I’ve always been a sucker for a good action movie, and it’s a shame the genre has declined somewhat in recent years. I guess swearing, guns and blood-squibs don’t cut it in the focus groups anymore. Anyway, as a tribute to a diminished genre, I offer my, in no particular order, list of Top Ten Movie Shoot-Outs:
Hard Boiled (1992, Dir. John Woo) – Tea-shop Carnage
Ballet With Guns has become something of cliché these days, but Hong Kong action maestro John Woo fully justifies the term with the opening scene to his most lauded work. The bullet and body count soars as Chow Yun Fat’s maverick cop faces off against arms-traffickers in a tea-shop. Fast, frenetic action counterpoised with perfectly judged use of slo-mo. This is how it’s done.
The Untouchables (1987, Dir. Brian De Palma) – Chicago Central Staircase
Brian De Palma borrows shamelessly from Battleship Potemkin to provide the focus for dramatic tension as a baby in a pram trips down a stair case in a cross fire of slo-mo gunfire. A tour de force set piece with Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness taking down Al Capone’s henchmen aided by Andy Garcia’s crack-shot cop. De Palma tried to repeat the formula with escalator-set gun battle at the end of Carlito’s Way. It was good, but not Untouchables good.
Open Range (2003, Dir. Kevin Costner) – Last Twenty Minutes
Kevin Costner’s western is distinguished by two things, its use of authentic frontier dialogue and a brilliantly staged twenty minute gun-battle. Costner’s war-jaded cow-hand and Robert Duvall’s trail-boss take on Michael Gambon’s thuggish ranchers in a slickly-edited climax that subverts the High Noon template: this time the townsfolk actually join in.
The Long Riders (1980, Dir. Walter Hill) – Town Ambush
Walter Hill’s depiction of the career of the James – Younger outlaw gang is perhaps a little too kind to its protagonists. Despite all the Robin Hood-esque mythologizing, the historical record paints a picture of low-down dirty varmints to a man. But they were to receive well-earned comeuppance in the town of Northfield, Minnesota on September 7th, 1876, when local lawmen and townsfolk set about them with gusto, here envisaged as a blood-spattered spectacle of slo-mo bullet impacts, blazing six-shooters and wheeling horsemen. Walter Hill’s finest hour, though Southern Comfort runs a close second.
The Wild Bunch (1969, Dir. Sam Peckinpah) – Hacienda Rampage
Machine guns and misogyny abound in the bloody climax to Sam Pekinpah’s epic eulogising the demise of the gunslinger. William Holden and his grizzled comrades blaze their way through a hacienda full of Mexican revolutionaries, Holden gunning down a woman in the process with the word “Bitch!” Charming, but at least it’s in character. A classic of action cinema, if you can stomach the misogyny and the frankly rather tedious preceding two hours.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, Dir. John Carpenter) – First Attack
The good one – not the 2005 remake. John Carpenter’s urban reworking of Fort Apache sees assorted crims and cops banding together to battle hordes of gang members in a near-abandoned LA police station. The tense first act, enhanced by Carpenter’s heart-beat paced electronic score, pays off in tremendous style as the cast (still mostly unknown) beat back the first wave of attacking yute in a blaze of shotgun fire. One the best examples of the movie editor’s art ever seen.
Matewan (1987, Dir. John Sayles) – Miner Ambush
The only realist entry on the list sees a thoroughly nasty group of Pinkerton strike breakers assailed by justifiably pissed-off mining folk in John Sayles’ true-life inspired tale of industrial strife in 1920s West Virginia. The tightly edited, but convincingly edgy, final shoot-out, known to history as the “Matewan Massacre”, is a masterclass in how to film realistic action.
Kick Ass (2010, Dir. Matthew Vaughan) – Hit Girl Penthouse Incursion
Matthew Vaughan’s adaptation of Mark Miller’s comic book tale of real people attempting a super hero lifestyle is an odd mix of the realistic – you’ll probably just get yourself killed – and the fantastic – an eleven year old girl can slaughter a roomful of drug dealers with a Naginata. Nevertheless, it’s also riotously entertaining, never more so than when Chloe Moretz’s Hit Girl two-guns her way through the penthouse lair of Mark Strong’s psycho crime boss to the music of Ennio Morricone and Joan Jett.
The Matrix (1999, Dir. The Wachowski Bros) – Lobby Fight
The Wachowski Brothers’ heady mix of philosophy and sci-fi with virtual reality twist allowed for a certain visual excess in the action sequences, most notably in this perfectly choreographed, SWAT team swatting extravaganza. Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss (Neo and Trinity, surely the best-looking action heroes in movie history) put weeks of martial arts and weapons training to good use in an adrenalized display of acrobatics with guns, an event I’d really like to see make it into the Olympics.
State of Grace (1990, Phil Janou) – Bar Room Show-Down
In the climax to James Cagney’s classic gangster movie Public Enemy, we see him walk across a rain drenched street and into a bar having just stolen two revolvers from a pawn shop. There is two seconds of silence then a thunderous explosion of gunfire. The camera stays fixed on the bar exterior. Silence returns then Cagney emerges, stumbles to the kerb, lays down and dies in the rain. It’s a brilliant moment in cinema and deftly subverted in Phil Janou’s State of Grace as undercover cop Sean Penn walks into a bar in Hell’s Kitchen to settle accounts with Ed Harris’s gang of miscreant Westies. No fixed exteriors here as Penn and co blast away entirely in slow motion amid a welter of blood and exploding whiskey bottles.