'The Blues Brothers' at 40: A look back at the action-comedy's epic (and highly destructive) climactic car chase

Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in 'The Blues Brothers' (Universal)
Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in The Blues Brothers. (Photo: Universal)

The Blues Brothers might as well have come with a warning: “There were many, many police cars harmed in the making of this film.”

In what is perhaps the most famous sequence in the 1980 action-comedy, which turns 40 on Saturday, Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) speed through the multilevel streets of downtown Chicago in a 1974 black-and-white Dodge Monaco sedan (aka “The Bluesmobile”) as dozens of siren-blaring cop cars give chase.

There’s very little dialogue (only the bluesmen/petty crooks casually discussing their traffic route, referencing the Chicago Picasso in the most Windy City-ish of ways), numerous multi-police car crashes, a gravity-defying jump and, of course in the climax of it, an epic pile-up in which squad cars gratuitously and comically hurl into one another, forming a road-block that allows the Blues to get on their Robin-Hooding way.

And that’s only the middle leg of the hot pursuit. It begins the night before — or in the wee hours of the morning (the film’s timeline isn’t exactly bulletproof) in Northern Illinois, where Jake and Elwood begin their quest to transport the money they’ve raised to save their childhood orphanage to Chicago City Hall in their decommissioned cop car with the famous line: “There's 106 miles to Chicago. We've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark out, and we're wearing sunglasses.”

“With that line from Elwood Blues, we are given one of the most entertaining car chases ever put on the big screen,” wrote the Insider.com’s Jason Guerrasio in ranking cinema’s all-time best pursuits.

As dawn arrives, they’re chased by Illinois State Troopers, including one car (carrying John Candy’s parole officer) that flies into the bed of a semi — not to mention the Good Ole Boys country rock band they stole the stage from. After the downtown pile-up (and a call from the dispatcher that hasn’t exactly aged well: “Use of unnecessary violence in the apprehension of the Blues Brothers has been approved,” cops are told), they’re stalked by a rival Nazi gang whose leaders will meet a high-flying death.

“Call it the mother of all modern car chase movies,” the Chicago Sun-Times’s Dave Newbart wrote in 2005. (Of course, we’d be remiss not to mention an earlier car chase in the movie — through the indoor Dixie Square Mall that’s nearly as memorable as the downtown melee.)

As director John Landis has explained over the years, the car chases were captured in fully practical fashion, with some 60 police cars destroyed and 40 stunt drivers employed for the downtown chase alone. “That was all real,” the filmmaker has said.

The production crew bought those 60 cruisers for $400 each, according to reports at the time. They also used 13 different Bluesmobiles purchased from the California Highway Patrol. Most of them were destroyed by the end of filming, even though the production kept a 24-hour body shop open for repairs. In total 103 cars were, well, totaled — which, according to IMDb, set an all-time record for the number of cars crashed. That record would later be passed by the 1982 actioner Junkman, its own 1998 sequel Blues Brothers 2000 (in which John Goodman stepped in for the late Belushi), and 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded.

A heavy real-life police presence was instrumental to actually film the Blues Brothers chase scene in the first place. “Two hundred police and production assistants manned nearly every conceivable entrance to Lower Wacker for a famous chase in the bowels of the city,” Newbart wrote.

“I remember old-timers thoroughly amazed at what the city was allowing,” Mark Hogan, an electrician on the film, told the Chicago Tribune in a 2010 retrospective. “Because [former longtime Mayor Richard J.] Daley wouldn't have closed a lane of traffic for a film, and now they had entire streets closed.” According to IMDb, filming was allowed downtown after Belushi and Aykroyd offered to donate $50,000 to charity.

“The fact is, the whole movie is a chase, with Jake and Elwood piloting a used police car that seems, as it hurdles across suspension bridges from one side to the other, to have a life of its own,” famed late film critic (and lifelong Chicago resident) Roger Ebert wrote of the film. “There can rarely have been a movie that made so free with its locations as this one. There are incredible, sensational chase sequences under the elevated train tracks, on overpasses, in subway tunnels under the Loop, and literally through Daley Center. One crash in particular, a pileup involving maybe a dozen police cars, has to be seen to be believed.”

The Blues Brothers is available to stream on Amazon.

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