This project began with a video we viewed on YouTube from WatchMojo, entitled The Top 20 Most Rewatched Action Scenes Ever. It wasn’t a bad list. But it seemed to have some glaring omissions, and certainly provoked a bunch of discussion around TC Towers. Before we proceed, you can either go and watch the video (which is a fun way to spend 20 minutes), or for those who are short on time, below are the scenes and movies that were selected.
- #20: Parkour chase, Casino Royale
- #19: Hot Gates battle, 300
- #18: Opening Chase, Baby Driver
- #17: Stealing the Vault, Fast Five
- #16: Temple Escape, Raiders of the Lost Ark
- #15: Boarding the Bus, Speed
- #14: Church fight, Kingsman: The Secret Service
- #13: Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris, Way of the Dragon
- #12: Corridor Fight, Oldboy
- #11: Infiltrating the Vault, Mission: Impossible
- #10: The 10 Black Belts, Ip Man
- #9: Kitchen Fight, The Raid 2
- #8: Treetop Fight, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
- #7: Jumping off the Tower, Die Hard
- #6: Rotating Hallway, Inception
- #5: The Crazy 88s, Kill Bill: Volume 1
- #4: The Chase Begins/Sandstorm, Mad Max: Fury Road
- #3: Club shootout, John Wick
- #2: Motorcycle chase, Terminator 2
- #1: Bullet-time, The Matrix
Like I said, not bad. I will admit, I’ve not seen any of the Fast & the Furious except the first movie, many moons ago, so I’m not qualified to comment. But that’s the only one I’m missing. There are some blatant omissions, and quite a few bits of “Well, we wouldn’t choose that scene.” Among the former, the most inexplicable and glaring is the absence of Jackie Chan. You could do a top twenty, taken from just his movies. In fact, any random Chan closing credits, showing the outtakes and painful after-effects of the stunts, would be worthier of inclusion than, say, Baby Driver [with which I was singularly unimpressed]
There are also a few cases where the film is greater than the sum of its parts. While Die Hard is superb I don’t think there’s a single sequence which makes it so: the characters are equally as important. The same goes for Fury Road, just in a different way: there, you could close your eyes, clip a random ten minutes and probably get action of jaw-dropping quality. Dredd and The Raid, the latter of which I prefer significantly over the sequel, are similarly high quality. I wouldn’t argue with including any of those on a list of the greatest action movies of all-time, I think there perhaps are better and/or more outstanding choices for this kind of list, focusing on specific scenes.
And so, we get to the meat, which is my alternative top 20, with none of the scenes selected by WatchMojo. There are a couple of common movies and franchises – cases where I feel they didn’t pick the best scenes. And there are at least three entries on their list which I’d say should be included on any “best” list: #19, #5 and #2. Those are not repeated. I have excluded superhero films, in line with the original limitation. I’m fine with that, not least because my knowledge of them is fairly shallow.
The original list was definitely skewed towards the contemporary, with the majority from the 2000’s. In some ways, that’s kinda fair. In some ways, action has improved over the years, as have most technical aspects of film. But I’m definitely old-school when it comes to physical stunts over CGI, and that will be reflected in what follows. I’m also not going to try and order them by quality, because which is the greatest is almost impossible to determine, and likely depends on my state of mind at any given point. So, they’re in chronological order.
Chariot race in Ben Hur (1959)
It’s perhaps telling that the top comment on the YouTube video for the scene is “Hard to believe this was made in 1959.” But they’re not wrong. The sheer pace and sense of danger comes over in every frame, helped by camerawork which is so fluid, it feels as if someone must have sent a drone back in a time machine. Fun fact: Sergio Leone was senior assistant director on the second unit which shot the sequence, under Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt.
Connery vs. Shaw in From Russia With Love (1963)
Much has been made of the new, “grittier” version of James Bond. How soon they forget. Well, I guess it’s approaching sixty years now, but Bond was pretty damn gritty to begin with. Russia is probably the best example thereof, and they didn’t get much more intense than the fist-fight in the tightly-enclosed space of a railway carriage between 007 and SPECTRE assassin, Donald ‘Red’ Grant. Sean Connery, RIP… Fun fact: director Terence Young had been a boxer in his university days, and helped choreograph this along with stunt coordinator Peter Perkins.
Car chase in Bullitt (1968)
We’ll talk about the use of music later on, but here, its absence is notable. The whole chase unfolds strictly without music or dialogue (Baby Driver, please note), only the ambient sounds of tyres screeching, metal slamming into metal, and of course, the purring of the 1968 390 cu. in. V8 Ford Mustang GT Fastbacks. McQueen, a skilled driver, did much of his own work, though was doubled in some shots. Fun fact: the Mustang he drove sold for $3.4 million at auction earlier this year, the highest ever for that car.
