There are hundreds of unforgettable action scenes in the archives of cinema past. To try and specify any small number of them is nearly impossible, maybe even futile, but what’s the fun in not trying? Here you will find 30 great action scenes, separated by category (Chases, Shootouts/Battles, and Fight Scenes).
Be forewarned, although it has been attempted to be written with as few spoilers as possible, this list does discuss specific scenes from these films, some of which discuss the climax or ending of the film.
10. Haywire: The Realistic Foot Chase
There are several inspired fight scenes in Steven Soderbergh’s pet project, a film that exists as much as anything to be a treatise on how to compose physical action. Gina Carano became his muse when he caught one of her UFC matches. You can quibble over her acting chops, but there is no denying her physicality — quick, dangerous and beautiful. And Soderbergh frames the scenes around that physicality, so that it is palpable and coherent.
The foot chase is an interesting scene for how “low energy” it feels. Even the score seems to relax. Running on foot after her target, the camerawork remains as smooth and steady as she does, removed from the more kinetic, often handheld aesthetic to which we’ve become accustomed.
We watch as she takes the simpler paths and focuses on breathing correctly. There is a Tortoise and the Hare element at play here, except this time, when the hare catches up to the tortoise, she beats him into submission.
9. Fast and Furious 6: Highway Showdown
There is something to be said for the mid-series turnaround of The Fast the Furious films, when Justin Lin reinvigorated the franchise by elevating the craftsmanship while unapologetically leaning into the innate silliness.
The most visceral moment comes in the 6th film, during an extended highway chase involving a tank and one ludicrous romantic gesture. In an affably goofy twist, Dom’s (Diesel) amnesiac-ex-lover (Rodriguez) is working for the bad guys, and Dom needs to win her back.
As our band of criminals-turned-heroes speed through a highway to stop a tank, she is tossed from her vehicle over the divide. She is about to plummet to her death when Dom, undeterred by the laws of physics, leaps from his speeding car. Their bodies crash into each other mid-air, and he propels them back over the edge and even cushions her fall with his mighty back muscles.
8. The General: The Train Wreck
Buster Keaton created one of the first great action comedies with The General, which features allegedly the most expensive set piece from the silent era (though you would think Intolerance might give it a run for its money there).
The scene: Buster Keaton has sabotaged the Rock River Bridge in order to stop a shipment of ammo and weapons from reaching the other side. He lights the middle on fire, and when the train, convinced that it can make it across, attempts to pass, it collapses the bridge and plummets into the river below.
It is a stunning shot largely because, well, it’s all real: a real bridge, real fire, real train, and 500+ extras dressed as soldiers. In the end he – of course – gets the girl and saves the day, and for many years the wreckage was left in the riverbed as a tourist attraction. Sure, Buster’s character Johnny was trying to thwart the Union army in service of the Confederate rebels, but at least it didn’t turn white supremacists into heroes (looking at you again, D.W.).
7. Whiplash: The Race Against Time
What makes an action film? You can say guns and explosions, but beneath that, an action film is a movie where the foundational element driving it is physical action (unique to film) as opposed to dialogue and character. This is a generalization, of course, but it leads us to Whiplash, the greatest non-traditional action film of the last decade.
The scene in question here follows Andrew, a promising jazz drummer, as he arrives for his big chance to play drums at an important competition. The problem: he forgot his drumsticks at the car rental, and now he has to make a mad dash to try and retrieve them in time.
This is a classic race against time, and it culminates in a shocking collision – which, even then, doesn’t stop our protagonist from sprinting, bloodied and broken, still determined to make it back in time to play. Miles speeds through the whole movie, barreling straight ahead toward perceived greatness, and this scene reflects the insanity of that pursuit. Much of the film plays out at the pace of a chase scene, and this is the most literal one it provides.
6. Children of Men: Attacked On the Road
Alfonso Cuaron is one of the great directors of his generation, in particular when it comes to the way he depicts action in his films. He has become known for very long single takes, sometimes weaved together with the aid of a computer. The most lauded shot in Children of Men is the uncut sequence as they save the baby from the middle of a war zone, but there is another scene, earlier in the film, that uses a similar tactic as our protagonists are sneak attacked on the road.
