100 Essential Action Scenes: Shootouts

Sound on Sight undertook a massive project, compiling ranked lists of the most influential, unforgettable, and exciting action scenes in all of cinema. There were hundreds of nominees spread across ten different categories and a multi-week voting process from 11 of our writers. The results: 100 essential set pieces, sequences, and scenes from blockbusters to cult classics to arthouse obscurities.    

 

Shootouts, unlike any other type of action scenes, put death in the forefront of the audience’s mind. Whereas a car chase draws the attention onto the race, or a fight scene onto the pursuit of victory, shootouts test the mortality of our protagonists and anti-heroes. It’s more than just a hail of bullets that matters on screen, it’s who those bullets are clipping down or propping up. Legends can be made in a flurry of lead. The last man standing after the fray isn’t always the best or the luckiest; sometimes he’s the one who was able to keep his head the lowest.

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10. Scarface (1983) – “Say hello to my little friend!”

If we think about many of our beloved shootouts in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Inglorious Bastards, or even Mexican standoffs in Reservoir Dogs and Hard Boiled, one thing is for certain—someone is going to die. This certainly holds true for Brian De Palma’s 1983 masterpiece Scarface. What makes Scarface special, on the other hand, is how for a brief moment we think Tony Montana will defy the inevitable. Hopped up on a mountain of coke with an arsenal at his fingertips, Tony looks like he might just walk away from an insane shootout like it was nothing. With each shot—and boy does he take a lot of hits—Tony manages to not only stand up but knock off an army of hitmen. At that moment, he is God. Unlike the more romanticized yet equally as masterful Howard Hawks 1932 classic of the same name, Tony dies alone under the plight of one man, Paul Shenar’s Alejandro Sosa, without penance as the self-made monster he grew to become. In a flash, Tony is shot in a crucifixion-like pose, falling into a pool of blue and crimson. In that moment, we remember that this god is a mere man, making it one of the most poetic shootouts captured on screen. (Christopher Clemente)

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9. The Wild Bunch (1969) – Blaze of glory

The opening of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch sees a group of children watching as a swarm of fire ants overwhelm two struggling scorpions. They giggle and laugh before engulfing both in flames. It’s the next generation wiping the slate clean with an even more casual act of desensitized violence. Peckinpah’s film ravishes the romantic vision of the Wild West through a gratuitously violent, emotionally drained portrait of real outlaws. Peckinpah paints the uncomfortable act of violence in the West as not a cathartic, exciting spectator sport but a brutal look at where the world is moving. In the film’s infamous final showdown, Pike (William Holden) and company are the scorpions, the ants are the army of Mexican soldiers, and those kids are the ones who have no trouble dealing the killing blow. This scene in 1969 made The Wild Bunch the most violent movie ever made. Its use of bloodshed is more realistic than classic Westerns, but the violence is stylized with intense zooms, rapid edits, and jumbled moments of slow motion to the point that the whole scene is desensitizing. It’s an act of suicide reminiscent of the famous still frame at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Peckinpah carries that moment out to its grim conclusion, and it seems much less heroic by the end of it. The Wild Bunch doesn’t justify violence but views it as an unholy necessity. This is the end we’ve come to, and it ain’t pretty. (Brian Welk)

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8. Unforgiven (1992) – “Deserves got nothing to do with it.”

The big question with Unforgiven is whether it can have its cake and eat it too. For 90% of the film, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) has been a quiet and contemplative man, moralizing his old days as a killer and trying to figure out what it all means. He’s seen death and the darkness in men, and he understands that being a killer is no way to live. He knows that the stories in dime store novels that entertain people with their tales of bloodshed come at great human cost that forever is a drain on one’s mental state of being. And yet Little Bill (Gene Hackman) has killed and humiliated his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman). So William Munny takes to drink and once again becomes William Munny, killer of women and children, because that is the only course of action he sees fit in avenging his friend. Watching Munny single-handedly take out five armed men is thrilling, and Eastwood, who also directed the picture, stages the scene with dark and brooding tension leading up to the shootout. At the end of the scene, a writer (Saul Rubinek) excitedly drills Munny for every detail that went through his mind during the killing, hoping to make a best seller out of the scene he just witnessed. Yet the writer seems to fail to realize that Munny has just done a dark and dastardly thing that would probably have cosigned him to hell if he weren’t all ready. We can watch and take thrill in the killing of men, the movie tells us, but we should never forget the human cost it takes to achieve that thrill. (JJ Perkins)

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7. The Matrix (1999) – “Holy S#/&!”

