Guns-A-Blazin': Our Favorite Shootout Sequences
With the release of Ben Wheatley's new film Free Fire this weekend, the TFS Staff decided to get together and write on their favorite action scenes that come loaded with weapons and ammunition galore. Check out our picks below, and be sure to sound off in the comments if there's any of your favorites that didn't make the cut.
The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix, released in 1999, is a veritable cornucopia of classic action set-pieces, but few are as intense and literally “off the wall” as the lobby shootout. A burst of energy in a film that's packed with it, Neo and Trinity’s assault on Agent Smith’s security force is groundbreaking in its techniques as well as its thrills. Taking a page from John Woo’s Infinite Ammo Playbook, The Wachowski’s pull out all the stops here as the bullets fly almost as much as the actors. Using a combination of wire-fighting, slow-motion, and practical effects, the lobby shootout has been copied numerous times since, but nothing has even come close to reaching the heights of destruction and entertainment on display.
Starting as a last ditch effort to rescue Morpheus, the leader of their rebellious group, the sequence is shot in style by longtime Sam Raimi collaborator Bill Pope. He's able to bring the Wachowski's vision to the screen with a clarity that would've been lost under a different creative team. Fight choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen, whom the directors fought to secure for their picture, sets up the scene in a way that's fantastical but also believable - sure Neo & Trinity mow down countless SWAT members but the action is sleek and stylish in a way that you really only see in a Wachowski film. Add in a great soundtrack, and editing, and you have an action scene that rivals the best of that decade.
- Matt Curione
Hard Boiled (1992)
This is a cheat really, but also a very hard thing to narrow down just one set piece to elaborate on considering the entire film is stuffed with legendary shootouts that will make you scream hyperboles ad nauseam. Both Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung are legends of the silver screen with a filmography that would shut up the strongest doubters. In the supercop action masterwork Hard Boiled there is a moment during the hospital fight where they are side by side fighting off ruthless gangsters in a shootout that lasts well over 2 minutes and it is all in a single take! Round after round the villains are riddled and shredded with bullets with shrapnel flying off the wall, causing baddies to crash through windows and drop at our heroes feet. The Steadicam work pulls us into the fray making the fight intimate and of course rather intense even when it gets romantic with the gunplay. By that I mean it has style for days and enough creativity to influence a thousand films. Slo-mo is used to sell the buddy cop situation as well as highlight an accidental death of an officer to perfect effect. Another bit worth noting is the use of the elevator in the scene. We follow the actors inside of one allowing them to collect themselves and reload but once the doors of the elevator open all hell breaks loose yet again. The staging is unparalleled and it bears repeating that this is all in one single take. A timeless sequence that will never fail to impress, it is always good to go back and watch Hard Boiled to see how stylized action is supposed to be done.
- Rockie Juarez
The Wild Bunch (1969)
It's easy to recognize a Sam Peckinpah film from their gritty approach, but it wasn't until The Wild Bunch where his own aesthetic had reached its peak. This vigilante western opens and closes with a shootout, and these are some of the very best sequences that have ever been put on film. Peckinpah's films have always carried life through their violence, but if we were to look at the way the film opens with a scorpion being covered with fire ants, it foreshadows an act of violence. Amidst the quick edits and all the bloodshed, what we get here is more than one of the most exquisitely filmed shootouts of all time, but in some way a mirror, reflecting upon a generation passing by, soon to be lost. But Peckinpah isn't simply filming and presenting an action sequence, instead what he is giving us is a meditation about what violence has done to the human condition. Peckinpah's relentless nihilism remains a staple in all of American cinema, bringing us a wonderful deconstruction of the American western.
- Jaime Rebanal
Michael Mann's crime thriller contains one of the most impressive heist sequences on film, as criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his team walk into a Los Angeles bank in broad daylight and make off with a sizeable bounty. This scene is then followed by one of the most impressive shootouts on film, as an LAPD squad led by Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) track them down and before long, an epic firefight with deafening noise becomes the prime focus for the next six minutes. The entire section is full of the visceral realism that Mann is known for, not just in its construction but how much work went into filming the scene itself - the entire cast went through three months of firearm training and nearly a thousand rounds were fired over the course of filming it. The scene itself has become a source of inspiration for countless other films in the same genre, even video games like a pivotal mission in Grand Theft Auto IV.