A flaming car races in front of them from out of the woods before they are descended upon by hoards of attackers. They throw the car in reverse to escape, and the camera begins to spin on what appears to be an unhindered 360-degree axis.
What should have been impossible with a camera rig is seamless, to the point that, on first viewing, you can’t quite put your finger on what makes this scene so dynamic (outside of an eventful plot twist). Actors had to duck and the windshield had to be removed. The shot is unassuming but impressive, and though brief, it makes quite an impact.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road: Into the Sandstorm
You could fill this list with any number of great car chases in the Mad Max franchise, but George Miller has had a long career as a filmmaker, and in many ways Fury Road is the culmination of that experience. This is where he perfects his formula.
He’s a distinctly visual filmmaker, able to build a whole world largely through imagery (of the vehicles, the weapons, the post-apocalyptic societies). Fury Road is essentially one long chase sequence (its greatest strength), letting up only in spurts to delve into a symbolic and character-driven story.
When the chase leads them into a sandstorm in the middle of the desert, the outcome is exhilarating — shocking jolts of lightning interrupting the brown-red sky, twisters pulling whole vehicles off the ground. It is an utterly gorgeous sequence in a film of countless striking set pieces.
4. Stagecoach: The Alkali Flats Chase
John Ford was one of the leading voices to define the western, and Stagecoach is one of his classics. At the film’s climax we find one of the most artful examples of the “cowboys and Indians” trope. The modern viewer may be disturbed by the sequence, which includes a lot of endangered horses and racist depictions of Native Americans so common to the genre.
History requires context, though, and the formal work from Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon was both influential and pulse pounding. Each of the protagonists slowly runs out of ammo as they are set upon by the band of Apaches. A Deus ex machine is required to save the day, but through some nice matte work, use of live (and dangerous) stunts and some gorgeous, sweeping camerawork, the scene sustains the action and never lets up.
3. Casino Royale: The Opening Parkour Chase
It only took the first two sequences of Casino Royale to convince fans that this reboot was on the right track. After the black and white opening, featuring a brutal fight scene in a bathroom, we pick up in the middle of an operation. James Bond is spying on a target when said target, a bomb maker, is tipped off to his presence. The ensuing foot chase is full of wild parkour stunt work that leads them to the top of a crane and finally to the embassy.
Casino Royale was one of the earlier movies in the wave of “gritty reboots,” which saught psychological realism beneath the adventure. Watching 007 chase a bad guy through the streets of Madagascar is enthralling, and dedication to taking the material more seriously than it had been adds a sense of consequence that makes this sequence breathless.
2. Bullitt: Speeding Through San Francisco
Muscle cars race through the streets of San Francisco, leaping through the air as they jump over the inclines and back down the iconic sloping streets of the city. The scene has a very lived-in feel, a sense that these cars are moving in real space and time, and that’s because they are. The stunt work from the drivers is famously great, and much of it is shown on long lenses and in wide shots to acknowledge their impressive work.
When you see the front car’s hubcap falls off and roll down the street, that’s not because it was planned – the entire sequence feels improvised. Of course, it is meticulously choreographed and (presumably) executed safely, but it feels dangerous to us. The chase leads out of the city and has an explosive finale, but the real excitement here comes from watching these treacherous automotive stunts (and also Steve McQueen being the coolest).
1. The French Connection: Beneath the Subway Tracks
No list of car chases would be complete without it. This here is the King. Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) furiously drives through the streets of Brooklyn trying to catch up to a subway car between stations.
Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman create a lot of this energy with clever camerawork. For one shot they attached the camera to the bumper of the car and cranking down to 18 frames per second. Wide shots on long lenses of the car flying through the streets beneath the tracks are almost breathtaking in how much action they capture in such a simply stated image.
This is a crowded urban area with mid-day traffic, and several times during the chase Popeye’s car is slammed into by another vehicle. These were stuntmen, but the accidents were just that (accidents), but Friendkin left the crashes in. Watching the hero make such reckless decisions only to then whip around and continue the chase is exceptionally intense. This scene is its own little masterpiece sitting inside an already excellent film.