One of the best things about cinema is its ability to put the viewer in the heart of the action. When watching a movie, reality melts away, and we are transported to a different world full of excitement, danger, fear, and romance, sometimes all in the same film. A chase or pursuit is one of the least complicated narratives, but it’s also one of the best. It’s a simple way to give characters agency and a clear motivation, two of the essential building blocks in creating a memorable character. The first ever chase movie is thought to be 1901’s Stop Thief! — a silent short which featured a tramp stealing meat and running away from an irate butcher. As technology has improved, action moviemaking has come an incredibly long way from such humble beginnings, pioneering more sophisticated ways to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
So, how do you define a “chase movie”? It’s a weirdly nebulous but oddly specific term. The meaning is up for debate, but it usually refers to a movie that features a chase or race as a central plot device. Often, it will be a cat-and-mouse affair with constant pursuits and near captures. Lots of movies have great chase sequences, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a chase movie. Having said that, most of the top chase movies do have kick-ass chase sequences in them. Still with us? Good.
Stretch your hamstrings and rev up your engines as we take you through the finest examples of the genre with the 15 Best Chase Movies Of All Time.
15. Fast Five (2011)
It’s fair to say that it took the Fast and Furious franchise a while to find its feet. Whereas the first four films were focused on the underground world of illegal street racing, Fast Five opted for a larger scope with a plot surrounding a sprawling international heist. The emphasis seemed to be firmly on fun and embracing the ridiculous this time around, and it paid off. After mauling the admittedly lacking sequels, critics started to get on board with the series, a trend that would continue right up to critical series high point Furious 7 in 2015.
Our lovable family of crooks spend practically the entire film on the run from the law. If they aren’t escaping DEA forces led by Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), they’re running from drug lord Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) and his gang of gun-toting goons. The movie starts as it means to go on, with a big sequence in which bassy-voiced Dom (Vin Diesel) is busted out of a prison bus by his crew. From there, we have a breathless set piece where three supercars are jacked from a speeding train. Wasting little time, this then leads to the discovery of a computer chip detailing the location of $100 million in cash. Dom and his family tool up to steal the cash and embark on the movie’s best scene, where Dom and Brian (Paul Walker) drag a steel vault behind their cars with an insane number of cops on their tail. The vault adds an interesting element to the pursuit, with it being used like a wrecking ball to take out the hapless police officers chasing them. Here’s hoping this year’s The Fate of the Furious has the same level of ludicrous (or should that be Ludacris?), fun spectacle and plenty of macho posturing from Groot and The Rock.
14. It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)
It’s hard to express just how big of a deal It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (yes, that’s the proper title) was when it came out. It was basically like the comedy version of The Avengers, a meeting of all the comedic legends of the era in one big adventure. Spencer Tracy leads a huge cast of recognizable funny faces including Mickey Rooney, Milton Berle, and Phil Silvers. If the star-studded main cast wasn’t enough, there were also cameos by icons like Jerry Lewis, Buster Keaton, and the Three Stooges to keep audiences entertained.
Mad World (we’re not going to subject you to the whole thing again) opens with a convict (played by Jimmy Durante) crashing his car on a mountain road. Several strangers stop to help him, but he’s too hurt to survive. Before he (literally) kicks the bucket, he tells the motorists of his secret cache of $350,000 (a cool two million in today’s money) buried in a park near the Mexican border “under the Big W”. After a brief attempt at civility, the motorists decide to compete for it and speed off to claim the stolen cash for themselves.
As the film goes on and the strangers hit all sorts of roadblocks, more and more people find out about the Big W stash and join the race to the border. It’s the sort of movie where the word “madcap” seems invented specifically to describe it. Whilst most of the faces and names won’t have the impact they once did and some of the humor is dated, but there’s still fun to be had with what basically equates to a live-action cartoon, full of goofy jokes, catchy music, and crazy stunts. Plus, it’s hard not to be charmed by the movie’s climactic sequence involving a frantic fight for the cash on a crumbling fire escape high above the city streets.
