Yes, obviously Ronin, plus more of the best 1990s car chase movies

You have to dig deeper for the good stuff in the 1990s, but the decade does wind up with arguably the greatest car chase movie of them all…

Short Time (1990)

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No, me neither. This “straight-to-video” comedy riffs off the central character’s (mistaken) belief that he only has two weeks left to live. Seattle detective Burt Simpson (played by accomplished character actor Dabney Coleman) sets about trying to get killed in the line of duty so his family can benefit from a plump insurance pay-out. 

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This sees him become willingly embroiled in a car chase, in which he uses his standard-issue Dodge Diplomat saloon to pursue armed robbers in a Pontiac Catalina. Usual credibility issues aside – his seat belt has apparently miraculous properties – this is a robust chase sequence that ratchets up the jeopardy with impressive efficacy to an unexpectedly brutal conclusion.

Days Of Thunder (1990)

PJ O’Rourke, himself a car fan, had clear ideas about which was best. “Some say a front-engined car, some say a rear-engined car. I say a rented car.

Mud, snow, water, woods – you can take a rented car anywhere. True, you can’t always get it back – but that’s not your problem, is it?” It’s a thesis rigorously stress-tested by Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) and racing rival Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker) at one point in Days Of Thunder, Tony Scott‘s absurdist – though not deliberately – ode to Nascar. Whatever happens on screen can’t hold a candle to the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings, for it represents the apex of Hollywood power producing duo Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson (Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, The Rock), the latter possessed of an Olympic gold medal-winning drug habit. 

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Robert Towne‘s screenplay was tinkered with endlessly, to the extent that Cruise was reading new lines of script off the car dashboard or being fed them through an earpiece. Unsurprisingly, Days Of Thunder went both wildly overbudget and three months overschedule, a project riddled with the sort of rampant egomania Hollywood would struggle to indulge as the new decade got under way. Yet, 30 years on, something strange has happened to Days Of Thunder: it’s so transparently ridiculous that it’s enjoyable on a new, almost meta level.

Which doesn’t stop it from being a bad film.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

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This is a masterclass in crafting – if that’s the word – a great movie chase. The beats are perfectly timed, the editing pin-sharp, and over the three decades since its release it isn’t a chase at all so much as a compendium of genuinely iconic moments: the mechanistic rhythm of Robert Patrick’s T-1000 run, the Freightliner FLA truck obliterating the bridge to land in the canal, Arnie doing that thing where he flips the sawn-off shotgun to reload, the bit where he jumps his Harley-Davidson Fat Boy off the ledge, the perfectly judged pause before the T-1000’s head reappears after he’s sheared the roof off the truck… It’s all there. 

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Although half the film’s then-record £100 million budget was spent on the mesmerising special effects (pioneered on James Cameron‘s 1989 film The Abyss), the truck chase sequence is mostly old-school stunt co-ordinating bravado. A false wall was constructed for the truck to smash through and a full-size Harley was suspended off an eight-foot-wide steel bar attached to two cables in turn attached to two construction cranes. A truck in the canal then pulled stuntman Peter Kent off the ledge, landing the bike gently enough to nail the shot but without that hefty Harley destroying itself. (It earned Kent a place in the Hollywood Stuntman’s Hall Of Fame.) As for the gun, it’s an 1887 Winchester 12-gauge with a larger loop so Schwarzenegger could flip it while riding the bike without breaking his fingers.

A masterpiece of action filmmaking.

Thelma & Louise (1991)

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Of course it’s a car movie – and much else besides. A year after his brother unleashed the thrillingly vapid Days Of Thunder, Sir Ridley Scott reimagined the dusty tropes of the road movie, switching out the traditional male protagonists to give the film a feminist supercharge (although some critics and academics insist it’s misogynistic, others that it’s misandristic – you pays your money, etc). 
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The car, a 1966 Ford Thunderbird, does that thing that the best movie cars do and becomes a character in its own right.

The ending remains one of the greatest in movie history. (Spoiler alert: they drive the T-bird off the edge of the Grand Canyon, but you knew that, right?)

Speed (1994)

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Despite the fact that LA is not a public transport city, never mind the inanity of the basic premise (as so wonderfully lampooned in Father Ted), Speed remains an untouchable action movie. Keanu Reeves is not what you’d call a great actor, but he is a fabulous film star, and he’s up against Dennis Hopper at his most gleefully deranged. He’s also got to figure out how to get onboard a bomb-rigged bus, then how to get back off it along with the passengers (including a then-unknown Sandra Bullock in a star-making performance). 
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Rarely has the endless concrete expanse of the LA freeway network looked so thrilling, most of the filming being done on Interstate 105 and 110.

The bus jump across the unfinished section was a late addition to the script; although a technically challenging jump was performed, the gap between stanchions was added in post-production. The star car here is the Jaguar XJ-S convertible Reeves’ character commandeers – “This is my car, I own this car, it is not stolen! It is now…” – to make the pivotal leap onto the bus.

It’s a great sequence in itself, but a mere entree to a film which is basically one long, delirious chase.

