In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Top 10 Chase Scenes

Top Ten Tuesday

Chase scenes are cliche. Cliche isn't necessarily bad, as demonstrated by the "meet cute", which is charming more often than lame. But chase scenes are predominantly time fillers; lazy ways to simulate excitement, typically in the form of cars driving fast, or people running through back yards.

My chase scene awakening occurred during The Rock (1996), when Sean Connery has escaped from a hotel and is racing to the Palace of Fine Arts, with Nicolas Cage in pursuit (Cage is an explosives expert; why is he the one chasing after Connery?). So there I was, watching an otherwise good action movie, and suddenly I realized, "Oh, this is a chase scene." Not, "Don't let him get away!" or "Wow, look at that!" or "I wonder what will happen next". I was pulled out of the story; the script suddenly became visible: "A chase ensues".

Chase scenes are usually on auto-pilot; you could take a bathroom break, and when you return and ask what you missed, there are only two possible answers, both boring: "they caught him" (in which case, what was the point of boring us with the chase), or "he got away" (the pursuers could have saved us many tiresome minutes by just letting the guy go). The only variation exists in how many cars exploded and how many bad guys died gruesome deaths in the process.

Hollywood action writing approaches the problem of the chase scene by trying to make it morbidly unique (impaling a pursuer on a surfboard), unusually scenic (driving across a frozen lake; ore carts racing through tunnels), or by juxtaposing modes of transportation (a car on railroad tracks; a horse in an elevator). But the best solution to the problem of a chase scene is to cut it.

Here is my perfect chase scene (if you are an aspiring film maker and manage to work this into your movie, I will be eternally grateful). Set in a corporate office, one white-collared cog is trying to cross the cubical-filled room, to get to a fax machine or boss's office or some other MacGuffin. A second white-collared cog must apprehend the first cog before that goal is attained. But they are in the workplace and must still do their jobs; neither can betray to their coworkers that a chase is afoot. So, when someone stops to chat about sports, the cog must stop to chat about sports. When someone needs some proofreading on an email, or a photocopy made, or has a question about something, one of our protagonists is delayed. Slowly, painstakingly, they each work their way across the room, always visible to each other (their heads above the cubes), never knowing what is delaying the other or how long that fortuitous delay will last, always impatient to dispatch their own delays. I'm telling you, it'll be so tense I'll rip the armrests off my stadium seating. Now get out there and film it!

Here are ten (other) movies in which the chase scene works.

10. The Matrix (1999)
We'll never forgive this movie for the sequels that followed, but it has some great chases. In the final chase, Neo races through town to a distant telephone. It's your typical through-the-backyard pursuit, but the gimmick here is that every person he passes (on the street, in the alley, in an apartment) immediately transforms into a trigger-happy Agent Smith. It's a chase in which the runner can't possibly outpace his pursuer.

9. Next (2007)
Nicolas Cage can see two minutes into the future. That's not enough foresight to avoid making movies like Knowing, but it does come in handy when trying to escape a casino. Cage patiently works his way toward the exit, using his precognition to elude his many pursuers. He turns or ducks or dons a hat at just the right moment to be out of sight as someone passes, much to the anger of the agents behind the eye in the sky, who can see Cage's every brilliant move.

8. The Shining (1980)
This is a classic "monster chases the hero" chase in the hedge maze at the end. The stakes are raised by the disparity between the two characters: the young, helpless son, versus the deranged, ax-wielding father. Unlike most horror movies, where the hero has at least some chance of setting a trap and besting the beast, here we know that if the father catches the son, the boy is done for. But the chase manages to interweave tension and plot. The boy is able to leverage his knowledge of the maze to navigate it successfully; maybe we saw that coming, but it's still satisfying. The father runs around and around in circles, getting lost and sinking further into madness. The maze's endless turns become a symbol of the father's insanity. Ultimately the monster destroys himself by succumbing to his mindless wrath.

7. First Blood (1982)
John Rambo escapes into the forest, with the sheriff's posse on his trail. But what starts out as a typical chase in Act I transforms in Act II into a hunt. The chase has slowed; dogs are sniffing out the trail; the police are closing in for the kill. But, as a young David Caruso says, "we ain't hunting him; he's hunting us." The tables have turned. Rambo is in his element, and begins to take down the would-be-chasers one at a time. "In town you're the law; out here it's me." John Rambo is awesome.

6. Heat (1995)
When our two teams of protagonists and antagonists collide outside a bank in Los Angeles, an explosive yet slow chase begins, with the robbers creeping along the street, covering each other as they jog from doorway to pillar, shooting at everything in sight. The police advance to keep pace, and do their best to double the number of bullets fired that day. The action choreography is so well done that it doesn't feel like a chase scene at all.

5. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
This is of the exotic locale variety. Yun-Fat Chow and Ziyi Zhang chase each other across the top of a bamboo forest, leaping from tree to tree, barely bending a trunk. The scene is mesmerizing, and helps to demonstrate that Chow's inner peace and mastery of martial arts make him weightless, contrasted to Zhang, who is weighed down by her anger.

