Viscerally Speaking: 10 Modern Action Scenes That Shook My Reality

Children of Men
With Wanted ripping up the box office and polarizing action fans, I decided to take a look at some recent action sequences that have really had me on the edge of my seat. Personally, I wasn’t very impressed by Timur Bekmambetov’s over-the-top approach, but I may be in the minority. His use of bullet time, slow motion, fast motion, p.o.v. and CG has inspired some while inciting some major eye rolling from others. Personally, it’s not the CG that bothers me, but rather the stale approach. Just have a look at the following list for examples of complex, CG-heavy set pieces with some serious weight behind them. Better yet, we’ll also look at the simple approach in creating the ultimate visceral action experience.

Before we begin, there’s one major stipulation to this list: I’m only looking at films from the year 2000 on. I’ve also decided against including films that I have not yet seen or have not yet been made. I’ll be saving those for my ’10 Films Which Haven’t Been Made Yet That, Based on Leaked Set Photos and Concept Art, May Include Action Sequences That Will Shake My Reality’ list. It’s interesting to note that of the ten choices, there are only 7 directors. That’s right, three directors have two films on this list. Eat that! I’m sure there’s a shitload of notable films I’ll be leaving off of here, so feel free to share some examples or contend my choices in the comments section.

10. Spider-Man 2 – Train Sequence

Spider-Man 2

Spider-Man 2 is probably my favourite super-hero film of all time. I find it utterly rewatchable. This is mainly due to it’s precise tonal balancing act, teetering back and forth between a perfect mix of fantasy and drama. I think it’s safe to say I’m not alone on this one. I was excited to see the re-teaming of Raimi and cinematographer Bill Pope (Army of Darkness, Darkman), and thrilled that the re-union seemed to have put Sam in a nostalgic state of mind. I know some Spider-Man purists may have found Raimi’s Doc Ock ‘hospital sequence’ a little too self-refrential, but I thought it was a great return to form and a reminder of how much I’ve missed the old Sam. Having said that, as much as I loved that scene, it’s NOT the number 10 on this list. As far as CG heavy action sequences go, I’d have to say Spider-Man 2′s subway sequence is the best of the entire trilogy.

I love the use of space around the fast-moving elevated cars as a platform for Raimi to exploit the powers of Spidey and Doc Ock. It’s almost dizzying watching the two battle it out standing upright on the side of the car, flipping the axis of the scene and thus adding an whole new dimension. I especially love Doc Ock slamming Spider-Man through the car windows.

The problem when you get two somewhat balanced super-power’s fighting it out is the lack of a threat. Things can get boring pretty quickly. Thankfully, a subway car full of innocent bystander’s provides some good collateral damage. Spidey spends most of his time catching flying bodies in giant make-shift web-based safety nets, all the while holding Doc Ock at bay. Pretty intense. Not to mention his final self-sacrificial human-train-brake stunt. All in all a good time and a creative use of CG.

9. King Kong – Dino-Chase

King Kong

Although I wasn’t a HUGE fan of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, I must admit his Spielberg-ian ‘dino-chase’ set piece was pretty intense. (If this was a top 20, Jurassic Park: Lost World would’ve made my list.) I just love how ridiculously out of control things get when the Bronto’s clumsily stumble over eachother. Sure the compositing may have been a little sketchy, but the image itself was pretty stunning.

Then we’re stuck in a narrow cavernous pit as T-Rex’s hang from vines, just out of reach of Ann Darrow. This scene had me smiling simply due to the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ nature of it all. The second things seem to be looking up, the situation just gets worse and worse. I specifically remember the audience in the theatre responding strongly to Jackson’s disgusting, giant insects. Definitely one of the creepier uses of computer generated creatures.

