5. The French Connection (1971)
The car chase: One of the godfathers of the contemporary car chase scene, this William Friedkin mini-masterpiece gained notoriety for being shot on real streets. See that collision with the white car? That wasn’t planned. Shot on the hoof with Friedkin filming from the back seat it’s a blast of kinetic energy, as Gene Hackman’s maverick cop Popeye Doyle pursues his quarry escaping on the elevated train above. Even the director admits he would never have the audacity to shoot the sequence in such a way now - the visibly rattled look on Hackman’s face is as captivating as the evasive driving on display. Kudos again to the legendary stuntman Bill Hickman.
Destruction rate: Mild on its own terms but given these are real civilians being placed in danger during filming, that bumps up the danger considerably.
4. The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
The car chase: Few vehicular onslaughts are as relentlessly exhilarating or terrifying as the climactic Moscow chase from Paul Greengrass’ Bourne sequel. Nailing the director’s shaky-cam, quick fire editing style as Bourne (Matt Damon) escapes both the police and assassin Kirill (Karl Urban), it’s a chase that resounds with a sense of sweaty desperation. Whilst in another director’s hands it would be an incoherent blur, Greengrass’ editorial precision and authenticity (aided by in-car shots of Damon and a pounding John Powell score) mean it’s a seat-gripping wonder. And that climactic crash into the tunnel divider is still wince-inducing.
Destruction rate: A spectacular demolition derby of government vehicles and hapless bystanders that has us reaching for the vodka, pronto.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The car chase: Really, the entirety of George Miller’s joyously nutso action extravaganza is a car chase. This is a bombastically old-fashioned spectacular that revels in the acrid smell of petrol, the whirling dervish of flying debris, the crunch of shifting gears. True the plot is little more than a chase in one direction and then another chase back the same way. But the near-fetishistic attention to detail in the thunderously powered vehicles, from Charlize Theron’s gas-guzzling War Rig to the truck topped with a flame-throwing electric guitarist, confirm this is a movie utterly in love with the thrill of the chase.
Destruction rate: Too much to comprehend, covering nearly two hours of death-defying stunts and gorgeously shot vehicular destruction.
2. Bullitt (1968)
The car chase: It’s the sequence that transformed the movie car chase into an art form - but is it still the very best of all time? At very least it’s an impossibly close-run second, a majestic example of how slick editing, well-chosen vehicles (a Ford Mustang vs a Dodge Charger driven by the esteemed Bill Hickman), supreme location work and top stunts can easily overpower flashier blockbuster rivals. The key is in the rhythms: anticipated by Lalo Schifrin’s ice cool score, which drops away as soon as those roaring engines kick into gear, the scene traces a brilliantly defined path across San Francisco’s hills and into its outlying districts before the explosive petrol station finale. Not only revolutionary in a technical sense Peter Yates’ thriller also redefined the essence of movie star commitment, as iconic racing nut Steve McQueen performed much of his own driving. Even now the scene has lost none of its power.
Destruction rate: Little more than a few (expensive) sprung hubcaps - until McQueen leads the baddies into a fiery demise.
1. Ronin (1998)
The car chase: If Bullitt is the granddaddy of the car chase than Ronin represents a wholesale upgrade and refinement of the formula. Director John Frankenheimer was brazen in his intention to create the greatest car chase ever seen on film, and the legendary auteur lived up to his billing. It’s a seamless mesh of editing trickery and stunt work that escalates in fiendish intensity as it goes on, Robert De Niro and Jean Reno in a Peugeot 406 pursuing Natasha McElhone, Jonathan Pryce and Stellan Skarsgard in a BMW 535i through the traffic-infested streets of Paris. The real reason it works is because the actors (most of whom you’d never associate with such a scene) were put in the thick of it, their potent fear registering in close-up shots as they were driven by stuntmen (including former F1 driver Jean-Pierre Jarier) at high speed. Frankenheimer is a director of old-school thrills and his crisply edited montage of escalating mayhem is laudable not just for its action but also for the fact that we can actually see what’s happening. A masterpiece of automotive chaos.
Destruction rate: Puts the blur in sacre bleur as all manner of civilian vehicles, cop cars, lorries and bikes are obliterated.