An exciting action scene is one of the most thrilling things about a film, it always has been and always will be. The very first motion ever captured on camera was of a horse running in 1878, shot by taking pictures with 24 cameras in succession. This action shot was the launching pad for the motion pictures industry. Today, the action in film is a lot more exciting, even if some of the storylines have gotten worse. Many directors have made action the primary device in their films. For some it’s the only device. Summer blockbusters draw people into the theaters in the millions, promising edge-of-your-seat excitement, big explosions and loud noises (I’m looking at you Michael Bay). But the perfect action sequence involves a lot more than just those elements. The perfect action scene has probably not been shot yet, but the scenes on this list come pretty close.
Some of the greatest action scenes in history are still remembered fondly by viewers, we’re able to replay them in our minds years later. Some of the best action movies in history have pushed the envelope, creating new ways of capturing thrills for the audiences and taking cinema to the next level, movies like Bullitt, Stagecoach, Ben Hur, The General and The French Connection. Chase scenes, fights, shootouts and large scale battles, these are some of the most common and, usually, the most effective scenes.
In the new millennium, directors and filmmakers are still trying to set a new standard for action scenes, attempting to step out from the shadow of the greats that came before them, action directors like Matthew Vaughn, Zack Snyder, J.J. Abrams, Quentin Tarantino and many more. Some directors are criticized for only being able to shoot action sequences and nothing more, but, the truth is, action sells at the box office. We pay those astronomical prices to see large-scale action on a big screen because it’s never the same at home. Personally, I get screamed at whenever I turn my TV up past the quarter mark. The theatre shows us how the films should be seen and heard. The films on this list are the ones that have made the most noise in the 21st century so far. Let’s countdown the most intense action scenes of the last 16 years.
16 Day Of The Dead – Spectre
Spectre opens with a tracking shot that follows Bond, James Bond (Daniel Craig) and his lady friend into an apartment building then out onto the balcony ledge and down to the end of the rooftop. As he comes to the edge of the rooftop and aims his gun at an unsuspecting baddie, the continuous shot ends and the shooting and action begins. The sequence that follows involves a few exploding and falling buildings, a foot chase, a helicopter fight and all your other fantastic James Bond shenanigans.
15 Scaling The Burj Khalifa – Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
For Tom Cruise and the Mission Impossible crew, climbing the Burj Khalifa with fancy gadgets isn’t thrilling enough without a few problems along the way. Climbing the world’s tallest building is far too easy and straightforward, so they needed to throw Cruise some curveballs. When he first goes out on the ledge with his suctioning gloves, things are looking up, literally. In the distance, however, a sandstorm is brewing, heading straight for Tommy Boy as he begins his ascent. Now hustling to get to where he needs to go, one of his gloves starts failing, causing him to lose his grip, so he discards it. Then with only one suctioning glove, Cruise makes his way to his destination, but then falls. After that, he has to do it all over again… Sisyphus. The scene makes excellent use of multi-angled shots from above, underneath and far away to put the viewer as aware of the height of this climb as possible. All told, it makes for a sweaty watch for anyone who’s afraid of heights in the slightest.
14 Car Chase In Paris – The Bourne Identity
The Paris car chase in The Bourne Identity is really what put this film on the action movie map. While watching this you perk up a bit more, starting to recognize this one as the great film it really is. Reminiscent of The Italian Job, the little cars zip through alleyways, down staircases and, of course, hit some sweet jumps that would make even Napoleon Dynamite proud. Miraculously no jaywalkers or pedestrians are killed in this crazy car chase, as is tradition with all movie car chases, but outside of that, it feels authentic. Eventually Bourne gets away by parking in an underground parking lot… but he parks in the very first spot. First of all, where in the world is the first spot ever open like that, and second, why wouldn’t you try hiding a bit better? Meh, I guess it worked. There was a second movie after all.
