Bang! Bang! For years now, movie makers have been thrilling audiences with blazes of bullets. Some shootouts are better than others. These are the best.
These particular ones were selected on the basis of their technical bravado as well as their impact on other movies—and even video games. The following movies are listed chronologically and not in order of importance.
(Note: This article was originally published on 1/31/2015.)
Be aware that these are the best shootouts, and not pistol duels. Mexican standoffs would also fall under duels, and the difference between shootouts and duels is that tension is built up with the characters pointing weapons at each other, and the actual shooting is ultimately a release. Conversely, for shootouts, the tension comes from the act of shooting. This explains the lack of iconic Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino scenes, which will probably be revisited in another Best list.
Hailed as a failure upon release, The Lady from Shanghai has since grown in stature. Much of the esteem given to the film is in due to its now-famous hall of mirrors shootout. Director Orson Welles put a visually stunning and surreal spin on what could have been another trite movie shootout among scorned lovers.
A reflection of a turbulent era, late-1960s Hollywood movies depicted violence like never before. If the bloody climax of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde showed what was possible, 1969’s The Wild Bunch showed how it was possible. It provided a nuts-and-bolts blueprint for how to film shootouts that continues to influence modern filmmakers, with an emphasis on an array of complex camera setups, varying film speeds, and contrasting scenes of brutality. The Wild Bunch didn’t glorify violence, but artfully showed how horrible it can be.
To get past censors, traditional Hollywood shootouts showed a gun firing and then cut away to the impact shot. During the 1960s, Sergio Leone made his movies even more brutal by showing guns firing and bullets hitting characters in the same frame. A decade later, Taxi Driver was also able to use this same technique to great effect. The result wasn’t just a shootout. It was a depiction of hell.
Terminator set the stage for the 1980s in more ways than one. The movie made an action star of Arnold Schwarzenegger and a major movie director of James Cameron. Several subsequent 80s action movies turned Schwarzenegger into an unrealistic superhero, but few of them were able to capture the grit and the intelligence of Terminator.
Brian De Palma has made a career of smartly remixing famous scenes—and movies. Sometimes, it works. Other times, it does not. The Untouchables reimagines Battleship Potemkin’s Odessa Steps sequence into a shootout that, if you’re into old movies, actually makes the scene more interesting. Yet the sequence also stands on its own, and the homage doesn’t feel gratuitous.
Like Sam Peckinpah before him, John Woo is a master at putting together intricately edited shootouts. Also like Peckinpah, Woo uses those scenes to explore more than cinematic thrills. While Peckinpah would often juxtaposed violence with innocence, Woo is more interested at playing it off of religion. For the first time in The Killer, Woo, a Christian, used his now signature doves as a contrast to the violence on screen. Other shootouts like the ones in A Better Tomorrow 2 or Hard Boiled might have more bravado, but they don’t have more meaning.
Europe was never known for action movies. That is, until La Femme Nikita. While director Luc Besson has directed more complex shootouts, the simplicity and the psychological tension that underpins this one from La Femme Nikita make it one of cinema’s best. Plus, the analog “bullet-cam” shot would be copied by numerous filmmakers and video games in the years that followed.
Not only is the scene impressively executed, it was filmed in the middle of downtown L.A.. This shootout continues to influence movie after movie, video game after video game.
The Matrix ushered in a new era of Hollywood action scenes with super slow-mo, rotating cameras, wire-work, and CGI. But as unrealistic as those effects might seem, the lobby scene added elements of realism that most shootouts don’t have, particularly in how the environments disintegrate under a hail of bullets.
Feel free to put your favorite shootout in the comments below.
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