When it comes to action flicks, everyone loves a good car chase. They’re thrilling, daring, awe-inspiring and most of the time, just plain nuts. In fact, the bigger the better when it comes to vehicle stunt work. If a movie provides the most exciting and death defying car chase seen yet, then the next blockbuster released will always try and outdo the last. Although there comes a point where the mayhem might go a little overboard, especially when computer generated effects can do so much to embellish a set piece or stunt.
That’s not the case with these next 15 entries however. The following high-octane races and chases on this list are all thrilling, and they’re all real. These pursuits make use of real practical effects and stunt work rather than exaggerating them with CGI. The criteria for this list is simple: the motor-vehicle pursuits must be awesome, and they must be real. That means however cool we think the car chases in The Matrix Reloaded and Furious 7 are, they will unfortunately miss the checkered flag here.
So get ready to put the pedal to the metal, here are 15 Best Car Chases That Didn’t Use CGI.
15. Death Proof
Quintin Tarantino is one of the few filmmakers working today that insists on practical effects in his movies. For anyone who has seen Django Unchained or the more recent The Hateful Eight, you can certainly tell that all that gore and blood isn’t being generated on a computer. So of course when it came down to do his share of Grindhouse, and Tarantino chose to do a story about a killer stuntman hunting down groups of women with his “death proof” car, you can bet that the old school director is going to do everything practical.
And what a smart decision that turned out to be, as the nail-biting chase between Stuntman Mike and group of stunt-driving women, who aren’t so quick to lay down, is a doozy. As real life stunt actress Zoë Bell decides to strap herself onto the hood for a quick thrill, Stuntman Mike unexpectedly shows up to crash the party, and also crash his car into Zoë’s. It’s an impressive piece of stunt work as the actress swings and dangles from the hood of the car as it’s repeatedly hammered, and along with the infamous car wreck scene, it’s just one of the great uses of practical effects in Death Proof.
14. Smokey and the Bandit
A fun little piece of nostalgia, Smokey and the Bandit is a rom-com car chase movie that provides some great laughs without taking itself too seriously. Before car chase movies got a tad out of hand, like the missiles and explosions in Furious 7, there was a simpler time when outlaws would simply cut corners to run tractors full of beer over county lines. In this movie, that outlaw is the Bandit, and after unwittingly picking up a runaway bride, he gets the attention of some unwanted heat from policeman Buford T. Justice.
The bumbling cop and his even goofier son are soon in hot pursuit of the Bandit, but the outlaw didn’t come to play without a few tricks left hidden up his sleeve. In a wonderfully choreographed car chase through the woods that still holds up today, it seems that the Bandit has finally got himself cornered. Out of options, he does the only sensible thing, and jumps his car over an unfinished bridge to escape. The plan works, but unfortunately the same cannot be said about Buford T. Justice, who foolishly attempts the stunt and fails shortly after.
13. The Rock
People forget, but before the overblown CGI-fest that is the Transformers franchise, Michael Bay made a run of shoot em’ up action romps using old school effects. They were still overblown and bombastic of course, but they were absent of computer generated giant robots blasting each other with laser canons.
Out of these films, most fans tend to agree that the best is 1996’s The Rock, and even Michael Bay himself would agree with them. It’s a classic action/thriller about a team of renegade military men who threaten a nerve gas attack from Alcatraz, and the only two people who are able to stop them. One of these two men is an ex-convict, played by Sean Connery, and before he agrees to help out, he makes a run for freedom, with a mild-mannered chemist hot on his trail, played by Nicholas Cage.
It’s a brilliant shot car chase as Connery weaves and ducts out of traffic, with a lot of upward camera tilts that Bay has become so famous for. It even features his trademark “hero” shot at the end with the camera spinning around the triumphant Nicholas Cage. When all is said and done cars are blown up, telephone poles have toppled over, entire department stores are destroyed, and it all results in one of the best high-octane chase scene ever put to film.
One of the more recent entries on this list, Dan Gilroy’s dark neo-noir is just teeming with tension that builds and builds, until eventually, something snaps. Jake Gyllenhaal plays one of the least likable characters you’ll see in a while as Lou Bloom, a guy who will do just about anything to make a name for himself in the crime journalism bracket.