Going back and watching Andy and Larry (now Lana) Wachowski’s The Matrix for the first time, it’s surprising how, for the first hour plus, the film is almost subdued. Though there are fight scenes, they’re limited to small encounters rather than large, complex set pieces. By today’s standards, it’s remarkable how the film saves its big, showy, iconic Lobby Shootout sequence until relatively late in the film. In many ways, this is where The Matrix finally makes good on its promise of physics-bending gun-fu action with the trench-coated stars of the film (Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss) cutting loose and expending what must in reality be a shockingly expensive amount of ammunition while somersaulting off walls in slow-motion displays of acrobatics. This is really where the film decides that the time has passed for philosophical explorations about the nature of reality and self, and the time for action has truly arrived. It’s no wonder in retrospect that this sequence captured imaginations and forever altered the way action scenes are shot in American action films. Though many of its key elements are lifted directly from Hong Kong action cinema, to casual American moviegoers in the late ‘90s, this was something completely new. And they liked it. (Thomas O’Connor)

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6. 3:10 to Yuma (2007) — How the Western almost won

Every few years it seems as if the Western is going to make a comeback. The market for what are basically small scale historical action films is pretty dire in today’s superhero, bigger-is-better climate. But 2007 (arguably one of the greatest years for film in the medium’s history) came the closest since the genre’s heyday. As part of a four film renaissance that included contemporary thriller No Country for Old Men, esoteric morality play There Will be Blood, and revisionist western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the remake of 3:10 to Yuma carried the torch for classic tales of men doing the right thing against corrupt forces and violent anti-heroes finding something to believe in. James Mangold’s staging forgoes lavish special effects just by nature of the genre, giving us old school flying bullet set pieces with some modern bite to them. The film’s terrific final sequence finds disgraced rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) and his prisoner, notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), sneaking out of the hotel they’ve been holed up in and out into the streets like proverbial fish in a barrel. Stricken with a prosthetic foot and up against Wade’s entire gang, led by mad dog Charlie (an unhinged Ben Foster), Evans decides to go guns blazing rather than lie down and die. “I ain’t ever been no hero,” he tells Wade, whose sympathy earns Dan some cover fire. Marco Beltrami’s thumping drums kick in on the soundtrack before he goes full Ennio Morricone, as Evans and Wade make their final dash to the train station. For a few minutes, the washed up family man and his more-than-meets-the-eye foil are allies dodging gunfire for the principle of doing the right thing. The Western is rarely about pyrotechnics or spectacle but often outdated themes like duty, honor, and justice. “Just remember, it was your old man who walked Ben Wade to that station when no one else would,” Evans tells his son before he makes his last stand. For that brief moment in 2007, the Western stood tall once more. (Shane Ramirez)

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5. The Untouchables (1987) – Won’t somebody please think of the children?

The train station stairway shootout, the action climax to Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, is as much about the anticipation of shots fired as it is the actual gunfire, and as such, it’s as much about suspense as action. It centers on the efforts of Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and George Stone (Andy Garcia) to apprehend Al Capone’s accountant, on whom their case against Capone rests, before Capone’s men can ferret him out of town. Arriving at the train station, Ness and Stone take up their positions, and De Palma piles on the tension: an ominous shot of the clock nearing twelve, commuters rushing to and fro, any one of whom with the potential to be an agent of Capone, a woman struggling with luggage and the famous baby pram, distracting Ness. And, of course, it’s just as Ness gives in to his better urges and helps the woman that Capone’s men appear, causing Ness to send the pram bouncing down the stairs (a homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s famous Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin) as the shootout begins. The ensuing break in tension, filmed almost entirely in slow motion, commences with the pop of shotguns and spurts of blood and concludes with a cheer worthy moment as Stone enters the frame, tossing a gun to Ness then diving to stop the baby carriage while bringing his own gun to bear on the goon now holding the accountant hostage. “You got him?” Ness asks. “Yeah, I got him,” assures Stone. “Take him”, says Ness, and thus ends one of ‘80s cinemas most iconic and well-constructed action scenes. (Austin Gorton)

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4. John Wick (2014) – The Red Circle

I tell anybody that will listen about how much I love John Wick. I even dressed up as him for Halloween last year. You could literally pick any scene from this film and put it on any top 10 action list, but for the gun fights, this felt the most appropriate. The club scene is a true highlight of the film. Wick starts out like a ghost, silently killing henchman, but it’s not until he reaches the dance floor that the scene really erupts; he starts shooting henchman at close range like he’s knifing them–all so he can get at the gangster’s son (Alfie Allen) who killed his beloved pooch. Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski film the action in prolonged takes, letting the stunning choreography and technique shine as Wick employs his gun-fu style of ass-kicking. Imagine a tense and closed-quarters hand-to-hand combat but with handguns instead, and you’ve got the attitude of the action in this scene. There aren’t any long-range shootouts, it’s all at close range and mostly right in the head. Wick takes out scores of henchman in the most spectacular and brutal fashion with his guns, resulting in some of the most stylized headshots ever put to film. John Wick is the greatest, and this scene is a big reason as to why. (Dylan Griffin)

