In Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver,” Ansel Elgort sure knows how to drive a car. He plays Baby, a getaway driver, a veteran despite being in his early 20s. Baby’s shtick is something else: He likes to listen to music as he speeds away from the pigs: The Damned, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, deep-cut Blur. But he’d prefer it to come to an end. He wants to leave a life of crime, get out of his stint working for a fearsome kingpin (Kevin Spacey) who likes to knock over banks and even post offices.
Elgort’s a hell of a movie driver. He’s one of the best of the best, right up at the top with any of these legendary cinematic speed freaks:
Steve McQueen, “Bullitt” (1968)
The movie car chase as we know it — fast, reckless, dangerous — is a relatively recent phenomenon, only about 50 years old. Among the first real car chases is buried in the middle of a movie that up to that point had been a subdued, realistic cop movie. Steve McQueen is a cucumber cool Lieutenant out for the kingpin who had a key witness in a organized crime trial whacked. When our hero spots the hitman who done it, they speed through San Francisco, over its epic hills, through its seaside dirt roads, all going at breakneck speed.
Gene Hackman, “The French Connection” (1971)
Three years after “Bullitt,” another cop movie one-upped it. While investigating a French-run drug ring, Gene Hackman’s maverick “Popeye” Doyle gives chase to one of their hitmen, who jumps on the elevated D-train in Brooklyn. Doyle stays in his rickety car, speeding under the El tracks, trying (and sometimes failing) to hit trash cans and passersby. Luckily, he gets him. The “Bullitt” chase is smooth and precise and clean; the one in “The French Connection” is like a five-minute panic attack.
??????, “Duel” (1971)
In Steven Spielberg’s famed TV movie, we never see who’s driving a tanker truck that’s mysteriously trailing a stressed-out businessman (Dennis Weaver) driving through the California desert. But whoever it is is quite insistent. Sometimes the truck tailgates him; other times it tries to drive him off the road. It was the movie that made studio execs think this Spielberg kid has something. Sure enough, it’s basically a dry run for “Jaws,” only on the road.
James Taylor, “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971)
The only time soft-rock troubadour James Taylor ever acted in a movie as someone who’s not James Taylor is in that most ’70s of car movies — a slow-burning study of life on the road. Taylor’s not the only driver going cross-country, and not even the only pop star; the other is Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. The two are up against the scariest of ’70s character actors, Warren Oates, who plays nice by not beating these two skinny boys to a pulp.
Barry Newman, “Vanishing Point” (1971)
The ’70s are a goldmine of trashy, clangy, fast-moving speed freak masterpieces, from the original “Gone in 60 Seconds” through “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” through “Race with the Devil,” in which Peter Fonda and Warren Oates (again!) try to outrun Satanists. The king of driving, though, was Barry Newman. A salty, rough piece of work, he’s not a looker like Peter Fonda. But man, can he drive. “Vanishing Point” is Newman’s masterpiece: a vaguely existentialist cross-country jaunt in which he tries to deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger to a dealer in record time and winds up losing his mind.
Burt Reynolds, “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977)
As the ’70s came to a close, a bizarre trend appeared: the dirty car movie was replaced by movies about redneck racers. There were movies about CB radio-addicted truckers (“Breaker Breaker,” with Chuck Norris) and convys (“Convoy,” based on the hit song and directed by Sam Peckinpah). And then there was “Smokey and the Bandit.” Burt Reynolds at his Burt Reynoldsiest plays a star trucker hired to transport bootleg Coors east of the Mississippi, back when it was illegal to do so. The movie grossed almost as much as “Star Wars.”
Ryan O’Neal, “The Driver” (1978)
Ryan O’Neal is a limited actor, but use him right and you strike gold. He’s a charmer in Peter Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon”; he’s an ideal cad in Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.” And he’s basically a mannequin in Walter Hill’s getaway driver thriller, which is so minimalist O’Neal is credited only as “The Driver.” Ryan Gosling in “Drive” would make this list, but he was basically just doing an O’Neal impersonation, only with a better jacket.
Dan Aykroyd, “The Blues Brothers” (1980)
He thinks he can play the blues; he makes vodka that comes in faux-crystal skulls; he actually really does believe in ghosts. But one thing no one can take away from Dan Aykroyd is this: he can really drive. He’s the one behind the wheel in the Blues Brothers’ first movie, leading to some of the largest and most absurd pile-ups in movie history.
Robert De Niro, “Ronin” (1998)
John Frankenheimer made one of the best car fetishist movies: 1966’s “Grand Prix.” Over two decades later, he banged out three or four of the greatest car chases in movie history. Robert De Niro plays the most focused of a gang of thieves, whose robberies tend to end with high-end pursuits. It’s hard to choose a favorite, but the one where he drives into oncoming traffic — a trick also done in William Friedkin’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” — might be it.
Charlize Theron, “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
“Where is Mel Gibson as ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky?” you might asked yourself while reading this list. Well, guess what? Even the original Mad Max has nothing on Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. For one thing, she does a lot more driving than Gibson ever did. She spends nearly the entire movie behind a monster trucker speeding through the desert, fleeing oppressive men. And when her mechanical arm gives out, she even does it with one hand. All hail Furiosa.
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