To paraphrase the late great novelist Ernest Hemingway, auto racing is the only real sport… all the others are just games. It’s why Hollywood has often attempted to replicate its exciting adrenaline-charged drama on the big screen, whether it’s on the downtown streets of Los Angeles, the sharp corners of the Formula One circuit, or the deadly closed track of a privatized prison.
Of course, you don’t have to be a fanatical wheel warrior to enjoy all of its exhilarating twists and turns – the car racing movie can take on many different forms. From blockbuster franchises and screwball comedies to compelling documentaries and gripping biopics, not to mention an animated kids favorite, these 12 fast-paced films have all pushed the pedal to the metal in their very own unique way. So if you feel the need, the need for speed, then sit back, buckle up and enjoy the ride!
12 The Fast and the Furious
Who would have expected a street-racing B-movie starring a musclebound meathead and teen movie pin-up to launch one of the most profitable, and seemingly never-ending, movie franchises of the 21st Century? And yet that’s what happened when Vin Diesel and Paul Walker teamed up to play a semi-hijacking auto mechanic and the undercover cop who infiltrates his late-night car racing gang in 2001 for the first installment of the Fast and Furious series.
Directed by Rob Cohen, the number one box-office hit grossed $207 million worldwide on a budget of $38 million, thanks to a gratifying mix of flashy high-speed chases, enjoyably cheesy drama and a charismatic turn from breakout star Diesel. The later chapters may have upped the ante when it came to stunts and star power, but The Fast and The Furious remains both the grittiest and — for a film which still features our two heroes racing into the path of an oncoming locomotive — surprisingly, the most grounded of the lot.
11 Fast and Furious
Although predecessor Tokyo Drift had grossed a respectable $150m, its lack of main players, ridiculous thrills and discernible plot suggested The Fast and the Furious would soon drift off into the kind of straight-to-DVD irrelevance that befalls most long-running action franchises. However, its director Justin Lin proved that he’d learned from his mistakes when he returned for the fourth, and arguably most important, entry in the entire series.
Reuniting the original’s main cast, 2009’s Fast and Furious was not only the proper sequel that long-time fans had been wanting all along, it also paved the way for the number of increasingly elaborate gravity-defying blockbusters that followed. Indeed, all the early comparisons with Point Break were finally blown out of the water with a film which transported the action to Mexico, delivered spectacular set-piece after spectacular set-piece and neatly began to develop the loose mythology of Dominic Toretto and his crew.
10 Death Race
However, the Fast and The Furious’ full-throttle action looks like child’s play compared to the senses-assaulting set-pieces that dominate Paul W.S. Anderson’s remake of the 1975 cult classic, Death Race 2000. Machine guns, flamethrowers, and grenade launchers are just some of the deadly obstacles that Jason Statham’s framed prisoner must dodge if he’s to escape the Terminal Island Penitentiary with his life when he’s forced to compete in a survival of the fittest-style series of drag races.
Statham is as magnetic as ever as the former speedway champion who, against his will, becomes the masked champion known as Frankenstein, while Joan Allen hams it up brilliantly as the sadistic warden in charge of the super-violent method of keeping the prison population down. But of course, it’s the 1000 miles-per-hour drama on the track which makes Death Race one of the most destructive and highly enjoyable films of its kind.
Even those who dismiss Formula One as little more than rich men driving around in circles couldn’t keep their eyes off the screen when Senna arrived in cinemas back in 2011. Directed by Asif Kapadia, the man responsible for the equally heartbreaking Amy, this award-winning documentary, of course, focused on the rise and tragic fall of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian motor-racing driver who transformed the sport in more ways than one.
Avoiding the talking heads approach favored by most, Senna instead relies on archive race track footage and previously unseen home videos to tell its profoundly moving story. Although it only covers the last ten years of Senna’s life, including his famous rivalry with Frenchman Alain Prost, it’s this highly personal method which allows viewers to get the measure of the man – making his fatal crash at the San Marino Grand Prix back in 1994 all the more devastating.
Released in-between the success stories of superhero adventure The Incredibles and rat in my kitchen caper Ratatouille, 2006’s less ambitious Cars is often seen as the runt of the Pixar litter. And sure, although it certainly doesn’t match the impossibly high standard of the studio’s best work, and undeniably appeals more to a younger audience than their usual all-encompassing output, it still contains plenty of the charm that director John Lasseter has become renowned for.
Indeed, Pixar’s first entirely non-human film since 1998’s A Bug’s Life features a top-notch voice cast which includes real-life racing drivers Michael Schumacher, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mario Andretti, as well as the iconic Paul Newman (in his last ever role), an awe-inspiring visual style which perfectly captures the spirit of small-town Americana, and plenty of turbo-charged action, even if racing rookie hero Lightning McQueen ultimately discovers that there’s more to life than winning championships.
Two decades before Prost and Senna squared up to each other on the track, British Formula One racing driver James Hunt and equally skilled Austrian Niki Lauda were also busy forging one of sport’s fiercest rivalries. The pair’s volatile relationship was therefore ideal subject matter for a big-screen retelling, and it’s fair to say that director Ron Howard did it justice with the suitably-titled 2013 biopic, Rush.
