Most movies are lucky to get in one great action set piece (and they usually put it in the wrong damn place), so it’s sort of a miracle that David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde – out Friday, and a must-see – features two. Early on, our hero Lorraine (Charlize Theron, kicking ass left and right) takes on an army of thugs in an apartment, making use of an assortment of handy household items/improvised weapons. And just when you think that one is an all-timer, they go and top it with a later sequence that follows Lorraine (and the man she’s protecting) through an entire apartment block, dispatching bad guys left and right, seemingly in an unbroken take – kind of like that great shot in Children of Men, but with way more guys getting thrown into walls. Both are among the great action sequences in recent memory, and there’s some pretty stiff competition for that title; let’s take a look at it.
- Parkour Chase – Casino Royale
The acrobatic combat style of parkour has given us plenty of ace action beats, but none may have mattered more to a movie than this killer bit in the 2006 Bond reboot – a series that had faltered badly, thanks to the increased silliness of its most recent, Pierce Bronsan-fronted installments. With new Bond Daniel Craig in place and a leaner, grittier aesthetic established, director Martin Campbell went for straight-up bruising fight scenes, from the excellent, black-and-white brawl that opened the movie to this exhausting fight in an under-construction building.
- Red Circle Club – John Wick
Atomic Blonde director Leitch was an uncredited co-director on this 2014 action extravaganza, so it’s not much of a surprise that Blonde’s fights are so above-average. Mr. Wick (Keanu Reeves) is equally proficient with his gun and his fists; he uses the former here to stalk and shoot the Russian gangster offspring who stole his car and killed his dog. The villain escapes, but Wick offs a whole lotta bad guys in the process, in a sequence that’s memorable not for its body count, but for the near-balletic grace of the shoot-out choreography (by both the performers and the camera).
- Highway Chase – The Matrix Reloaded
Reeves again, following up one of the great action movies of the 20th century with one of the first big disappointments of the 21st. But none of Reloaded’s flaws – its lackluster pacing, its heavy-handed dialogue, its stifling self-seriousness – can detract from the magnificence of its stunning climactic sequence, a chase, fight, and shootout atop and inside several moving vehicles on a busy highway. It’s a testament to the considerable gifts of the Wachowskis, who took the endless resources of this big-budget production and gave us the oldest chestnut in the action movie book (car chase, snooooze) and turned into something thrillingly new.
- Zero Gravity Hallway – Inception
In the interest of spreading the wealth, we’ve limited this list to only one entry from any given director – and had we not, there’s a pretty good chance Christopher Nolan’s own highway chase, in The Dark Knight, would’ve made the cut as well. But there’s just no denying the ingenuity of Inception’s most memorable sequence, in which the multiple, running dreamscapes converge in a fight scene in which the very nature of space and physics are altered by the action in another layer of the dream. Nolan clearly loves to explore cinema’s possibilities for creating and playing with puzzles; rarely has that preoccupation manifested itself so viscerally, and so entertainingly.
- Subway Fight – The Raid 2: Berandal
Real talk: you can pluck out just about any damn scene in either of the Raid movies and plop them onto this list (hell, the first one is basically one long action scene). But when your correspondent thinks of these movies, one image always returns: Alicia, aka “Hammer Girl” (Julie Estelle), confidently taking out her two hammers in the middle of a busy (but quickly empty!) subway car, and dispatching an army of knife-wielding henchmen in a blink. It’s a gory, clever, intense sequence, and it just plain takes the wind outta you.
- Carano vs. Fassbender – Haywire
It’s not just that there’s something thrilling, here and throughout Steven Soderbergh’s crackerjack 2012 action thriller, about watching MMA fighter-turned-actor Gina Carano beat the living shit out of an assortment of would-be tough guys – though that’s certainly part of the charge. No, what makes Haywire great is the way Soderbergh, not traditionally an action director, eschews the customary hyper-caffeinated editing and geographic displacement of too many modern fight flicks, choosing instead to respect the considerable athleticism of his lead (and the hard work of her co-stars) by letting the action play out in longer-than-usual medium-wides. And while most action movies are scored all to hell as well, with every punch and kick punctuated by an orchestral sting, Soderbergh usually takes the sound out entirely – which gives this hotel room brawl an extra bit of oomph, as every singly grunt, hit, and crash is crystal clear, and that much more painful for the viewer.
- Restaurant Fight – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Ang Lee’s modern martial arts classic is another case of tricky selection; how do you choose between the rooftop attack, the bamboo forest fight, and the restaurant brawl? But I’m going with the latter, mostly for the way Lee and fight choreographer Wo Ping Yuen take advantage of this confined space – putting our heroine (the marvelous Zhang Ziyi) into a lion’s den, and watching with awe as she fights, slices, and just frigging flies her way out of it.
- Corridor Fight – Oldboy
This centerpiece sequence from Park Chan-wook’s 2003 revenge thriller may well be the most influential item on this list – you can see its echoes not only in the aforementioned Raid 2 scene (via the hammer and the horizontal camera movements), but in the Netflix Marvel series, all of which seem to include a hallway fight scene at one point or another. But this is the original, and it’s still breathtaking – one long take, shot over three days until they got it right (take 17, the story goes), a scene as brutal and harrowing as it is electrifying.
- Ship’s Mast & Chase – Death Proof
Again, the one-director-per-list rule comes into play, because Quentin Tarantino’s “Crazy 88s” set piece in Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a killer too – and a surprise when it was released, as his ability to shoot action was still somewhat in doubt (his previous movies were more talk than action, and when that element did come, it was mostly in short, compact bursts). You could safely say he put those concerns to rest with that two-part, martial arts epic, and then he managed to top it with the climactic sequence of his contribution to the 2007 double feature Grindhouse. Writing the lead role specifically for super-stuntwoman Zoë Bell, Tarantino staged a dangerous game of “ship’s mast” (with Bell riding a souped-up Vanishing Point-style Dodge Challenger, on the hood), to be interrupted by the potentially deadly interference of serial killer “Stuntman Mike” (Kurt Russell). The lengthy nail-biter was staged, in true Tarantino form, old school – real cars, real drivers, real stunts, real danger, rather than the souped-up CGI of your Fast and Furious movies. And that‘s why it’s on this list, and those aren’t.
- Final chase – Mad Max: Fury Road
And that’s also one of the most impressive elements of George Miller’s action masterpiece: how much of its action was staged practically, with giant, custom vehicles in the middle of the desert, going buck wild. And they weren’t just doing it for a sequence; Miller’s movie amounts to a feature-length chase, a modern riff on Keaton’s The General, in which the first half is a pursuit to a point, and the second half is that same journey in reverse. The simplicity of the storytelling lets Miller create something akin to that movie-nerd cliché of “pure cinema,” in which narrative, character, and emotion are communicated directly, and almost entirely, via the events onscreen, and the awe-inspiring manner in which they’re shot and chopped. By the time Max (Tom Hardy), Furiosa (Charlize Theron, again), and their crew of escaped brides and motorcycle outlaws are returning to the Citadel, the stakes are so absurdly high that every stunt and kill lands with the emotional impact of a three-page monologue. And that, friends, is what great action filmmaking is all about.