This is a list of breathtaking movie action sequences. These scenes can be appreciated in isolation, but only have their full impact in context of the movie when we experience the emotional journey of the characters.
Action scenes that feature CG as the primary focus of the action (think Transformers) do not feature in this list because they have, for me, a limited emotional impact. I'm consciously aware that they're simply not real because the movements on screen do not reflect reality at a fundamental level – CG does not capture the right momentum, weight, and balance of real-life. I simply do not feel the danger. In-camera special effects are more real, more impactful, and just more believable than CG.
The Hallway Fight in Inception
The Hallway fight in Inception ranks as one of the most impressive in-camera sequences ever burned to celluloid. When first I saw a few seconds of the scene in a trailer, I was intrigued. However, only after watching the fight scene in-film did I truly appreciate its impact.
Christopher Nolan, in writing and directing Inception, created a novel plot device in which the physical actions experienced by dreaming characters affects their in-dream environment. Within the context of the Hallway scene, a van containing a dreaming Joseph Gordon Levitt tumbles down a bank. In Levitt's dream, he's fighting in a hallway, which also rotates along with the van. In doing so, gravity shifts from wall-to-wall in the hallway, sending the characters tumbling from side-to-side.
This sequence is novel, with a sublime rhythm in the action of the characters, the cutting from one dream level to another, and the thumping of the music.
Instead of CG, Nolan's team built a rotating set in an aircraft hanger in Cardington, England. Given how expensive this must have been, the hallway scene lasts a remarkably restrained forty seconds. Other directors might have been tempted to milk more out of it.
The Elevator Fight in Merantau Warrior
I'm a martial arts freak, and this is the first of two martial arts movies on this list. Merantau features the Indonesian martial art of Silat, and was the debut for the principal character, and the first commercially released film for the director (who, rather unusually, is a tall Welshman).
The most impressive fight takes place in an elevator (or lift, in British parlance).
It's what I consider a martial arts fight grounded in realism – it doesn't feature any obviously unrealistic acrobatics or outrageous moves. Despite taking place in an elevator, each movement is clearly defined, with extended takes, and no jarring edits which make the action difficult to follow.
Compare it to this sequence from the Bourne Ultimatum, one of the finer Hollywood two-man fights. The edits are much more rapid, with camera movement becoming the action, rather than enhancing it.
Read my full review of Merantau here.
The Final Fight in Drunken Master 2
I first watched Drunken Master 2 on a pirated VCD in the late nineties and became obsessed by the final fight. I've spent countless hours watching this sequence, revelling in the imaginative choreography and how movement flows smoothly from one shot to another.
I've written another blog post that dissects the nine-minute sequence in greater detail, so I won't write too much about it now. The fighting is more stylized than the sequence in Merantau, with exaggerated moves and outrageous acrobatics.
The Finale of Last of the Mohicans
What gives the sequence from The Last of the Mohicans its power is the journey of the characters through the movie, and the sacrifices they have made.
Hardly any words are spoken, with the action reaching a climax as the score is at its most sweeping. The accompanying music is called The Promontory Kiss, and is wonderfully epic, fostering a startling contrast with the on-screen trauma and enhancing the emotional loss of the characters.
The Beach Landing in Saving Private Ryan
This was film-making at its most audacious, most challenging. The Omaha beach landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan made war real, brutal, and unfathomably dangerous.
The camera serves to place the viewer in the midst of the battle, and as vulnerable to the German bullets as any of the characters. The washed-out grimy look only enhances the devastating aesthetic of the movie.
Honorable Mention: The Hospital Escape Sequence in Terminator 2
Although I thought Avatar was an indulgent mis-step, James Cameron is a highly-talented director. His success stems from his ability to create engaging characters that pull viewers through their emotional journey. Sarah Connor from the Terminator series reigns supreme as his finest creation.
What I consider the finest action sequence in the while movie stems from the confluence of three plot threads
- Sarah begins Terminator 2 traumatized and jailed in a mental institution. When she learns that Schwarzenegger’s T-800 has reappeared, Sarah tries to escape so she can protect her son.
- After being caught by orderlies, the liquid-metal T-1000 makes an appearance, predicting that it will catch her son John Connor saving her from itself.
- Her son reappears, together his new best friend - the T-800 that Sarah thinks will kill him