One of those things includes withholding information from the police about two serial killers. In an attempt to get a better shot of the action, Bloom waits until the criminals are in a coffee shop to phone in a tip to the police. When cops arrive the confrontation of course goes south, and one the criminals who makes it out of the shootout alive makes a high speed dash towards freedom.
Bloom and his assistant decide to film the whole chase between the criminal and the numerous police cruisers hot on his trail. The camera work here during the chase is absolutely breathtaking, with all of the smashups, including the huge climactic one, filmed without the help of computer generated effects. It pays off, as the end car chase in Nightcrawler is one of the best we’ve seen in recent memory.
11. The Blues Brothers
Moving to the other end of the spectrum from Dan Gilroy’s dark thriller, is the final over-the-top chase sequence from the classic comedy, The Blues Brothers. Ranking as one of our favorite movies starring SNL alumni, it’s the first fully produced movie based on a Saturday Night Live sketch, and according to most fans, still remains one of the best.
That popularity should be attributed to the perfect mix between clever sight gags, the undeniable chemistry between Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, the vast array of musical talent featured, and the collection of brilliantly choreographed car stunts. While the first chase sequence through the various department stores in a strip mall is certainly noteworthy, it’s the final pursuit between the Blues Brothers and the entirety of the Illinois police force that makes it onto this list.
With more cars smashed up than a demolition derby, Jake and Elroy Blues jump across highways, speed down city streets, and even do backflips by flooring it with their car in reverse. It all builds to one of the biggest pile ups ever seen on screen, with cop car after cop car slamming into each other to make a mountain of a scrap heap. While they’re eventually caught, Jake and Elroy are never subdued on wheels, which is a testament to their “Bluesmobile,” which unfortunately falls apart as soon as the chase is over.
While it’s certainly not as highly regarded as say True Grit or Stagecoach, McQ is still notable entry to John Wayne’s catalog thanks to its one well put together chase scene, and the fact that the actor as the titular character uses some kind of hand cannon to subdue his enemies. Following along the lines of other tough cop renegades during the 1970s like Dirty Harry, Wayne’s McQ is a tough cop who plays by his own rules. After his best friend is killed, McQ does a little digging and finds that a large chunk of the police force is corrupt and dealing out confiscated drugs. Aching to avenge his friend’s death, it’s up to McQ and his crack police work to stop them.
In all honesty, the plot is just a vehicle (intentional pun) for some high-octane action starring John Wayne, and what better way to do that than with a high speed car chase? Tracked down by some thugs, McQ speeds down the sandy shores of a beach with his pursuers directly behind him. The cars venture into the water as they start hydroplaning and jumping over driftwood. It’s a well-choreographed scene, but the coup de grâce is when McQ pulls out his hand cannon and punctures a series of holes in his enemies’ car, causing it to violently flip and crash in the sand.
9. To Live and Die in L.A.
You won’t be surprised to find that most of the car chases on this list take place in L.A. Be it for its alluring setting of sun drenched hills, or ties with grit and corruption, there’s just something about Los Angeles that keeps filmmakers coming back. William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. is no different, with one of the best shot chase scenes of 80s that keeps the film from falling into the void of forgotten classics.
When his partner is killed by a vicious criminal, Officer Richard Chance swears he’ll do whatever is necessary to payback all of those involved. Of course his antics cause the unwanted attention of said criminals. After being tracked down, the cop is pursued through the L.A. aqueducts. Just when he thinks he’s lost them for good, an entire hit squad puts up a road block, forcing Chance down a highway, and on the wrong side of the road. Chance swerves in and out of oncoming traffic causing one pileup on top of another trying to stay alive.
In reality, the heavily choreographed chase took six weeks to film, and was pushed to the end of the production so that if anything happened to the actors, the production team would still have the bulk of footage to work with. Not entirely reassuring to the actors involved, but thankfully no one got hurt during the shoot, with the ending chase becoming the most memorable part of the movie.
8. The Bourne Supremacy
Known for their strikingly realistic fight scenes, the Bourne films have captured some of the fastest paced action scenes that always leave audiences wanting more, and if history has taught us anything, the upcoming Jason Bourne will certainly not disappoint in that regard. Until then, we still have a huge collection of awesome chase scenes to rewatch from Bourne’s past adventures. This includes the fantastic pursuit through the streets of Zürich in The Bourne Identity, which would more than have been a worthy entry to this list.
