A staple for any decent contemporary action movie is carefully choreographed and visually striking violence. Whether it is swords, fists and feet, or guns, the plot is just one part of the movie and the other is the visuals. While swordplay or martial arts make for great action sequences, there really is no substitute for a good gun battle. Obviously firearms are one of those topics that constantly amount to an issue of contention in politics, but in films, even the actors who support gun-grabbing politicians will act in movies with copious amounts of lead flying.
While most moviegoers are game to enjoy a good firearm centered action sequence, few recognize how much work goes into those scenes. Most films with plots that call for guns will employ at least one weapon specialist or armorer, whose sole purpose on set is to maintain and advise other crew members in the use of those guns. Most are fake; either detailed replicas that are little more than toys and are used for close-ups, or heavier rubber gun with little detail, used for scenes shot from afar. Where the armorer truly shines however, is with the actual functional firearms that are loaded with blanks. On top of the specialized job(s), safety is generally paramount when filming these scenes. One example of a safety failure occurred in 1993 when Bruce Lee's son Brandon was killed when a prop gun, which was supposed to be loaded with a blank, fired a projectile, killing him.
Fortunately, most firefight scenes go off without such an accident and they become incredible moments in their films. Here are our twenty choices for the greatest gunfights in movie history.
We'll be the first ones to admit that this article may be slightly NSFW, especially if one's workplace has a "no awesome, violent YouTube clips" policy. If that is the case, it is time to find a new job, you don't need that kind of nonsense in your life, dear readers.
Honorable Mention: Several True Story War Movies
We decided to omit films like Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, American Sniper and Lone Survivor because having films based on real events in which people actually died seems a tad disrespectful to the memory of those who, you know, died in said events if they were on a list with (spoiler alert) a John Woo shoot-em-up.
20 Equilibrium (2002): Forbidden Puppy
As a film, Equilibrium was an interesting concept accomplished moderately well with more than a few drawbacks. Set in a dystopian future, the movie tells the story of a world in which emotions are strictly controlled. Christian Bale plays a government agent who experiences an awakening and starts to fight back against the institution he once served.
In one impressive scene, Bale's character (Preston) is surrounded by operatives and found to have a small puppy; pets of course, being outlawed in this future society. Wielding a couple of firearms, Preston breaks into a gun-centered martial art, making his would-be captors look like fools. While this scene is about as unrealistic as they come, it is definitely a diamond in the rough in a film that wasn't all that great. The lighting of the scene added to the tone of the scene and the lead up was more than adequate to establish tension.
19 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991): Minigun
The Terminator series has just been getting worse since Judgment Day. Number three wasn't a complete waste of time, and Salvation wasn't awful, but Genisys went too far last year and played with the original story too much. The series probably could have just been stopped at number two. Either that or actually make the third one... good. But we should get away from this discussion of how bad the recent installments of this series have been. The first two were absolute magic. The fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is hinting at number six is a problem. Why can't he just stick to terrible commercials for terrible mobile games?
The second film in the series was something special. Linda Hamilton's portrayal of Sarah Connor was as terrifying as it was inspirational, and Robert Patrick was positively menacing as the T-1000. Furthermore, there were some scenes that will live on in the memories of film buffs for decades. The dream sequence in which Sarah Connor witnesses a nuclear blast, and of course, Arnie peppering cop cars with a minigun, while killing no cops (because John told him not to kill people) was an awesome bit of cinematic destruction.
18 Taxi Driver (1976): The Final Scene
This is an old one, and we're not sure how many of our readers have seen this movie, but if you have any love for the world of film and haven't, please do. This is a Martin Scorsese masterpiece. Robert De Niro plays the lead character Travis, who plays a young Vietnam War veteran who returns to a New York vastly different than the one he left.
