What Makes a Great Chase Scene?

This weekend I watched a few Indiana Jones movies (the ones I enjoy: 1 and 3), and a few things occurred to me while waiting for the 6th chase scene in the third movie to end.

One, my favorite parts of Indiana Jones movies involve humor and ancient mystery riddle solving (the first movie has both of those in spades; the third movie has some of both but is much more of an action-adventure movie).

Two, if I’m being honest with myself, most chase scenes aren’t interesting to me because the chase typically ends with no consequences compared to when it began. The vast majority of chase scenes end with the chasee getting away from the chaser. In the rare exceptions that the chasee is caught, I’m still left wondering why we just spent 5 minutes running after each other.

It almost seems like action-adventure directors think that chase scenes are entertaining by default. When in doubt, insert a chase scene!

So I’ve been thinking about what makes a great chase scene, and I’ve come up with 4 categories. These elements don’t need to be in every chase scene, but little doses of each make a big difference, in my opinion:

  • self-discovery (The Incredibles): I’m mentioning this first because I think it’s the most important. It goes back to what I was saying about most chase scenes: If the chase ends and nothing has changed since the beginning, you can just remove the scene. However, if you’ve actually progressed the story, world, or character as a result, that makes a huge difference. One of my favorite chase scenes takes place near the end of The Incredibles, and it mostly focuses on Dash running away from some minions. During the chase, Dash learns about about his abilities: He literally levels up multiple times during the chase, including the discovery that he can run on water. This is a brilliant way to add meaning to a chase scene.
  • intensity/stakes (Terminator, Mission Impossible): I recently watched the three new Terminator movies, and they’re mostly long chase scenes. I like that the villain always seems unstoppable–you wonder throughout the movie how the good guys will possibly survive and/or stop them. Mission Impossible also has some truly thrilling chase scenes (especially the most recent movie) that leave you wondering who will survive the chase and how they filmed the chase in the first place. This segues into the next category.
  • cinematography (Mad Max: Fury Road/The Matrix/Children of Men): Many chase scenes involve a series of quick cuts. I don’t fault directors for this–it must be difficult to safely film these scenes. But sometimes movies break the mold by using techniques and technology that put you in the thrill of the chase in ways that make you feel like you’re really there. All three of the movies I mention in this category do a fantastic job of this.
  • humor (Indiana Jones): Here’s where I need to give Indiana Jones some credit: The chase scenes have moments of levity, reminding the viewer that we’re here to have fun.
  • ludicrous (Fast & Furious): Am I talking about ludicrous chase scenes or the actor Ludicrous? That’s for you to decide. Mostly I’m referring to moments in chase scenes that are so over the top that they make the entire chase worth watching. The Fast & Furious franchise is built on these moments.

What makes a great chase scene for you? What are a few of your favorite chase scenes?

1 thought on “What Makes a Great Chase Scene?”

  1. Although I’m probably the only Indiana Jones fan who LOVES Temple of Doom, I really do love the chemistry between Ford and Connery in that third film – especially in the motorcycle chase scene.

    I loved the looks of disgruntlement on Ford’s face each time he failed to suitably impress his dad with his Nazi-thwarting skills during the chase. 🙂

    Reply

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