Battles & Shootouts
10. Star Wars: A New Hope: Taking Out the Death Star
For a whole generation (or three) of kids, this was the quintessential action sequence. A space battle between a band of rebels against the forces of darkness. After 40 years of being inundated with computer generated space battles, you would think A New Hope would lose some of its luster, but it hasn’t.
There is a gleeful wonder about it, an adventurous and excited spirit that is hard to deny taking pleasure it. Good versus bad plays out on an epic stage as Luke has to finally learn to trust The Force during the rebel assault on the death star. Han Solo swoops in to help save the day, everyone’s favorite semi-anti-hero, before our underdog Luke takes out the big black ball of bad guys. We all hope the new films will find rediscover of this spirit.
9. The Incredibles: Vs. The Robot
Before Brad Bird went on to direct Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which boasts several astonishing set pieces (and too much punctuation in its title), he had already directed one of the great action films of a generation… and it was a cartoon.
The Incredibles is Pixar’s “Fantastic Four,” utilizing similar themes of youthful angst and familial bonds. The film’s climax finds our heroic family staving off a giant attack robot in an urban metropolis.
Super strength and super speed, the ability to stretch and to create a force field make up the families’ superhuman skills. The virtual camera cranes and pans in the ways you would expect a live camera to, tensely following the multiple feats required by each member of the family in order to take down the mechanical beast.
It stands tall alongside any live action counterpart, and is easily one of the best of the superhero films.
8. Die Hard: Up On the Roof
Die Hard is the ultimate American action film, and as such was hugely influential. You saw its basic premise and structure retread all through the 90s and even still today. In the same way, John McClane is the quintessence of the American action hero. He is brash, bold, cunning. He is a modernized cowboy, and his signature “Yippie-kay-yay” bears that mark.
Talking about the premiere action film and action hero, in a film packed with great action scenes, we have to choose the most iconic. Just before the bad guys blow up the roof of the skyscraper, John is forced to take desperate measures. He swings from the edge, a length of fire hose his only salvation. He kicks at the glass at the nearest window, his feet bloodied, until finally he swings back, gains momentum, and come crashing inside.
7. Heat: Shootout In the Streets
Alongside The Killing and Rififi for the greatest heist scenes in movie history, but if you’re looking for an action-packed caper, this one takes the gold. Actually, the heist itself goes smoothly, as DeNiro assures everyone of their safety and they make away with the loot. It’s right after they pull it off that the action starts, when they are taken off guard in a violent showdown with the police.
Michael Mann is one of the great genre stylists; even lackluster efforts like Miami Vice are a sensual experience. Mann follows the action with a steady eye, the camera smoothly keeping up with our central figures: DeNiro, Pacino, Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore. Cops are mowed down and the scene only gets more and more desperate. The maelstrom of gunfire is truly a battle scene, turning the epic crime saga briefly into a war film that happens to rage on the streets of Los Angeles.
6. Hard Boiled: Hospital Shootout
John Woo is one of the surest examples of the auteur theory we have, and Hard Boiled is one of his classic Hong Kong action extravaganzas. The film’s most pivotal action sequence is easily one of the most well regarded of the genre: the plot machinations are such that we find the central climax (there are arguably a few different climaxes) playing out in the halls and rooms of a hospital, leading to Chow Yun-fat’s tense rescue of a baby from the maternity ward.
In one of the most memorable long takes in action film history, Woo follows our hero cops as they infiltrate the hospital. One by one take they out the bad guys in the labyrinthine halls and exam rooms in a pageant of shotgun blasts and bullet-riddled corpses. The sustained, long take is something of a staple of the action film.
Without a myriad of cuts, you are shown plain the skill it took to pull off the action. They even go so far here as to have the shot continue onto an elevator and up to a different floor without cutting. Eventually, Woo does cut, but the scene never relinquishes that tension.
5. Saving Private Ryan: D-Day
The opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, excepting the bookended scenes, has been put up on a pedestal since it hit theaters back in 1999. Steven Spielberg is often a very romantic filmmaker, but there is little romanticism on display in his rendition of the Normandy Invasion.