He takes a job as a taxi driver and throughout the film, encounters the dirtiest examples of decline in the city; in particular, a young prostitute, Iris, played by Jodie Foster. This profound, dark, miserable film is a tale of a disenchanted man whose life has all but fallen apart trying to do some good in the world. At the end of the film, he goes after Iris to get her away from her pimp. He shoots her pimp and several other gangsters at their brothel, and is severely wounded himself, but accomplishes his goal.
The gunfighting may not be as exciting as some other entries here, and the special effects are clearly outdated but the gritty nature of the scene, along with Travis' toughness and fury throughout the scene make it a dramatic, heart-pounding few minutes to watch.
17 Wanted (2008): Wesley's Rampage
This 2008 flick is based on a comic book by comic book icon Mark Millar, who has worked with Marvel, DC and his own Millarworld, which brought us a few great books including the likes of Wanted and Kick-Ass.
Wanted is based on the comic but was heavily modified. Nonetheless, it was a visually entertaining fantasy/action thriller with some adrenaline-pumping scenes. Main character Wesley, starts off the film as a miserable nobody who finds out that his recently-killed father was a skilled assassin, and that he shares the same superhuman skills as that late father. In this scene he stages an incredible assault on The Fraternity, the antagonist faction in the movie. Between his delightfully unrealistic mastery of dual-wielding pistols, to his ability to grab and quickly fire guns dropped by enemies as they fall to the ground is also impressive.
16 John Wick (2014): Parking Lot
Most definitely one of the more entertaining action flicks of 2014, John Wick is a film that not only has great fight scenes, but also a half decent story. It follows the titular character; a former assassin who has retired from killing and tried to settle down with his dream wife. She died, and now all he has left is a car ('69 Mustang, not too shabby), his house and money, and a Beagle puppy named Daisy. When the son of a Russian mafia boss steals that car and kills the puppy, Wick reverts back to his old ways and goes completely postal on the crime syndicate.
There are some brilliant martial arts scenes and some very solid acting from Keanu Reeves (easily one of the best overall performances of his career). In the lead-up to this scene he tracks the crime family to a church, burning much of their cash and destroying some of their operational ability. He is then confronted by a few thugs and the boss outside, and engages them with his Coharie Arms 415 (American version of the H&K 416). Whether it's the ability to fend off multiple targets at once or the fact that many of his victims are incapacitated and then finished off with a headshot, this is an awesome, adrenaline pumping firefight.
15 Rambo (2008): The Fifty
While the first three Rambo films had plenty of decent scenes, watching Sly Stallone tear apart an entire company of Burmese soldiers about to massacre a group of missionaries and mercenaries was a great finish to the fourth installment to the series. Though not quite as strong in terms of plot as the first through third, Rambo had plenty of memorable scenes, and none more than John hopping on the back of a technical (pickup truck rigged up with a machine gun), blasting the unfortunate driver who never saw him coming, and then unloading on the soldiers.
The blood and gore may have seemed over the top, and I question what he could have hit in the gunboat that would have led to such an explosion, but the scene was incredibly exciting and served as an amazing end.
14 Last Man Standing (1996): Hotel Shootout
A list of iconic, exciting gunfights isn't complete without Bruce Willis. The guy has played so many amazing action hero roles, and his portrayal of prohibition era nobody-turned hero John Smith in Last Man Standing produced a great film. In the movie, Smith enters a new town and immediately runs into trouble with a local gang. Push comes to shove and Smith ends up storming the local bar/hotel in a fury.
This film is one of the most notorious instances of "bottomless magazines". An M1911 pistol holds a maximum of eight rounds. There are seven in a standard magazine, along with a single in the chamber. There are a couple of times in this scene alone where Willis fires his pistols far more than eight times each and they keep spitting out lead. Furthermore, there are a few times when the slides of his pistols are locked back, indicating that they need to be reloaded, but in the next frame, he is firing once again. These aspects of this scene show a lack of realism, but that doesn't take away from the excitement.
To be fair, most of the films on this list, and most movies with gunplay in general are incredibly unrealistic, so it's hard to get too upset.