Howard’s most compelling film since Apollo 13 sees Chris Hemsworth (Thor) give a career-best performance as the brash playboy Hunt, while Daniel Bruhl (Captain America: Civil War)is just as convincing as his ice-cool competitor, both of whom impressively make audiences invest in characters whose behaviour is often petty, spoiled and downright childish. Throw in a smart script from Peter Morgan, numerous edge-of-your-seat race sequences, and an endorsement from none other than Lauda himself, and you’re left with a car racing movie that’s as emotive as it is exhilarating.
6 Talladega Nights
Will Ferrell is no stranger to the sports movie, having tackled soccer (Kicking and Screaming), basketball (Semi-Pro) and ice-skating (Blades of Glory), all with varying degrees of success over the years. But his most enjoyable attempt to live out his sportsman fantasies occurred when he donned a NASCAR jumpsuit emblazoned with the colorful Wonder Bread logo for 2006’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
Admittedly, with Ferrell perhaps in his most Ferrell-like mode, you probably have to be a fan of the SNL alum’s shouty and semi-improvised form of comedy to truly enjoy this spoof biopic. But although this second hook-up with regular collaborator Adam McKay is undoubtedly Ferrell’s film, non-converts may still get a kick out of Sacha Baron Cohen’s typically committed turn as flamboyant French rival Jean Girard, an array of high-powered race scenes and unashamedly politically-incorrect jokes, and cameos from numerous real-life NASCAR racing drivers, commentators and analysts.
5 Grand Prix
As with Rush, the globe-trotting Grand Prix was showered with accolades on its release in 1966, receiving Oscars for Best Sound Effects, Best Film Editing and Best Sound, while John Frankenheimer also picked up a Best Director nod for his troubles. It’s not difficult to understand why. Filmed in Super Panavision 70 across various Formula One circuits, the pioneering race scenes – all split screens and helicopter angles – still dazzle today, with the interspersing footage of real-life competitive races also lending the movie an authenticity few others have matched since.
Although the technical achievements deservedly take center stage, the cast isn’t half-bad either, with the likes of James Garner, Yves Montand and Antonio Sabato all imbuing their aspiring F1 champion characters with enough personality to drive the scenes that take place off the track. Cameos from Graham Hill, Juan Manuel Fangio and Jochen Rindt also help cement Grand Prix as the professional racing driver’s film of choice.
Few actors have committed themselves as fully to the world of auto racing as Paul Newman. The screen legend drove for the Bob Sharp Racing Team for nearly 20 years, co-founded his own IndyCar series team, Newman/Haas Racing, and was still competing at a high level just a year before his death in 2008. The Oscar winner had developed his love of the sport after being trained by a high performance driving school in preparation for his role of Frank Capua in 1969’s Winning.
Directed by James Goldstone, the film sees Newman play a hotshot race car driver whose dedication to winning the Indianapolis 500 threatens to destroy his marriage to wife Elora (played by his real-life spouse Joanne Woodward) and close bond with her teenage son. This melodramatic plot, combined with Newman’s obvious passion for life in the fast lane, results in one of the car racing genre’s most heartfelt pictures.
3 Le Mans
Five years later, another bona-fide Hollywood legend also showcased his love of motor racing on the big screen, although Le Mans was a completely different beast. Indeed, Steve McQueen, who had previously turned down the lead role in Grand Prix, certainly wasn’t interested in making your conventional sports film. Instead, Le Mans largely shies away from any form of narrative – McQueen doesn’t actually have any dialogue until the 36th minute – and focuses on actual footage from the 24 Hours of Le Mans race held the previous year.
The shooting of Le Mans was notoriously troubled, with numerous hirings and firings, a near-fatal accident involving champion racer Derek Bell, and McQueen’s increasingly erratic behavior all landing the film in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. And with its star man and producer even missing the premiere and refusing to set foot in a racing car again, it’s little surprise the film flopped on its 1971 release. However, it’s since picked up a cult following impressed by its realism and refreshing lack of special effects.
2 Days of Thunder
Days of Thunder is inarguably better known for its role in setting up future husband-and-wife Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, as well as Maria McKee’s chart-topping power ballad theme, than anything that happens in its 108-minute running time. But while the 1990 release didn’t exactly capture the public’s imagination in the same way as director Tony Scott’s previous Cruise picture, Top Gun, it’s much more enjoyable than its rather lukewarm reputation suggests.
Although Kidman makes little impression as the love interest, a brooding Cruise exudes star quality as the stock-car racing driver who must learn how to control something that’s out of control. The daring race scenes – often filmed from the driver’s point of view – puts the viewer right in the heart of the action, Robert Duvall and Randy Quaid provide strong support, while Robert Towne’s screenplay is far more layered than you would expect from a Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson production.
1 The Cannonball Run
It’s safe to say that critics weren’t particularly enamored with The Cannonball Run when it arrived in cinemas in 1981. Roger Ebert described it as an “an abdication of artistic responsibility at the lowest possible level of ambition,” poor Farrah Fawcett picked up a Worst Actress nomination at the Razzie Awards and even Burt Reynolds attempted to distance himself from the film, later claiming he only did it as a favor to his director friend Hal Needham.
But the broad comedy, which sees an all-star cast (that includes Dean Martin, Roger Moore and Jackie Chan) compete in a cross-country race based on a real-life '70s competitive event, proved to be far more popular with the general public, grossing over $72m to become the sixth most successful film of the year. Sure, it’s not exactly the height of sophistication, but it’s the closest thing that cinema’s come to a live-action Wacky Races.
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