Top Ten: Action Sequences
10. The car chase in Death Proof (2007) [YouTube link]
Quentin Tarantino’s bifurcated paean to the high-octane, often low-budget and existential road movies of the 1970s works better on its own than as the second-half of the Grindhouse double-bill, but it nonetheless feels like a direct response to its unrepentantly macho, caffeinated forebears and is capped with an excitedly end-all final chase between our female protagonists and the dementedly suave and homicidal “Stuntman Mike” (Kurt Russell). Like Planet Terror and its game of spot-the-John Carpenter-references, Death Proof takes that filmmaker’s foremost on-screen collaborator and thoroughly villain-izes him, only to take him down a peg at his own game with three confident, Hollywood-savvy women (Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson, real-life stuntwoman Zoë Bell). Tarantino, acting as his own cinematographer, and frequent editor Sally Menke craft maybe the most viscerally exciting sequence of their careers, aided immeasurably by Bell’s patently dangerous game of “Ship’s Mast” upon the hood of their vintage Vanishing Point Dodge Charger. The seemingly offhand conversations and slow-motion violence of the first part of the film has suitably led up to this overcharged, hypersexual duel of old-school movie testosterone and a new generation of knowing, ass-kicking feminists.
9. The arrow assault in Throne of Blood (1957) [YouTube link]
Akira Kurosawa adapted Shakespeare on-screen several times, perhaps none so successfully as Throne of Blood, a transposition of Macbeth into feudal Japan. The Macbeth-like general Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) has become drunk with greed and power, having betrayed many in his quest for lordship. Overconfident in the ironic predictions of a forest spirit, he finds himself attacked by enemies disguised as the very trees surrounding his castle. His iconic downfall occurs when his own troops turn on him, firing arrows in moral retribution for Washizu’s murder of their previous lord. The scene’s legendary status comes from the expert choreography and practical effects that achieved its enveloping violence, capped by Mifune’s apparently genuine fear at such closely-fired projectiles. He gives one of the great performances of animal terror as arrows surround and pierce his armor, framing his body in thickets and embedding themselves into wooden wall after wooden wall. Washizu’s reign ends in a fittingly unnerving moment of penetration as an arrow perfectly skewers his neck. The sequence balances tightly-planned and executed action with the seemingly improvised flailing that exposes Washizu as the merely human coward that he is, a lesson in the dangerous, human capacity for evil that overflows from a relatively frail bodily source.
8. The final shootout in The Wild Bunch (1969) [YouTube link]
Sam Peckinpah interrogated violence at all points in his cinematic career, most elegiacally and assaultingly in the climax of his revisionist Western The Wild Bunch. Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his gang of aged but still vital outlaws (Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson) have done the bidding of Mexican warlord Mapache (Emilio Fernández) but take a final stand in vengeful retaliation for the torture and murder of their partner Angel (Jaime Sánchez). The hopeless shootout is an orgy of all-encompassing violence, filled with squibs, deafening gunshots, and the sickening participation of women and children. Bishop and his men go through the end-result of their chosen lives for what in their world counts as a moral stand, but it’s all for naught in the film’s universe of purposeless bloodshed, culminating in the deeply ironic murder of Bishop by a boy armed with a rifle, a sign of the continuation of a corrupt cycle. In merely cinematic terms, the entire sequence is a masterclass of visual and auditory editing, mixing quick cross-cutting, slow motion, and immersive sound effects to prevent the viewer’s escape until the last man is gunned down.
7. The opening car chase in The Hidden (1987) [YouTube link]
The Hidden is a gem of low-budget sci-fi action that stands out in the careers of both director Jack Sholder and writer Jim Kouf (as Bob Hunt). Mild-mannered Jack DeVries (Chris Mulkey) calmly robs a bank during the film’s opening credits and leads the police on a West Hollywood car chase. The film crispy cuts back and forth from within and without the unconventional criminal’s Ferrari, indulging his penchant for loud thrash music over the car’s stereo when diegetically appropriate. The sequence partakes in the already long-established clichés of the form: police barricades, squealing near-misses, a large pane of glass being moved across the road; yet The Hidden riskily goes for broke in upping the violence by unapologetically thumping pedestrians when other movies might hedge their bets. Rapid-fire cuts and edgy stunt-work make the pane-of-glass-being-handled-in-front-of-the-chase incident in particular the apotheosis of that type of moment. Only a brief glimpse of hesitation in DeVries’s face when confronted with a squad of police cars and guns blocking his path marks the perpetrator out as remotely emotionally human, the implications of which will play out in this exciting 80s cult item.
6. The train chase in The Wrong Trousers (1993) [YouTube link]
Its malleable nature makes animation a perfect place to stage action sequences that would be unthinkable in live-action terms, but examples from the likes of Hayao Miyazaki (particularly Princess Mononoke) and the Pixar studio (The Incredibles and Monsters, Inc. would be the foremost choices) show that the best animated action still fundamentally obeys the conventional rules of space and weight even when stretching these physical limitations. But my choice is the comically exciting climax to the Wallace and Gromit short The Wrong Trousers from Nick Park and Aardman Animations, a wonder of plasticine molding that’s as character-driven as it is kinetic. Penguin criminal mastermind “Feathers” McGraw attempts to flee with his stolen diamond aboard a fast-moving train set, opposed by silent but intrepid Gromit and his bumbling inventor/owner Wallace in his plot-driving mechanical trousers. The chase imaginatively engages several well-worn tropes, including track-switching and near-misses, but the small scale and hilarious body language of the anthropomorphized hero and villain (both mute and thus immensely expressive) bring new dimensions to the action. Even cutting is made funny with its overuse in the final moments of “Feathers” hurtling through the air and a distracted Gromit eying the bird’s arc while rapidly putting down track, culminating in an unexpected collision that provides the criminal’s inevitable capture.
