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The 12 Best Car Stunts In Cinema History

The 12 Best Car Stunts In Cinema History

Puddles of brake oil, motor oil and baby oil speckle the streets. Chrome rims spin and ripped pecs glisten. The grinding of gears, the screeching of brakes, the grunting of Men fills the night. The wind carries on it the overpowering scent of diesel. Or could it be — Diesel? This week the twin-cylinder silliness of the “Fast and Furious” franchise ploughs head first back into theatres as the seventh instalment opens and takes in [x] dollars (where x > most other numbers). Daft though it undoubtedly is, we’ve a soft spot for the “Fast and Furious” films, which have gone through ups (the addition of The Rock) and downs (the untimely death of Paul Walker), and questionable periods (’Tokyo Drift‘), but have emerged as a reliable, durable and, dare we say it, lovable series that speaks, or rather growls, to the flashy car/hard body/big noisy boom boom-loving meathead in all of us.

One of the most endearing aspects of the franchise is that with each outing the filmmakers try, and largely succeed, to top the previous installment’s centerpiece action sequence with some new, wildly unlikely scenario for which the only viable solution will, for some reason, involve driving cars into, or out of, things that were never meant to have cars in them in the first place. In this week’s “Furious 7” (read our review here), they look to have again upped the ante, with the show-stopping “cars dropped from a plane” teaser already more or less compelling everyone with a functioning adrenal gland to buy fourteen tickets for opening night. However, since we can’t simply replay that sneak peek over and over until Friday, some bright spark suggested we draw up a list of other memorable car stunts to pass the endless hours, to which we could only reply, as one, “I’m in, Toretto.”

A few ground rules: it’s a list of car stunts, as opposed to chases (though quite a few of them happen in the course of a car chase), so we’re saving the likes of “Ronin,” “Bullitt” and “The French Connection” for another feature sometime. Purists will be both delighted and appalled by our selection; while we’ve given props to those stunts that were achieved without CGI, sometimes the line gets very blurry, so we’ve also included a few that (like the stunt that inspired this list) may have involved clever use of computer generated graphics or composites. However, those films that look really CGI-y we’ve tended to avoid, so no “Matrix Reloaded” for example. And finally, it being a car stunt list, we’ve restricted ourselves to stunts that involve at least one vehicle that a normal person might look at and think “car” as opposed to “truck,” “motorbike,” “tank” or “BatPod.” So, a lot of judgment calls, but enjoy the list and clips below, and smack us down in the comments if you wish.

“Police Story” (1985) 
One of Jackie Chan’s finest hours (he made it after his first aborted attempt at American stardom in “The Protector,” and considers it one of his favorites), “Police Story” has all kinds of spectacular stunt work in it, but nothing as purely destructive as the opening, when our hero Inspector Chan Ka-Kui (Chan) pursues some bad guys, post-shootout, by driving his car not around, but straight through, a hillside shanty town, starting fires and generally creating havoc. The sequence was straight-up stolen by Michael Bay for a closing chase in “Bad Boys 2” (but with humvees, obviously), and no stunt coordinator could ask for a better thumbs up for their insanely destructive action. 

“The Man With The Golden Gun” (1974) 
Roger Moore’s second appearance as 007, in which he faces off against Christopher Lee’s tri-nippled assassin, Scaramanga, might be one of the worst Bond entries. But every film in the franchise has something to redeem it somewhere, and in this case, it’s one of the more iconic and spectacular car stunts ever. Speeding through Thailand with infuriating returning comic relief character, Sheriff Pepper (an unwelcome leftover from “Live And Let Die”), Bond finds a broken bridge and decides to cross it, corkscrewing a full 360 degrees in mid air, thanks to the twisted entrance and exit. Sure, it’s incredibly contrived (and marked by an ill-advised swan whistle sound effect), but it’s still a stunner, and given that subsequent attempts to recreate it have mostly failed, it’s impressive that stuntman Bumps Willard landed it on the first take. 

“Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997) 
The second-least-worst Bond of the Brosnan era proved to be something of a step-down from “Goldeneye,” both in general quality and the spectacular level of the stunts. But the film does feature one truly great set-piece, as Bond is cornered by villains in a car park in Hamburg. Not the franchise’s most glamorous location, sure, but one that takes advantage of some Q-branch gadgetery, with Brosnan piloting his BMW from the backseat via remote control. It’s a fun twist on the car chase, ending with a jaw-dropper of a stunt as 007, now out of the car, crashes the car off the roof and into the car-rental shop across the road. 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) 
One of the things that makes the second “Captain America” one of the better Marvel pictures is that (at least until its samey, exploding-airships finale) it’s reasonably grounded, with a crunchy, hand-held feel to the action which is mostly brilliantly shot by helmers the Russo Brothers. Arguably the film’s set-piece highlight is a car chase with Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, fleeing his unknown pursuers in his now beaten-up SUV. It culminates (along with a nifty truck vs. two police cars pile-up) in a take down by a mine fired by Sebastian Shaw’s title character that flips Fury’s car onto its back. It’s done for real rather than through CGI, and has all the more impact for it. 

“Casino Royale” (2006) 
With a long tradition of spectacular car stunts in the long-running franchise, it was important that “Casino Royale” came back with a good one, and boy, did they. While pursuing his kidnapped love, Vesper (Eva Green), 007 speeds off in his trademark Aston Martin, only to see the girl left bound in the middle of the road. Swerving on wet roads to avoid her at the last minute, the car lifts off the ground and spins seven times at 70 mph — a world record. Interestingly, it wasn’t even intended to go that many times: launched by an air cannon off a ramp, the intention was reportedly only for a single flip. No automotive stunt in the Daniel Craig-era has been quite as impressive.