However, we’re going with the taxi cab chase in The Bourne Supremacy which leaves the viewer hanging on the edge of their seat. After being shot in the shoulder, Bourne frantically hijacks a cab to escape his pursuers. Set to a thumping electronic score that gets the blood pumping, the chase is magnificently edited together to deliver maximum thrills as Bourne hightails it trying to dodge cop cars and oncoming traffic. It all culminates in a final standoff in an underground bridge in which Bourne narrowly escapes the clutches of death once more.
7. Vanishing Point
One part pedal-to-the-metal thriller, and another part psychological mind-bender, Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point has become a cult classic since its release in 1971. Down on his luck driver Kowalski is tasked with the job of delivering a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco, California. Shortly after pickup, a bet is made for Kowalski to make the trip in just 15 hours, setting in motion a plot that has the driver run into motorcycle cops and highway patrols galore.
While it never got its due in the theatrical run, Vanishing Point has picked up a healthy following for its now very appreciated car chases and cerebral plotline. The standout moment is undoubtedly the final hot pursuit, in which Kowalski comes face to face with a massive roadblock involving bulldozers. We won’t spoil anything here, but the final confrontation is guaranteed to surprise most.
Since picking up some steam due to its cult status, Vanishing Point earned a made for TV remake 1997 with Viggo Mortensen in the lead role. Even with star power, the update is a dull affair compared to the 1971 original, and if you like a well put together car chase, there is no substitute.
Tearing through the streets of Paris, the car chases in Ronin are everything you’d expect from a production starring legendary actors Robert De Niro and Jean Reno. After making some questionable titles like The Island of Dr. Moreau, director John Frankenheimer broke out of his slump with this crime drama in 1998. Ronin tells the story of a group of ex-spies who are tasked with stealing a certain briefcase and bringing it back to its owner. Like any great crime movie, not everyone is as they seem, and soon complications arise from one of the spies who isn’t what they claim to be.
This leads to numerous fight scenes and car chases, with one in particular that’s so good we had to put it on this list. Barreling down the streets of Paris, the main car chase in the movie is absolutely sublime. The vehicles come dangerously close to pedestrians as they fly down the sidewalk, an even greater feat knowing that there’s no computer effects in play here, and that these are real stuntmen risking their lives.
The pursuit takes place in tunnels, through highways, and on sidewalks as vehicles are riddled with bullets and burst into flames. It’s all captured by Frankenheimer’s stunning camera work, and while the director has since passed, he will be remembered for this awesome chase sequence in Ronin.
5. For Your Eyes Only
Given the James Bond series’ extensive catalog of car chases, this list could have easily been filled with various 007 outings. Our rules say only one chase per franchise, unfortunately, and while there were several strong contenders like the infamous tank mayhem in Goldeneye, we’re giving it up to the rather unorthodox chase sequence down the foothills of Greece in For Your Eyes Only. While most 007 vehicles usually come equipped with laser headlights, oil-slicks and ejector seats, this sequence stands alone because the suave British agent’s getaway car is none other than a beat up Citroën 2CV. Note the clown music when Bond lays his eyes on it.
After his gorgeous Lotus Esprit is blown up, the secret agent has no choice but to drive the rather dated Citroën 2CV to get away from a squad of thugs. The car is out-horsepowered, outclassed and outgunned, but Bond being the debonair agent that he is, manages to maneuver down back alleys and hills, and even finding the time to shoot off a couple well aimed puns during his down time. This chase is everything we’ve come to expect from Bond: barrel roles, gunplay, high stakes jumps, and a few corny jokes sprinkled in. Who else but 007?
4. The French Connection
If we’re talking classic car chases, then we have to mention The French Connection. One of the standout films of the early 1970’s, William Friedkin’s gritty drama has Gene Hackman star as a NYC cop who is trying to take down a gang of heroin smugglers with a connection in France. When one of those gangsters tries to give the authorities the slip, Hackman’s character is hot on his trail. High adrenaline is the name of the game here, as director Friedkin wanted the chase to be so realistic, so authentic, that he didn’t tell the public about it ahead of time – a tad dangerous to say the least.
