There have been hundreds upon hundreds of movie shoot-outs over the years. Some of the best hardly involve much shooting at all. Sergio Leone made a cottage industry out of milking the slow build-up to the final fatal confrontation; his Dollars trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West all feature supreme examples of this particular kind of face off. These four films could easily top their own list of “Best Dramatic Showdowns,” but today I want to talk about the kind of gun battles where both sides, heroes and villains -- or villains and villains, as the case may be (see Scarface) -- blast at each other at length. I mean, really let the bullets fly. The movies have offered their fair share of this type of gunfight, as well. Here are seven of what I feel are the very best of this particular brand of shoot-'em-up. The list skews a bit toward the modern side, as might be expected, but all seven films are classics in my book.
The post-bank robbery free-for-all that is the central action set-piece of Michael Mann’s cops vs. robbers drama is certainly one of the best scenes of its type ever put on film. It’s a furious firestorm between Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore on the side of the crooks, and Al Pacino, Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, Ted Levine and company on the side of the law.
I saw this film in the theater when it first came out and I can still remember how much of an all-out physical assault on the audience this scene was. It’s expertly staged, throwing us right into the middle of the chaotic firefight, yet still keeping every character’s movements clear.
Key Largo (1948)
The finale of John Huston’s suspenseful crime drama doesn’t boast the rampant firepower and carnage of Heat, but in its own way, it's even more dramatic. We’ve spent the whole movie watching Edward G. Robinson's brash, boorish gangster Johnny Rocco and his cronies bully around a bunch of hostages holed up in a Key West hotel, waiting out a hurricane. Finally we get to see WWII vet Humphrey Bogart pay them all back, in spades. Thinking he’s got Bogie pegged as a sap and coward, Rocco and his boys force him to pilot the boat taking them to Cuba. Instead, Bogie patiently waits for the perfect moment to strike, taking them out one by one.
It's one of the most satisfying endings to a Huston film in his long and storied career. Dirty rat Rocco knows he's in a tight spot, and it's fun to watch the bullying creep squirm, as he tries to bribe, plead, bluster and bluff his way out. But this time, there's no luck for Rocco.
The Getaway (1972)
It seems as if every year I am becoming more and more of a Sam Peckinpah fan. I can’t think of any film of his I dislike, and many of them I find compelling. He was a master at depicting action onscreen. His use of slow-motion is really effective, and is seen to good effect at the rousing final shoot-out at the end of The Getaway.
Doc McCoy (Steve McQueen) and wife Carol (Ali McGraw) are on the lam after a bank robbery gone wrong. Hiding out in a seedy hotel with a big duffel bag of stolen cash, they find themselves under siege, both from local mobsters as well as a former partner out for revenge (Al Letteri). McQueen once again demonstrates his unflappable cool, wielding a shotgun with devastating effect.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
I couldn’t leave out the infamous bloodbath that caps the end of Peckinpah’s most well-known film. The Wild Bunch is a wonderful south-of-the-border western, expertly blending world-weary character study with stylish yet realistically violent action scenes. The entire film is excellent, but the ending is an amazing, visceral experience, as outlaws William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates decide to go out in one last blaze of glory, in a suicidal gambit to rescue their compadre Angel (Jaime Sanchez) from being tortured to death by the malevolent revolutionary Mapache. The Bunch’s last march through the dusty town to their final, fateful encounter is the stuff of movie legend.
The Matrix (1999)
Few films since have matched the buzz I got upon first watching the Wachowski Bros. masterpiece of dysptopian sci-fi, philosophical mind-trip and Asian-influenced high-octane action. The imagination behind the film’s many memorable set-pieces make it still stand out from the many, many imitators that followed in its wake.
One of these eye-popping action scenes is the gleefully balletic Uzi assault Neo (Keanu Reeves, for once in his life, perfectly cast) and Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) make upon a slew of guards as they attempt a desperate rescue of freedom fighter Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) from the nefarious clutches of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). Featuring the best use of slow-mo since the heyday of Peckinpah, this deliriously fun gunfight ranks up there with the best. I’ve since heard rumors of two terrible sequels being made, but luckily such a desecration never came to pass -- at least in my world.
Open Range (2003)
Showing that they still can make 'em like they used to, Kevin Costner directed and starred in this beautifully-made, old-fashioned western, which climaxes with perhaps the best “high noon” showdown I’ve ever seen, in a genre that specializes in them. Costner and pardner Robert Duvall (once again, authenticity personified) take on a dastardly cattle baron (Michael Gambon) and his men in a running battle that lasts a good 15 to 20 minutes and manages to be realistic, thrilling and surprising in equal measure.
More westerns, please, Mr. Costner!
Top-of-the-line gunfight porn from Hong Kong action maestro John Woo. Hard-Boiled features not one, not two, but THREE outstanding and epic-length gun battles, and has to go directly to the top of any list of this type. The opening tea house shootout is fantastic, but I’d have to nominate the extended, nearly 30 minute frenzy of gunplay that closes out the film as the standout. Literally thousands of bullets fly in the final all- out war between oh-so “hard-boiled” maverick cop Tequila (Chow Yun Fat) and conflicted undercover officer Tony Leung and what has to be nearly a hundred bad guys out to blow up a crowded Hong Kong hospital. Woo finds 101 clever and creative ways to stage the full-scale “gun-fu” action, and the endlessly courageous H.K. stunt crew pulls off all kinds of eye-popping, crazy stunts, the likes of which you’d never, ever see in a Hollywood movie.
Did I leave out one of your favorites? Let me know in the comments.
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