With one of the most spectacular city skylines in the country, Chicago’s impressive mix of traditional and modern architecture and breathtaking Lake Michigan views provide the perfect dramatic setting for action and thriller films. With imposing stone structures, glittering glass skyscrapers, the gloomy Lower Wacker Drive and noisy “L” trains, Chicago provides a wealth of opportunity for anything from shiny futuristic cityscapes to chilling and claustrophobic underworlds. These ten movies action and thriller movies have used the best Chicago has to offer, from one location shot to an entire film of Chicago landmarks. Click the links for more information on each Chicago element, to find official sites as well as photographs and historical trivia.
Backdraft (1991) : Director Ron Howard relocated the action drama Backdraft to Chicago when faced with a technician and crew member strike in New York. Howard made the most of the city, according to Arnie Bernstein’s Hollywood on Lake Michigan, filming shots of the Daley Center and Graceland Cemetery. He also took the cameras to several local firehouses, including an historic firehouse at 1401 S. Michigan that has since been made into a restaurant.
A stellar cast that included Robert DeNiro, Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Scott Glenn, Rebecca DeMornay, and Donald Sutherland made Backdraft a compelling drama. The action sequences of all-consuming flames were what really grabbed viewers and critics, however, including climactic inferno at the former Cuneo Press Building on Cermak at the river. The sound and visual effects of Backdraft earned it three Oscar nominations, and it became the forerunner to jaw-dropping effects in films like Ladder 49.
Batman Begins (2005) : This reboot of the Batman franchise, starring Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Cillian Murphy, and Michael Caine was an exciting, action-packed visual feast. Looking for every deep and dark corner to create an eerie, ominous cityscape, director Christopher Nolan made good use of the steel pillared tunnel of famed Lower Wacker Drive. The impressive art deco high-rise of the Chicago Board of Trade became Wayne Tower.
A combination of location shots and digital effects enhanced the ethereal quality of superhero thriller Batman Begins. As Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert notes: “Special effects add a spectacular monorail down LaSalle Street, which derails in the best scene along those lines since The Fugitive.” LaSalle Street was also the location of the famous 18-wheeler flip in sequel The Dark Knight.
The Fugitive (1993) : Famous Harrison Ford action thriller The Fugitive spawned a sequel (U.S. Marshals), a spoof (Wrongfully Accused), and Oscar and Golden Globe wins for costar Tommy Lee Jones. Chicago native Andrew Davis requested the film be shot in his hometown, and he also landed fellow Chicagoans Ford and Jane Lynch (Glee, Julie & Julia) for the cast. He used former and off-duty Chicago police as actors, and nabbed local news reporters Pam Zekman, Lester Holt, and Jay Levine for authenticity in press scenes. Dick and Will Cusack, father and brother respectively to famous Chicago actors John, Joan, and Ann Cusack, also appear in The Fugitive.
According to Hollywood on Lake Michigan, the opening reception was filmed at the Four Seasons Hotel, where star Harrison Ford stayed during filming. Much of the action takes place at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital (now a medical office building), and the final confrontation was filmed at the Chicago Hilton and Towers Grand Ballroom. Davis also filmed other iconic Chicago landmarks like the “L” trains and City Hall, as well as an improvised scene during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Wanted (2008) : While it has its flaws, thriller Wanted has plenty of fantastic stunts to marvel at, and a shocking death that turns out to be one of the strongest and most poignant elements of the film. Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, and Morgan Freeman star in this reality-bending action movie that makes use of several Chicago and suburban Chicago locations.
The new and shiny Citadel building houses the home of Mr. X, and according to The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations, the character leaps 5 blocks away to battle assassins on the roof of the 24 karat gold-leafed Carbide and Carbon Building at Michigan and Water St. Wanted also makes use of locations on Clark St., and the home of many action chase sequences before it, Lower Wacker Drive (see Batman Begins). Scenes for Wanted were also shot at the now-defunct Egg Store in Berwyn, because according to My Suburban Life, location scouts “fell in love with the store’s character”.
The Negotiator (1998) : This action thriller stars Samuel L. Jackson as a hostage-taking negotiator trying to prove his innocence in a murder, and Kevin Spacey as the negotiator brought in to talk him down. Much of the action takes place in an elegant mirrored glass high-rise, and The Negotiator filmed Chicago’s then relatively new R.R. Donnelly building at 77 W. Wacker Drive (now the United Airlines building). According to Hollywood on Lake Michigan, The Negotiator also filmed at the Clark Street bridge and (like Chicago film Backdraft) at Graceland Cemetery.
