Part 1 of a two-part series spotlighting the best action scenes of the 2010s. Part 2 can be found here.
John Wick doesn’t walk. He hobbles, slightly hunched over from the strain of fresh wounds and a general, existential exhaustion. As played by Keanu Reeves, Wick departs from the actor’s nimbler roles of yore—hotshot FBI surfer Johnny Utah, runaway-bus-stopping Jack Traven, humanity’s machine age savior Neo—in that, although he fights with practiced skill, the violence weighs on him. One scene part way through John Wick: Chapter Two (2017) does an especially effective job at highlighting Wick’s vulnerability by pitting a bunch of assassins against him, a series of fights that’s presented via montage to heighten the sense of bombardment. As Wick just barely fends off his attackers, Reeves makes age and gravity readable in the character’s jerky, slightly tremulous movements, and rather than fighting silent and deadly like one popular mold of the cinematic hit man, he grunts and yells in pain and effort, grimacing visibly while strands of sweat-slicked hair hang over his face. Watching Reeves’ performance of exertion makes us tense up as well. Each kill feels like the product of hard work, and when enemy blows connect, we genuinely fear for our hero’s wellbeing. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen shoots this scene with a steady, uninvasive camera so that the trajectory of each deadly-yet-awkward blow can be seen as clearly as possible, and the moments of comedy that crop up—like the gruesome reprise of a certain writing instrument, repurposed as deadly weapon—serve to accentuate the absurdity of Wick's plight and the sheer effort it is taking to hold himself together.
This sense of embattlement and exhaustion continues into John Wick: Chapter Three - Parabellum (2019), except, in this film, director Chad Stahleksi works in more hand-to-hand combat and makes bolder use of shot duration and depth of field. In the film's most innovative scene, Wick fights a bevy of bounty hunters in an antique shop, a brawl that escalates when the fighters begin to pelt each other with knives they find displayed along the walls. Here, Stahelski takes the clear shooting style of Chapter Two to new levels of (seeming) transparency, inviting awe at the violence that appears to be "actually" unfolding before the camera. In one showstopping moment, Wick hurls three daggers one after another into a henchman's body as the poor man crawls his way backward to his dying breath, a brutal finisher that occurs without any noticeable cut taking place. Elsewhere in the scene, long takes are imbued with an additional, almost participatory feel as the film unfolds action not only across the screen but into depth, using deep focus photography to show knives being thrown away from the camera at a distant target or, in the scene's culminating moment, an axe being lobbed from the background toward a hapless fellow sitting a mere few feet away from the camera. Stahelski's engagement with the z-axis of filmic space, coupled with the length of his shots, seems to both authenticate the lived reality of the movie world and draw us into it, implicating us physically and proprioceptively in the spectacular action unfolding before our eyes.
The above scenes are, at every level of their construction, examples of great action filmmaking, the kind that makes the ongoing enthusiasm over the John Wick series—a fourth film of which has recently been announced for 2021—more than justified. Furthermore, this greatness stems from the dovetailing of specific choices made at the level of performance, filmmaking form, and larger thematic resonance, and it is in the spirit of celebrating concretely exceptional action direction that I have assembled a list of some of the best action scenes from the past decade.
A couple notes before we dive in. The first is that not all the best action films contain the best action scenes, and, conversely, not all the best action scenes are found in the best action films (there is, however, unsurprisingly much overlap). Sometimes, great action films excel not through presenting any especially outstanding set-piece but through delivering a string of strong action that sustains a powerful momentum. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) fits this description, and before you protest the exclusion of Tom Cruise’s vertiginous Burj Khalifa climb from this survey, let me just say that I see you but consider that scene to be more of a suspense set-piece than an action one (it’s more wind-up than release), a distinction that, unfortunately, also (just barely) disqualifies the phenomenal Vienna Opera House scene from Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015). Alternatively, some films may be a total misfire but feature a set piece of such self-contained virtuosity that exclusion would have been criminal; Atomic Blonde (2017) is a derivative slog for most of its runtime but pivots around one of the most effective fight scenes of the century thus far (more on that later).