13. Minority Report (2002)
Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi/noir/chase epic Minority Report doesn’t seem come up in movie conversations much these days, which is a real shame. The film deals with a futuristic police force called PreCrime that uses a pool of psychics known as PreCogs to see murders before they happens. Through the psychics’ visions, they get a video of the possible future and can get the names of the people involved, the location, and the method, all in a short space of time. PreCrime officers are then dispatched to the scene and arrest the would-be murderer. Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is the main man in charge of deciphering the fragmented visions and piecing together the crime. Things change when Anderton’s name comes up in the system, and he’s forced to run from his own colleagues in an effort to clear his name. The film juggles ideas of free will and determinism in a sleek sci-fi thriller with great performances from Cruise, Samantha Morton, and Colin Farrell.
The system states that Anderton will murder someone named Leo Crow, a man he’s never met. Farrell’s Danny Witwer relentlessly hunts John across the city, trying to predict the ex-chief’s next move. Anderton believes he’s been set up and endeavors to find the truth behind it all, whilst dodging PreCrime task forces equipped with jetpacks and robotic spiders. Spielberg proved he’s capable of chase movie greatness with Duel, his 1971 truck driver stalker classic, but Minority Report ratchets up the tension to near unbearable levels. In no scene is this more apparent than the masterfully done sequence in which the aforementioned spiders are released into the apartment block Anderton is hiding in.
12. Bullitt (1968)
If you’ve heard of Bullitt but not seen it yet, it’s likely because A) it features Steve McQueen, scientifically proven (citation needed) to be one of the coolest man to walk on this planet and B) it has some incredible car chases in it. Both are true, but it undersells the rest of the film somewhat. It’s a taut thriller with a fast pace and a genuinely intriguing plot. McQueen plays Lt. Frank Bullitt (give ’em a break, it was the sixties) a no-nonsense cop who gets personally involved in a case when two gunmen show up and injure his partner and the man he was charged to protect. Despite having failed his mission, Bullitt refuses to let the situation drop, and sets off to find out the hitmen responsible.
Cops chasing criminals was nothing new, even back then, but Bullitt presented its story in a revolutionary way. Many people consider the car chase in Bullitt to be one of the best ever put on screen, and its DNA can still be found in modern blockbusters. The furious chase around San Francisco is still impressive to this day, but it’s difficult to grasp how big this was from our modern viewpoint. Most car chases up until this point used a combination of sped-up car footage and shots of the actor in a car set with a rear projection screen. Bullitt, on the other hand, used new camera technology to get the viewer closer to the action than ever before. McQueen versus the hitmen is a great cat-and-mouse tale within itself, but the fantastic, stand-out car chase coupled with the film’s legacy make it an easy lock for this list.
11. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
1977 was a huge year for cultural phenomenons. Whilst people flocked in droves to see Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever, simple chase movie Smokey and the Bandit capitalized on an obsession with trucking culture and CB radio, not to mention the popularity of hit songs like “Convoy”. The plot is simple. Bo “Bandit” Darville (Burt Reynolds) is a renowned trucker hired to deliver a shipment of bootleg beer from Texas to Atlanta in 28 hours on a bet. In other words, they’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there. Bandit accepts on the proviso that his BFF Cledus Snow aka “Snowman” drives the truck whilst he drives a black Trans-Am as a “blocker” to distract any law enforcement from the illegal cargo.
Things get more complicated when the embodiment of “Smokey” (a slang term for the Southern highway patrol) gets involved in the form of the tenacious Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Not only that, but Bandit picks up a runaway bride named Carrie, whom he nicknames “Frog”. Wouldn’t you know it, but Frog’s jilted husband happens to be the son of Buford Justice, giving the Sheriff more than enough motivation to shut down the lovable crooks. It’s hard not to like Smokey and the Bandit. The car chases are great, the dialog can be genuinely amusing, and the whole thing has an infectious sense of fun, with the main cast clearly having a blast. Whilst the film ended up spawning two disappointing sequels, they do little to take away from the quality of the first. All together now: Eastbound and down…
10. The Bourne Identity (2002)
In the first movie of the series, everyone’s favorite amnesiac spy is found floating in the ocean with several bullet wounds in his back. After being rescued, the man pieces together his past and finds a name – Jason Bourne. As he uncovers the plot with the support of helpful stranger Marie (Franka Potente), he finds out that he’s actually a highly trained black-ops agent, and that the same shady organization he worked for is now after him. Soon, an international manhunt for Bourne and Marie is underway, and they must escape the clutches of the authorities if they’re to survive, let alone get any answers.
