As we await the long-delayed release of the new James Bond film No Time To Die, we can at least take consolation from the fact that, as with all Bond pictures, it will undoubtedly feature a spectacular car chase. Automobile pursuit has long been a series trademark, although the films have often featured increasingly outlandish and OTT gadgetry and souped-up vehicles. But cinema has featured edge-of-seat car chases for many decades now, and here are some of the absolute best.
Choosing half a dozen is a near-impossible task, and I apologise for the omissions in advance – but this selection of the greatest pedal-to-the-metal action scenes ever filmed should stimulate, intrigue and thrill all over again.
Mad Max Fury Road
The central appeal of George Miller’s utterly beserk and entirely thrilling post-apocalyptic film is that it is, essentially, one long car chase, as Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky is pursued by the terrifying Immortan Joe through the desert.
However, he is aided by the hard-as-nails Imperator Furiosa, and what she doesn’t know about handling heavy machinery at top speed isn’t worth knowing. The film’s central appeal – unlike some of the others on this list – is that it gleefully embraces the possibilities of the fantastical, combining ‘I can’t believe I’ve just seen that’ visuals with heart-stopping excitement, as the pursuit gets faster and faster and the stakes just keep on increasing.
John Frankenheimer’s dour 1998 spy thriller, about freelance mercenaries, is notable for two reasons: the number of actors in it who have played former James Bond villains (including Sean Bean and Jonathan Pryce), and for a staggeringly effective car chase through Paris towards its end.
Frankenheimer, an old-school director who had been working since the Fifties, was uninterested in CGI or in enhancements, and so staged the entirety of the scene, in which Robert de Niro and Jean Reno’s characters pursue Pryce, Natascha McElhone and Stellan Skarsgård through the city, with hundreds of stunt drivers, as the actors themselves were driven at incredible speed by former Formula One experts. It remains one of the finest car chases ever staged.
The French Connection (Amazon Prime)
Gene Hackman won an Oscar for what became one of his signature roles, as the tough, obsessive detective ‘Popeye’ Doyle in William Friedkin’s crime masterpiece. Friedkin is something of an expert at staging fantastic car chases – there is another terrific one in To Live and Die in LA – but this one, in which Doyle pursues a fleeing criminal underneath the elevated railroad in New York, brilliantly combines character development and edge-of-seat suspense.
The look of sweaty desperation on Hackman’s face is a world away from the tough-guy heroics of most characters in fictional chases, and the brutal, cathartic ending, in which Doyle shoots the would-be killer in the back, is the perfect conclusion to the brilliant scene.
The Rock (Prime Video)
Love or hate the maximalist cinema of Michael Bay, there’s no doubt that he is a dab hand with a cartoonish and massive action scene, and they don’t get much bigger than an astonishingly over-the-top pursuit through the streets of San Francisco, in which escaping prisoner Sean Connery is chased by reluctant FBI agent Nicolas Cage.
Bay stages spectacle as if he was born to it, and this is a relatively rare car chase in which little is at stake, as both of the main protagonists are the film’s heroes and the only mass destruction comes to the locale, rather than its characters. For all that, it’s exciting, funny and eye-poppingly grand; no wonder that Bay’s hugely entertaining film is still widely regarded as his best.
Bullitt (Prime Video)
Inevitably the hills of San Francisco have been irresistible for filmmakers for years, and Peter Yates’s iconic Sixties crime thriller uses them at their most effectively in its legendary car chase scene. Steve McQueen, one of the greatest icons of cool in film, is a cop who doesn’t play by the rules (do they ever?) and, while driving his Ford Mustang, is pursued by two hitmen in a Dodge Charger. This proves to be a horrendous mistake on their part, because they are chasing Steve McQueen, not just any old punk. Arguably cinema’s most influential scene of automobile pursuit, it has been imitated and ripped off many, many times but never quite equalled.
Mission Impossible: Fallout (Amazon Prime)
Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible series seems hellbent on outdoing itself with every film, and the most recent instalment contained one of the most spectacular action scenes ever seen. As Cruise’s super-agent Ethan Hunt speeds through Paris on a motorbike, hotly pursued by what seems like the entire forces of the gendarmerie, director Christopher McQuarrie stages the scene with the giddy abandon of a Michael Bay, crossed with the steely determination of a Christopher Nolan or James Cameron. One comes close to believing that Hunt’s cat-like nine lives are about to be extinguished and that he is going to meet a horrible fate, as he drives the wrong way into traffic round the Arc de Triomphe, and the scene leaves viewers feeling breathless with excitement.
The Spy Who Loved Me (Prime Video)
Everybody has their favourite James Bond car chase scene, whether it’s the car looping-the-loop in The Man With The Golden Gun, nocturnal pursuit through the streets of Rome in Spectre or the introduction of the Aston Martin DB5 – with enhancements – in Goldfinger.
But for my money, it’s the extended and incredibly fun centrepiece scene in The Spy Who Loved Me that takes the top slot, as Roger Moore’s 007, accompanied by Barbara Bach’s KGB Agent Amasova, is in a Lotus Esprit pursued by apparently endless villains.
But he has one iconic trick up his sleeve, courtesy of Q: the car converts into a submarine and allows him to drive underwater. It’s cheeky, thrilling and witty, just like the rest of the film, and is undoubtedly Moore’s finest hour as Bond; as Alan Partridge would put it, ‘stop talking about American things and watch the greatest movie ever made’.