- Rob Trench
The best action – much like the best horror – uses its pivotal climactic moments as a release valve for steadily built up tension. Without that tension, jump scares become cheap startles and shootouts become mind-numbing repetition. So, it helps that by the time Denis Villeneuve reaches the first act climax of his drug war thriller Sicario, he has not only hinted at the danger to come, he has point-blank told us that, one, there will very likely be a shootout and, two, it will most likely happen on the border bridge on the return leg of our journey. There are really only two outcomes: there is or there isn’t a shootout.
So, when Villeneuve does reach the bridge scene, we have an act’s worth of pent up anticipation carrying us to the percussive pop of gunfire. However, Villeneuve’s meticulous pacing doesn’t stop there. With each exchange of fire, a volley of semi-automatic shots, we get a short mounting of tension post-release before recycling the structure again. This happens twice before he turns the action against our protagonist – Kate Mercer, played masterfully by Emily Blunt. In this moment, the pattern isn’t so much upset as it is personalized. And Mercer’s narrow escape and subsequent elimination of the threat is a brilliant way to kick the stakes up one notch for the climax of this triplet of violence.
The last component of the scene that helps Villeneuve create such an effective release of tension is how director of photography Roger Deakins shoots the scene. Though he punches out to wide shots to open and close the scene – just as the characters exit the car as the rules of engagement are established and at the end as the characters drive off into the background – the rest of the scene almost exclusively consists of extreme close ups, close ups, or mediums. Confined to the interior of the cramped, black SUV, Deakins creates a sense of claustrophobia. This is only reinforced when we see the bridge is clotted with traffic. The moments of release punch out to wide shots to survey the carnage and let the explosive climaxes breathe.
- Aaron Hendrix
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) have holed up in Bolivia on the run from the frontier justice that was hounding after them back in the United States. They’ve successfully evaded capture by virtue of there being no extradition in Bolivia. But old habits die hard, and they eventually rob another bank to make ends meet. That gets the attention of the local police force, who set up an ambush on the duo in a town’s courtyard. A stray shot misses both of them but takes out a bottle on their table, setting the entire final gun battle into motion.
George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid sets up several great setpieces of action and tension, and balances them all with strong character beats and moments of humanity amongst the gunplay and explosions. The final scene, in which Conrad Hall’s camera shows masterful knowledge of the courtyard’s geography while never shying away from watching the bullets fly, is hands down one of the best pieces of action filmmaking ever produced. Between Hall’s eye for angles and action, and Hill’s attention to character detail and direction of the action in the frame, you never once feel disoriented by the events, despite how much is really going on at the same time.
Hall’s camera manages to make the courtyard feel as tight as any “kill box” situation would to those inside of it—the walls feeling closer and closer together as Butch and the Kid come to realize (but never admit) what kind of straits their really in. Hill’s direction in the final shots simultaneously up the stakes to insurmountable, dash in a glimmer of hope and downbeat optimism in our leads, and sends both icons on screen and the audience watching on our respective ways, in the only way it could’ve come to pass.
- Sean Beattie
John Wick (2014)
John Wick is a man of pure will. Well, that’s what the film sells us on anyway. Thankfully the filmmakers and Keanu back this statement with several practically realized action sequences that walk the walk. In the center if the film lies a club fight that has some of the best gunplay committed to the silver screen. Not only does it look amazing but it backs the hype behind the mysterious John Wick character. Wick has a very simple idea in his head: kill the man who stole his car and killed his dog, even if this man the well protected son of the worst gangster in town. Tracking his target to a nightclub, Wick enters the establishment called the The Red Circle (an obvious nod to Le Cercle Rouge) with stealth at first, then it’s an all out bloodbath once he’s discovered. Every bullet fired from Keanu is a killshot or just barely misses it’s deadly intent. Headshots for days, every security guard that works at the club that crosses Wick’s path loses their mind quite literally. No slo-mo, no rapid cutting, just fluid well realized gunplay that makes one wonder: should Keanu lose his mind in real life, how many would die in the process? It’s kind of scary to behold because all the combat looks and feels like the correct way to remove somebody from their mortal coil. In the Top 5 of recent gun battles of the last decade for sure.