8. United 93 – Storming the Cockpit

United 93

I suppose it’s debatable whether or not this sequence belongs on an ‘action’ list (possibly even a bit disrespectful?), but there’s no deying that the final 15 minutes of Paul Greengrass’ ‘United 93′ (My number 1 film of 2006) was one of this decades most intense, visceral, and overall stressful moments in cinema. An impressive feat considering we all know how it was going to end.

People are pretty down on the ‘shakey cam’ action, but I think it’s a tool that, when used appropriately, can be quite powerful. This particular scene benefitted greatly from the verite approach. The sloppiness of this scene is one of the more positively frustrating things I’ve seen on film. Watching this group of people attempt to breach the cockpit as the entire plane is banked left and right is almost unbearable. I still can’t believe the level of immersion Greengrass achieved with this scene. One notable element is the music, which relies on a slow aching build rather than a typically percussion-heavy approach. How people can write this film off as ‘boring’ blows my mind.

7. Oldboy – Hallway Fight

Old Boy

Speaking of sloppy fights, I was especially surprised to see such an ungracious action sequence in an Asian film. (Is that racist?) I think the hallway fight scene in Oldboy was the most memorable moment for me. (Even beating out the live Octupus!) I love the complete aversion to cutting and shakiness, instead relying on a simple dolly movement to allow you to completely analyze the action. Also, the side-scrolling video game imagery is pretty cool. I just love the desperation of the scene.

6. Eastern Promises – Naked Knife Fight

Eastern Promises

The approach is simple and effective. A knife fight in a bath house. The catch? A naked Viggo Mortensen. The power of this scene is in its simplicity, relying on pure hand to hand combat with a twist. Putting the ‘hero’ in such a vulnerable setting triples the threat and helps the audience sense every swing of the knife blade, wincing twice has hard every time the blade makes contact. Not only is it physically intimidating, but the idea of 1. wrestling with a naked man covered in blood, and 2. defending yourself form a knife wielding Russian in the nude, are equally unimaginable and disgusting. It works from both points of view. To top it off, Cronenberg manages to find some wonderfully brutal ways to put an end to the whole sha-bang. A great scene.

5. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring – Troll Fight

Lord of the Rings

Although Jackson’s giant battle sequences didn’t do much for me, I do remember really reacting to the Troll Fight in the first film. In fact, it may be the only part of the trilogy I really remember. I think what made this scene work for me was the choice to drop the score. The sound design sells the entire scene. Looking back on it now the CG effects do feel a touch dated, but the man-in-suit Goblins are still pretty creepy. I don’t think the remaining films of the trilogy ever captured such a viscerally compelling action sequence. I love the shaft of light in the middle of the room.

4. Bourne Ultimatum

Bourne Ultimatum

Rather than focusing on actual sequences, I’d like to point out two specific moments in The Bourne Ultimatum that sent shivers up my spine. The first; Matt Damon jumping from one building through the window of an opposite building. A pretty standard move that is made thrilling by the camera weilding stuntman that follows right behind him! What a great shot. This is what I mean when I talk about wanting to feel as though the camera man is right there, face first in the shit. The fact that they did it practically makes it all the more awesome.

Second is the ‘desperate measures’ taken by Bourne whenever he’s in a pinch. This guy will do whatever it takes, no matter how bruised and battered the resulting actions will leave him. In this case, he drives full speed in reverse off the top of a parking garage. I love the fact that it’s not pretty, and definitely not graceful. He does what he has to do and doesn’t give a fuck if it looks like ballet. GO BOURNE!

3. Kill Bill – Crazy 88′s

Kill Bill

The next two choices are both Tarantino films. Odd, considering that in the 90′s, he was simply known as the guy who can write great dialogue.

