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A Top 10 Listing Feature
Climactic Mayhem & Urban Carnage:
Top 10 Movie Shoot-outs
by Christopher Geary


Here's a comprehensive if not definitive listing with a bias in favour of memorability, a variety of locations, and outstanding examples of screen violence with a sustained intensity. This list is not limited to familiar action movies. The deliberate focus is also on quality dramas enlivened by one particular sequence of gunplay. War movies are excluded because, well... that's like cheating. I have omitted massacres like the slaughter of police in The Terminator (1984), and chose to avoid too many macho exercises with a one-man-army approach to dealing with bad guys - a movie career formula promoted heavily by Sylvester Stallone (from Cobra to Bullet To The Head), and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Commando to The Last Stand). Since any individual rankings proved elusive, and unsatisfactory, I have settled for a chronological order.
Stallone in Bullet To The Head

The Wild Bunch (1969)

When considering the filmed versions of that historic gunfight at the O.K. corral, it becomes clear that a western had to be included on this list, so this fits the bill - while also being one of the greatest westerns ever made. A new era of gratuitous bloodshed arrived with Sam Peckinpah's masterpiece. Sadism and gallows humour are practiced by bank robbers and bounty hunters alike. The outlaws led by Pike (William Holden) have no freedom, while mercenaries led by Deke (Robert Ryan) are exploited by their corrupt boss at the railroad company. Everybody is expendable in the epic showdown with ultra-splattery special effects, where killing just one Mexican is never enough for our vengeful antiheroes. "Damn gringos!" The Wild Bunch is so ingrained in popular culture that British rock star Ian Hunter joked about it in a song on his album, When I'm President.

William Holden in The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch

Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)

Inspired by Howard Hawks' western Rio Bravo (1959), this stylised siege thriller by John Carpenter is a classic of its type. Although it is very much a shoot 'em up movie rather than a straightforward shoot-out, the countless incoming shots from unseen snipers is extraordinarily memorable. This element of overkill in the random hail of bullets that shatter window panes, splinters woodwork, and punches holes in the walls, remains a terrifying act of terrorism - even by today's graphic standards. Carpenter constructs the scary movie with such panache that its artistic licence about gunfights becomes a black comedy, so the attacks are just as bewilderingly funny as they are frightening. I always liked the bit where one last gunshot - ending the longest salvo - hits a stack of files and its final impact flings sheets of paper into the air. It's a witty visualisation of derisive comment on what an anarchist attacker might think about police writing-up crime reports.

Laurie Zimmer in Assault On Precinct 13

Austin Stoker in Assault On Precinct 13

The Untouchables (1987)

Brian De Palma's masterwork of cops 'n' robbers drama in Chicago ends with virtuoso deployment of exquisite slow-motion for its unforgettable train station climax. This is a brilliant sequence of tightly controlled suspense that unexpectedly pays a distinctive tribute to the famous 'Odessa steps' montage from silent classic Battleship Potemkin (1925). Time becomes elastic, wringing every last bloody drop of heart-stopping chills and crime-drama thrills from an inadvertent potential tragedy (a runaway pram), and the heroic detectives' dogged pursuit of justice against violent sociopath Al Capone. It updates the popular TV series (1959-63) with all the modern cinematic polish that De Palma can muster, while the star cast of Kevin Costner (as Eliot Ness), Sean Connery, and Robert De Niro (as Capone) ensure that central roles are uniformly magnificent.

The Untouchables

Andy Garcia in The Untouchables

The Killer (1989)

As the first undisputed champion of Asian cinema's heroic bloodshed cycle, superstar actor Chow Yun-fat deserves a couple of places on this listing. The bold climax of this movie boasts a superbly choreographed shoot-out in a church besieged by every triad baddie who ever carried a handgun and the film's producers hired probably every last stuntman in Hong Kong for its overblown but undeniably exhilarating finale. Graphic violence becomes artistic statement in this enormously influential picture. Teamed up with a cop (Danny Lee) who's chased him down, Chow's tragic hero faces a grisly fate. The ending of melodramatic melancholy follows 10 minutes of gleeful gunplay in pure comicbook mode. Director John Woo also did for gangster movies what Sergio Leone did for westerns, and what Dario Argento did for slashers.

The Killer

Chow Yun-fat in The Killer

Hard Boiled (1992)

Woo's directorial signature of balletic styling is weaponised for this movie's hospital sequence - partly filmed, quite gloriously, in a single take. It's a hostage crisis, with a bunch of crooks acting like terrorists endangering not only medical staff and patients but a maternity ward of newborns, too. Muzzle flashes make for a dazzling light-show of their own throughout corridors and clinical rooms, while the action is so hectically paced that one of the heroes (Tony Leung) accidentally kills a plain-clothes detective. Woo reprised a couple of this movie's trademark stunts in his American productions, Hard Target (1993), and Face/ Off (1997), but explosive pistol opera in Hard Boiled remains startlingly original.