13 Hallway Fight Scenes - The Raid: Redemption
Pretty much every scene in The Raid: Redemption could have made this list, but what kind of list would that be? The Raid is essentially Dredd before Dredd was Dredd. Now, I’m not saying that Dredd blatantly ripped off The Raid because the timelines are a bit confusing, but I am saying that when The Raid was released in 2011, I bet the filmmakers of Dredd collectively smacked their heads at how similar the two films were going to be. Because the plot revolves around the hero/heroes fighting their way up the apartment complex, there are numerous occasions when a few against many is used to perfection. If you haven’t watched this one yet, give it a shot. Even if you don’t love action flicks, it will undoubtedly blow you away.
12 Getaway Driver – Drive
The first scene in the movie and the car chase with the Mustang are tied for amazingness in Drive. Another one of those movies which is underappreciated on the movie circuit, it tends to get overlooked by the action crowd because of its minimalist style. However, the action scenes that it does have are simply great. Set to a perfect soundtrack coupled with the roar of the engines, full of quick cuts and subtle driving manoeuvers, Drive’s car chases are understated and picture perfect. Don’t go in expecting a high-flying action movie because you’ll be disappointed; I think that’s what the haters did and that’s why they hatin’. Expect a stylish movie with action scattered within, and you’ll be floored by this gem.
11 King Leonidas Vs. The Persians – 300
Critics and movie fans have started looking back at Zack Snyder and criticizing him for being a one-dimensional director, which might be true. Luckily for him, though, this list is about action scenes and that just happens to be his, supposed, one and only dimension. First off, I don’t necessarily agree with all the criticism Snyder gets, but, I will say, it’s not completely unwarranted. One thing I do disagree with is the nitpicking that 300 receives in hindsight. If I have to hear one more thing about the historical accuracy of 300, I am just going to snap. It’s a graphic novel, dudes and dudettes. Chill out and watch a fictional movie. Either way, when King Leonidas completely unrealistically rips through an inaccurately portrayed Persian army, it is a sight to see. The style of the sequence, a mixture of slow-motion and sped-up shots, is copied with regularity nowadays, a powerful compliment for a director who is called a hack on every movie forum out there.
10 Bear Attack – The Revenant
How did The Revenant make a list of action movies? Well, the bear attack scene in this movie sent shockwaves through the movie world, and for that, it gets a deserving mention here. The realism, the craziness, the extended length of the scene, all of it made for a really visceral experience and it was unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Leo’s performance in the scene is impressive. If I was being ravaged by a bear, that’s pretty much exactly how I would act, minus the fact that he maintains his boyish good looks even after getting smashed by a 600-900 pound bear. Certainly easier said than done.
9 Church Shootout - Kingsman: Secret Service
In what is said to be a shot at the crazy Westboro Baptist Church, the unbelievable church scene in Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: Secret Service, is one for the ages. After Galahad (Colin Firth) is set off as he walks out of the church, he turns around and starts rampaging, killing 40 people in three minutes and 12 seconds. Shooting, stabbing, beating, flipping and smashing, Galahad tears through the maniacal church members. Many people said that this scene was too gratuitous, maybe because they forgot they were watching a violent action movie, but apparently the scene was cut back significantly by Vaughn from its original seven minutes. Now that would have been gratuitous.
8 The Hallway Fight – Oldboy
The hallway fight in Oldboy is easily the most memorable part of an incredible film. Directed by Park Chan-wook, the hallway scene makes perfect use of crammed quarters to make a fight of one against many seem somewhat manageable. Armed only with a hammer and cojones made of steel, Oh Dae-su takes on about 50 guys, getting beaten down and rising back up time and time again. The best part about the whole thing is that it is shot in one continuous sequence, so the complete exhaustion that the combatants are feeling and displaying is almost definitely genuine. When I first saw this scene, my jaw was basically on the floor. Even now, after seeing it over a million times, I still laugh at how brilliant it all is.
7 Beatrix Kiddo Vs. The Crazy 88 – Kill Bill
In homage to Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury, Quentin Tarantino’s fight between The Bride (Beatrix Kiddo) and the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill, is a combination of style, humor and just blunt force trauma. Right after Beatrix kills Gogo with a board full of nails to the head, it appears as if she’s about to face-off against O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). In the background, however, a crazy number of motorcycles can be heard pulling up and one masked guy comes running in. After one yell from this guy, the other 87 members of the Crazy 88 thunder in. The fight that follows is chaotic and bloody, and I do mean bloody. If there’s one thing I know about Tarantino, it’s that he isn’t afraid to go overboard with blood. An exaggerated use of blood removes the viewer from the reality of the situation, making it a bit more humorous and fictional. A fight made up of hacking, slashing, blood spraying, unnecessary flipping and yelling, this matchup is one for the ages.