Before the film’s release many were skeptical over the casting of Matt Damon as a badass, but the movie soon proved these fears to be unfounded. Like Bullitt, it also revolutionized action moviemaking with its tense, realistic chases and visceral fight sequences. Identity and its sequels gave audiences a taste for grittier spy stories that soon had an impact on the James Bond series, the spy genre granddaddy. Inspired by Bourne, Daniel Craig’s 007 debut Casino Royale did away with the series’ campiness and breathed new life into the franchise by taking Bond back to his brutal literary roots. Even though Jason Bourne, the fifth film in the franchise, received mixed reviews, the movie did decently at the box-office. This could mean that Bourne’s legacy (but hopefully not The Bourne Legacy) is likely to continue in some form.
9. Run Lola Run (1998)
Run Lola Run is probably the most unique entry on this list. In case you’re not aware, it’s a German thriller starring Franka Potente as Lola, the under-appreciated girlfriend of small-time crook Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). Lola gets a terrifying phone call from Manni, who states that unless she delivers 100,000 Deutsche Marks to his boss in 20 minutes, he’s a dead man. From there, the movie splits into three part “runs”, each of which shows a different outcome from the same situation.
Run Lola Run has a strong central concept at its core which grounds the movie’s weirdness. It’s an exciting, pavement-pounding affair with intense action. Like Minority Report, the film deals with themes of determinism vs. free will, and also has lashings of chaos theory thrown into the mix. For example, in all three runs, the titular character has to deal with the same obstacles, including a woman pushing a baby carriage. On the first run, Lola collides with the woman, who would later steal a child after losing custody of her own. In the second, Lola still collides with her, but it’s revealed that the mother would later win the lottery. For the third and final run, Lola avoids the carriage altogether. In a flash-forward, the woman is revealed to have joined the church and devoted herself to God. It’s a fantastically unconventional chase movie that peppers its awesome running sequences with some trippy visuals, pulsing beats, and some philosophical intrigue sprinkled on top.
8. Ronin (1998)
In Ronin, Robert De Niro’s character Sam talks about never walking into a place he doesn’t know his way out of, which sums up the film’s overall atmosphere perfectly. The basic story is this: a group of international mercenaries are hired to retrieve an important briefcase. Both Irish and Russian gangsters seem to be interested in the case and its mysterious contents, and will seemingly do anything to get their hands on it. The job doesn’t exactly go as planned, and Sam and the others realize they may have a traitor in their midst. From that point on, the movie becomes not only a chase for the case, but a race to find the rat as well. Tension is created through shifting allegiances and uncertainty, with each character behaving like Sam – unable to trust each other and scoping the way out ahead of time, just in case it all goes south.
Apart from some stellar performances from DeNiro, Jean Reno, and Stellan Skarsgard, the thing most people respond to is Ronin‘s action, which goes the more realistic route without sacrificing spectacle. Bullitt‘s influence can be felt again in the movie’s amazing car chase through the claustrophobic streets of Paris. Instead of pulsing music, the sequence starts with nothing but the sounds of engines, tires, and glass smashing, which gives the whole thing a believable edge. It’s only when the stakes are upped and our drivers start speeding into oncoming traffic down a tunnel does the bombastic music kick in. Ronin also pulls a simple but effective trick at this point too, finally showing the fear in both drivers and their passengers as things start to get a little too crazy for comfort. By the end of the chase, the collateral damage is off the charts, and there are a lot of pissed-off Parisians left to gawp at the carnage.