4. Princess Bride (1987)
The man in black pursues Princess Buttercup's kidnappers with amazing rapidity. He sails across eel-infested waters. He scales the Cliffs of Insanity. He bests the Giant in strength, the Spaniard in skill, and, finally, catches up to the mastermind, only to find him holding a knife to our Princess. Will they fight? Will they duel? No, it shall be a game of wits. To the death.

3. The Terminator (1984)
Chases don't have to be fast, cover expansive territory, or feature multiple explosions to be tense. In the final sequence of The Terminator, Sarah Connor, wounded, crawls across the floor, flopping over railing, frantically squirming through various pieces of machinery (just like in a nightmare where you try to run but can barely move). The terminator, equally impaired, must drag itself by its hands. It claws at the floor to gain traction, determined to use its last moments to fulfill its programming. The entire chases spans only about twenty feet, and every inch is terrifying.

2. Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Everything is great about the final chase. The music is perfect. The mountain setting is treacherous and beautiful. The stakes are high (everything good in the world has been destroyed; only Madeleine Stowe is worth living for). And there is a wonderful contrast between the slow, walking retreat of Magua's band, who don't know they're being chased, and the fleet-footed dash of Hawkeye and his family, desperate to catch up.

1. Fargo (1996)
Our hero, Frances McDormand, has finally tracked down the kidnappers to a remote cabin on the edge of a frozen lake. She sneaks up on bruiser Peter Stormare (in the midst of performing a grisly act). Stormare turns to see McDormand approaching, and begins running across the lake to escape. Now, we're a smart audience, and from our extensive training we know that only two outcomes are possible: Stormare falls through the ice, or McDormand catches up with him, they fight, and Stormare falls through the ice (for variety, adjust how hard McDormand tries to rescue him before he eventually drowns anyway). So which happens? Well, she's pregnant, and she has a gun after all, so why mess around? Cut to her driving her police car, with Stormare locked up in the back seat. Now that is an effective chase scene: a guy takes off running, but is immediately caught by a smart cop with a gun.


  1. I want to know what movie has a horse in an elevator, because I need to go rent it right this second.

  2. I'll give you a hint: the movie's leading male is also the villain in one of the above-named films.

  3. Here's a hint.

    "He lies in his ... true . . statement".

    Or reverse that or something, I don't know.

    Okay Will, you are a genius. First off, I hate chase scenes. Especially car chase scenes. I don't care how many crashes or near misses or smashed street vendors they show, they are booooorrrrriiiing. So I was skeptical when you suggested there were ten good chase scenes and at first thought you were cheating because these weren't chase scenes, they were. . . . good . . . . scenes . . . . YOUR RIGHT(!), they are chase scenes, they are just done so well that I didn't notice.

    Matrix: Never forgive(?), I have never blamed this movie for the sequels that followed, that finger is pointed squarely at the creators of the series. The movie itself is still pure gold. This chase scene not only brought us what you described but the great line "Go left, no your other left!".

    Princess Bride: This one is pushing it as defining it as a chase scene.

    Fargo: this movie is always talked up as wonderful, but because of the aforementioned grisly act, I will never watch it. Indeed, i wish said grisly act has never been described to me.

  4. Okay, I get *who*, but still not *what* film. Hopefully it's got some of his trademark quips in it, though, whatever it is.

    Here's a chase scene that's not on the list: the end of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, when Ferris is trying to get home before his parents. You've got not two but three parties involved in the chase (whether they know it or not), plus the *real* bad guy (Mr. Rooney) who's already made it to the house and is lying in wait. I think it's a great scene because it reveals so much about the characters along the way -- Ferris charming people as he runs through their yards and houses, the oblivious Dad having no idea what's going on around him, Jeannie going into full-on older sister mode to torment (but ultimately help) her younger brother.

  5. OSR gives good hint as to the title.

    The Ferris Bueller's Day Off scene is great; I had forgotten about Ferris's back yard antics. Ultimately I left the movie off this list, though, because it seemed more like a race than a chase, with everyone trying to get home before someone else does.

  6. Ohhhh. I've seen that -- why don't I remember the horse in the elevator?

  7. I should have included Deja Vu, when Denzel is chasing the perp by wearing a headset that lets him see into the past. He's having to avoid traffic in his reality, while also keeping up with the perp in the other reality, sending two simultaneous streams of information to his eyes.

  8. The movie Next probably has the best chase scenes ever! The 2-minute foresight he could do adds to the most thrilling parts of the movie! Everybody's in motion, trying to save the whole place, and they're really, really fast! However, if it had a good ending, it would probably be a top-notch film. Cage is really into suprising his fans, huh? One of his latest films, Drive Angry, should be on that list too(if it will be updated, though)! Btw, thanks for sharing. Some people probably don't know how great those movies are, especially the high octane chase scenes! ;)

    --Dante Mallet