Bruce vs. 100 in Enter the Dragon (1973)
You could make a case for any Bruce film, but this sequence is iconic, and understandably so. Fists, sticks or even with nunchakus, the agility, grace and insane skill involved has rarely if ever been surpassed by any martial artist. Fun fact: the faceless minion who tries to grab Bruce in a bear-hug [about 1:20 into the clip], and gets his neck snapped? That’s some young guy called Jackie Chan. Jackie has a good story about getting whacked for real on the set by Bruce Lee, and milking the injury for all that it was worth.
Bathroom fight in The Warriors (1979)
I can put it no better than Dan who said, “What sold me in The Warriors bathroom brawl were those sickening head thumps against the walls and porcelain. If you’ve ever been in one of those and you hear that meaty thwack, you know that dude is looking at a few hours of darkness, if not something way more serious. Whoever did the foley on that had it down.” Fun fact: The bathroom was the only set built for the film, with the scene shot at the Kaufman-Astoria Studios on 36th Street in Queens.
The mall brawl in Police Story (1985)
The first Chan film I ever saw, and I still recall how utterly jaw-dropped I was [though I almost went with the finale of Drunken Master II] It doesn’t get much better than the finale, with Chan bouncing around the Wing On Plaza. Fun fact: the climactic slide from top to bottom down the light fixtures left Chan with badly-burned hands, because the Christmas lights were plugged into the mains instead of a low-voltage car battery. He also dislocated his pelvis and injured his back doing that one-take stunt.
First contact in Aliens (1986)
I keep going back and forth between this film and Die Hard as to the greatest action-movie of all-time. The sequence where the Marines explore the base in search of the missing colonists is a double masterpiece. First of tension, as they move through the deserted facility; then of relentless action, as they come under attack until they finally escape the premises. Though their “escape” turns out to be short-lived, naturally. Fun fact: Al Matthews, who plays the Marine sergeant, was the first black Marine to be promoted to that rank in the field during service in Vietnam.
Alley brawl in They Live (1988)
Movies starring pro wrestlers are… a bit of a mixed bag, and that’s being charitable. But their unique skill-set, in particular the ability to tell a story through violence, has never been put to better use than by John Carpenter and Roddy Piper. “Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.” It’s the latter, and so we get a six-minute war, which originally ran almost twice as long, and was rehearsed in Carpenter’s backyard for three months. Fun fact: Carpenter made Piper watch John Wayne’s The Quiet Man, with its similarly lengthy fist-fight, as a reference.
Hospital gun battle in Hard Boiled (1992)
John Woo was another surprising omission from the WatchMojo list. Few directors can make brutal violence look so beautiful. His trademark use of slo-mo is particular awesome: for example, in this scene where he uses it simply when his two heroes are swapping sides in a corridor. Sadly, no flying white doves to be found here though. Fun fact: the elevator doesn’t go anywhere. While the doors are closed, the crew are resetting the outside, with the speed of an F1 pit-crew, to make it look like a different floor.
Under siege in Leon (The Professional) (1994)
One of the very few action films capable of hitting me in the feels, though the clip here really needs to go on for about another five minutes to reach that point. As in Die Hard, never underestimate the importance of a good villain, epitomized here by Gary Oldman’s shriek of “EVERYONE!” The delivery of that line was improvised, director Luc Besson being unaware of it. Though Oldman did kindly inform the sound recordist he might want to slip off his headphones. Fun fact: The false knock code Mathilda gives the SWAT team [“-.. .. .”] is the Morse letters for D-I-E…
The lobby shootout in The Matrix (1999)
The bullet-time scene may have been groundbreaking, but its use there seems almost primitive beside this insane exercise in excess. For years, this – chapter 19 on the DVD – was our go-to scene for testing home theatre audio. It’s still awesome. Fun fact. As per the script: “The concrete cavern of the lobby becomes a white noise of ROAR of GUNFIRE. Slate walls and pillars pock, crack, and crater under a hail storm of EXPLOSIVE-tipped BULLETS. They are met by the quivering spit of SUB-HAND MACHINE GUN and the RAZORED WHISTLE of throwing knives.”
Michelle Yeoh vs. Zhang Zi Yi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
If Bullitt demonstrated the power an absence of music can have, this illustrates the opposite. The soundtrack here is not just the perfect accompaniment, it significantly enhances the battle between teacher and pupil on display. Yeoh’s fifteen years of experience is apparent, but Zhang’s raw energy and athleticism is a perfect foil, as choreographed by the legendary Yuen Wo-Ping, who also worked on The Matrix and Kill Bill. Fun fact: Zhang’s role was originally played by Shu Qi, until her agent pulled her to do a Japanese Pepsi commercial. She has since changed agents.