The body count goes through the roof as Uma Thurman cuts her way through the Crazy 88′s in a carefully choreographed sequence that reminds me how it can be to watch carefully choreographed action unfold under controlled, cinematic conditions. Robert Richardson’s trademark spot-lit overhead key lights add a fantastic glow to everything, and Tarantino’s knack for combining music with imagery (in this case, the 5,6,7,8′s) really shines through here. I’m excited to see the uncut version, sans black & white. I have a strange love/hate relationship with kung fu. I’m not a fan of wire work, but it seems the sloppier it is, the more I dig it. In this case, Tarantino seemed to be challenging the Shaw Brothers kung fu films of the 1970′s. There’s no concern for realism. In fact, the opposite holds true. This fight is meant to be pure cinema. Blood spraying as a representation of death rather then a realistic portrayal of it.

2. Death Proof – Car Chase

Death Proof

Although I loved the entire film, even hater’s have to admit the two major action set pieces in Tarantino’s Death Proof are amazing. The final 30 minutes of the film are essentially built as a tribute to stunt drivers and the road films of the 70′s, showcasing Zoe Bell as a new female talent in the industry. Tarantino manages to capture every possible cool angle throughout this chase, and does proudly without any CG. (Maybe some wire removal?) Everything is shot low to the ground as the road blurs by, tipping you off as to how fast they really are going. It’s a lengthy sequence that ends with a surprising twist, and a definite return to form for Kurt Russel. If only Neil Marshall’s ‘Doomsday’ took this similar approach to it’s car sequences.

1. Children of Men – The Long Take

Children of Men

Here is the perfect example of how to use CG in an action scene; invisibly.

As with the previously mentioned hallway scene in Oldboy, Alfonso Cuaron seems to be inspired by the first person immersion of video games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honour, choosing to play out his two major action sequences in long, single takes. (with hidden cuts of course) The goal, of course, is to simulate the look and feel of war journalism. Mission accomplished. The final scene of the film plays out like a Universal Studios ride. (minus the creepy mechanical E.T. saying your name as you exit) Blood splatters onto the lens, explosions shoot dust and debris everywhere, characters cross paths only to lose each other and eventually meet up again in different locations. Watching Clive Owen traverse the battle field is probably the closest I’ll get to experiencing the thrill of paint ball. Or war I suppose. Nah, paintball.

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  • http://www.thedocumentaryblog.com Jay C.

    Thanks Rob!

  • http://www.thedocumentaryblog.com Jay C.

    @ATOzTOA: I just wasn’t personally blown away by 300′s action sequences. Also, this article is looking at the more visceral approach to action. I didn’t think 300 captured that feeling at all.

    As for Indiana Jones, the action was fun, but it certainly didn’t shake my reality.

    Thanks for reading!

  • Jack

    You have no idea what a good scene is. Fuck Kill Bill: Everything is stolen. Fuck Spiderman: I’ts without any creativity. Fuck Death Proof: QT has no own ideas (there are tons of movies like his only about 20 years older and normally better). Fuck Bourne and all that Hollywood bullshit. Try watching some movies that are creative the you could experience a real good scene (check out Aronofsky or Jodorowski or Jarmusch)

  • http://www.filmjunk.com Jay C.

    Jack: You had me up until the ridiculously out of context name dropping. This article is about my favourite ACTION SEQUENCES since THE YEAR 2000. Let’s have a look at your candidates:

    Aronofsky: Requiem for a Dream (2000)
    The Fountain (2006)

    Jarmusch: Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
    Broken Flowers (2005)

    Jodorowski: NOTHING.

    Maybe our definition of ‘action’ differs, but I certainly don’t recall any high adrenaline action in Coffee and Cigarettes, nor Broken Flowers. And as little action there is in The Fountain; in my opinion, it simply doesn’t top anything I’ve included on my list.

    Thanks for commenting. I guess.

  • Goon

    Jack sounds like a…. jackoff? When people spout lines like “fuck all that Hollywood bullshit”, you just know they took one film course somewhere and think they’re Ingmar Bergman all of a sudden.

  • http://henrikseehuusen.com Henrik

    Hey! Ingmar Bergman never said fuck Hollywood. He watched countless american films all throughout his life, and admired the superior simplicity of american dramaturgy. A guy walks out of a saloon, gives the dog beside the door a treat and rides off. Another guy walks out, kicks the dog and rides off. The drama has been established.