13 Tombstone (1993): Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
A 1993 western that is based on a true story, Tombstone is a movie whose title is a reference to Tombstone, Arizona, the site of the legendary gunfight between local lawmen and cowboys back in 1881. Kurt Russell plays iconic American gunslinger/gambler Wyatt Earp with Bill Paxton and Sam Elliott as Morgan and Virgil Earp. Val Kilmer was the trio's friend and comrade in arms Doc Holliday.
This scene is the most pivotal in the movie and escalates the conflict between the local lawmen and the cowboys. It tells the tale of possibly the most famous real-life gunfight in American history, the O.K. Corral. While it is by no means the best-filmed or most exciting of the shootouts on our list, the scene is great fun to watch and the rest of the movie is very worthwhile as well.
12 Boondock Saints (1999): Falling Through the Ducts or the Front Lawn
The Boondock Saints is one of those movies that was not meant to be taken seriously, and ranks among the "most campy" films ever made. It centers around Connor and Murphy MacManus (Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery) who go on a vigilante spree to rid Boston of organised crime.
In one scene, they sneak into a hotel with the goal of taking out some mid-level crime bosses. While equipping themselves, the two brothers get into an argument over whether they will need rope. They ultimately decide to take it, and proceed to crawl through the ducts of the hotel to the room with the meeting. They become entangled in the rope, fall through the ceiling and wind up hanging from the rope with guns drawn, killing all nine men in the room.
Later in the film, after taking out another group of criminals, the brothers and their colleague are confronted by a mysterious figure (spoiler alert!) later revealed to be their father, played by comedian Billy Connolly. The four of them draw weapons and have a slow-motion shootout in broad daylight. When inspecting the scene, the FBI agent, played by Willem Dafoe, exclaims "there was a FIREFIGHT!", while making the same pose he made in Platoon during his character Elias' death scene.
11 Way of the Gun (2000): The Ambush
Christopher McQuarrie's 2000 crime thriller is by no means his best movie, but it does feature Ryan Phillippe and Benicio del Toro as a quirky and dysfunctional criminal duo with no regard for anyone but themselves. Hoping to make a million dollars, they kidnap and try to ransom a young woman who is carrying the child of a wealthy organized crime boss. Predictably, their plan does not go off as planned and the entire job turns into a complete mess.
There are a few great firefights in this flick, but McQuarrie saved the best for last. Parker and Longbaugh (Phillippe and Del Toro) end up at the crime boss' hideout to get their money around the end of the movie, and attempt to get their pay despite realizing that the bag of money (displayed prominently in the middle of a courtyard) is a trap. They enter and then all hell breaks loose. We won't ruin the ending. It is gritty, just a tad gory (Phillippe's Parker learns to look before you leap when he dives into a dry fountain and gets a shard of a beer bottle in his arm), and provides a great volume of fire to bring a ridiculous, but ultimately entertaining film to a close.
10 The Wild Bunch (1969): Final Scene
While this may not seem like over the top violence by today's standards, Sam Peckinpah's iconic 1969 western is a trail blazing piece of art when it comes to the mayhem and chaos of a cinematic gunfight. Aside from the gunfight we'll talk about here, this movie still remains an icon in American film-making to this day. Many consider it one of the greatest movies of all time, as it employed editing and shooting techniques that were completely new at the time.
Chaotic and messy as it is incredible, this scene is one of those to which all subsequent movie firefights owe a debt of gratitude.
9 The Killer (1989): The Church
One of John Woo's most well-known films, The Killer tells the tale of an organized crime hitman Ah Jong, who tries to make amends for damaging a singer's eyes during an assassination. His goal is to earn enough money for Jennie to get an eye operation to correct her sight. While he had intended on ending his career, he accepts a final job to make that money. After completing this job, Ah Jong is betrayed by his former boss.