Hard Boiled

hospital corridor in Hard Boiled

The Matrix (1992)

Whether you much prefer a theological, cosmological, or (my favourite) an economic interpretation of this movie's cultural/ philosophical merits, and whatever you think of the over-analysed movie's respective metaphorical conceits, there is no doubt that the Wachowskis' crafted a hugely imaginative actioner. Outlandishly choreographed, the 'hotel lobby' sequence - with its 'bullet time' digital visual effects is, arguably, the uber-cool highpoint of this trend-setting sci-fi spectacular. Starting from a revolving door, progressing through cartwheel athleticism, crumbling impact-eroded concrete, and an exploding lift-shaft in mimicry of a cannon blast, there is jaw-dropping kinetic appeal - concluding with a helicopter assault and a daring rescue, before the damaged gunship wows us even further by crashing into an office tower block. Kurt Wimmer's futuristic Equilibrium (2002), and later absurdly comic-bookish Ultraviolet (2006), both owe a great deal to The Matrix trilogy.

lobby shootout in The Matrix

The Matrix helicopter

Leon (aka: Leon: The Professional, 1994)

Having demonstrated a capability for emotionally-charged action thrills, with Nikita (1990), French director Luc Besson capitalised on that success in Leon, the stunning vehicle for Jean Reno's unique blending of implacably murderous terrorism in sharp contrast with charismatic sentimentality as the tragic loner whose skills as a 'cleaner' are strikingly preternatural. It also launched the career of Natalie Portman, 12-going-on-20 here as the orphan heroine. Slick urban mayhem reaches its peak when SWAT cops raid the rented flat where our antihero has made his lair. Indeed, weaponry and commando tactics rapidly escalate into shameless militarism until the hitman tries to escape wearing a gas mask during the smoke-bomb chaos following a destructive RPG blast. Starring Forest Whitaker, Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999) was a fine variation along similar lines.

Jean Reno in Leon

Natalie Portman in Leon

Heat (1995)

As it's a remake of the director's own TV movie, L.A. Takedown (1989), this cannot honestly claim originality, but it's a sophisticated upgrade for the big screen version with electrifying scenes that re-mix heist thriller clichés and character studies of a cop and a criminal. Despite being warned off "taking down scores" the crew (led by Robert De Niro) rob a downtown bank where the epitome of cool slick professionalism turns into something brutal and scary. Armed conflict erupts with all the chaos of an urban war zone and the running fire-fight against robbery-homicide cops (led by Al Pacino) has a chase aspect. The action is framed by handheld cameras and panoramic shots and, for a good few minutes the noise of gunfire on the streets is constant. It echoes off nearby buildings as boxed-in sound that creates a hellish sense of being trapped, with a claustrophobic feeling in open spaces. Thieves attempting to flee the scene of their crime must first break through a police cordon as cop cars block the main road. Director Michael Mann bought a similarly galvanising realism to a shootout finale in a big screen remake of Miami Vice (2006), but Heat remains his finest work in terms of guns-blazing action.

Al Pacino in Heat

Robert De Niro in Heat

Last Man Standing (1996)

Walter Hill's vague remake of samurai classic Yojimbo (1961) - previously re-styled as A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) for Clint Eastwood, makes the most of having Bruce Willis as the lone gunslinger - a 'man with no name' (except for John Smith!), pitting Texan bootleg mobsters against each other. When the hero was "born without a conscience" there is not much hick township morality found in this thriller of super-fine pedigree. Although I still think the Coen brothers' gangsterama Miller's Crossing (1990) is a superior movie drama of Prohibition era criminality, Last Man Standing is distinguished by its excellent gunfights. And it simply had to be included on this list - partly to get a Hill movie into the mix but also because of its title: a phrase perfectly relevant for any listing about shoot-outs.

Bruce Willis in Last Man Standing

Christopher Walken in Last Man Standing

The International (2009)

A gun battle in the Guggenheim Museum rotunda is not the finale of this fascinating drama, but it is the climactic action. Pretty fierce and quite bloody it is, too. The first shots fly through a cop's neck, so he's downed with a spurting artery. The hero (Clive Owen) gets his ear clipped by a bullet. An assassin joins in when it's obvious the hero is outnumbered. One of the killers topples from a ramp around the open gallery, and his limp body hits another wall on the way down. It's a stunt fall (possibly with CGI?) shot in one take. A broken skylight rains glass and video displays shatter, while art is carelessly ruined by the malice of philistine bankers. "I'm calling from the dark side," announces a bystander's phone, blurting out words to distract a nameless gunman. It sounds like a wry comment upon all of this sudden death and senseless destruction.

Clive Owen in The International

killers in The International

For a final cinematic image about gun violence, here's De Niro as crazy Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976).
Travis in Taxi Driver



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