7. The Blues Brothers (1980)
The Blues Brothers shouldn’t have worked. After a bidding war for the film, the production hit a litany of snags along the way. As Dan Aykroyd had yet to hone his screenwriting skills, he delivered a long and overly complicated script, which meant that director John Landis had to step in and start shooting without a confirmed budget whilst simultaneously helping to rewrite the screenplay. Luckily, the talent involved saved it from being a disaster, and The Blues Brothers became a comedy classic, oozing with humor and great musical numbers.
When Jake Blues (John Belushi) is released from prison, he vows to make amends, and he and his brother Elwood (Aykroyd) decide to help out the Catholic orphanage they were raised in. The Brothers Blue hit on the idea of reforming their popular band and playing a concert to raise money for their cause. However, when Elwood is pulled over, he’s charged with driving with a suspended license. Elwood hits the gas and escapes through a nearby shopping mall, and from then on, the long chase only gets crazier. The movie doesn’t let things slide just because it’s a comedy. The climatic chase features dozens of police cars, a country band, and Neo-Nazis in a legitimately great sequence full of big stunts and near-misses. The end of the Neo-Nazi chase is especially good, with all physics going out the window in one hilarious swoop. You’ll never hear “Ride of the Valkyries” the same way again.
6. The Terminator (1984)
James Cameron’s sci-fi masterpiece The Terminator may not be the first movie that comes to mind when talking about chase movies, but it absolutely belongs for a number of reasons. It’s a classic cat-and-mouse story about a time-travelling cyborg assassin from the future winding up in the era of big hair and Ronald Reagan. The Terminator (Arnie, obviously) is sent to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), an average waitress who, unbeknownst to her, has the future of the entire human race on her shoulders, as her son John becomes a key player for the resistance in the human/machine war.
Help is on hand in the form of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a future soldier who travels back to protect Sarah. What follows is an intense pursuit as the tireless Terminator hunts our heroes down with zero mercy or compassion built into his brain chips. One of the things that makes the movie so compelling is that the danger and the stakes are multiplied. We like Sarah and Kyle and want them to survive, but their lives aren’t the only things hanging in the balance — all of humanity is at stake. Whilst the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, has bigger and better action sequences, it’s the original that perhaps best qualifies as a straight-up chase, with Arnie’s T-800 being a nightmarish and nigh unstoppable antagonist for Sarah and Kyle to deal with.
5. The Fugitive (1993)
In the perfectly titled The Fugitive, Harrison Ford stars as Dr. Richard Kimble, a surgeon framed for his wife’s murder. Despite his protests of innocence and allegations that a one-armed man is responsible, Kimble is sentenced to death. En route to Death Row, his fellow prisoners take over the prison bus, causing it to crash in spectacular fashion and collide with a train. The good doctor escapes, but is soon subject to a massive manhunt led by Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones). Kimble must avoid capture whilst trying to find the true killer.
The movie is a rollercoaster ride with thrills galore. On top of the big action scenes, the movie’s solid cast change what could have been just another chase movie into something special. Kimble is an incredibly relatable character, making Ford’s beleaguered everyman hero easy to root for. We share in his successes and feel his frustrations. When Kimble discovers a massive conspiracy behind his wife’s death, it’s hard not to want him to win, especially when the true nature of the framing is revealed. It’s a battle of wits between him and Gerard, and the whole movie becomes an epic chess game. Their dam confrontation is worth the price of admission alone. Let’s just all go back to forgetting the sequel, U.S. Marshals, exists.
4. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Not content with dropping one genre classic on us in 2002, Steven Spielberg gave us two. The second, Catch Me If You Can, is based on the unbelievable true story of conman Frank Abagnale Jr. Leonardo DiCaprio plays slippery Frank, a gifted confidence trickster who manages to con his way up the social ladder. Frank eventually becomes a fake Pan-Am airline pilot and scams the company out of millions of dollars using forged paychecks. His large-scale grifting doesn’t go unnoticed, and soon enough, Abagnale has FBI fraud agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) on his tail.