6 The Zero Gravity Fight – Inception
What happens in one dream impacts what happens in the next in the world of Inception. While Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is sleeping in a van involved in a high speed car chase in one dream level, he is fighting a group of dudes in another. Since the van is making crazy turns and being jostled around, the sleeping Arthur is tossed and jolted, causing the gravity in his dream world to shift. You know the scene. They’re fighting on walls, on the ceilings, the gravity is changing and shifting making for an amazing scene to experience. Inception did a lot of really unique things with camera angles, but this has got to be their pièce de résistance.
5 Millennium Falcon Test Drive – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The first time that I watched Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) board the Millennium Falcon, I'll be honest, I was a little unsure as to how it was all going to go. I didn’t know then that I would be kept laughing at their banter. I didn’t know that Rey was such a badass pilot. I didn’t know that Finn was going to be able to handle that gun the way he did, but it all ended up working out great. Watching them fly the Falcon through a Super Star Destroyer Ravager was an unbelievable moment, and Rey’s final manoeuvre to allow Finn to target the TIE fighter is majestic.
4 The Battle Of Helm’s Deep - Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
More formally known as The Battle of the Hornburg, this matchup between the about 300 Rohirrim against about 10,000 Uruk-hai (plus the Men from Dunland) is one of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed. It also stands out as the best of all the battles in the greatest film trilogy ever made. For many, the shock and awe of the entire thing has worn off because everyone’s seen this movie, but it really is an amazing thing to behold. There are so many elements involved, from wall battles, to ground battles, to archery, to shield surfing, to horseback fighting, to dwarf tossing, just about everything a battle could need. Gandalf’s arrival with about 1,000 men on horseback (and a forest of Huorns) neatly wraps up an emotional rollercoaster. Fighting throughout the night in the rain, facing impossible odds, the men at Helm’s Deep do a bang up job delaying long enough for reinforcements. Outside of all the insane action, there are some great shots that highlight the hopelessness of the whole thing, which really creates a feeling of desperation.
3 Night Vision – Kick-Ass
Kick-Ass doesn’t get enough love from movie fans. Not comicky enough for the comic book crowd, too comicky for the action crowd and (enter your excuse here) for everyone else. Though, when people first saw X-Men: First Class and Kingsman: Secret Service and started singing the song of Matthew Vaughn, meanwhile Kick-Ass fans had already written the music. Kick-Ass is stylish, exciting and exceedingly well choreographed. The night vision scene which has Hit-Girl trying to save Kick-Ass and Big Daddy really gets your blood pumping. Set to a great score and featuring awesome camera angles, I absolutely go crazy for this scene. There’s also the warehouse scene with Big Daddy which deserves a mention here because, it too, is amazing.
2 New York Fight – The Avengers
The final fight in New York with The Avengers versus Loki and his Chitauri army is about as exciting (if not more) as we expected, which is saying a lot because the expectations for this first collaborative superhero movie were absolutely through the roof. Throughout the fight we got to see each individual superhero do their own thing, as well as some really cool teaming up. The beauty of this scene is in the balanced screen time that was given to everyone involved and the fact that they each had their very own time to shine.
1 Sandstorm - Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road is a thing of beauty for movie lovers. I think we’re too close to it right now for people to appreciate it fully, too afraid to make grand statements for fear of being too present. I’m not afraid. This is one of the best action films of all time, and, in a few years, when we are able to look back with some perspective, we will be able to admit what we witnessed. The best scene of the bunch (though there are just so many to chose from) has the convoy driving straight into a massive sandstorm, Mad Max chained up on the front of one of the cars. As they enter it, the storm is multi-colored, full of lighting and tornadoes, cars are exploding, the score is humming; it really is the perfect storm.