Movies come in all shapes and sizes and span all genres, and while brilliant performances and Oscar-worthy screenplays are celebrated, there are few things that give off more of a sense of fun than an action scene done right.
In many ways, action filmmaking is what drives people to the cinemas in the first place; just ask Michael Bay and the millions of people (mostly in China) that supported the abomination that was Transformers: Age of Extinction en route to netting nearly $1.1 billion worldwide. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the Normandy Beach scene from Saving Private Ryan, which, while brilliant in its own right, doesn’t really give cause for high-fiving.
Somewhere in the middle there is the sweet spot represented by action scenes so well-directed, well-placed in the context of the film they’re in and just so plain badass that they give you butterflies, making you laugh even in the midst of the carnage.
These are seven such scenes.
1. The Battle of New York (The Avengers, 2012)
Much has been made of the grand – and successful – experiment represented by Marvel Studios and their ever-expanding cinematic universe, but all those eggs were places in one proverbial basket back in 2012. Then, director Joss Whedon had to take a disparate group of superheroes from their own variably successful films and combine them into a sum that was greater than its constituent parts.
The Avengers film played off its comic book roots by staging several small and consequence-free scraps between its team members in the first half, but the Battle of New York in the grand finale had to dial it up to 11, and it did.
Sending an endless horde of Chitauri minions and the occasional armored dragon worm thing at Iron Man and his fellows provided the perfect excuse to see these badasses in top form. We saw Cap and Thor fight back-to-back, Hawkeye call out strifes and flight routes to Iron Man, Black Widow hitch a ride on an alien speeder and Hulk, well, smash.
But all of that paled in comparison to one long shot that saw Tony Stark make his presence known in every phase of the battle, assisting his fellow Avengers and showing the audience how brilliantly they worked in tandem to fend off the alien threat. If this hadn’t worked, who knows what would have become of the juggernaut now known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
2. Clash with the Persians (300, 2006)
There was a time in the not so distant past where Zack Snyder’s speed-ramping technique wasn’t lambasted for being a cheap trick. In fact, as is the case with many special effects, it was once considered groundbreaking.
Enter the one that kicked it all off, the kind-of historical epic based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, 300. Sure, this one had some weird stuff in it: an ogre with blades for hands, a weird hunchback betrayer, a strangely homoerotic King Xerxes. But it also had some badass fight scenes, and the best one of them all was the first major clash between the Spartans and Persians in the mountainous gap of Thermopylae. It’s a scene that sets the tone for the bloodbath that follows and establishes the Spartans as true lions among lambs, lending credence to their ability to endure in the face of impossible odds.
In the scene, the Spartan shield wall does its job, protecting the Greek soldiers from the flailing Persians and allowing them to strike back with abandon. When the Persian line bends, King Leonidas (played awesomely by Gerard Butler) emerges from the line with spear in hand and wreaks absolute havoc on the hapless invaders. Snyder alternately speeds up and slows down Leonidas’s attacks and counter-attacks as he takes out over a dozen enemy troops, and it all ends with an epic shield bash to the thorax (do people have those?) that would make Steve Rogers blush.
3. T-800 vs. T-1000 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991)
There was a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger was not an aging caricature clinging to his former glory days; he was the Terminator, and as we saw in James Cameron’s 1984 classic, the Terminator can’t really be stopped without convenient plot devices and the fact that the heroine has to win in the end.
Of course, all that changed in 1991, when Cameron returned to the franchise to direct what is one of the most beloved and enduring action films in cinematic history with Terminator 2. In the second installment of a franchise that has since lost its way (you see Genisys yet?) Arnie’s T-800 met its match in the form of the Capri-Sun-inspired T-1000, and Cameron pulled off the incredible feat of making you root for a machine that in the previous film made up the stuff of nightmares.
Where the T-800 is all brawn and Juggernaut-like damage soak, the T-1000 is sleeker, smarter and virtually resistant to all harm. These two robots tusseled more than once before the final frame, but the lengthy ending brawl in the glowing embers of a smelting plant was the cybernetic equivalent of the Hulk vs. Wolverine. The T-800 used everything from a shotgun to a led pipe, but the T-1000 just kept on coming.
In the end, it took Dr. Evil-style liquid hot magma to get the job done, and while the ending left some lingering feels, the fisticuffs up until that point were tense, brutal and above all, fun.
4. Quicksilver’s Run (X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2014)
If it succeeded in nothing else – and it did – Bryan Singer’s 2014 return to the comic book movie world taught nerds around the world a valuable lesson: never judge a Quicksilver by its Empire Magazine cover. Or, something like that.
Anyway, there were plenty of highlights from Days of Future Past. Wolverine was it in (again), there were two separate death scenes for every member of the future X-Men team and there were two concurrent and equally-compelling timelines going on at once. But amidst all of that, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person that didn’t claim Quicksilver’s prison break of a young Magneto as the highlight of the film.
