With James Bond and Indiana Jones arriving on Blu-ray this month, Mania counts down the 50 greatest chase sequences of all time. They include cars, trains, planes, stagecoaches, and spaceships, as well as a few scenes of good old-fashioned shoe leather. A chase here is defined as a pursuit of any kind involving at least one chaser and one chase-ee. (This disqualifies a few films, such as Jan de Bont’s Speed which technically has no pursuer.) We've cracked the top 20, with a series of films that prove sequels sometimes do it better.
20. Terminator 2
“Come with me if you want to live.”
Say what you will about Avatar, but James Cameron knows spectacle, and this chase through LA’s river canals is one of his most spellbinding set pieces. It’s a short sequence (relative to many of the others on this list, anyway) but a relentless one; once Robert Patrick’s T-1000 spots young John Connor (Edward Furlong), the viewer is pulled into a kinetic joyride that doesn’t let up until the T-1000’s commandeered 18-wheeler lies in flames and Connor is safely under the protection of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robotic guardian. As easy as it is to complain about the proliferation of brainless Hollywood action vehicles, this scene—and the film it appears in—remind us just how much fun big-budget mayhem can be.
19. Live and Let Die
“The man that gets him stays alive!”
Like most of the James Bond sequences included on this list, Live and Let Die’s famous speedboat chase manages to be innovative (as it had to be, given that it was the eighth film in a heavily action-oriented series) without being goofy. (Remember Pierce Brosnan getting pursued by a giant laser in Die Another Day?) Here Bond (Roger Moore) and a bunch of gangster henchmen zip like bullets across the Louisiana bayou, occasionally skimming over dry land and somehow wrecking a few cop cars in the process. Comedic touches add a nice humorous flavor to the scene, although the blustering redneck sheriff is, admittedly, a bit much.
18. The Abyss
“Pretty slick, Slick!”
Say what you will about James Cameron--and you can say plenty. He's a hack narcissist. He's a godlike genius. Take your pick. One thing that cannot be argued, however, is his commitment. When he decides to do a movie that takes place pretty much entirely under water, he figures out how to make it happen. In The Abyss, he saw to the creation of custom dive helmets and underwater cameras, and still has people debating the "did Ed Harris actually breathe the pink oxygenated fluid?" question (Google it: the debate rages). The big upside to Cameron's creative mania, of course, is that when the depth-pressure-crazed Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn) starts chasing Bud and Lindsey (Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) around in minisubs, there are actual minisubs being smashed into each other. It creates a verite that you still can't get with CGI (cough-Avatar-cough) no matter how hard you try, and the scene's culmination (Coffey showing us how implosion works), is a million times better for it.
17. Grindhouse: Death Proof
Yes, there’s a whole lot of chit-chat in Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino’s half of the ambitious double feature Grindhouse, but Tarantino eventually delivers the goods with an extended chase scene in which Kurt Russell uses a 1969 Dodge Charger to attack a 1970 Dodge Challenger carrying Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms, with stuntwoman Zoe Bell perched precariously on the Challenger’s hood. Tarantino has stated that he wanted this chase to be a counterpoint to the recent action-movie trend of relying on CGI and rapid cuts between various camera angles, and the result is a sequence in which the audience has a firm grasp on what’s going on— Bell actually strapped to the hood of a real car going well beyond the appointed speed limit – and is brought to the edge of their seats by it.
16. The Dark Knight
“We’ll be like turkeys on Thanksgiving down there!”
Nolan already scored a brilliant chase scene in Batman Begins, shot on the streets of Chicago and using Lower Wacker Drive as a centerpiece. He returns to the same spot for a curtain call, which actually surpasses its predecessor for carefully orchestrated mayhem. It starts with a fire engine lit up like a Roman candle: a chilling promise from Heath Ledger's Joker that no one's coming to help. By the time it finishes – with an 18-wheeler flipped end over end and Batman himself lying helpless on the pavement – his message is clear. You can stop this lunatic, but the chaos he engenders will still swallow you whole.
“You seem to be now the very thing you set out to destroy.”
Contrary to urban legend, no one died during the famous chariot race between Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and his former childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd). They came close, however, when stuntman Joe Canutt was thrown into the air while standing in for Heston. He sustained only minor injuries and the shot remains in the sequence… which took a year to plan and involved 78 horses stampeding around the largest set ever built at the time. The reality of it -- and the fact that it could have turned into a jumbo-sized snuff film at any time -- thunders home with each clash and turn. For all the tension, however, make-believe still reigns. Or as Canutt's father Yakima (who served as second unit director on the piece) famously told Heston. "Chuck, you just stay in the chariot. I guarantee you're gonna win the damn race!"
14. Casino Royale
“Put your hand down!”
This was the scene that removed all doubt. If, even after that kick-ass pre-credits sequence of Casino Royale you were still on the fence about Daniel Craig and the whole "Bond reboot" thing, this was the scene that made it or broke it. Bond chasing a bombmaker through a maze of Madagascar streets, through a jawdropping parkour-ready construction site (who runs through drywall? James Freaking Bond, that's who), and then blazing into an embassy, would either make you a believer or turn you away entirely. More of this please--we're believers.
13. Mad Max
“I am the rocker, I am the roller, I am the out-of-controller!”
George Miller’s drive-in masterpiece embodies the low-budget grit that marks so many films on this list. With the opening sequence, he let us know that this ride was anything but business as usual. His staggering stunt work puts us right up to the pavement at 100 miles an hour, sharing the danger with the maniacal Night Rider (Vincent Gill) as he attempts to outrun a future police force that differs little from its quarry. Only Mel Gibson’s Max has the stones to stop him, and then only by adopting the same suicidal tactics. So too does Miller shoot the scene with nothing left behind, the only way to make us feel the adrenaline in the same way his crazed characters do.
“You got a bad attitude, pops. Lighten up before your arteries harden.”
Only one animated film made our list, a testament to Akira’s strengths as pure kinetic filmmaking. We know next to nothing about the two motorcycle gangs dueling it out in the neon-drenched future: just the basic personalities of a few members. Their moving brawl thus serves to educate us about the world, as they clash from one end of Neo-Tokyo to the other. You rarely see exposition this exciting, a fact which informs the tenor and tone of this universe. And the bloody consequences of their clash serves notice that children don’t belong here; this cartoon is strictly for the big kids.
11. The Matrix Reloaded
“You always told me to stay off the freeway!”
As much as we respect stylish filmmaking technique and execution, there’s something to be said for sheer quantity, which is first and foremost what The Matrix Reloaded’s freeway chase sequence provides (with stylish technique and execution thrown in as an added bonus). Morpheus and Trinity’s attempt to protect the Keymaker from the baddies who want him deleted leads to a 15-minute buffet of flipping cars, billowing explosions, indulgent slow-motion and acrobatic wire-fu performed atop speeding tractor-trailers. The scene, which took three months to complete, was shot on a 1.4-mile stretch of highway built for the production on a decommissioned navy base; it’s the kind of thing you only get to do when your last movie made $460 million.
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