- Rockie Juarez
Breaking News (2004)
Johnnie To has been referred to as the Jerry Bruckheimer of Hong Kong, but if you look at what’s on screen he’s more akin to Michael Mann if we’re playing the “so and so’s the so and so of so and so” game. To’s made every kind of movie, but he knows action, and it’s his Melville-inspired pistoleros that are dutifully squeezing the triggers in his geometrically staged actioners. In the opening gun battle of Breaking News, To evokes his cinematic forebears paying homage to Mann, Melville, and Welles by surpassing the introduction of Touch of Evil by gliding into streets and buildings as well as staging a massive shootout to boot. Is it the weightless camera that gives the movie such an engrossing jumpstart, or the deafening roar of gunfire? I’m inclined to the later, but a case can be made for both. Johnnie To’s eye and ear for elaborate action has diversified his own array of Triad/Action films, while The Mission, Exile, Vengeance, Three, and Drug War showcase intricate gunplay his gangster duology Election 1 & 2 explore the mechanics of Triad politics with minimal discharging of bullets, opting for crisp, visceral, realistic violence. However, Johnnie To’s decidedly sleek modern style is more complimentary to shootouts and gunfights, and Breaking News has more than its fair share of raining bullets.
- Alex Miller
Smokin' Aces (2007)
Joe Carnahan's fast flying highly stylized shoot-em-up Smokin' Aces isn't a perfect movie (the convoluted plot that takes one too many viewings to wrap your head around is its biggest detriment), but what it gets right it absolutely nails. Case in point: the harrowing elevator scene where all threads converge. Georgia (Alicia Keyes) has just come upon the aftermath of a bloody standoff in an elevator between an FBI Officer and a dangerous criminal (neither of which we are assured to be dead). The elevator goes up and opens with police guns trained at the entrance. Georgia peeks around the corner to shine a laser pointer at the window, signaling Sharice (Taraji P. Henson) to let loose her massive sniper rifle, tossing a full grown man across the room as if he were shot out of the gun himself. The bullets fly, the sniper ripping the room to shreds and the officers blindly spraying out the window in desperation. Georgia attempts to take advantage of the diversion only to catch a bullet from one of the assumedly deceased in the elevator. Things calm down as Georgia presses the buttons to close the elevator. Sharice sees the body of a civilian who was caught in the crossfire and assumes its Georgia. She lets out a crying furious scream and fires bullet after bullet into the already destroyed room. It's a devastating end to an exciting scene.
- Marcus Irving
The Way of the Gun (2000)
90% of the characters in this film are bad people. Mainly out for themselves and a big payday no matter who they screw over to get it. It can only end badly for these shady crooks and gunmen so of course things come to a head during the films rowdy climax. In the finale of The Way of the Gun, attention to detail matters. Throwing style out the window, here is a shootout that chooses to be grounded in reality where reloading ammo and audio make all the difference. By ammo and reloading, I mean every single damn round fired is accounted for no matter what kind of weapon they are firing. Characters are seen reloading the very moment a clip is spent making you appreciate the attention to detail plus it makes you wonder why more films don't learn from it. I can only imagine how difficult it was to pull off on the day and in the editing booth so hats off to all involved. Sound is important in the shootout because all weaponry sounds authentic and something as simple as the sound of a shooters voice can give away positions. All of these details add up to something quite major and to end a film on this note validates Director Chris McQuarrie deserving to attack adventure cinema in all of its various forms. Film nuts take note: this final shootout takes place in the same location as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid's ending. Trust me when I say that sacred ground was not desecrated.
- Rockie Juarez
Shoot 'Em Up (2007)
We should be talking about Shoot ‘Em Up more. The film is hyper violent, yet incredibly fun, with action set pieces so inventive that you’re surprised to find out that the film’s director Michael Davis has yet to direct another film since. Sure, the film bombed at the box office, but there’s enough creativity strewn from a decent budget on screen that you’d think Davis would’ve come back by now to direct a Marvel movie or something. Also, the fact that this didn’t help catapult Clive Owen superstardom is another mystery. Owen stars as Mr. Smith, a man with a mysterious past whose very talented with guns. Actually, the film is built off the premise that Smith can kill multitudes of bad guys at a ridiculously effective rate. He finds himself protecting an infant from a band of hitmen lead by Paul Giamatti, and from the opening minutes to the final frame, he takes down each and everyone of them using a countless amount of clips, rounds, and shells. Take a shootout in that takes place in a warehouse, for example—Smith puts bullets into cronies, making a small pile of corpses, then runs behind a filing cabinet, shoots the top drawer which pops open to knock out another bad guy, adding to the pile. The shootout ends with Smith bungeeing down a winding staircase, putting rounds in henchmen running up those same stairs. Imagine moments like that sprinkled through the film’s 87-minute runtime—again, we should be talking about this movie a lot more.