It may seem, then, that I am conceptualizing action scenes as being completely separate from the films in which they appear, but this is also not the case. Much of a set piece's power derives from the release of dramatic tension accumulated from prior scenes, and some of the most accomplished spectacles take on thrilling new dimensions when framed against their films’ larger visions. That said, given that the focus is on action scenes and not action films, more weight was indeed placed on the relatively isolated craftsmanship of an individual scene—though not to the total exclusion of analyzing larger thematic and narrative context where relevant—when choosing which films to include.
Finally, it must be noted that, because this list could have been filled solely with the scenes in the top five or so action films of the decade, I’ve decided to forego a literal, meticulously hierarchical “best of” in favor of an approach that more fully conveys the stylistic breadth of the action this decade has produced. For example, although most set pieces from the Raid series could've held their own against any entry on this list, I only discuss one in detail because the action scenes across the two films follow more or less the same action filmmaking principles, and I wanted to make sure other forms of action got their due. On the other hand, because the third John Wick contains a variety of diversely exceptional action, I talk about multiple scenes from that film.
And now, to the action. I’ve organized the scenes into loose thematic groupings, both to enhance ease of perusal and to highlight larger stylistic patterns among the films. The following is the first round of action scenes; the second will follow soon after.
INDONESIAN NEW EXTREMITY
Stateside, John Wick was one of the biggest action sleeper hits of the 2010s, rejuvenating both Reeves’ career and gun-fu as a cinematic combat form. The claustrophobic fight-for-survival thriller Raid: Redemption (2011), however, hit action cult status first by introducing the world to star Iko Uwais and the Indonesian martial art pencak silat. Since then, Raid director Gareth Evans and filmmaker Timo Tjahjanto have single-handedly branded the Indonesian film industry as a world-class purveyor of exceptional and exceptionally brutal hand-to-hand combat, with the former’s Raid 2 (2014) upping the ante in sadism from the first film and Tjahjanto’s Headshot (2016) and especially The Night Comes for Us (2018) striving to push the envelope to its breaking point.
Though Evans and Tjahjanto use many of the same stars—Uwais appears in all four of the aforementioned films, Julie Estelle in three, and Joe Taslim in two—their filming styles are quite different. Evans’ aesthetic emerges most clearly and effectively in a showdown in the first Raid where Uwais’ rookie cop hero fights a posse of machete-wielding thugs. In this scene, Evans and crew shoot and edit with startling economy, with every cut seemingly designed to further the action and our view of it. In one emblematic moment, a close-up of a stabbing motion is followed by a match cut to the motion being completed from a bird’s eye view, a visual one-two punch that maintains continuity of movement while establishing dynamic variability in camera angle. Though there are plenty of cuts, the shots themselves are similarly clear and precise, capturing a succession of whip-fast blows with steady framing that allows us to appreciate the form and fluidity of the fighters’ mobile bodies. When the camera does move, it does so to track key actions within the frame, such as the skidding of a machete that was just kicked across the floor or the upward swing of a henchman’s arms as he raises his weapon for the kill. In the way Evans’ camera cleaves so tightly to the fighters’ movements, The Raid—and this scene in particular—demonstrates an aesthetic of ruthless efficiency worthy of Hong Kong greats like the legendary Lau Kar-leung, the filmmaker who, in martial arts classics like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984), demonstrated an uncanny skill at using camera movement and editing to capture and accent the movements of onscreen fighters.
In contrast, Tjahjanto’s camera tends to wobble and drift, often circling around characters for a few beats longer than Evans would have allowed. This shooting style feels less grounded, looser, and more arbitrary, and, at points, Tjahjanto’s films suffer because of it. For most of Headshot and parts of The Night Comes for Us, the unmoored camera makes it more difficult to track characters’ actions and slightly but significantly alters the energy of the scenes. Whereas Evans tends to organize the movements of characters and camera along horizontal and vertical axes in such a way where these movements flow with or clash against each other, Tjahjanto’s camera feels panoramic and meandering, too tentative to deliver the affective impact of Evans’ shooting style and yet not alienating enough to form a critique of the violence.