  • http://destroyallfilms.com Rusty James

    I don’t know, nice try Jack but DBWheeler still wins for jackass of this thread. Next time try bringing up Stan Brakhage.

  • http://www.daiwa.com Baychuk

    Just by the list, #6, #5, #2 I agree with. There are some other good ones out there, just can’t recall them right now.

  • Goon

    henrik! i was worried something bad happened to you! welcome back you Danish wonder!

    “Ingmar Bergman never said fuck Hollywood. He watched countless american films all throughout his life, and admired the superior simplicity of american dramaturgy.”

    I understand, but theres a tendency towards the ‘fuck Hollywood’ types to lean towards certain heavyweights of the art house circuit as some pure bred gods of integrity and vision that no tinseltown sympathetic person could appreciate.

  • Mary

    My friend, you have compiled a good list here and have written excellent snippets about each action sequence. You have a lot of talent and I enjoyed this.

    But an apostrophe NEVER EVER makes a plural. Multiple violations.

  • http://www.thedocumentaryblog.com Jay C.

    Reed Farrington (Mary) seems to have forgotten that I can access the IP address in which he posts under.

    Nice try Reed, but nobody cares about the misuse of apostrophe’s as much as you do.

    On the plus side, I’m glad to see you’re finally expressing your feminine side.

  • Mary

    Lol. I’m not Reed. I really am a girl. There are grammar nuts all over the world, and they come in both sexes.

    Proofreading for grammar, punctuation, and spelling should be standard practice for any professional writer. A professional should also learn to take constructive criticism gracefully, since it’s intended to be helpful.

  • Mary

    P.S. Since I’m genuinely not Reed, I can inform everyone that he’s bluffing about being able to access IP addresses.

  • http://www.daiwa.com Baychuck

    I’m really Reed.

  • http://www.thedocumentaryblog.com Jay C.

    Anyone who runs a blog knows I’m not bluffing about being able to access IP addresses. Having said that, I just went back to the comments and noticed that ALL of the IP addresses are the same. For everyone. What’s the deal with thatt?

    So Mary, you may indeed be a girl and you probably are not Reed. My apologies. I do appreciate your concern about the apostrophies. However, my accusation wasn’t unmeritted. Me and Reed had this exact conversation on our lunch break at work. The timing seemed a little too convenient.

    I do want to remind you that I’m not a ‘professioanl writer’. Film Junk is a hobby. As much as I try to adhere to professionalism in my writing, the importance of proofreading can be temporarily lost when I’m finishing a post I’ve been working on for four hours at 3:30 am, knowing I have to get up to work at my day job the following morning. Now I’m just making excuses.

    Anyways, there could be some good to come from this. Are you single? If so, I’m sensing a possible Reed Farrington/Mary connection here. For starters, you both share the same concern for proper punctuation on internet.

    A little more on Reed: He is obsessed with bargain hunting, he collects multiple editions and reprints of Star Trek books he already has, the rooms in his house are colour coordinated (so he claims), and he saves money by eating refrozen, three week old leftovers at work, allowing him to spend his hard earned money on toys rather than food. (Note: leftovers were never originally purchased by Reed. These are company purchased leftovers.)

    If you think Reed is the man for you, please contact us here at Film Junk. I want to see some magic!

  • http://henrikseehuusen.com Henrik

    Goon, something did happen to me. Roskilde festival.

  • http://henrikseehuusen.com Henrik

    “the rooms in his house are colour coordinated (so he claims)”

    That is hilarious.

  • Mary

    Well responded, Jay! Hmmm…I’m not much of a decorator, so if he color coordinates rooms he could take care of that part of life. And I do freeze my leftovers. But those Trekkies, being invariably shockingly handsome and physically intimidating, are known for using women casually and carelessly. I could never risk my heart that way.