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3. Django Unchained (2012) – Trouble in Candyland

Django Unchained‘s climactic shootout at the Candyland plantation shows Quentin Tarantino channeling John Woo and Sam Peckinpah to deliver one of the finest shootouts in the history of cinema. The gaudy, bloody last 30 minutes uses slow motion and explosive blood-squibs and everything else a good gunfight should have. Gorgeously lit and lensed by Robert Richardson, the vivaciously choreographed bloodbath is undeniably glorious (blood spurts even better when its backlit). However, what’s remarkable about the shootout that follows isn’t necessarily the buckets of blood but what it means for our titular hero. After Christoph Waltz’s Schultz dispatches Leonardo Dicaprio’s vial slave master Candy, all hell breaks loose for our hero Django. Schultz has arguably the best character arc and story in the film, and so the only way Django can finish his story, is if Schultz’s story ends. It is only when he dies that Django becomes “the fastest gun in the West” and the hero he’s billed to be. (Ricky D)

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2. Heat (1995) – On the streets of LA

Let me set it up for you: teams of men in combat armor ripping vehicles apart with high-powered assault weapons, killing dozens in the process. Sounds like I should be describing a scene in a war film, but these streets are none other than Los Angeles in Michael Mann’s Heat. After Neil McCauley’s (Robert De Niro) big heist gets interrupted by the cops, he and his men (Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore) open fire in a display of urban warfare never before depicted like this. The piercing bang of the gunshots echoes through the canyons of L.A. in a cacophony of brilliant sound design. This is what violence sounds like and it is horrifically real and frankly hard to watch. Casualties are taken on both sides, including McCauley’s getaway driver (Dennis Haysbert) and a do right cop (Ted Levine) from Detective Hanna’s (Al Pacino) team. For ten riveting minutes it’s not clear who will make it through the fire-fight alive. The chaos comes to a head in its most frightening moment, when Cherrito (Sizemore) uses a little girl as a human shield and Hanna has to take him down without harming the girl. The scene serves as a grim reminder of what actually happens after a heist goes down. There’s no celebration amid bottles of champagne, just two ends: a bullet or a cell. (Colin Biggs)

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1. Hard Boiled (1992) – Intense care unit

The shootout to end all shootouts, the pivotal scene in John Woo’s classic rivals the feature’s earlier shootout in a teahouse. As Woo’s last Hong Kong film before his transition to Hollywood, Hard Boiled gained critical acclaim from Western audiences with its action scenes that set it apart from similar films. This scene comes as police officer Tequila Yuen (Chow Yun-Fat) and exposed undercover cop Alan (Tony Leung) discover that an armory belonging to gangster Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong) is hidden in a hospital, which leads to a total siege by Wong and his men. A heavily intricate yet glorious shootout between the two protagonists and multiple hitmen ensue, resulting in a three-minute tracking shot taking place in a hospital corridor. The scene, only broken up by a short conscientious conversation in an elevator (reminding viewers that Alan is first and foremost a cop rather than a cold-blooded killer), highlights the wonderful action choreography: Yun-Fat and Leung weave effortlessly in a confined space, while showcasing their characters’ abilities in taking down Wong’s hitmen. While the hospital scenes took 40 days to complete, the fact that they were shot in a studio with blacked out windows caused the crew to lose track of days and time. The last scene was effectively shortened so that the exhausted crew had time to change the scene and set up the explosions, resulting in a continuous shot. As Hard Boiled shows that quick edits are not necessary to make an effective action scene, Woo demonstrates a certain style that is simple yet effective, while setting corridors as a key location to film an impressive, continuous-shot fight scene (examples include Oldboy and more recently, Netflix series Daredevil). (Katie Wong)

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Top Choices from our Writers

Colin Biggs – Heat

Christopher Clemente – Scarface

Ricky D – Barry Lyndon

Austin Gorton – L.A. Confidential

Dylan Griffin – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Thomas O’Connor – The Mission

JJ Perkins – Django Unchained

Shane Ramirez – Heat

Christopher Saunders – Barry Lyndon

Brian Welk – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Katie Wong – Hard Boiled

(Check out the rest of the list by clicking below)

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