One of the scenes where this style does work is the climax of The Night Comes for Us, in which Joe Taslim’s ex-gangster protagonist faces off against a (now villainous) Uwais within a warehouse littered with sharp objects and hard surfaces. Here, Tjahjanto reins in his wandering camera with more assured direction, but the cinematographic messiness that remains also fits because the fight itself is messy—Taslim and Uwais exchange blows with tremendous speed and dexterity, but Tjahjanto also makes the brawl extraordinarily clumsy, with the two tumbling over each other and tearing each other’s bodies apart using everything from box cutters to thumb tacks. By the time Taslim’s character accidentally punches a metal beam and then Uwais’ does the same thing with his foot, it’s clear that this scene is, though in many respects very similar to The Raid, also the complete opposite: slapstick comedy by way of body horror, a spectacle of inelegance in which Tjahjanto’s filmmaking style has, with some modulation, finally found its perfect match.
ASIAN BLOCKBUSTER MAXIMALISM
If The Night Comes for Us shifts the physical and spatial mastery of The Raid toward a more uncontrolled, animal sensibility, some of this decade’s most lucrative Chinese and Indian blockbusters swing in the other direction and then some, presenting de facto gods-among-men who defy gravity with their wire-assisted somersaults and practice knight errantry against lush computer generated (CG) landscapes and the gleaming facsimile of famous historical milieu. Chief among these is S.S. Rajamouli’s box-office-breaking two-parter, Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017), films that give Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–2003), which had up until that point been the high water mark for the contemporary cinematic battle sequence, a run for its money.
In the climactic showdown of the first film, Rajamouli’s blend of slow-motion and speed ramping draws on Zack Snyder’s playbook of thunderous action filmmaking and the gravity-defying swordplay evokes the digital wuxia extravagance of late-career Zhang Yimou, but the act of assembling influences is itself an art. Rajamouli both refines each individual, borrowed stylistic strand and weaves these elements together into a single spectacular fabric marked by a thrilling rejection of Hollywood photorealism. Bodies are sent flying like rag dolls, demigod warriors belt bloodcurdling battle cries, and one fighter rides a chariot fashioned with a bladed pinwheel and brandishes a giant, retractable flail the size of a beach ball. In the action centerpiece of The Conclusion, Rajamouli reprises the elastic physics and quixotic spirit of the first film but plants a swooning courtship into the middle of the fray: as enemy forces swarm in from the surrounding hills, hero and heroine perform a deadly dance with each other while unleashing arrows at the approaching army. It is a moment that flirts with ridiculousness but—on account of Rajamouli’s willingness to go big at every level, from the radiant colors to the outsized emotions to the widescreen-worthy shots of digital multitudes—lands on the side of the sublime.
Another filmmaker that works in a vein of fantastical unrealism is Tsui Hark, who has been a mainstay of Chinese blockbuster filmmaking since the 1980s. Hark has always been a gonzo stylist—his earlier films are awash with hazy colors, anamorphic lenses, and extreme high/low-angle shots—and, in the digital era, his creative energies have been rerouted toward highly stylized, even cartoonish CG effects. One can see this tendency in everything from the bullet-time shootout that opens The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014) to the Looney-Tunes-style zippiness of Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (2017), but, in terms of action filmmaking, Tsui’s best work of the past decade may very well be Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013), the second installment in the director’s series about a Sherlock-Holmes-type sleuth debunking ostensibly magical occurrences during the Tang Dynasty.
About halfway through that film, one of the heroes faces off against the main villain within an apothecary shop, and the result feels like an exuberant, digital-age update of wuxia tropes. In this scene, Tsui takes key elements of the genre—fighters who are lighter than air, for instance, or the way random objects like wooden beams or tea cups can be turned into deadly projectiles—to their extreme: combatants look like they are flying more so than leaping, zooming to and fro with only the occasional need to push off of a stable surface, and household items are batted around as if they were badminton birdies. Whereas, in more “realistic” fight scenes, humans and objects alike are subject to the shared pull of gravity, here, everything is caught in an almost anti-gravity limbo where anything can go anywhere at any velocity (at the same time, Tsui mitigates a sense of total weightlessness through voluminous sound design—swords whoosh loudly, wood splinters sharply, et cetera—and lucid, forceful editing à la The Raid). This effect is both a result of and metaphor for digital filmmaking: for an image that’s composed of pixels, anything in the frame can theoretically be made to do whatever the effects artist wants, and Tsui, in embracing the aesthetic possibilities of the new medium, creates spectacle that feels thrillingly contemporary.