Hackmnan’s stunt driver takes off down 20 city blocks as he dips and dodges through traffic while the camera in the backseat captures the entire thing. The stakes were so high that Friedkin even refused to get permits to shoot on location, resulting in real life collisions that would never fly today. One of the car crashes in the scene was indeed unplanned, with the owner having just parked it to go to work, totally unaware that a chase sequence was being filmed there. For that kind of lunacy and total disregard for the safety of the public, The French Connection more than earns a spot on this list.
Like the title would suggest, Nicholas Winding Refn’s film about a silent mechanic who moonlights as a getaway driver has its fair share of spectacularly filmed car chases. Perhaps the best of the them all is the beginning segment when we are first introduced to Ryan Gosling’s Driver and his raw, natural talent behind the wheel. After picking up his clients who have just committed a burglary in a warehouse, the fuzz isn’t far behind, and soon the word is out as every cop in the city is looking for the Driver and his cohorts.
No matter though, as the Driver easily anticipates the cops’ every move, always seemingly one step ahead even when backed into a corner. He dodges every cruiser he comes in contact with, disappearing under bridges and behind cars in downtown Los Angeles. Like every Refn film, including his most recent polarizing effort The Neon Demon, Drive has gorgeous cinematography, and the shadows and neon lights of L.A. are beautifully captured here. It’s a testament to Drive’s prowess that it ranks so high on our list without featuring the clichés of barrel rolls and vehicle pileups, proving that sometimes, less is more.
2. Mad Max 2: Road Warrior
Sometimes, more is better.
The granddaddy of all extreme car chases, Frank Miller’s post-apocalyptic Road Warrior is the movie that set and continues to set the bar for over-the-top vehicle mayhem. The final sequence in Miller’s Mad Max sequel is sporadic, gritty, gutsy, and gorgeous in every sense of the word. A mix between Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns and the high-octane action epics of the 80’s, the film follows Mel Gibson once again as the titular anti-hero as he befriends a tribe that holds a large tanker of gasoline, which in this world, is more valuable than gold. It attracts the attention of some dangerous bandits looking to loot the tanker. Max of course has other plans, and strategizes a daring escape during the climax which snowballs into a no-holds-barred car chase across the Australian wasteland.
The final battle has motorbikes flipping in the air, stuntmen jumping from one car to the next, and a tanker truck demolishing everything in sight, which all looks equally dangerous as exhilarating. The tanker roll stunt towards the end of the showdown was deemed so dangerous that the stuntman performing it was not allowed to eat for 12 hours beforehand, in case he had to be rushed into emergency surgery if anything went wrong. While the risks were great, the rewards were even greater, with Miller and company’s efforts creating a car chase for the ages. While it was recently and arguably overthrown by Mad Max: Fury Road (which would have made this list if not for some subtle use of CGI), the ending sequence of Road Warrior still stands as one of the most influential in cinema history.
While the above chase scenes are all amazing in their own right, none of them would have been possible without the influence of 1968’s Bullitt, starring the undisputed coolest actor of the 1960’s: Steve McQueen. Always up for a challenge, the “King of Cool” was a known motorcycle and race car enthusiast, and whenever he got the opportunity to drive in his movies he would frequently perform his own stunts, and there were a ton of stunts to be had in Bullitt. Peter Yates’ crime/thriller has McQueen play Police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, who is tasked with protecting a high profile mobster who is about to turn over evidence on his superiors. Of course the mob is not going to go down without a fight, and every bad-guy and evil-doer under the sun starts gunning for our hero.
It leads to an action packed thrill ride that on recent viewing is a breath of fresh air when compared to all of the sporadic blockbusters we are so accustomed to today. The iconic chase scene featured here is constantly billed as one of the best in movie history, and it is certainly worthy of its praise. McQueen dips and swerves around corners, his head constantly peeking out of his window, the actor wanting everyone to know he didn’t use a stunt-double. And while the stunt work is certainly worthy of praise, the real hero of the sequence is the editing, which lingers on the cars as they perform some of the most well-choreographed maneuvers in history.
Compared to most action movies today which are edited so fast you can barely tell what’s happening, Bullitt allows the viewer to see every death defying stunt in all its glory. It is certainly a feast for the eyes, and one of the most realistic and flat-out coolest car chases ever put to film, making it a worthy choice for our top spot on this list.
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