“Death Proof” (2007) 
If you’re going to cast a stunt-person in the nominal lead of your movie, it’s likely not going to be for the line-readings. That certainly wasn’t the case when Quentin Tarantino put Zoe Bell (as ‘herself’) at the center of his “Grindhouse” segment “Death Proof.” Bell is, at best, serviceable as an actor, but she sings once she’s strapped to the hood of a car being pursued by Kurt Russell’s demonic Stuntman Mike. All very palapably done for real on camera (as you’d expect from Tarantino), it’s breathless, thrilling stuff, and easily the highlight of the movie. 

Fast Five” (2011) 
The “Fast & The Furious” franchise has always had spectacular car stunts at their center, hence this article. Even the earlier, lower-key (a relative term) entries have spectacular work, like the car flip from the end of the first film, or the long car-park drift from “Tokyo Drift.” But things really kicked up a gear to the physics-defying insanity of “Fast Five,” which somehow tops its mental opening train-heist sequence with an extended set-piece, where Paul Walker and Vin Diesel tow a giant safe through the streets of Rio. In this day and age, you’d assume that director Justin Lin heavily used CGI, and while there’s inevitably some embellishment and composition here, a surprisingly enormous amount was done for real. The cars really are jumping out of the train at full speed, and the vault in the climactic scene is not ever CGI, with a number of reconstructions (including a safe on wheels driven from the inside) genuinely being towed. Apparently, nearly 200 cars were wrecked by the vault, and it shows, in a sequence that’s still a high water mark for the franchise. 

“The Blues Brothers” (1980) 
Given the likes of “Coneheads” and “Stuart Saves His Family,” you wouldn’t expect one of the most spectacularly destructive automobile stunts to come from an SNL spin-off. But then John Landis’ “The Blues Brothers,” starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as the titular R&B loving ex-cons, is very much in the top tier of “Saturday Night Live” movies. It features not one, but two, spectacular car chases. The first, through an indoor mall, might be the most sensational, but the second features the greatest pile-up ever put on screen, as dozens of police cars ram into each other in a Chicago intersection. The half-baked sequel “Blues Brothers 2000” tried to top it, but while it might have more cars, the same spirit wasn’t there. 

“Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” (1981)
If we were to be writing this piece a couple of months from now, we’re sure that from the footage we’ve seen so far  “Mad Max: Fury Road” would be well deserving of about five of the slots. The finest of its predecessors is actually mostly disqualified due to its revolving, at least in part, around an old oil tanker. But “The Road Warrior” does contain at least one cracking, visceral car stunt, when our title character’s (Mel Gibson) trademark Interceptor has its windshield smashed and is run off the road by the evil Wez. It’s a low-tech version of the “Casino Royale” roll that would follow 25 years on, but somehow feels much more brutal. If “Fury Road” can have anything with this sort of emotional impact, it’ll be a triumph. 

“Bad Boys 2” (2003) 
The nihlistic madness of “Bad Boys 2” is pretty much bonkers from start to finish, but it reaches something of a peak (as, arguably, does Michael Bay’s action-helming career, here still free of the samey robotic shenanigans of the “Transformers” franchise) in the ludicrously over-extended car chase around the film’s mid-point, where Will Smith and Martin Lawrence’s cops chase down a whole host of bad guys (along with some fellow cops). The twist? They’ve hijacked a car transporter, and started flinging automobiles down the freeway at our heroes. Sure, there’s some CGI embellishment going on, but there’s plenty of for-real carnage happening here, too (including a speedboat). It’s an indecent amount of fun. 

“Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” (2011) 
Beyond a Hitchcock-aping sequence in the second film, the “Mission Impossible” franchise has so far been surprisingly low on memorable car stunts and sequences, preferring to dangle its hero off of tall things instead. The exception would be the best of the Tom Cruise-starring spy series, Brad Bird’s “Ghost Protocol,” which doesn’t just end with Ethan Hunt driving an automobile vertically into the ground as a time-saving measure, but also ends the film’s thrilling extended Burj Khalifa sequence with Cruise driving his car into the villain’s transport in the midst of a sandstorm, only just avoiding the flipping vehicle as it careens towards him. Your move, Christopher McQuarrie and “Rogue Nation.” 

“Live Free Or Die Hard” (2008) 
No one really liked the fourth “Die Hard” movie, “Live Free Or Die Hard,” but it looks positively brilliant these days after the toxically awful fifth picture “A Good Day To Die Hard.” In part because it actually managed to include some memorable action beats, most notably when John McClane (Bruce Willis) DRIVES A CAR INTO A HELICOPTER. You might think that this was a CGI moment (and in fairness, and quite obviously, the henchman on board has been badly composited jumping out), but the filmmakers did actually launch the car into a stationary helicopter hung by wires, which is pretty impressive. Sure, the physics might be shaky, as the nitpicky video below proves, but credit to Len Wiseman for really DRIVING A CAR INTO A HELICOPTER.

As we said, we excluded anything that was a pure car chase without having a stand-out single jaw-dropper of a stunt (like “The French Connection,” “Bullitt,” “Ronin” and “The Raid 2”), and anything that relied on speedboats, buses, trucks or similar. We also insisted that the stunt was done, in large part, for real. So, some favorites, like the rocket jump at the end of “Hooper” (done with a model), or the power-slide pick-up of James McAvoy by Angelina Jolie in “Wanted” (CGI, obvs), were also excluded. 

And of course, there’s plenty of other car stunts from Bond, “Fast & Furious,” “Smokey & The Bandit,” “The Cannonball Run” and many, many more, though none quite jumping to mind in the same way. Anything you really feel like we’ve missed out? Let us know in the comments. 

— Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang

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