Although there are several gunfights of note in this movie, the final sequence while Ah Jong, Jennie and their newfound comrade Li (a police detective who Ah Jong befriends), are waiting for their money in a church is by far the most impressive. The scene opens with Ah Jong carrying out a mercy killing on a former friend, after which all hell breaks loose as the Triad teams sent after Ah Jong attack.
Ah Jong and Yi Ling (Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee respectively) dive over, under and around every object imaginable while dual-wielding pistols, shotguns and whatever else they can get their hands on, while maintaining incredible accuracy. Meanwhile, Jennie screams in terror while the bad guys advance headlong into inexplicably well-placed protagonist bullets. This massacre is about as unrealistic as it gets, but the cinematography and gunfire are both outstanding. One of the interesting trademarks of a John Woo flick is the sometimes touching heart-to-heart chats two unlikely friends have during actions scenes. In this one, Ah Jong and Yi Ling discuss their own odd friendship and bond as they are about to exit the church and take on more enemies.
8 The Matrix (1999): The Metal Detector
So before any film buffs start shouting about all the other sci-fi franchises that The Matrix ripped off (The Invisibles, Ghost in the Shell, Neuromancer and Dark City, for example), the Wachowskis did a great job making an entertaining flick, and whether or not they borrowed stuff, the metal detector scene was amazing.
We all know how this one goes but for those who don't remember, Neo has been woken up to the reality of the world, and is accompanied by Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) to save Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) after his capture. On the way into the building, Neo sets off the metal detector, and upon being confronted he whips out a pair of MP5Ks and he and Trinity make quick work of the hapless guards. Advancing through the main hallway, they encounter several heavily armed soldiers, and handily defeat them too, with a great mix of shooting, acrobatics and of course martial arts.
7 Desperado (1996): The Bar
The 1995 sequel of El Mariachi; Desperado, sees Antonio Banderas' titular characters (El Mariachi) pick up where he left off. This is one of the first scenes in the bar and he has that iconic guitar case full of weapons. When the other patrons realize what is going on, the gunfight erupts, as the main character defends himself from dozens of more heavily armed dudes (two pistols versus a room full of pistols, Mac-10s and a few Colt Commandos).
There is no realism here whatsoever, but we don't think anyone involved with the filming process was too focused on that. Banderas shot often and reloaded seldom, flicked his pistols as he pulled the trigger, shot a couple of attackers with the ol' behind the back trick, and of course stood still for a few crucial seconds atop the bar while two armed men with loaded firearms helplessly fired at random.
6 Hard Boiled (1992): The Hospital
The second John Woo bullet-fest to grace our list, Hard Boiled also features Chow Yun-Fat. This time he is a hard-drinking, anti-authority cop with a heart of gold named Tequila Yuen. Tequila's partner is killed in an ambush in a tea house and what starts out as a quest for vengeance ends up in the middle of an undercover operation that turns into a full on war with a local gang.
He gains a new partner, Alan, and the two discover that the local gang boss uses a hospital as his base of operations. This scene takes place in that hospital as Tequila and Alan storm the place. Much like The Killer, there are a couple of brief and honest exchanges between Tequila and Alan as they shoot their way through the hospital.
Much like the way assassin Ah Jong cared so much for Jennie to risk his life to get her money for eye surgery, Tequila Yuen is shown throughout this movie to be a man to whom morality and honor matter above all else, despite his abrasive personality and frequent drunkenness. This is another great calling card of a John Woo antihero.
5 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966): Finale
The gunfight that takes place at the end of this classic western isn't much when it comes to action, but as a scene it stands in a class all its own and deserves at least a decent spot on our list. The fact that it has just a single shot is why it isn't higher. If you're looking for a bloodbath, please look elsewhere. But if you're looking for an incredible piece of cinematic history with a firearm theme, by all means, watch this entire movie and pay close attention to this scene.
The story revolves around three gunslingers searching for buried gold during the American Civil War. Clint Eastwood plays Blondie (the Good), Lee Van Cleef plays Angel Eyes (the Bad) and Eli Wallach plays Tuco (the Ugly).