The Rock (1995)

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Frankly, it pains me to include a Michael Bay film here: this is a director who makes the late Tony Scott look like Ingmar Bergman. But any film that unites Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery is already fielding two giant assets. This is peak 1990s action: in the pivotal chase sequence, Cage (playing the improbably named Stanley Goodspeed) is in a (borrowed) Ferrari F355 Spider pursuing MI6 agent Connery’s (stolen) Humvee through San Francisco’s much-filmed and car-chase-friendly streets. 

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There are wailing police sirens, demolished cabs, exploding water cooler bottles, apoplectic FBI men hurling abuse into their comms, explosions, falling telegraph poles, Chevy saloons flying pirouetting through the air, an old lady crossing the road (clearly a man), a runaway tram, more explosions and, inevitably, the destruction of the Ferrari, whose demise is filmed with a lip-smackingly fetishistic glee. If a shot is on screen for three seconds then that’s a second too long for Bay, and the entire sequence pops with as much reality as a Looney Tunes cartoon. All that’s missing is an anvil dropping out of the sky. (See also Bay’s 1995 debut, Bad Boys, which features a Porsche 911 Turbo/AC Cobra dust-up.)

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

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“In every car chase the driver is stuck behind the wheel and that’s all he can do.

Because of this great Q device, Bond spends the entire chase in the back of the car,” Roger Spottiswoode said of the conceit in the core chase scene of this 18th James Bond film. The sequence is set in the multi-storey car park of the Hotel Atlantic Kempinski in Hamburg, overlooking Aussenalster lake. The BMW is being assailed by goons with sledgehammers.

When Bond arrives, he triggers tear gas, starts the car from his Ericsson handset and manages to leap through the rear-side window as it passes. What follows is impressively filmed over the course of three weeks on level four of Brent Cross shopping centre’s car park. “I wanted to make the car park chase scene different to what you normally see. Rather than go bigger, it’s better to add some canny little twists to it,” second unit director Vic Armstrong noted. 

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“Here, the saving grace is the humour. At the same time, you must have it within the realm of believability. It’s a difficult line to walk.” It was a line the Bond producers had been negotiating for many years.

Four of the 17 cars supplied by BMW had been adapted to “hidden driver” spec: the stunt drivers were able to pilot the vehicles around the confines of the car park while lying on the rear seat, with small monitors relaying the view ahead from cameras installed in the exterior door mirrors. “Tremendously fast, those cars. We probably totalled four or five,” Armstrong added. (NB The current BMW 7 Series has the ability to park itself by remote control. Not even Q would have bought that.)

Ronin (1998)

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Thirty years after Bullitt, director John Frankenheimer raised the stakes and delivered arguably the greatest car chase movie of all.

Having pioneered various techniques on Grand Prix, no one in Hollywood knew how to shoot cars better than this guy, and the French setting somehow elevates the tone. “We didn’t use any of that computer shit,” Frankenheimer said. “Everything you see, we really did.” The film’s mighty chases were designed and overseen by stunt car co-ordinator Jean-Claude Lagniez. He’d worked with the great Remy Julienne for 18 years (and had been Roger Moore‘s stunt double in two Bonds), before being drafted in to replace the original stunt team. “Every stunt man in the world would have dreamed of making a film like this with [Frankenheimer],” he recalled. “John really knew his business. You couldn’t play him for a fool, and whenever a car arrived on set, he knew what engine it had.” 

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The stunt drivers were all ex-racing drivers, including Formula One pilote Jean-Pierre Jarier (that’s him in the Audi S8) and US Champ Car driver Patrick Lemarier. Lagniez cites the Paris sequence, where the BMW 535i and Peugeot 406 go against the flow of traffic, as his favourite; having rehearsed it on a Saturday, it was shot in just four hours the following day. “We had 100 drivers, all of them racing professionals. We knew they wouldn’t panic.

They knew us, there were no problems.” He was also Robert De Niro‘s stunt driver; the actor had a dummy steering wheel in front of him, with Lagniez doing the driving on the right-hand side. Ronin is named in honour of disenfranchised samurai, its protagonists a bunch of international mercenaries trying to steal a mysterious silver case, their loyalties constantly shifting. The quasi-documentary tone and sense of reality permeates the chase sequences in particular. They’re certainly more believable than the Irish accents adopted by Jonathan Pryce and Natasha McElhone. (NB Frankenheimer loved cars and this film is expertly cast – the Audi S8, BMW 535i, Citroen XM, Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9, Peugeot 605 and the whole supporting crew look better with every passing year.)

Taxi (1998)

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Written and produced by Luc Besson, this low-budget nonsense has spawned four sequels, an American remake and a TV series.

A phenomenon. Our hero is pizza delivery man-turned-taxi driver Daniel, whose apparently unprepossessing Peugeot 406 is rather more impressive than first appears. 
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The Marseilles setting and the use of a Mercedes 500E as the getaway car is notable; the film also sees an early appearance from Marion Cotillard, as Daniel’s girlfriend.

Try to imagine a British equivalent: it wouldn’t have worked…

Who Am I? (1998)

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Only the second Jackie Chan film to be scripted and shot in English, this one demonstrates the great man’s continued fealty to Mitsubishi, in particular the Lancer Evolution IV in GSR spec. 

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Given its status as a Hong Kong action film, the action is weirdly split across South Africa and the Netherlands, which leads to some carnage involving a load of cars the production designer presumably sourced from a Rotterdam junkyard.

There’s a Ford Sierra estate in this film.

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