Monday, August 01, 2005


I don't recall if I've ever generated a list like this before, so here's an entirely random sampling of my favorite action sequences from movies. (Now, by "action sequence", I mean a discrete scene of action, unbroken by cuts to other scenes. So the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers, which dominates the last hour of the film, wouldn't count, but the last charge of King Theoden down the Helm's Deep causeway and the arrival of Gandalf and Eomer would. OK? OK.)

In no particular order:

1. The desert chase, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

OK, I said "in no particular order", but this is just about the best damn chase sequence I've ever seen. It's outstanding. What I love most about it is the beginning: we've barely recovered from Indy and Marion escaping from the Well of Souls, and then them barely evading capture in the airplane, when Sallah comes to Indy and says, "The Ark has been loaded onto a truck." Indy doesn't miss a beat: "Truck? What truck?" (And John Williams's amazing action music here doesn't hurt a bit.)

2. Captain Thorpe against Lord Wolfingham, The Sea Hawk.
3. Robin Hood against Sir Guy of Gisbourne, The Adventures of Robin Hood.

I group these together because they're so similar: the final duels in their films, pitting Errol Flynn against the villain of the piece, with rousing music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Even though the latter scene is the hailed classic, I actually like the former a little bit more, because its setting feels larger, and the "dueling shadows on the wall" effect is done just a little bit better.

4. Arrival of the helicopters, Die Hard.

This whole film is utterly thrilling no matter how many times I watch it, really, but to this day my pulse pounds during this part of the film toward the end, when the FBI agents think they're about to get the drop on Hans Gruber's terrorists; when Hans Gruber has a doublecross of his own in store; and John McClane is trying to get the hostages off the roof before Hans detonates the charges. (You know, to this day, I cannot believe that Roger Ebert gave Die Hard a negative review. Yeesh!)

5. Riggs and Murtaugh escape from General McAllister, Lethal Weapon.

Never, ever count Martin Riggs out, as his Chinese torturer quickly learns. I love how later on, Riggs doesn't hesitate before going after Mr. Joshua on foot...and nearly catches him.

6. The Pod Race, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

This is just a brilliant sequence, start to finish (except for the "farting cow" thing, which is one of the biggest missteps of George Lucas's life). To people who claim it's too much like a video game, I say, "Yeah, so?" I mean, really: So? Here we get our first glance of what Anakin Skywalker is all about, and it's grim determination and eagerness for glory.

7. Trying to get Boo's door, Monsters Inc.

I can't believe the sheer ingenuity of this scene. The stuff the PIXAR people thought to throw into this scene staggers me, and it demonstrates the degree to which the filmmakers thought through the implications of their story. In a world of monsters where electricity is generated by harnessing the screams of children from their closet doors, where the closet doors are actually portals into the monsters' world, wouldn't there thus have to be millions of doors? Well, yes, as the film reveals. And there's so much other stuff here, too: what happens when they jump through a door whose angle in the monster world isn't the same as in the human world, for instance. The PIXAR genius isn't in the animation: it's in the fact that the animations always serve the story, and the stories are so damned good.

8. Submarine chase, The Abyss.

Bud and Lindsay in one sub, a crazed Lt. Coffee in the other, a mile underwater. This is still my favorite James Cameron movie, and this chase demonstrates why. (And the way Bud and Lindsay escape their subsequent pickle, stranded in a flooding sub away from their undersea rig, never fails to twist my guts about.)

9. The final charge of King Theoden, The Two Towers
10. The charge of the Rohirrim, The Return of the King.

Both of these sequences make me want to stand up and cheer, every time I watch them. The way Gandalf and Eomer time their charge down the steep hill to coincide with the morning sun breaking over the rise behind them, blinding the orcs, is wonderful; and in the latter scene, Peter Jackson just milks it for all he's worth, with the spear-rattling and Theoden shouting "Ride now!" and the high shot over the battlefield as the Rohirrim wash over the Orcs of Mordor like a wave.

11. The chase through NYC, The French Connection.

I haven't actually seen this film in years, but this chase, with Popeye Doyle in hot pursuit beneath the elevated trains of New York (I can't remember for the life of me which borough) is surprisingly brutal.

12. Escape from Piz Gloria, On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Well, naturally the best Bond movie would have the best action sequence from a Bond movie, wouldn't it?

13. Monstro the Whale, Pinocchio.

When I saw this as a kid, I thought for sure Pinocchio was going to buy the farm. (And in a way, he did.)

14. D-Day, Saving Private Ryan.

This doesn't really seem like a normal action sequence, being more a harrowing depiction of what went on that morning than an action sequence. But it's one of the most astonishing things I've ever seen in a film. I wish I could have liked everything that came after a little more.

15. The malfunction, Apollo 13.

You know it's coming, and when it does, it's still a surprise, almost. I love the intercutting between the astronauts and the ground crew as everyone tries to figure out what the hell is going on. This film should be required viewing, I think, for all those corporate managers all over America who are always waxing poetic about "teamwork" but never seem to know what real teamwork looks like. (And I also like that in Apollo 13, more than once it's the geeky science nerd with the slide rule who not only saves the day, but is absolutely essential in doing so. We could use a little more respect for smart people these days in our mass entertainment.)

16. The buffalo hunt, Dances With Wolves.

When I saw this in the theater (the second movie I saw with the girl who would later become The Wife, on what was no more than our fifth or sixth date), my jaw dropped and stayed there.

17. The Battle of Yavin, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

It's all one sequence, so it counts.

18. Getting ET to the ship, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.

One of the most perfect action sequences ever filmed.

19. Danny versus Johnny, The Karate Kid.

My parents almost literally dragged me to see this damn movie, which I then loved. And then I had to admit it to them. That sucked. But still, when Danny assumes that awkward-looking stance for the "crane" kick -- that's a hell of a moment. (Bill Conti wrote a nice score for that movie, by the way.)

20. Kiki rescues Tombo, Kiki's Delivery Service.

Flight is a constant motif in the work of Hayao Miyazaki, and somehow he seems to actually know what flying on a broom would be like. (They should let him animate a Quidditch game for one of the next Harry Potter movies.)

21. Anakin versus Obi Wan, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

Come on, you had to know I was going to list this one!

And the funny thing is, I could round this list out to fifty entries without too much effort.

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