I’m not a big fan of mindless action films. Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Chuck Norris, and even Steven Seagal flicks were never appointment viewing for me. I enjoy a good action scene as much as anyone else, but they mean very little to me if there isn’t a compelling story to go along with it. I have no use for old kung fu movies, I dislike westerns aside from Tombstone and Unforgiven, and I consider the Fast and the Furious franchise to be the Nickelback of motion picture franchises. Thus, my Starting Nine: Hollywood Action Scenes is atypical from similar lists you’ll find online.

The psychology of storytelling can paint an incredible picture in the mind of a reader, but applying that technique to an audio/visual medium is infinitely harder to execute. Consider all the troubleshooting that must come with coordinating the script, acting, lighting, timing, choreography, sound, and the hundred other factors that never cross the minds of regular viewers like us. There’s a reason why our favorite scenes hold such prominent places in our memories and hearts. A great action scene is a million-piece jigsaw puzzle that appeals to our senses while triggering a deep respect and appreciation for what the filmmakers had to do in order to pull it off.

Movie magic.

You’ll probably find some glaring omissions from my lineup that you would feature in the heart of your order, and I guarantee you’ll scratch your head at a couple of these entries wondering how the hell they could make the cut. You’ll also notice that all but one of these scenes come from fantastic movies, and that’s no coincidence.

A great action scene isn’t just about fistfights, shootouts, and stunts. With very few exceptions, you can’t have a great action scene without a great movie. Nobody appreciates the sizzle if the steak tastes like bologna.

Here is my Starting Nine of Hollywood action scenes.


1. The Hunted (2003)

Leading off is my favorite movie knife fight of all time. Tommy Lee Jones taught Benicio del Toro how to kill, and for some reason he’s the only man capable of stopping him even though he’s in his 60s. The film is a pretty basic hybrid of Rambo and The Fugitive, but the climax is an unforgettable showdown that highlights just how brutal the knife is as a weapon. Tossing your own blood into your opponent’s eyes, pounding a blade into someone’s shoulder like a ketchup bottle, pulling a knife out of your own arm and plunging it into the other guy’s chest … this is four minutes of revolutionary fight scene tactics.
By the way, Arya Stark owes del Toro a beer for teaching her the move that took out the Night King and saved Westoros.


2. The Rock (1996)

Visually speaking, this is not a crazy action sequence. However, I find this scene to be a magnificent example of the pivotal role music has in films. The strings of this score set an ominous rhythm as Navy jets prepare to carpet bomb Alcatraz with napalm (because nerve gas). The horns then join in as Nic Cage stumbles out into the open. Once the spotters see the green smoke, we’re bombarded with layers of percussion as we watch the military brass scramble to abort the bombing. Virtually nothing about this movie is realistic, but the reactions of the FBI chief, the jet pilot, and the general always felt pretty genuine to me. We like to think that military options are all well-oiled machines, but I think there would be a whole bunch of panicky “Abort!,” “Jesus Chri–!,” “G*ddammit!,” and thrown headsets just like we see here if this scenario ever played out in real life.
A quick nod to Anthony Guidera as the Navy pilot. You may remember him as the guy from Species who Natasha Henstridge liked so much that she slipped him the tongue.


3. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

There’s nothing I can say about the Omaha Beach scene that hasn’t already been said a thousand times. 26 years after it’s release, it’s still the most brutal and realistic depiction of 20th century warfare ever captured on film. Nobody can watch the boats approach the beach without picturing themselves in that position and imagining how terrifying the experience would be. We are in Hell from the moment those ramps come down until the area is secured thousands of casualties later. We even empathize with the American soldiers who gun down unarmed enemies as they try to surrender. Saving Private Ryan transports you to its setting more effectively than perhaps any film in American history.


4. Heat (1995)

It’s only fitting that the greatest cops-and-robbers flick ever made has the greatest urban shootout ever filmed. I don’t know how many rounds of ammunition were fired while filming this scene, but I’d be amazed if it’s less than 100,000. There’s something particularly disturbing about the thought of three guys holding their own against dozens of police officers, several of whom carry assault rifles that are just as powerful as the ones the crooks fire. Heat is my favorite movie of all time for countless reasons, but most of all because of the hyper realism of every scene. That includes this shootout, with tactics that never push the envelope (other than the final gunshot) and cinematography that constantly leads us to believe that something like this could really happen. In fact, something very much like this did actually happen two years later in North Hollywood.