The Baahubali films and Young Detective Dee represent one, CG-saturated strain of the contemporary Asian blockbuster, but there remains an international market for martial arts films that counterbalance digital embellishment with an old school emphasis on stunt work and fight choreography. These energetic, glossy actioners are a mixed breed. They are not averse to sending fighters somersaulting through the air, but their action also tends to stay relatively grounded, focusing on the complex exchange of blows between people who can fight really well. The Ip Man series (2008–2019) is among the most popular of these, but, though the action is exceptional across the board (especially in the latest and best entry, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy ), they are outdone by Sha po lang 2 (SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, 2015), the second installment in a thematically (rather than narratively) linked series about cops, criminals, and their spectacular collision.
The film’s action-packed zenith arrives early: in this scene, Thai martial arts star Tony Jaa of Ong Bak (2003) and The Protector (2005) fame pursues Chinese action superstar Wu Jing (director and star of Wolf Warrior  and Wolf Warrior 2 ) through a raging prison riot, all of which is caught by cinematographer Kenny Tse using buoyant long takes. In addition to being a masterpiece of logistical orchestration, the scene evokes the film’s thematic commitment to both the human/visceral and the epic/transcendent. The length of the takes and the painful stuntwork that occurs within them suggest a diegetic world marked by stylized yet still familiar physical laws, but the way the camera seems to untether itself from gravity and expand the film's focus beyond the central narrative action indicates a shift away from the story of individuals toward an abstract study of force and motion.
The films highlighted in this section so far evince an extravagant, larger-than-life sensibility that, I believe, earns the designation "Asian Blockbuster Maximalism." At least one other film deserves mention here, not because it follows in the aesthetic and thematic footsteps of these other titles but, on the contrary, because it so pointedly and completely does not. Xu Haofeng's The Final Master (2015), which tells of a Wing Chung expert trying to navigate the thorny political bureaucracy of the Tianjin martial arts community and open his own dojo, so perfectly inverts the maximalist mold of the previous three films that it practically reinforces this mold by way of negation. Where the Baahubali films and Young Detective Dee are bursting with color, The Final Master is perpetually overcast, seemingly suffused with the chilly stillness of air after a winter rain. Where the performances are melodramatic in all the other films, the ones in Xu's picture are cool and affectless, evoking the political games at its narrative core by making the characters resemble chess pieces more so than human beings.
Most importantly, where the action in the other films are heavily stylized, relying on wire- and CG-assisted leaps and somersaults, the fight scenes in The Final Master exhibit a thrilling naturalism and minimalism. Characters fight to win, and, accordingly, they elide excessive flourish, choosing instead the path of least resistance to victory. If an opponent can be felled in two seconds rather than five, then two is the goal. This total rationality of combat form echoes the Machiavellian scheming of the characters and reaches its most elegant articulation in the film's climactic fight in which the main character faces off against a procession of martial arts masters in a cavernous alleyway. Captured using placid shots that foreground fighters' calculated movements, the scene ingeniously depicts how the protagonist adjusts his technique against a range of different weapons, with the sight and reverberating sound of variously shaped steel blades locking, sliding, and scraping against one another evoking the larger film's portrait of political entities configuring and reconfiguring in an instrumentalist dance.
AMERICAN SUPERHERO CINEMA
Compared to the Asian blockbusters that comprise the majority of the previous section, most American superhero films—which, at this point, have become almost synonymous with “American blockbuster cinema” writ large—look flat-footed and drab. Color palettes often remain within the narrow spectrum between blue and gray, and the action has a tendency to favor large-scale CG destruction and rapid, obscurantist editing. There are, however, a few exceptions. Many cite Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) as the pinnacle of contemporary superhero action, and while that movie does feature a fun, close-quarters elevator brawl, a good deal of the action is poorly shot, deploying over-the-top shaky cam that also hews too closely to characters in a way where the main actions are often off-center or entirely out-of-frame. Tactile sound design and narrative momentum compensate for some of the visual incoherence, but the cinematographic roughness remains painfully apparent throughout.