The tension builds gradually, with music specifically composed to sound, in the words of director Sergio Leone, "like the corpses were laughing inside their tombs". The close up shots of the faces of Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach, were also intended to build suspense up until Eastwood's Blondie draws, and blows away Angel Eyes.
4 Django Unchained (2012): Candyland
This scene is Quentin Tarantino doing what he does best: grossing out audiences with copious gore while an oddly fitting but also somehow out of place song plays. We had to include one shootout from a Tarantino flick, and it came down to Django Unchained or Inglourious Basterds. While the basement barroom gunfight in the latter was very exciting, watching Jamie Foxx shoot up Candyland plantation was exciting, disgusting and impressive all at once.
The opening of the scene shows Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) being gunned down by Dr Schultz, before the same happens to Schultz at the hands of Django. After that there are a few minutes of carnage and mayhem that are over the top even for Tarantino, punctuated by some painful screaming and NSFW racial slurs (that were acceptable at the time).
3 Scarface (1983): Tony's Final Stand
There are enough intense, memorable, adrenaline pumping scenes in Scarface, from the cocaine deal gone wrong to the botched assassination in the nightclub, but the final shootout is a fitting end to a character like Al Pacino's Tony Montana. After ingesting enough blow, he grabs an M16A1/M203 (rifle with grenade launcher; the grenade launcher was a fake), blowing off the door to his office. He steps out and all hell breaks loose.
I will say, if you like a gunfight with realism, this may not be the one for you. Considering the amount of bullets fired, there should technically have been more reloading, given that he looked like he was using the standard 30 round magazines. Furthermore, the fact that he already took about a half dozen (more) bullets, some in the chest of course, I doubt that a pile of cocaine would have kept him standing until that shotgun blast in the back. But then again, I'm no doctor. Unrealistic as it may be, it was a great scene.
2 Act of Valor (2012): The Prisoner Rescue
If you're unfamiliar with Act of Valor and like military action, let me explain what this movie is all about. With a cast of active duty Navy SEALs and a couple of scenes including live-fire (real bullets and tracers), Act of Valor tells the story of soldiers who discover and try to stop a terrorist attack. While we said we wouldn't include anything based on actual military events, Act of Valor was inspired by a series of real stories, and while it is gritty and shows the harsh reality of war, we made an exception for this scene, mainly due to the exciting truck chase and the live-fire from the gunboat at the end.
While the whole movie is worth a watch to see at least a slightly accurate depiction (depending on who you ask) of the way things are done in the world of the Navy SEALs, the acting is a little rough. But that action is spot on. There are plenty of scenes that involve first person views, along with, like we said, live fire. Those M240s and GAU-17As chewing up the pickup truck at the end of the scene? Real rounds.
There are a few other scenes in this film that could have been here but just watch the movie, it's worth it, but be ready for some shaky performances. Remember, these are military men, not actors for the most part.
1 Heat (1995): Fighting in the Streets
If you're a fan of the video game Grand Theft Auto V, you should probably at least be aware of the 1995 movie Heat. A crime-drama gem from director Michael Mann, this action packed two hour masterpiece features Al Pacino as a cop trailing a great team of criminals; Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and Danny Trejo.
After one of their heists, which is very similar to the final heist mission in GTA V, they encounter a small army worth of law enforcement personnel. Armed with rifles, they fight through the street (not reloading a whole lot), taking fire from all sides and returning fire against a vastly larger group of cops. Of course, while they advance, Pacino his hot on their trail taking potshots at the criminals from time to time.
This movie was reported as a favorite of the two men who carried out the North Hollywood Shootout in 1997. Furthermore, as we hinted earlier, there is a key level in GTA-V in which characters Michael, Franklin and of course Trevor, carry out a very similar heist. Heat is one of those rare action movies that packs an emotional plot, brilliant performances from all involved, great cinematography along with edge-of-your-seat, heart-palpitating action sequences.