This scene had it all, from mind-blowing – even by today’s standards – special effects, fantastic cinematography and a clear and easy-to-follow mission. Add in the calming vocals of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” to the proceedings, and the audience inhabits the exact mindstate of the speedy mutant, who effortlessly defeats a room full of guards with equal parts badass, daring and thoughtful panache.
Forget action scenes, this is arguably one of the most purely fun movie scenes you’re ever likely to experience.
5. Pegg and Frost vs. Sandford (Hot Fuzz, 2007)
Edgar Wright is a comedic genius, but he’s also got a flair for action. After the cult classic 2004 hit Shawn of the Dead spoofed the zombie genre while paying homage to it, Wright, along with stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, took aim at the buddy cop genre popularized in the ’80s with 2007’s Hot Fuzz.
Like many of Wright’s films, this one has its roots firmly planted in British culture, and that includes its humor and its narrative structure, which is something of a slow burn. Still, when the proverbial shit finally hits the fan in the lengthy finale, we’re treated to one of the most gleefully absurd displays of violence in movie history.
After discovering that a spree of murders around Sandford is the result of elderly members of the village council attempting to win yet another “Village of the Year” award, Pegg and Frost (do you really need their character names?) embark on an all-out kill spree that would put them at the top of any Call of Duty leaderboard.
Wright and company fire through cop film clich?s as they rip through frail old ladies in the surprisingly visceral grand finale. The last 30 minutes of Hot Fuzz are so different in tone than the lead-up, it almost feels as though it’s another movie entirely, and that only adds to its giddying effect on the audience.
6. The Lobby Scene (The Matrix, 1999)
Surely The Matrix needs no introduction to this audience. The Wachowskis’ masterpiece represents a seminal moment in cinematic history, not just in the realm of sci-fi, and the film spawned an endless wave of imitators – both intentional and not – for a decade to come.
Neo’s journey is made more compelling because of the film’s philosophy and the Alice in Wonderland vibe it gives off, but what stands out even more are the game-changing action sequences. There are several fantastically-choreographed fight scenes, from Neo’s Kung Fu throwdown with Morpheus to his brutal subway duel with Agent Smith in the grand finale. But there is one scene that had moviegoers the world over cheering, laughing, spitting and probably urinating – maybe all at once – and that was the lobby scene.
In said scene, Neo and Trinity attempt to rescue a captured Morpheus by storming a building – and by storming, I mean they just walk in the front door and casually stroll through security with a duffel bag full of guns and leather jackets to match. What follows still stands as one of the most insane gun fights of all time, as the god-like pair take out a faceless army of heavily-armed soldiers with almost as many guns as bullets.
There are plenty of movies that refer to shootouts as gun fights, but this one takes the cake, blending eastern martial arts flare with army combatives and brilliant cinematography to create a ballet of ballistic violence. It the end, Neo and Trinity observe the silent, granite-slabbed tomb of their own making.
Silent, of course, but for the last crumbling block from a shell-shocked column.
7. Pretty Much All of It (The Raid, 2011)
1 Ruthless Crime Lord. 20 Elite Cops. 30 Floors of Chaos.
That is the tagline of Gareth Evans’s 2011 martial arts bonanza that is The Raid (subtitled Redemption in the U.S. because U.S. marketing), and if you’ve seen it, then you probably had a big, stupid grin plastered onto your face when you read that line. Also, that grin probably mirrored the one you were sporting from around the ten-minute mark of the movie itself.
This is a simple story about a simple man named Rama (Iko Uwais) who gets trapped with the rest of his squad in a criminal-infested high rise in the seemingly lawless Indonesia. Once he’s cornered, Rama needs to abandon SWAT tactics and bust out his martial arts know-how to employ a take-no-prisoners survival strategy against the violent convicts.
What separates this from other martial arts flicks – and from other action films in general – is that you truly do almost feel the hits. The fights are short, brutal and to-the-point, but they’re so frequent your eyes will start bleeding by the time Rama meets the big bad. Think Mortal Kombat‘s classic arcade-style tournament towers, and you’re starting to get the idea. No matter how many people Rama kills, they just keep on coming, and he keeps on killing them.
In fairness, he does look like an absolute mess by the end of it all.
The Raid is only a few years old and it already spawned a fantastic sequel, but this is the new breed of martial arts violence for the new breed of moviegoer. You can see its influence popping up in movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Marvel’s Daredevil series currently airing on Netflix, both of which cited the Indonesian film as an inspiration.
Hell, even JJ Abrams recruited several of the fight choreographers from The Raid to helm some upcoming fight scenes in Episode VII. Ya. As in, Star Wars: Episode VII.
Previously by Steven Kelliher
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