I, Robot (2004) : The action sci-fi thriller I, Robot stars Will Smith as a Chicago policeman in 2035 who investigates a shocking crime–the first murder committed by a robot. To create the futuristic cityscape, the filmmakers of I, Robot used many of the buildings from Chicago’s stunning skyline and incorporated a few computer-generated skyscrapers of their own. Recognizable high-rise buildings include The Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), Bank One Plaza (Now Chase Tower), Dearborn Center, the Prudential building and the Smurfit-Stone building. Check out this photo array on Flickr to see how the great buildings of Chicago also manage to change locations in the future.
Mission Impossible (1996) : Considering the variety of glamorous, international locations used in the filming of Tom Cruise action film Mission Impossible, Chicago should be proud to have the landmark Drake Hotel included. The name synonymous with service, The Drake is instantly recognizable in Chicago as a posh and hospitable respite from the bustle of the city. Its Italian Renaissance style, with stone, carved wood and marble effects, is fit for royalty; Princess Diana of Wales stayed at The Drake in 1996, the same year Mission Impossible was released. As Hollywood on Lake Michigan notes: “In Mission Impossible, a simple mention of ‘a room at the Drake’ is all it takes for secret agent Jon Voight to impress his colleagues in the international spay game.”
Spider-Man 2 (2004) : Though the continuing story of our webbed hero Spider-Man takes place in New York, the elevated train fight between Spidey (Tobey Maguire) and Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) was filmed in Chicago. According to The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations, this pivotal Spider-Man 2 action scene was shot using “the Chicago Loop ‘L’ , on Wabash Avenue between Madison and Monroe”, since the el trains in New York no longer exist. IMDB notes that the Chicago trains were rebranded with MTA NYC subway logos and some of the skyscrapers were altered to reflect the New York cityscape.
Natural Born Killers (1994) : Oliver Stone’s outrageous, psychedelic satire of media and violence (story by then up-and-coming writer/director Quentin Tarantino) starred Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, and Robert Downey Jr. Stone made use of three vastly different Chicago institutions: a cultural center, television studio, and a prison. The Chicago Cultural Center (formerly the Chicago Public Library) and its dramatic arched Randolph entrance provided the backdrop for the courthouse mob scene.
The nondescript WGN television studios building was used for Robert Downey Jr.’s control room scenes, but as Hollywood on Lake Michigan notes, the biggest challenge for Stone was filming Natural Born Killers at Stateville Prison in Joliet. Carefully following prison rules and protocol, Stone created the prison riot scene with actual convicts and guards, mingled with actors and stuntmen.
Manhunter (1986) : Before there was Ed Norton and Anthony Hopkins’ Red Dragon, there was Manhunter. Based on the Thomas Harris novel, psychological thriller Manhunter was adapted for the screen by innovative TV showrunner and moviemaker Michael Mann–then most famous for his stylish crime show Miami Vice. Though the 2002 remake shot the Chicago scenes with tabloid writer Freddy Lounds in Baltimore, Chicago native Michael Mann took Manhunter to his hometown in 1985.
To give this thriller added Chicago style, FilmThreat notes that Mann hired then unknown Chicago actors for the main roles. William Peterson, who went on to larger film roles and popular TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, took on the role of psychologically tortured serial killer profiler Will Graham. Joan Allen played Reba McClane, unwitting girlfriend to a serial killer. Allen, a founder of Chicago’s well known Steppenwolf Theater, has continued her film career and earned three Oscar nominations thus far. A former Chicago policeman, Dennis Farina plays Jack Crawford in Manhunter. Farina has appeared in a number of films like Get Shorty and Snatch, and did a stint on long-running series Law & Order.
A master of mood on film, Mann makes the cityscapes Chicago and Atlanta into terrifying eerie starkness. As Time Out praises: “Mann creates a terrifying menacing atmosphere without resorting to graphic depiction of the seriously nasty killings: music, designer-expressionist ‘Scope photography, and an imaginative use of locations, combine with shots of the aftermath of the massacres to evoke a world nightmarishly perceived by Graham’s haunted sensibility.”