Gun kata in Equilibrium (2002)
This proves that there’s still room for invention and imagination in action films, with Kurt Wimmer coming up with the entirely new concept, allowing martial arts to deal with the whole awkward firearm thing. Yeah, it may not be exactly plausible, but Christian Bale sells the concept magnificently, allowing for balletic close-combat which mixes guns with hand-to-hand fighting. Fun fact: among the people who auditioned for the role of Bale’s son in the film, was some kid called Daniel Radcliffe. Anyone know what happened to him?
Jet Li vs. Donnie Yen in Hero (2002)
It’s rare for two legends of martial arts films to fight on-screen, at the peak of their prowess – perhaps because neither of them would want to lose. We never got to see a proper Jackie Chan vs. Bruce Lee fight, for instance. This has both Li and Yen bringing their A-game, and absolutely lives up to all expectations, even if it unfolds in the spiritual realm more than the physical. Fun fact: It is a rematch, of sorts, from the pair’s fight a decade previously in Once Upon a Time in China II, which had the same outcome.
Battle of the Pelennor Fields in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
This scene provides two of the most memorable moments of the entire trilogy. First, the appearance of the giant war elephants – sold impeccably by the characters reaction, before the audience sees them. Then, there’s Éowyn’s encounter with the Witch-King, who can be killed by no man. “I am no man!” responds Éowyn, pulling off her helmet. [Éowyn 3:16 says: “I just kicked your ass”] Fun fact: The battle was filmed in a field previously populated by rabbits. Their holes had to be filled in, to avoid causing problems for the actors and horses.
Urban warfare in Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuaron is the master of the extended take. Birdman, made to look almost like a single shot, is perhaps the best-known example. But there were a number in his earlier film which are astonishing. Indeed, a full quarter of the film is taken up by shots which last longer than 45 seconds, with this battle scene and the earlier car chase being the most outstanding. Fun fact: The director yelled ‘Cut!’ when the blood spatter hit the camera, but due to the noise on set, the crew didn’t hear him and kept on shooting, giving us the take used in the film.
World War Wow in Sucker Punch (2011)
While I normally shy away from CGI effects, this is an example of how to use them – going full-out, for balls to the wall excess, and creating something otherwise impossible to achieve. That’s the case in spades here, with a WW1 landscape with mecha, steam-powered German soldiers, airships and a quarter of unstoppable women, all backed by a wonderful cover of White Rabbit. Fun fact: Like The Wizard of Oz, rumblings online suggest the film syncs up with Pink Floyd’s LP The Dark Side of the Moon. This is, however, probably bullshit.
Apartment battle in Atomic Blonde (2017)
The other glaringly obvious omission from the WhatMojo list was this, arguably the best action scene of the decade. It’s completely brutal, a savage battle between MI-5 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) as she tries to protect an asset from a stream of Communist agents. Shot to look like a single take, director David Leitch was inspired by – hey, what are the odds! – Children of Men. Fun fact: save for her character getting thrown down the stairs and into some kitchen cabinets, it’s almost all Theron doing the action.
Godzilla + Mothra vs. everything in Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
Again, we’re in the world of CGI here, though entirely out of necessity. Much though I love the ol’ rubber-suited monsters, stomping around model cities, you’d be hard-pushed to argue that approach could achieve the impact of this war of the titans. Just beautiful, down to the silhouette of Mothra essence, as Godzilla strikes. It’s probably a better tag-team fight than anything I’ve ever seen at Wrestlemania. Fun fact: save for her character getting thrown into a building, it’s almost all Mothra doing the action.
The dog fight in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
Following up on the horse-fu from earlier on, this showcases the beauty of attack canines in action, alongside Halle Berry and Keanu Reeves. It’s ironic, given the impetus for the franchise was the killing of the hero’s dog, making this their revenge on humanity. But it wasn’t without problem, because dogs will be dogs, and would keep chasing after stray cats that wandered onto set. Fun fact: the dogs were trained to bite green chew toys attached to their target’s clothing, removed in post-production. Understandably, no green was allowed on set for the crew.
Thanks to a bunch of folk who offered suggestions for this: Tony, Phil, Chris, Jeff, Robert, Dan, Ben, Ken and Brent. I am, however, pretty sure I will wake up in the morning and go, “Crap! How did I forget about _______?”, while Milla Jovovich will be popping round to find out why none of her films are listed. As is, I almost forgot to include Bruce Lee, which would have been blasphemy. Still, for now: here you go. 25 clips [some were only available across multiple videos] from the above 20 movies, including some of the very finest action that cinema has to offer.