5. The Revenant (2015)

It doesn’t carry the same cultural significance of Saving Private Ryan, but the opening battle of this movie also does an exceptional job of transporting us into the middle of basically the scariest environment imaginable. The bullets and bombs of Ryan are horrifying, but the arrows and blades that buzz by the camera from every direction in this scene are somehow even scarier. Can you imagine being trapped in the muddy woods, surrounded by an unknown number of concealed “savages” as your colleagues drop dead all around you from arrows to the throat, with only a single-shot rifle to protect you? How about catching an arrow to your leg and limping for a getaway barge as friends and foes who are indistinguishable from one another slash and swipe with hatchets and bowie knives at everything that moves? The desperate whirls of the camera and agonizing screams of the actors brilliantly capture the chaos and bloodlust of this era in American history … and that’s before Dicaprio gets mauled by a frickin’ bear.


6. The French Connection (1971)

The scene where Gene Hackman speeds through the streets of New York in pursuit of a runaway elevated train is a filmmaking marvel, especially when you consider that it was shot in 1971. Never before had anyone seen a chase with stunts and camerawork like this, and no other chase scene approached it in quality until Ronin in 1998. This scene shows us not only how well Popeye Doyle knows the streets of New York, but how maniacally obsessed he is with bringing down Charnier’s drug ring. Doyle commandeers a civilian’s car and proceeds to endanger the lives of countless motorists, a train full of passengers, a handful of pedestrians, and even a baby without hesitation, eschewing all NYPD regulations for the sake of collaring Charnier’s underling. By the end of the scene, you find yourself wondering if the cop is any less dangerous than the crook.


7. X2 (2003)

Comic book fans craved a scene displaying Wolverine’s patented berserker rage from the moment the first X-Men movie was announced. We didn’t get it with the first film, but Bryan Singer made sure to scratch that itch (with adamantium claws) in X2. Hugh Jackman may have played a tamer, more sophisticated Logan in the movies than we had seen in previous X-Men media, but he did a damn fine job of it right out of the gate. Still, can you truly say this guy is playing a genuine version of Wolverine until you see him slice and dice a platoon full of bad guys in the midst of a screaming fit of homicidal fury?
Thank you for properly motivating our boy, Colonel Stryker.


8. They Live (1988)

This movie absolutely blows. It’s the exception to the rule I explained above (you need a great movie to have a great action scene) because the scene is “great” for all the wrong reasons. This fight scene features the film’s hero and his trusty sidekick beating each other mercilessly quite early in the film … a hilarious brawl that basically just serves as a recruitment exercise to get the sidekick on board with the hero’s mission. And then they have to begin their battle against the evil aliens who are covertly taking over the world. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was a pro wrestler who was famous for screaming nonsensical streams of consciousness that culminated with short, crappy matches. This scene is the flipside to that formula: an interminable slobber-knocker born of simply asking his opponent to put on a pair of sunglasses. Seven minutes, four thousand punches, five knees to the groin, two suplexes, and one eye gouge later, Roddy gets his wish. It’s foolish, unrealistic, terrible, and iconic.


9. The Last Jedi (2017)

No, I do not consider this an exception to the rule above because I’m one of the 12 people on the planet who really enjoyed The Last Jedi. The handicap duel between Rey, Kylo Ren, and Snoke’s guards features astounding choreography and some of the sweetest weapons in movie history. It’s the emotional pinnacle of the trilogy; the moment where Ren’s powers reach their apex and the hate inside him begins it’s gradual turn toward the light. The slow reveal of his betrayal of Snoke is a sensational surprise, and the resulting fight absolutely kicks ass. Like a galactic band of ninja turtles, these guards brandish light sabers, light chains, light sais, and light bo staffs before biting the dust one-by-one in spectacular fashion (decapitation, tossed in a shredder, light saber through the eyeball). If the trilogy ended here and spared us all the Zombie Palpatine nonsense, I’d feel much more satisfied overall with the Star Wars movie catalogue.



By Luke

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