5. The mall shootout in The Misson (1999) [YouTube link]
Johnnie To’s lethal, wordless geometry and mastery of spatial arrangements work wonders in this justly-famous gunfight set in an empty shopping mall. Starting as points on a straight line as they leave a restaurant and travel down an escalator, a gangster boss (Eddy Ko) and his five bodyguards (Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, Jackie Lui, Francis Ng, and Roy Cheung, most of whom are To regulars) find themselves under attack and stoically fan out into a visual pattern lovingly captured by cinematographer and very prolific To DP Cheng Siu Keung. Relatively spartan in terms of bodily motion, conventional action, and quick cutting, the scene is driven by a repetitive,
insistent score, electronically-elongated gunshot sounds, and crisp zooms in and out of the visual shape constructed out of the armed killers’ bodies’ relative positions. Things heat up when the presence of a reflection and a seeming intruder break down the pattern, forcing less elegant and confident gunplay than had been in evidence during the scene’s beginning. An exemplar of contemporary (in)action staging.
4. The crop duster in North by Northwest (1959) [TCM.com link]
Alfred Hitchcock was masterful in his construction of individual scenes within a film; one thinks of the shower scene in Psycho, Bruno strangling Guy’s wife in Strangers on a Train, and numerous voyeuristic sequences in Rear Window. Yet no great sequence in Hitchcock’s career is more thrilling yet less narratively-motivated than the crop duster chase in the middle of North by Northwest in which Cary Grant is menaced by a plane “dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.” The otherwise basically wordless, music-less sequence is of a well-dressed man getting dirty, a fitting microcosm of the film as a whole. Hitchcock does here to the clear, blue sky what he will immediately afterwards do to the seemingly innocuous bathroom: render the familiar and innocent strange and frightening. The scene is also just as ingenious as a one-man showcase for Grant’s rumpled dignity, making him run and hide with none of his trademark wit this time to save him. Even with a context-less crash and explosion to cap off the scene, the precise editing between the plane turning for another pass, Grant trying to flag down a truck, and the truck’s honking screech to a halt is a jolting feat of cutting.
3. The car chase in Mad Max 2 (1981) [StreetFire.net link]
The even more action-oriented sequel to the low-budget dystopian thriller Mad Max expands the film series’s universe beyond its grim protagonist Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) into the further wastelands of Australian, climaxing in an all-out escape by Max and a group of settlers away from their fortified compound, pursued by a roving band of marauders led by the Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson). The chase is as epic and iconic as its landscape setting, jumping from multiple points of view and scored to a propulsive orchestral arrangement that rises and falls with the action. Vehicles of differing sizes (a Mack truck, smaller but supercharged cars, motorcycles) collide in showers of glass and metal, people leap from surface to surface, and explosions ripple the roadways. Choice bits of physical humor leaven the otherwise relentless pace, with director George Miller expertly choreographing more than one set of characters and plane of actions at the same time. It’s a fitting companion to the superficially similar Nazi truck action scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, an American film released in the same year; but while there Spielberg’s precision keeps eyes focused at all times on Indiana Jones’s plight, here Miller weaves a dynamic collage of independent threads into one pulse-pounding, satisfying whole.
2. The opening chase in Police Story (1985) [YouTube link]
Beginning with 1983′s Project A, Jackie Chan starred in and directed an unparalleled series of stunt-driven martial arts action pictures, any one of which has numerous moments that could land on this list. His follow-up to Project A, Police Story, is my favorite of his directorial efforts and opens with an insane chase of unrelenting and exhausting energy. Chan leads an investigative team on a raid on criminals holed up in a shanty town, but his quarry discover the plan and attempt to escape literally through the town, crashing downhill in cars through structure after structure in a scene that inspired similar and inferior moments in both Bad Boys II and Born to Fight. Any ordinary pursuer would have given up following the crashes sustained at the end of this scene, but Jackie is just warming up. From there he uses an umbrella to hitch a perilous ride on a retreating double-decker bus and eventual confronts said bus with only a revolver. No mere description can adequately relate the impossible physical endurance, resilience, and imagination on display by Chan and his stunt team in just this opening, a feat nearly matched in a concluding battle royal within a shopping mall more driven by hand-to-hand fighting than relentless vehicles.
1. The hospital shootout in Hard Boiled (1992) [YouTube link]
Hard Boiled is a cocktail of John Woo’s signature energized gunplay, sentimental machismo, and thrilling camera gymnastics, especially in a two-man assault by Hong Kong cops (Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung) on a squad of criminals who’ve taken over a hospital. In an amazing display of technical acumen and resourceful planning, Woo and his cast and crew staged a remarkable gunfight through corridors and an elevator, even shooting one section in a single two-and-a-half minute take that’s immensely exciting without calling too much attention to itself. It’s a video game-like sequence in the best sense of the term, feeling first-person and engaging the space and time within the scene’s environment. Woo even went so far as to include expressive instances of smearing slow motion, to approximate the dawning emotional plight of Leung’s character or just to vary the visual texture, while actually shooting the scene instead of relying on post-production effects. Such a feat of construction has proven influential to a generation of action filmmakers inside and outside of Asia. Even after the long take has ended, the rapid-fire cutting and vigorous movement shows Woo at the height of his powers.