Some of cinema’s finest fight/action/suspense scenes and why they stand-out from the crowd.
The Protector (Thailand, 2005) Spiral stairs one-shot fight: Tony Jaa storms up the spiraling interior of a sleazy hotel, hospitalizing stunt men and smashing objects both fixed and movable in one of the most spectacular examples of steady-cam shooting ever recorded: an unbroken 4 minute single shot of non-stop martial arts action form the ground floor of a building to the top floor, that surely rates highly as one of the most dangerous jobs a cameraman has ever faced outside of a war documentary.
The International (Germany/USA, 2006) Shooting-up the Gugenheim: Building a wooden replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gugenheim Museum in an abandoned silo in Germany, director Tom Tykwer serves-up one of the purest distillations of the appeal of badass action sequences: a hail of noise and frag; slick, tense body movements; athletic use of architecture and the wanton destruction of priceless objects (in this case, the Gugenheim itself). In an action thriller with few action sequences elsewhere, Tykwer makes this scene count for a great deal; adding a tremendous jolt of electricity to an already excellent story.
The Raid (Indonesia, 2011) The two brothers versus Mad Dog: The Raid is a film crafted entirely around breath-taking action sequences, which should hence-forth be compulsory viewing for students of movie editing. But the one scene that left me most stupefied and speechless was undoubtedly the final battle, in which the heroe’s foe is so brutally tough and quick that he cannot possibly fight the battle alone. With his brother’s ample assistance, Rama takes-on Mad Dog, a villain already proven as a major threat in his martial arts ability. The fact that Mad Dog dictates the flow of the fight through his prowess sets this appart from so many other action-movie denuments. As the fight descends into ever scrappier territory, the stakes really do increase for the hero and for writer/director/editor, Gareth Evans, who manages to keep the entire sequence (it is divided in the middle, for the sake of giving the audience a breather, with a quick update on what is happening above stairs) coherent, fluid and absorbing and, most notably at this point in movie history, not once does he break the 180 Degree Rule.
Harakiri (Japan, 1962) One man against the house of Iyi: After his woeful tale is told to the stunned household of Iyi, Tsugumo Hanshiro (the unflappable Tatsuya Nakadai) scruffy ronin, having humiliated the house retainers in one-on-one combat before his arrival at the household’s gates, proclaims the Samurai code of honor to be a sham of the grossest and most despicable kind and declares war against the house of Iyi. The ensuing battle is one of the single finest achievements in the Chanbara genre. The perfunctory, deadly-precise cuts of Tsugumo’s blade and the charged moments of silence and hesitation in between ratchet-up the tension as both the mad, lone swordsman and the house of retainers he takes-on tire and gradually bleed-out until, eventually, the chiefs of house Iyi have no choice but to employ an openly dishonorable method of finishing the fight in the shrine of their ancestors, thus desecrating the ridiculous code of honor that Tsugumo set-out to discredit.
Sword of Doom (Japan, 1966) “The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. An evil soul is an evil sword.” …so go the words of Shimada Toranosuke (Toshirō Mifune) as he stands in the snow, surrounded by the mutilated corpses of several would-be assassins, wiping the gore from his sated blade, as the stunned ronin, Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai), looks-on in disbelief. Up until this point Mifune as Shimada had exuded his most measured quiet nobility in a role that seemed clearly intended as the heroic foil to the plainly foul and deranged protagonist, Tsukue. In an ill-advised assassination mission – staged with awesome beauty in the dead of night as snowflakes fall on a quiet street – Tsukue, witnesses the grimly merciless operation of a master swordsman that his own talents could never approach. Ignoring the direction of the camera and painterly choreography of Mifune’s movements, this scene best demonstrates the occasional necessity of a world class actor to drive-home the full effect of the exceptional fight that the audience has just witnessed. It is the icy calm that Mifune employs in his depiction of Shimada’s dark spirit that sells the scene and elevates an otherwise muddled film.
Sanjuro (Japan, 1962) The final showdown: Sanjuro vs Muroto: A year before Sanjuro Akira Kurosawa repackaged the Hollywood Western genre and sent it back to them with no shortage of panache in Yojimbo. Yojimbo’s de facto sequel, Sanjuro culminates in the short, sharp re-purposing and distillation of one fo the Western’s genre staples: the quick-draw showdown. With an economy of cuts and around half the scene time normally awarded in its Western counterparts, Sanjuro’s greatest fight involves just six movements and one cut of the blade, then it’s all over for the nefarious Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai) and his cartoid artery.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (USA, 1981) Indiana Jones vs truck-driving Nazis: Another film built around endlessly surprising set-pieces and exceptional one-on-one fights (gun vs scimitar: gun wins, Indy vs Nazi Strongman: airplane propeller wins), Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the greatest action films of all time but one scene in particular stands-out, when Indy goes after the truck that is transporting the Ark of the Covenant. Beginning his pursuit on horseback and, from there, getting to know each and every side of the truck he is attempting to hi-jack, Indy takes the sort of knocks that beg belief (his back would have been cut to ribbons under the truck, for one thing) but through Editor Michael Kahn’s fluid, credible assembly of the quite static shots and John William’s rollicking score, the audience’s disbelief remains in suspension without sacrificing the feeling of each and every punch traded between Indy and the valiant stooge that tries to thwart him.
Chocolate (Thailand, 2008) Fighting down the side of a building
The Frech Connection (USA, 1971) Chasing the L train
28 Weeks Later (UK/USA, 2007) Escaping the cottage without looking back (opening scene).Read less