, and culminates in some of the most daring driving ever captured on film.

8. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

While it’s always fun to see two classic muscle cars zipping around each other on the road, The French Connection taught us early that contrast is often the key to a thrilling chase. James Cameron took that lesson to heart and poured it into this thrilling sequence in T2, in which the T-1000 hijacks a tow truck to chase John Connor and his weak little motorcycle through a puddle-filled channel. The sound design impeccably plays up the contrast through the engine noise alone, until the truck becomes a full-blown monster raging through the concrete path, throwing sparks as it goes. The climactic moments, featuring the T-800 on yet another motorcycle, only serve to further play up the juxtapositions of the scene in a very fun way.

9. Ronin (1998)

Sometimes the best car chases are the ones that don’t feature cool cars and even cooler characters, and for proof you can look at John Frankenheimer’s Ronin and its masterful centerpiece chase. The two cars involved are relatively unremarkable, but Frankenheimer dials up the intensity through everyone from the use of tunnels and bridges to little details like hubcaps spinning off in the middle of turns. Even more remarkable than the car chase itself, though, is the way the sequence works as a character piece to really emphasize the danger. No one in either car looks like they’re having a good time, and Robert De Niro looks practically freaked out in a lot of the shots. It all adds to the sensation that everything could go horribly wrong at any moment, which only makes it more thrilling.

10. The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

When you think “spy movie” in the context of car chases, you tend to think of the slickest possible presentation and the coolest possible car. It’s playing against those sorts of conventions that makes the Moscow chase sequence in The Bourne Supremacy so effective. Anchored by the intensity of Matt Damon’s performance and Paul Greengrass’s handheld camera style, the chase plays like a montage of desperation as Bourne flees his pursuers in a beat-up taxi cab while nursing a shoulder wound. We know Jason Bourne’s not going to day, but watching this chase you still get the feeling that you’re not sure which will give out first: Bourne’s body or the taxi.

11. Death Proof (2007)

Quentin Tarantino has been remixing classic genre tropes and moments from his vast knowledge of cinema throughout his entire career, so he was bound to get around to doing a car chase eventually. Tarantino’s definitive chase sequence finally arrived in Death Proof, and it’s perhaps most notable not because of Tarantino’s ability to play with genre conventions, but his ability to adhere to them. It plays in many ways like a classic car chase straight out of the 1970s, and it works as a moment of pure adrenaline because Tarantino shoots it like one. His unflinching camera simply refuses to give the scene a break, reminding us over and over again that what we’re watching is as real, and as exciting, as it gets.

12. Fast Five (2011)

The Fast & Furious franchise is renowned for its ability to up the ante with new car stunts in every single installment, to the point that in the last film the central ensemble was literally chasing a submarine across the ice. Even as the set pieces get bigger, though, the climactic vault heist from Fast Five remains a high water mark for many fans. The setup is fairly simple: Brian and Dom yank a massive vault out of its housing then drive it through the streets of Rio in matching Dodge Chargers. What makes it truly special is the many ways in which the sequence evolves through little details, from the vault tearing through a line of pylons as soon as it hits the streets to Brian backing his car into the vault to drive backwards for a while. It’s a gem in a series full of gems.

13. Drive (2011)

Though it might sound counterintuitive, patience is often just as important to crafting a good car chase as speed is. It’s all about the setup, the context, the various elements that tell a story without words, and few films grasp that concept as well as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. The film’s opening sequence, in which The Driver (Ryan Gosling) lays out his rules for work and then picks up a pair of armed robbers for a getaway through the streets of Los Angeles, is a masterclass in patience. From the moments of parked tension to the clever culmination, it’s all about waiting for the right moment and then unleashing that horsepower.

14. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Up until a few years ago, George Miller’s The Road Warrior would have been the Mad Max film to include on this list thanks to its wild and brutal chase sequences. Then came Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller’s fourth film in the franchise and perhaps the greatest action movie to come out of the 2010s. The film is essentially one long car chase, pausing only once in a while to set up the next big chunk of driving, so it’s hard to pin down just one “chase” as the masterpiece. For now, though, let’s just say the sequence when Immortan Joe’s War Boys start to swing down at our heroes from poles is the most thrilling part.

15. Baby Driver (2017)

Many, many films incorporate pop music needle drops into their biggest action sequences, but few have ever done it quite as intricately as Baby Driver. Edgar Wright’s action film about a getaway driver who does his best work when his music is blasting combines the speed and thrills of classic car chases with the cinematic language of the movie musical to create something magical. There are several wonderful chase sequences in Baby Driver, but it arguably never gets better than the film’s instantly magnetic opening sequence, set to “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

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Wa Wa Wee Wa: The Origin of Borat's Favorite Catchphrase

Wa wa wee wa! Sacha Baron Cohen is back in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020).
Wa wa wee wa! Sacha Baron Cohen is back in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020).
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

When Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was released in 2006, a new audience was exposed to Borat Sagdiyev, a “journalist” portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen who had made frequent appearances on the comedian’s Da Ali G Show.

Soon, in our country there was problem: People mimicked Borat’s catchphrases, "very nice" and “wa wa wee wa,” incessantly. The latter phrase was used to denote surprise or happiness on Borat’s part. While some may have assumed it was made up, it turns out that it actually means something.

Wa wa wee wa is Hebrew, which Cohen speaks throughout the film and which helped make Borat a hit in Israel. (Cohen is himself Jewish.) It was taken from an Israeli comedy show and is the equivalent of the word wow. Reportedly, the expression was popular among Israelis, and they appreciated Cohen’s use of it.

The original Borat also sees Cohen singing a popular Hebrew folk song, “Koom Bachur Atzel,” or “get up lazy boy,” among other Hebrew mentions. It remains to be seen how much of it he’ll be speaking in the sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It premieres on Amazon Prime Friday, October 23.

[h/t The Los Angeles Times]