5 Top Car Chase Cliches

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 05, 2018

I was watching some nameless action movie the other day, and there occurred a car chase so over the top, so gratuitous, that I just said “enough.” Enough with pointless, unmotivated, completely gratuitous car chases that wreck a large number of perfectly good automobiles (many of which I’d be willing to give a long and happy life to). After all, if you’ve seen Ronin, The French Connection, The Italian Job (the original one) and Bullitt, you’ve already been exposed to all that’s good about car chases.

The '68 Charger goes airborne in Bullitt.

I’m still mourning the pristine Porsche 911 I saw fall off a car carrier in that Die Hard movie set in Russia. So in the interest of shaming film directors into deleting a few pages of car-chase action from their next movie scripts, here are the Top Five clichés in the genre:

The Set Up. The bad guy is getting away, or the bad guys are chasing the good guys. If the good guy doesn’t have a car (or a motorcycle; they’re increasingly popular—especially if Tom Cruise is starring)—he can just “appropriate” one. “Move,” he says to the startled motorist who actually owns the vehicle in question. Actually, speaking to the motorist is optional; you can also just shove him (or her) out of the car. Never mind that if the good guy is a cop, he has resources that include simply tracking the car to its destination or calling on other units to intercept. In these movies, "Backup” is sometimes requested, but never arrives until after the bad guy has crashed.

The French Connection was one of the templates. This stuff was exciting!

One of the worst offenders I’ve seen recently is Taken 3, in which an innocent Liam Neeson—playing a character with “a very specific set of skills”—demonstrates them by eluding the pursuing coppers on a wild chase through the city. If he wasn’t guilty before, he certainly is now. We've just seen a dozen police cruisers crash spectacularly--with cops inside. I’m not sure it’s a legal principle to simply say, “My only concern is my daughter.” There’s nothing in the movie that justifies that car chase. Why couldn’t he quietly submit to arrest and then use his skills to prove his innocence? Oh, I forgot, these are specific skills. And I realize I’ve just admitted to watching Taken 3.

Crashing cars, in Paris. Ronin is in the top five. Don't ask me what it was about, though.

The Action. Top seen-it-befores include: 

  • hitting a fruit stand 
  • driving the wrong way on a one-way road
  • knocking over piles of cardboard boxes 
  • hitting multiple cars in a parking structure 
  • making people scatter in street fairs and parades 
  • shooting down a pursuing helicopter with a hand gun 
  • hitting fuel trucks and having them explode
  • get cornered in an alley (or maneuver through one scraping both sides of the car) 
  • driving through plate-glass windows 
  • getting caught under a truck 
  • going up or down stairs
  • jumping half-raised drawbridges 
  • ramming a baby carriage that turns out to be a homeless person’s shopping cart
  • going airborne and landing on a whole other expressway

Directors have to think up new angles. The only movie I’ve seen in which a car (a $3.4 million Lykan Hypersport) leaps from one skyscraper to another is Fast and Furious 7.

Liam Neeson prepares to take out a dozen cop cars in Taken 3. And even more impressively, not get blamed for it.

The Dumb Lines. Dialogue is minimal, since these movies are headed for foreign markets. The driver always yells either “hold on” or “get down.” Then there’s the “we can make it/we can’t make it” exchange. Getting down, not the James Brown version, makes the hero’s girl impervious to the zillions of bullets fired by the bad guys. Why don’t they just shoot out the tires? Or send the bad guys to learn marksmanship? For extra credit, someone can say, “I’m getting too old for this s%@!.” The car also makes sounds, snicking through the gears manually, even though we've just seen that it's an automatic.

The End of the Chase. The bad guys crash in a fireball (Bullitt) go off a cliff (Ronin, I think), or crash non-fatally and run into a convenient warehouse or factory for the final hand-to-hand combat with the hero—who will throw away his gun so they can duke it out mano-a-mano. In the next scene, someone will see the hero’s minor head scrape and say, “Wow, what happened to you?” Macho pride means he’ll make a joke of it and never reply, “I was in a death-defying car chase!”

This is what they did to a poor 1971 Pontiac Le Mans in The French Connection.

The Aftermath. If the heroes are cop partners, they’re called into the chief’s office. “I can’t believe the s@%* you clowns pulled,” he says. “One more incident like that and Internal Affairs will be so far up your asses they’ll be calling a proctologist.” Now never mind “writing a report,” or somehow accounting for the dozens of cars belonging to innocent motorists we’ve just seen wrecked, the traffic snarled, or the shots fired in densely populated urban areas. Was anybody hurt, as vehicles tumbled like nine pins? Guess not. The good people of Gotham City understand the need for close pursuit. The movie The Other Guys lampoons all this fairly well.

The original Italian Job set the stage for stair-climbing scenes.

In truth, the policy on high-speed chases varies regionally. There’s good reason to limit such escapades—police pursuits cost the lives of 300 to 400 people per year in the U.S. We can cut down that toll by using such proven tactics as GPS (through tagging devices like StarChase), police barricades and airborne surveillance. Ah, but where’s the fun in that?

After writing this column I feel sure I could get a job writing Hollywood action movies. It pays more than blogging, doesn’t it? Because you've already seen the Bullitt chase, here's the Ronin chase, in Paris. Those are European cars they're wrecking:

And here's another one you probably haven't seen, from To Live and Die in LA (1985):

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