DiCaprio and Hanks are perfectly cast, and it’d be easy to recommend the movie on their interactions alone, but Spielberg packages the whole thing with humor, style, and an intentionally rose-tinted view of the past that will make you pine for the sixties even if you were born decades after they ended. Some of the crazier plot twists may seem fictional, but apparently, the only thing Spielberg invented was Frank’s second meeting with his father. Frank Abagnale is clearly a remarkable person, and eagle-eyed viewers will be able to spot him in a quick cameo role as a cop at the end of the movie. If you haven’t seen it and still aren’t convinced, did we mention it also has one of the best movie title sequences ever, scored by the legendary John Williams?
3. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
It’s tempting to give separate shout-outs to the other Mad Max movies, but 2015’s Fury Road is about as pure a chase movie as you can get. The vast majority of the film is one huge chase, with the scant scenes of storytelling and character development happening on the move. When the trusted Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) steals a war rig full of despot Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) wives, the plot kicks off at a pace that rarely slows down. Drifter Max (Tom Hardy) gets mixed up in the proceedings and agrees to help Furiosa rescue the women.
Fury Road is a relentless, fast-paced movie that’s almost guaranteed to pump you up and leave you wanting to high-five the nearest person. A big emphasis was put on practical stunts, and it shows. CGI is a great tool, but some directors use it lazily and rob their supposedly exciting chases of any danger and tension thanks to unconvincing effects work. Veteran director George Miller wasn’t having any of that new nonsense, and if it could be done for real, it was. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t feature computer effects, but they’re used sparingly, which is refreshing. After being pursued across the wasteland, the tension mounts even higher when Team Furiosa decides to stop running and meet their attackers head on in a massive final battle. Judging from the mighty 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, there are plenty of people who think it’s anything but mediocre.
2. North by Northwest (1959)
While Bullitt may have had a more noticeable impact on action moviemaking, the film that arguably drew the blueprints for the genre was Alfred Hitchcock’s classic North by Northwest. Stop us if this sounds familiar: an innocent man is caught up in a case of mistaken identity and is relentlessly chased across the country by a shady organization trying to cover their tracks by taking our hero out. The situation escalates, and soon enough, advertising exec Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is accused of murder.
Almost everything about this movie is iconic. From the super-famous crop-duster plane scene to the final showdown at Mount Rushmore, you’ll have seen these moments referenced even if you haven’t watched the film. It’s an expertly told tale with a charismatic turn from Cary Grant, one of the era’s best leading men. The movie is also surprisingly witty too, with some decent gags and a lighter tone than most of Hitchcock’s back catalog. As the movie basically wrote the rulebook for action thrillers, it had to be on this list.
1. The French Connection (1971)
When talking about The French Connection, it’s easy to think of that scene (oh, we’ll get there) and little else. However, the whole film is basically a chase. As Roger Ebert said in his full four-star review: “the smugglers and the law officers are endlessly circling and sniffing each other. It’s just that the chase speeds up sometimes”. It’s pretty slow-paced to start with, introducing the audience to Det. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (the excellent Gene Hackman), his partner “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider), and their pursuit of wealthy French drug runner Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Charnier plans on smuggling a huge shipment of narcotics into New York City, and it’s up to Popeye Doyle and his morally questionable but undeniably effective methods to thwart the Frenchman’s scheme.
You hear the phrase “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” being thrown around fairly often, but in the case of The French Connection, it’s completely true. Modern films don’t have the grittiness or the bite that French Connection does, and a mass-audience pleasing thriller definitely wouldn’t feature a character as morally gray as Doyle, let alone put the provocative image of him shooting an unarmed suspect in the back on the poster. As you probably know, the awesome car/train chase was filmed guerilla style around Brooklyn without the proper permission. Some of the hits you see in the final movie weren’t even intended, but down to stuntmen errors. Even with our modern embarrassment of riches, the sequence is still incredibly gripping and feels legitimately dangerous because, well, it was. The French Connection has to go down as the greatest chase movies of all time, considering how compelling the characters are, how expertly the narrative net is tightened around Charnier, and just how crazy dangerous the car chase is.
Did any of your favorite chase movies miss the cut? Sound off in the comments!
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