The scene is desaturated, smothered in the browns of the wet shore, the gray skies and green fatigues of the terrified soldiers as they approach the horror awaiting them ashore. Before the action begins, we simply sit with them during the approach. And when they finally hit the beach, they are immediately hit with gunfire, killed by the dozens in a matter of seconds.
The camera is handheld and the violence is graphic, with shots of horrifically wounded soldiers left to die. This may not be an outright anti-war film, but the opening sequence (at nearly 20 minutes) is arguably the greatest anti-war statement in modern film for its uncompromising look at the real, bloody cost of war.
4. Battleship Potemkin: The Odessa Steps
Though there are other great action scenes in the silent era that pre-date this, The Odessa Steps sequence is the forefather of the modern action scene as we know it. Eisenstein’s innovation of montage editing technique has made Potemkin a pre-requisite of every Intro to Film Analysis course nationwide.
Depicting a brutal attack on civilians by the Tsar’s soldiers (a propagandistic sequence not based on real events, but meant to symbolize the plight of the working class against the state), it juxtaposes different images to create meaning through context and contrast.
Famously, a baby carriage topples dangerously down the steps amid the gunfire, and although there is no visual confirmation of the tragic end to that scenario, the tragedy is implied simply by the order of the shots and the specific choices on the timing and content of each cut. It is a pivotal sequence in the history of film, still horrifying audiences on the edge of their seats almost a century later.
3. The Seven Samurai: The Final Battle
Talk about build-up. Kurosawa has filmed many classic battle scenes, but perhaps none as satisfying as in his masterpiece and most influential achievement The Seven Samurai, an epic which raises the stakes over the course of 3 and a half hours until arriving at the final battle to defend a local village who has hired the men to defend them against an attack.
This is not an action film per se, but the climax finds archers’ arrows and samurai’s swords clashing amid a rainstorm, a majestic and suitably poetic setting for its equal parts rousing and tragic climax. The photography is stunning, and few scenes of the kind have such weighty emotional stakes running underneath – a symptom of spending time with the characters, and of an excellent screenplay.
This is a true classic that satisfies time and time again, its overall structure copied and mocked and paid homage so many times you may find you recognize it, whether or not you’ve even seen it.
2. The Wild Bunch: The Robbery Massacre
This is, to an extent, a post-modern western, deconstructing myths by accenting the devastating truth behind their violence. The film begins when William Holden and his outlaws attempt one last score, only to find themselves under attack by ruthless bounty hunters hired by the railroad — a group that includes an old friend. The shootout that follows is a horrifying cavalcade of blood, bullets and tragedy.
Though the graphic depiction of violence is less shocking to a modern audience, this push for realism is not the only thing that makes The Wild Bunch a classic. Its stylized, artful use of cross-cutting was particularly influential. The most prominent example: a man falls from a building after being shot, and Peckinpah elongates the natural timeline, cutting away to other action several times before the body finally hits the dirt.
This shootout is ugly. It’s a massacre, children watching their parents caught literally in the crossfire. Peckinpah reportedly shot scenes of several cameras, each running at different frame rates, so when cut together the speed could shift however he chose. To capture the dreadful situation, strict realism is abandoned for the sake of a more sensory realism.
1. Bullet in the Head: The Chaotic Climax
Bullet in the Head may be John Woo’s masterpiece, an oversized, massively epic melodrama that sums up the auteur’s style. It’s a gangster-styled take on The Deer Hunter. Ben, Paul and Frank are friends from childhood who make mostly failed attempts as criminals, eventually ending up as prisoners in a Vietcong concentration camp. The psychological effects of their time there lead them on a spiral of tragedy that leads to the film’s denouement, an absolutely bonkers action spectacle.
It begins as a car chase and devolves into a barrage of bullets. Ben confronts Paul to take revenge for what he did to Frank during their prison break. Woo cuts back to flashes of the three of them riding their bikes as children through the same empty streets where the remaining two now compete to murder one another. The score ratchets up the melodrama, and even in its crazy-eyed, slow-mo-explosion-packed tear, it is profoundly emotional.
They end up on the pier and duel with their cars until they are just heaps of shrapnel caught ablaze. They shoot a thousand bullets until they are both riddled with them. Woo starts at 100% and reduces the action over the course of the scene, until all that’s left are two men holding onto one another, and the final bullet to the head.