Wednesday, 11 July 2007

list: the greatest blockbuster action sequences

"Blockbuster" is often used as shorthand for "artistically and intellectually arid commercial vehicle". That's more often true than not, but there have been more than enough exceptions to the rule to conclude that it is not necessarily the case. At their best, blockbusters can provide a unique escapist thrill coupled with a riveting visual spectacle, and, let's face it - they are the reason most of us came to love cinema in the first place. Cinephile snobbery aside, most of us harbour a torch for at least some blockbuster films, and we have to admit that, in a healthy, balanced cinematic diet, they are as necessary as the works of the great auteurs.

These, then, are the five greatest blockbuster action sequences:

fifth: the battle on the train in spiderman 2 (sam raimi, 2004)

Unquestionably the highlight of the recent run of superhero movies. Never did the Marvel superhero ethos and mythology make as much sense as it does in this spectacular sequence, where Spidey has to battle Doc Ock (hands down the most interesting and well-realized villain he’s faced), while rescuing a train full of commuters. Raimi throws his CGI-assisted camera around with the gleeful joy of a child on a sugar-rush, allowing him to stage superpowered action that emphasizes the superpowers.

fourth: the climactic battle in return of the jedi (richard marquand, 1983)

The Empire Strikes Back
remains by some way the finest all-rounder in the Star Wars canon, but Return of the Jedi’s climax is arguably the saga’s finest hour. The final confrontation between Rebel and Empire forces. The greatest space battle ever filmed (and surely there can be little argument on this). The most dramatically powerful (if perhaps not the best choreographed) lightsabre duel in the series. Anakin/Darth Vader’s redemption. The fall of the Emperor and the Empire. There may have been flashier blockbusters since, but rarely has the pop-mythic grandeur of these final moments been equaled.

third: the rescue of morpheus in the matrix (wachowski bros., 1999)

This sequence has become so familiar, almost every image having been permanently engraved in pop culture, every cinematic innovation written into the lexicon, that its initial impact has been somewhat dulled. And yet, if seen afresh, what an astoundingly inventive, exhilarating and energetic sequence of images this still is. Narratively, it presents Neo accepting and coming to terms with the reality of the Matrix, and becoming aware of the power he possesses over it. Technically, the Wachowskis here directed action with a cool, balletic grace, and with a willingness to explode the boundaries of cinema. From Neo and Trinity’s ballistic entrance into the lobby, through that jaw-dropping first glimpse of bullet-time on the roof, and right until that helicopter crashes into the building, this is breathless, mind-blowing stuff. Nothing even remotely like it existed at the time. Sadly, it was all downhill for the franchise from here.

second: the mines of moria in the lord of the rings: the fellowship of the ring (peter jackson, 2001)

The Lord of the Rings
holds a number of strong contenders for this list (it could just as easily have been Helm’s Deep or the Battle of the Pelennor Fields), but the Mines of Moria sequence – starting with a tense, eerie quiet, erupting into sudden, brutal violence, and climaxing with one of the most poignant moments in the trilogy – stands out as a masterpiece of action choreography. Three perfectly-executed set-pieces (the fight against the cave troll, the escape down the steps, and the confrontation on the bridge) blend seamlessly into one desperate, thrilling rush. Jackson captures the sequence with a kinetic, restless camera; his masterstroke lies in balancing the action’s raw, physical impact, with the grand mythic sense and spirituality of Tolkien’s epic vision.

first: the tanker chase in mad max 2: the road warrior (george miller, 1981)

Like the rest of The Road Warrior, the show-stopping final highway chase/battle, as the desert gang led by the excellently-named Lord Humungus attempt to stop the tanker carrying a precious oil cargo, is lean, efficient, entirely purposeful, and driven by an unstoppable forward momentum. Everything about this scene, from the dirty, patched-together production design, to the spectacular stunt work, to Gibsons’s stoic, career-best performance, to Miller’s note-perfect direction, works perfectly. More so than any other action scene I have ever seen, this sequence, despite its spectacular production design, feels raw, savage, immediate, hard-hitting, and entirely, plausibly real. It is, in conclusion, the greatest action scene ever filmed.

the runners-up:

  • The climactic battle in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End: The Pirates trilogy follows the structure of the original Star Wars trilogy pretty closely, which makes this its Battle of Endor. Even by those standards, it’s no disappointment – visually jaw-dropping, almost stupidly epic, and capturing precisely the right balance between humour, exhilarating action, and drama.
  • Kong vs. the T-Rex in King Kong: A standout scene in a mostly disappointing film, this ultimate “who would win in a fight between…” debate made cinematic reality gets more and more ridiculously over-the-top as it goes on, until you can’t help but have a huge grin over your face.
  • The truck chase in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Several tons of machinery. A little boy in peril. Cameron at his best. This may have been released in 1991, but it represents the apex of 80s high-concept action.
  • The T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park. Spielberg in top form. A masterful exercise in tension-building, erupting in a climax of frenetic horror and ground-breaking effects.


Lara said...

you're forgetting that scene in that Indian film where some guy riding a horse slides under an enormous truck :-P

Daniel Vella said...

Hmm you're right...I guess that would have been the next runner-up :P

Robert said...

actually you could have mentioned the indiana Jones films.

magnum said...

Mad Max 2 is pretty much the best stunt/car chase movie ever. Bar none.

Daniel Vella said...

I really wanted to include the Indiana Jones films, cause they're some of my favourite films. But I couldn't think of one stand-alone sequence from the films to rank up there with the best.