It is in Captain America: Civil War (2016) where directors Joe and Anthony Russo refine their approach, and nowhere more so than in a bruising apartment throwdown that pits the titular Captain and his amnesiac brother-in-arms Bucky against a small army of Special Forces agents. Here, the Russos strike the optimal balance between freneticism and clarity. On the one hand, the film retains the jittery camera and quick cutting of Winter Soldier. On the other, each shot clearly and purposefully directs attention to key actions within the frame—like Cap clamping his shield down over a live grenade or Bucky slugging an assailant in the stomach with a cinder block—and movements across shots are easily tracked thanks to smart execution of continuity editing principles (via match cuts, adherence to the 180-degree rule, et cetera). This aesthetic sweet spot is sweet indeed: this scene, oft-overlooked even by fans of Civil War in favor of the longer and quippier airport fight and the more emotional finale, evinces visual clarity even as the fragmented cutting style lends a frantic, propulsive energy to the proceedings, one further enhanced by the film’s thudding sound design (the rounded, ringing sound of a battering ram to the body is especially wince-inducing).
Another example of exceptional superhero action is the warehouse brawl from Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), which takes place during the caped crusader’s attempt to rescue Superman’s mother. The pleasures of this scene stem mainly from complexly choreographed yet cleanly shot and edited action, i.e. old school action filmmaking form that is sorely missing from so much of the superhero sub-genre. Here, there is a genuine sense of the geography of the onscreen space and Batman’s strategic maneuvering through it. At one point, he turns a body that he had earlier strung up into a projectile to knock over two other henchman; in another moment, he vaults over a giant crate with a henchman in tow, snags the crate with a grappling hook, then uses the force of his momentum to launch the crate over his head at another assailant. The way director Zack Snyder calls back earlier features of the scene—the hanging body, for instance—and has Batman actively engage with objects in the space makes the setting of the warehouse feel real and tactile, an impression that Snyder enhances by interspersing slightly longer and wider shots within the scene so that we have a sense of the combatants’ positions relative to each other.
Though on the one hand thrilling, the fight scene from Batman vs. Superman is also amusing because it was helmed by Snyder, a director known for excess and flourish rather than tightness and economy. Sometimes, flourish is welcome (see the Baahubali films), but, often, restraint can refine a director’s technique, forcing him to be more intentional about his aesthetic choices and giving the moments when he does let loose more oomph. Michael Bay experienced the blessings of moderation when he helmed 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016), a film that, though by no means a departure from the overwrought pyrotechnics and patent jingoism of Bay’s oeuvre, dials back the spectacle from loud and grating to merely chaotic and forceful, a tone that fits the film’s true-life story of soldiers defending a CIA outpost from armed combatants.
13 Hours is ideologically queasy in the way that Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) was: it presents real-life combat in the manner of an action film, fetishizing the spectacle of blazing guns and the rush—rather than the horror, as is the modus operandi for most Hollywood combat pictures—of shooting and being shot at. That said, from an aesthetic standpoint, this film is a mighty specimen, one in which Bay’s showman tendencies, scaled down to the ground-level experience of individual soldiers, produces a seductively impressionistic tapestry of motion and color. The most emblematic scene occurs during the first ambush, in which the soldiers find themselves suddenly beset by hostiles armed to the teeth. The nighttime scenery, already a rich blend of indigo, yellow, and green, is here further illuminated by vivid bursts of orange as machine guns go off and vehicles combust in plumes of fire. Enhancing the impressionism is the fact that the scene has a hazy, surreally too-real visual texture that evokes Michael Mann’s 21st century digital films, an aesthetic that intensifies further when a car chase ensues, adding an element of speed to the mix.
The geography of this set-piece is more difficult to map out than with some of the other scenes I talk about, but in this case, that’s okay because the purpose is different. In an essay on Transformers: The Last Knight (2017), Richard Brody calls Bay a filmmaker whose “highest inspirations are those of a virtually experimental filmmaker of pure sensation,” a principle that applies to this scene. Though Bay cannot be said to completely renounce narrative or spatial sense—at points, he thrusts the camera behind gun scopes so that the viewer feels almost like she’s picked up the weapons herself and is moving through the filmic space—the dominant tenor of the scene is one of torrential hyper-stimulation, of pseudo abstract art that is less about content than the euphoria of undistilled form.
