Friday Night Seitz
Video slide show: From "Road Warrior" to "Death Proof," the films that turn vehicular carnage into high art
10. Final chase, “Death Proof” (2007)
A stuntwoman plays “ship’s mast” on the roof of a Dodge Challenger just as a maniac in an armored “death car” drives up, hungry for blood; and so begins one of the few truly great chase sequences of the last 10 years. Part of what makes it so exciting is director Quentin Tarantino’s commitment to old-school analog stunts. There are no digital effects in the sequence, not even rear-screen projection. Every stunt and every maneuver is actually happening. Tarantino’s masterstroke is casting New Zealand stuntwoman Zoe Bell as herself; throughout the chase, you’re aware that its actually her on the hood of that car.
9. Bike chase, “Armor of God 2: Operation Condor” (1991)
Jackie Chan’s bizarre riff on the “Indiana Jones” series contains some of the greatest vehicular stunts ever filmed. As you can see in this clip, what distinguishes Chan (who directed himself) and other Hong Kong action filmmakers from many of their American counterparts is their acrobatic precision. Chan on his bike and the cops in their cars seem as nimble as tightrope walkers or master martial artists; you get the sense that every participant in this chase is constantly judging the distance between point A and point B in relation to the speed of the chase and the dexterity of their pursuers, and only then deciding what to do next.
8. Any car chase in “Freebie and the Bean” (1974)
There were a lot of gratuitously destructive car-chase movies in the ’70s, but even for its time, “Freebie and the Bean” stands out as especially wanton and gleeful. The San Francisco police detectives played by Alan Arkin and James Caan treat the city as their personal playground and roar through it like a couple of kids. Sometimes they destroy acres of property and cause injuries, but hey, it’s OK — it’s all in the name of justice. If the film weren’t so intense, you could take it as a satire of Hollywood films’ projection of movie star entitlement onto the world. One chase ends with Caan and Arkin careening off a freeway ramp and crashing their car into an elderly couple’s apartment while they’re watching TV in bed; as the cops walk away from the wreck, the husband remarks, “Television is getting too violent.” This was Stanley Kubrick’s favorite film of 1974. No, really.
7. Tanker truck chase, “The Road Warrior” (1981)
Mad Max (Mel Gibson) gets behind the wheel of a tanker truck and leads an armada of biker barbarians in a relentless chase through a desert wasteland. Easily one of the best large-scale chase sequences in movies, it earned favorable comparisons to the truck chase in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the great train sequences in Buster Keaton’s “The General.” And the final twist is just brilliant.
6. All of “Vanishing Point” (1971)
One of the more memorable exploitation movies of the ’70s, this movie by Richard C. Sarafian follows a loner named Kowalski (Barry Newman) as he tries to deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T from Denver to San Francisco. The job turns into an epic journey, with Kowalski being chased by an ever-increasing number of cops while a blind DJ called Super Soul (Cleavon Little) cheers him on via his radio show. Like a lot of ’70s films, this one is basically one long chase; sometimes it downshifts into travelogue mode, letting the filmmakers explore Kowalski’s past as a Vietnam veteran and ex-cop, and other times it’s careening all over the place, with Kowalski deftly outthinking and outdriving cops in cars, on bikes and in motorcycles. Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to this movie by name-checking it in 2007′s “Death Proof,” calling it “one of the greatest American movies ever made” and featuring a different model Challenger onscreen.
5. Final chase, “Bullitt” (1968)
The car chase that started the 1970s car-chase craze, the high point of “Bullitt” still thrills — a long, meticulously choreographed chase that pays close attention traffic patterns and the mentality of drivers. If you’ve never seen it before, you may be struck by the fact that the whole thing isn’t relentlessly fast; there’s a lot of cat-and-mouse action, with pursuers and pursued stalking through San Francisco’s hilly streets like wild animals in the jungle, figuring out their next move.
4. Under the subway tracks, “The French Connection” (1971)
Technically less a car chase than a chase that happens to involve a car, this legendary scene from the cop thriller “The French Connection” is still a heart-stopper. When Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), the chief henchman of a powerful French heroin dealer, flees police by hijacking a subway train, New York police detective Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) gives chase in his car, zooming beneath elevated train tracks at high speed and forcing oncoming cars and pedestrians to avoid him. (At one point he nearly runs over a woman with a baby carriage!) By the end, Popeye’s car is as smashed up as an old beer can.
3. Truck chase, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)
As sheerly pleasurable as any other chase cited on this list, and a masterpiece of construction besides, the truck chase from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” plays almost like a self-contained movie-within-a-movie, with its own goals, progress markers and unexpected reversals. This set piece involves a whole caravan of vehicles transporting the Lost Ark of the Covenant to a waiting ship; Indy makes a hilariously iconic entrance riding a magnificent horse down a steep hill, invading the truck’s front cab and systematically killing every German soldier who tries to stop him. I love how the balding blond German who looks vaguely like Crocodile Dundee is nearly as badass as Indy; he tosses the hero through the windshield of the truck, precipitating Indy’s astounding climb beneath the vehicle’s undercarriage, then unsuccessfully tries to duplicate the feat after Indy re-enters the truck cab and throws him out. This scene is no longer available online, but you can view a complete storyboard of screenshots here.
2. Freeway chase, “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985)
Director William Friedkin’s enthusiastically scuzzy 1985 thriller builds toward the most nerve-racking car chase in movies. FBI agents Chance (William L. Petersen) and Vukovich (John Pankow) are fleeing the disastrous shakedown of a stolen-jewelry dealer who turned out to be an FBI agent and eventually shake their pursuers by deliberately driving the wrong way on the Terminal Island Freeway near Wilmington, Calif. This is one of the great analog-era chase scenes. The fact that all the cars, people and locations are real adds immeasurably to the sense of imminent harm. Friedkin supposedly got the idea for a chase sequence going the wrong way on a freeway back in 1963, when he was returning home from a wedding in Chicago, fell asleep at the wheel, and awoke to find himself driving against traffic. He put this sequence in “L.A.” partly because he’d spent the previous 14 years wondering if it was possible to top the chase he directed in “The French Connection.” Mission accomplished.
1. Through Paris streets, “Ronin” (1998)
This scene from John Frankenheimer’s post-Cold War action thriller “Ronin” has everything you want in a chase: wild action, precision driving, filmmaking chops and an overpowering sense of physical reality. Frankenheimer was adamant about that last part: A classic-car buff and race car driver throughout most of his life, he said he directed “Ronin” mainly to have an excuse to shoot a bunch of thrillingly ridiculous but physically believable car chases with a bit of plot sandwiched in between. (The script — written by J.D. Zeik and rewritten by an uncredited David Mamet — is much better than it needed to be.) Although the cuts are super-fast, you always get a clear sense of action and reaction: Just before Natascha McElhone’s Deirdre makes an evasive skid, for instance, you see a quick close-up of her shifting into neutral and yanking up the parking brake. Throughout this sequence, you get the sense that Frankenheimer is consciously trying to invoke and outdo classic chase scenes from earlier movies (particularly “Bullitt,” “The French Connection” and “To Live and Die in L.A.”). Amazingly, he pulls it off. This might be the last classically directed analog chase scene in big-budget Hollywood movies. Frankenheimer amped up the sense of fear by towing the actors at speeds matching that of the drivers in their stunt cars. In a couple of shots, you can see the fear in the stars’ eyes, and there’s one closeup where you can practically hear Robert De Niro thinking, “What the f— did I get myself into?”
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.