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Cut to the Chase: A Top 10 Movie Car Chases
by Jeff Young

Historians have long observed that the automobile has usurped the horse as our primary mode of private transport and, for today's knights of the open highway - four-wheel drive has replaced horsepower. Why ride when you can drive? In the milieu of (it must be said) larger-than-life action movies, the car chase has been elevated to a populist performance art form - with stuntmen acting out absurd fantasies of speed and bravado, wholly impossible in on our real world streets of gridlock and traffic calming.
   Presented for your motoring pleasure, in alphabetical order, here are my top ten favourite movie car chases...

The Blues Brothers (1980)
This comedy classic by John Landis has grown into one of the greatest cult movie successes of all time. On a mission from god, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi take on a whole fleet of cop cars, which crash and get wrecked in escalating scenes of hilarious mayhem - on an unheard of scale that's rarely been matched since. For the sheer number of vehicles being jokily smashed up this is very hard to beat.

Bullitt (1968)
Steve McQueen is the epitome of cool in Peter Yates' crime thriller, which boasts arguably the finest high-speed pursuit ever filmed. When the jazzy score fades out, the real hotrod action begins, and the hills of San Francisco serve as stunning backdrop to a truly exhilarating battle of wits. Umpteen gear changes, screeching tyres, and the fierce noise of sporty engines roaring like wild animals grant this movie's sound effects a unique appeal. This alone ensures the standout car chase is one of the great sequences of pure cinema that America has ever produced.

The Driver (1978)
Well, of course, I know this film's most memorable scene isn't an actual chase but it has gone into cinematic legend as Ryan O'Neal enacts one of the finest displays of ace wheelman prowess to date. In demonstrating his remarkable driving skills, O'Neal wrecks an apparently ordinary saloon in an underground parking garage, bashing off doors, tearing off bumpers and denting every last inch of body work - but all without harming any of the car's passengers.

The French Connection (1971)
Another popular favourite, many critics rate higher than Bullitt, but which I don't think has quite the same kind of aesthetic appeal. Gene Hackman's maverick cop Popeye Doyle is chasing a wily French crook that actually makes his escape on an elevated train, so this chase involves only one car. It is, however, a most exciting piece of stunt work, and the keen sense of realism gives it a tremendous adrenalin rush. Unofficial sequel, The Seven-Ups (1973), also features an exciting car chase but it's not accomplished to the same standard as the original.

The Hidden (1988) A variety of people (including a stripper played by Claudia Christian - later a TV regular on Babylon 5) are host to an alien parasite, indulging in bank robbery, gun-battles with the LAPD, and car chases in stolen red Ferraris. The action here is standard thriller material but it's enjoyable in spite of the ordinariness because all these particular urban maniacs have no apparent motive for their fast-paced crime sprees. Random acts of senseless violence are rarely so much fun as this!

Last Action Hero (1995)
John McTiernan's underrated comedy thriller boasts one of the most fantastical automotive chases ever devised. Schwarzenegger's car lunges off the side of an LA flyover and glides back down to earth with hardly a bump. Shot from the inside of Arnie's vehicle, this is a deliciously surreal moment - and we're not exactly sure of what's happening until Arnie looks back and sees the pursuing villains gracelessly duplicate his manoeuvre. In a film that criss-crosses the border between fantasy and reality, Last Action Hero uses its high concept car chases to illustrate just how easily motorised thrills may become patently ludicrous.

Mad Max (1978)
One of the great low-budget thrillers of its decade, George Miller's stunning intro for the antiheroic title character involves electrifying road rage, a highway maniac called the Toe-cutter, and the youthful Mel Gibson. From behind the wheel of his super-charged interceptor, patrolman Max metes out rough justice leaving bodies in the wake of his tyre tracks. There are few non-Hollywood productions to match the memorable stunt sequences of this Australian road movie.

Ronin (1999)
A recent spectacular, directed by John Frankenheimer, Ronin sets CIA and IRA machinations against French scenery, and delivers plenty of thrills as Robert De Niro leads a team of mercenaries in a daring armed robbery attempt. Unfairly savaged by the critics for being simply one long car chase, this one's stylishly shot action is anything but boring - and that's what makes it so good!

Short Time (1990)
In this comic farce, Dabney Coleman portrays a middle-aged detective with an incurable ailment, who tries to commit suicide in the line of duty so his family get a large insurance payout. In the course of pursuing dangerous gangsters, his car falls apart due to gunfire and collisions, leaving him racing along in just a basic chassis - yet without damage to his person. It pokes fun at the super-cop heroics of dramas like Lethal Weapon, yet Coleman's sharp performance gives the near tragedy some genuine pathos.

To Live And Die In LA (1985)
Friedkin's back with another gripping chase sequence in this crime thriller, about an undercover Secret Service agent deeply involved with a gang of counterfeiters. Following a bungled heist, one bravura scene has the antihero driving headlong into multiple lanes of oncoming freeway traffic - with an alarming number of terrifying near misses. This is especially striking because of its scale - how did the filmmakers' arrange that incredible stunt?

previously published in the May 2001 issue of VideoVista

DOWSE Guide to the Movies is compiled by Tony Lee editor of Pigasus Press
You can order videos and DVD releases reviewed on these pages at Blackstar

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