Extreme firepower is the tenuous thread linking the parts of this section together, but the next entry could not be more different than 13 Hours: whereas the effectiveness of the scene from Bay’s film depends on a certain sense of spatial disorientation, in the climactic shootout of Johnnie To’s Drug War (2013), the filmic space and the movements within it are so clearly mapped out that, even though the scene contains almost no dialogue, we can still tell exactly what’s happening, and, if we can’t at first, it is by design. Where Bay relies on expository remarks to add some marginal sense of directionality to his characters’ actions—the destruction of a gun turret is anticipated by a character yelling “Take out that technical!”—To has a much more pared down approach, developing the scene almost exclusively through the exchange of gazes and strategic gunfire.
In this scene, the film’s three sides—cops, gangsters, and Choi, the police informant who ultimately reveals himself to be aligned with neither—collide, often literally as people are run over by cars and a bottleneck is formed by the interlocking of everyone’s vehicles in a de facto traffic jam, which then becomes a thrillingly labyrinthine setting for a shootout. Using tactful shot/reverse-shot editing to show what characters are looking at and imply what they’re thinking, To communicates the dawning realization of both cops and criminals that Choi had led them into a firefight with each other as well as each party’s subsequent attempt to shoot their way out of this mess. In minimizing exposition, To creates a breathlessly paced action scene that always feels one step ahead of the viewer, a convincing portrait of professionals at work that rejects narrative spoon feeding in favor of brutally getting down to business.
An as-yet unmentioned but crucial element of the cinematic gunfight is sound: the staccato clap of rounds being discharged, the thwack of bullets striking their targets, the clatter of spent shell casings hitting the floor. 13 Hours, especially, revels in the aural tactility of hardware, attributing a distinctive timbre and rhythm of firing to each type of weapon. That said, even Bay's techno-fetishism pales next to the action soundscapes in John Wick: Chapter Three, which contains the most elaborate gun battles of the series so far. At the level of sound design, the film peaks with the climactic shootout in which Wick and a smattering of allies square off against a faceless army of Special-Forces-types wearing bulletproof armor.
Here, the aural detail of 13 Hours is matched and surpassed: as Wick's bullets glance off his attackers and he is forced to get up close and personal, jamming his firearm beneath visors and between gaps in the armor, the sharp ping of rounds ricocheting off the enemy's protective gear both accents the logistical frustration of fighting such a well-equipped opponent and helps us keep track of our hero's progress (when his bullets do find their mark, a fleshier, fuller sound results). Part way through the scene, Wick gets his hand on an armor-piercing shotgun, and the deafening crack of the twelve-gauger shredding skin, metal, and bone becomes a gristly sonic counterpoint to the metallic tinniness of earlier types of ammo, embodying and heightening the feeling of cathartic release after half a scene of our hero being unable to punch through the enemy's defenses.
In its typical usage, "punch" implies physical proximity, and, indeed, the main attraction of the John Wick series has, since day one, been its spectacular gun-fu, its treatment of the firearm as a deadly extension of the hero's limbs. Rather than simply unloading a wall of bullets in one or two directions, Wick incorporates his gun within other mixed martial arts maneuvers, often firing in the same, dexterous and flexible way that other action heroes might use a stick or a knife. The result is a deeply engaged combat style that merges gunfire with hand-to-hand fighting, one that Reeves, in performing his own stunts, imbues with a thrilling sense of physicality.
Given how effective he's been as contemporary cinema's premier gun-fu icon, it's ironic that, in what might be the series' best set piece to date, he is upstaged, and not just by a human character. In this scene from Chapter 3, Wick finds himself swarmed by armed hostiles in nighttime Casablanca, but it is his grudging partner Sofia (Halle Berry) and her two attack dogs (played by ten different, incredibly well-trained dogs in real life) that the camera spends the most time with. Captured using steady, sweeping long takes, the scene observes as the vicious canines barrel in from out of frame, toppling over enemy combatants that Sofia then finishes off with well-placed bullets. Henchmen stream in one after another and often multiple at a time, providing occasion for the showcase of various combat modes ranging from mid-range shooting to close-quarters knife fighting; meanwhile, the dogs hurtle to and fro across the frame like sentient cannonballs. As a feat of complex choreography and lucid cinematography, of thrillingly variegated combat marked by both human and animal athletic prowess, this shootout sees the series' trademark gun-fu taken to new heights of inventiveness and virtuosity. It's one of the best cinematic gun battles of this century, if not of all time.