Whether it’s trains, planes, or automobiles, speeding vehicles have made for some of the best nail-biting, jaw-dropping moments in cinematic history. Entire franchises have been built around car crashes and explosions that, while defying the laws of physics, have reinforced the magic of Hollywood. There’s probably no greater testament to this than the Fast and the Furious franchise, which never ceases to amaze when it comes to wonderfully ridiculous car-related stunts. I thought it would be impossible to top 2015’s Furious 7, which features the late Paul Walker and Vin Diesel crashing a red W Motors Lukan Hypersport through not one, not two, but three skyscrapers in Abu Dubai, but The Fate of the Furious could certainly unseat its predecessor.
In celebrating cinema’s love of fast cars and our love of the Fast and the Furious films, here are some of the best and the craziest car chases, jumps and stunts outside of that series.
It’s arguably the most famous car scene in film history and for good reason. Steve McQueen tears through the streets of San Francisco, his green 1968 Ford Mustang GT flying over each hill in pursuit of two hitmen speeding away in a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T. This battle of American muscle cars that ends in a fiery explosion became the gold standard for car chases in films, winning editor Frank P. Keller an Academy Award for Best Editing. McQueen is effortlessly cool as Bullitt and the film was so influential that Ford released a Bullitt edition of the Mustang in 2001 and again in 2008 to commemorate the film’s 40th anniversary. The scene has been parodied and endlessly copied in the years since by film and television alike, from Clint Eastwood to Archer. As the proud former owner of a Mustang, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to pretending I was Steve McQueen every time I got behind the wheel. I’m fairly certain I’m not alone in this regard.
First, there’s the subway fake-out. Then, there’s Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle screeching through the streets of NYC, crashing through garbage, swerving around cars and leaning on the horn of his Le Mans as he attempts to overtake a hijacked, speeding, elevated train in this white-knuckle chase scene. Part of the reason The French Connection tops most lists like this one is because of how raw it is. As director William Friedkin has explained since, there were no permits and the scene wasn’t meticulously choreographed. The crashes? Very real, although luckily the near-miss of the woman with a baby stroller was staged and rehearsed. Off-duty NYPD officers helped to hold back traffic, but the chase scene veered into streets, where all bets were off. It’s something that could never be done today, and understandably so, but there’s an authenticity to the scene that suits the rough and tumble Doyle, who plays by his own rules throughout the film.
Outside of the Fast and Furious films, the Bond franchise is the film series most closely associated with expensive cars and crazy stunts. In The Man with the Golden Gun, Roger Moore’s Bond finds himself the target of Scaramanga, a hit man who takes out his targets with…take a guess. Relieved of his duties by M, Bond starts unofficially hunting down Scaramanga and the Solex Agitator, a device that harnesses solar power and that would solve an energy crisis. Although Christopher Lee gives a fine performance as Scaramanga, the film has a weird comedic tone to it, which was rightfully panned by critics upon its release. That legacy is even more evident in this jump scene, where Bond defies physics with an impressive spiral jump across a splintered bridge that is paired with a slapstick penny whistle sound effect.
1967’s Le Samouraï was a huge influence on 1978’s The Driver, which in turn was a huge influence on 2011’s Drive. Of course, both The Driver and Drive feature two enigmatic and quiet characters, whose names are never revealed, both of whom drive around L.A. as getaway drivers until one job goes awry. But the similarities between the two films are especially evident when comparing their two police chase sequences, which share a similar style, even down to the tense scene where they wait inside of the car with the lights off for the police to pass. But this sequence in Walter Hill’s film still remains one of the great chase and escape scenes in film. There’s no soundtrack, just the roar of the engine, the squealing of tires, the incessant howl of police sirens and Ryan O’Neal, cool as a cucumber, spinning the steering wheel until the coast is clear.
After creating one of the most iconic car chases in cinema with The French Connection, director William Friedkin makes it onto the list a second time with this harrowing chase through Los Angeles that culminates in the cars barreling the wrong way down the freeway, directly into on-coming traffic. William Petersen’s Richard Chase is a reckless Secret Service agent who will stop at nothing to get revenge on Rick Masters, a counterfeiter who is responsible for the death of his partner. After a botched attempt to shake down a criminal for money, Chase and his partner, Vukovich, find themselves being chased across the city, through an obstacle course of loading docks and trucks, through the city’s famous flood control channels and, finally, down the wrong way onto the freeway. Perhaps best of all is the soothing voiceover towards the end, informing radio listeners of a small backup on the freeway, as we see Chase and Vukovich slip back onto the right side of the freeway, speeding to safety and leaving a cacophony of crashed cars and a jackknifed tractor-trailer in their wake.
This cult-classic starring Charlie Sheen is chock-full of some great desert race sequences and features a truly special car, the Dodge M4S Turbo Inceptor, a highly sophisticated car built by Dodge and PPG Industries for the PPG-CART Indy Car World Series at a cost of $1.5 million. Four of these were loaned for the production of The Wraith, but these were only used for close-ups – the fiery crashes utilized a shell of the car’s exterior. Sheen stars as the mysterious Jake Kesley, who shows up in a small Arizona town being terrorized by a gang of car thieves who trick people into racing for pink slips. Jake, of course, is the Wraith, the returned soul of a kid murdered by the thugs. Throughout the film, he lures them into racing, which leads to their deaths. The film is a thick slice of ‘80s cheese but the racing scenes feel fast (and furious), often cutting to angled exterior shots of the speeding cars and sped-up shots of the winding highway that eventually end in huge and satisfying crash-and-burn explosions.
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