Narrowing down the universe of action scenes to a few favorites is like asking a bear which is its favorite salmon in the sea.
There are just too many of them.
But here are some of my favorites that rank at the top for their blend of choreography and kineticism, the kind that give you a vicarious thrill ride worthy of the best amusement park.
We divvied them up by vehicle chase, shootout and hand-to-hand combat. Of course, this is not meant to be encyclopedic but merely a selection. Tell us what we missed and what some of your favorite action scenes are in the comments below the story.
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This cop movie starring Steve McQueen ushered in the modern era of the car chase. The jaw-rattling 10-minute slam through the hilly streets of San Francisco — featuring a Ford Mustang (McQueen) and a Dodge Charger (the bad guys) — is the stuff of driver’s ed teacher nightmares.
While this thriller didn’t contain the first great car chase, the scene may be Hollywood’s most iconic. When the cop known as Popeye (Gene Hackman) takes a citizen’s car and pursues a speeding New York commuter train on which a criminal is a passenger, it’s a cinematic adrenaline rush that totally blew audiences away at the time and remains impressive today.
The three-film “Mad Max” series — including this entry, which was known as Mad Max 2 in much of the world — is full of skull-cracking car chases and crashes. But the Road Warrior climax is breathtaking: Max (Mel Gibson) drives a truck, leading a band of innocents (and their precious fuel) across a hostile post-apocalyptic landscape ruled by the Lord Humungus and his menacing two-wheeled and four-wheeled minions.
Quentin Tarantino’s grindhouse ambitions reached their apex in this tale about a dude chasing another car that just happens to have a woman strapped to the hood. It’s an exciting slice of filmmaking.
This film starring William Petersen, Willem Dafoe and John Turturro, is about agents engulfed in the world of counterfeiters. It may be best known for the theme song by ’80s new-wave band Wang Chung, but equally noteworthy is an intense chase scene through the streets of L.A. — including a wrong-way run down a freeway.
While inferior to the original Matrix, this sequel features a nearly 8-minute, bullet-ridden freeway chase that is made up of all sorts of awesome. If only the rest of the movie had been as inspired.
7. Ronin (1998)
This Robert De Niro thriller isn’t as well-known as some other films on this list, but the careening rush through the tunnels and streets of Paris is as good as chase filmmaking gets.
Hong Kong action star Michelle Yeoh proved she could compete with the guys in this Jackie Chan movie when she chases a speeding train with a motorcycle, lands on top of the train, jumps off, lets the bike topple to the ground, then proceeds to kung-fu bad guys to death as the train hurtles through the countryside.
Director Philip D’Antoni worked as a producer on both Bullitt and The French Connection, and he learned his lessons well for this cop drama starring Roy Scheider. This land-yacht rush through the streets of New York is an amazing piece of car choreography. Those kids playing jump rope in the street? Better get out of the way.
First made in 1969 (starring Michael Caine and Noel Coward) and then remade in 2003 (with Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham and Edward Norton), this heist thriller features notable chases in both versions. In the original, it was a battle of the original Mini Coopers and motorcycles across Italy, while the newer version features the contemporary Mini Cooper and quicker editing.
You can’t have a car-chase compendium without some James Bond on it, and Pierce Brosnan as the ultimate backseat driver — controlling weaponry with a handheld device — makes this pursuit unique.
Since each of the “Fast and Furious” movies is really just one long chase, it’s hard to narrow them to one emblematic scene. But our favorite is from the sixth film, where Tyrese Gibson jumps from a tank to a speeding car. Boo-ya!
Loosely based on the 1975 film Death Race 2000, this 2008 Jason Statham futuristic thriller, in which prisoners compete in deadly auto races while viewers watch it like a reality-TV show, showed off some stellar automotive tricks. The best part is when dastardly prison officials launch the Dreadnought — part truck, all death machine — against Statham.
When the subject of the movie is an illegal cross-country race, there’s bound to be a lot of chasing going on and stunt drivers put to work. The opening title sequence alone is worth the price of admission. Besides, how could a movie starring Burt Reynolds, part-time James Bond Roger Moore, B-movie action king Peter Fonda and a young Jackie Chan not be on an action-movie list?
15. Speed (1994)
A bomb strapped to a bus that will explode if the vehicle goes under 50 mph, Sandra Bullock’s at the wheel, Dennis Hopper’s out for blood. What could go wrong? There isn’t one standout scene, as the whole move is essentially an extended chase, but the intensity really peaks when Keanu Reeves’ cop character, Jack Traven, climbs under the bus to try and disarm the bomb. Whoa! As much of a rush as it is, Speed almost didn’t make this list because of the inanity of the waterlogged Speed 2.
A Ferrari and a Porsche going at it on a crowded Sunset Boulevard is a highlight in this movie starring Jeff Bridges. the movie is best known for the Phil Collins theme song, but the chase scene is better.
This low-budget auto-theft crime thriller reaches its peak with a car chase down the sidewalks of Long Beach, Calif. It was remade in 2000 with Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie.
Burt Reynolds and Sally Field rip-roaring across America in a Trans-Am with only a CB radio and their wits to keep the cops away? The high-speed pursuit across Arkansas involving a trucker (Jerry Reed) and a squad of patrolmen is as close as you can get to NASCAR inside a movie theater.
A vintage Charger and Challenger go at it on a two-lane blacktop in the desert Southwest in this action fest. The newer version, with Viggo Mortensen, is slicker, but both are about nothing but the chase. The scene where they play automotive tag and chicken while the monuments of Southwestern beauty stand over them makes these films memorable.
20. Diva (1981)
Now, here’s the real French connection: a man-vs.-motorcycle sprint through the subway tunnels of Paris that still thrills.
Of course, not all chases involve cars, motorcycles and trucks. So we’ll throw in these for honorable mentions:
21. Ben-Hur (1959)
The heart-pounding chariot race defines this sword-and-sandals classic.
James Bond (Daniel Craig) gets in on some parkour action in the foot chase through a construction site, and it’s a jaw-dropper.
Speaking of parkour, perhaps the greatest foot race of this type was in this French thriller featuring what seems to be clambering and jumping through and from every building in Paris.
The hoverboard chase scene was an inspired addition to an already engaging fantasy story.
This Joseph Gordon-Levitt thriller, in which a bike messenger is pursued all over Manhattan by an angry dude in a car and a cop on a bike, didn’t get a lot of critical love but featured some death- and traffic-defying bike stunts.
Aside from our 20 best movie car chases, we’ve also ranked out 15 favorite movie shootouts, and 15 best hand-to-hand fight scenes. We also make the case for why The Raid 2 is among the best action movies of all time.