  • http://www.thedocumentaryblog.com Jay C.

    Good choice Mary. Reed has made an effort to model himself after James T. Kirk, with specific emphasis on the womanizing.

    It’s best to avoid the broken heart.

  • Reed Farrington

    Ha, I’m really a figment of Jay’s imagination.

    Seriously, Mary, I can understand why Jay thought you were me, because you began your post with “My friend” and I had just used that phrase “jokingly” on Friday in a MSN message to Jay. I am somewhat of a “grammar Nazi” (with apologies to any Nazi, if they do indeed deserve
    any). But I admit to having self-doubts about certain things that I write. I’m still not sure if the period should go before or after a quotation mark at the end of a sentence when you’re using quotation marks to highlight a phrase like I did with “grammar Nazi.” See! I just ran into that predicament!

    Everything Jay said about me is true. Jay never lies. And he didn’t exaggerate anything.

    I do appreciate Jay trying to set me up. But Mary’s probably in public school, and I’ll probably get accused of cradle robbing again. (Not that I get accused of that a lot, but it happened on FilmJunk.)

    And though my behaviours might fit a lot of gay stereotypes, I’m not gay! I have been buying a lot of shoes lately though.

    Anyway, let’s get back to talking about action scenes in movies.

  • http://www.seandwyer.net Sean

    Actually the use of the phrase “my friend” is what made me think it wasn’t you Reed… you typically don’t make use of such pleasantries.

  • emily

    children of men is indeed an amazing movie, but it’s from 2006 not 2000.

  • http://www.thedocumentaryblog.com Jay C.

    Hey Emily, the list is films from the year 2000 and on, not just from 2000.

    Thanks for the heads up though.

  • The Knicker

    Someone hasn’t seen Cloverfield yet.

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  • cybersupam

    Ooops…you have not mentioned many more awesome action scenes from other movies. These 10 list are still easily forgettable, and only one time to feel the thrill.

  • Matt

    I really liked the ending of 28 days later. I think that was pretty riveting.

  • Will

    …”Alfonso Cuaron seems to be inspired by the first person immersion of video games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honour…”

    Bwahaaaahaaahaha!
    Go watch Come And See. If you already have, then tell me that wasn’t the real influence here, not Call of Duty.

  • Filip Gracz

    This list is laughable without the bank robbery gunfight from `Heat’

  • Matt

    Saving Private Ryan? Normandy beach invasion?

  • http://www.thedocumentaryblog.com Jay C.

    Filip Gracz and Matt:

    Get your heads out of your asses and read the opening paragraph! The list only includes films made in the year 2000 and on.

    Thanks for commenting!

  • http://www.filmjunk.com/columns/treknobabble Reed Farrington

    Way to go, Jay. Insult our readers. (Yeah, I know Jay’s being humorously sarcastic.)

    You mention the year 2000 in your second paragraph, not the opening paragraph, by the way.

    Your use of the word “modern” in the title of your post is misleading because “modern” implies a longer period than the past decade.

    Currently, you do have 744 diggs for your post, so you’re beating my high of 51 diggs. I’m jealous.

  • Matt

    Oh yeah, ooops. In that case great list. Children of Men is the best, that movie rocked in so many ways. In my defense I was drunk when I read the article.

  • Dean

    I loved True Lies for it’s mega budget, over the top catharsis. The end scene with Arnie in the Harrier, spraying the building with bullets had me jumping around in my seat like a giddy schoolgirl!

  • Jake

    Sorry, but over the top action scenes don’t bust my nut b/c, after watching movie documentaries on how they make action scenes are totally fake and rarely make me go, “wow”. The Crazy 88 fight scene was pretty cool. Most of that film had good fight scenes. Eastern Promises (cool without the male on male nude action) The matrix trilogy spun out some cool action/fight CG mother lode. Perhaps some of the best action scenes are the “death” scenes when the major/minor character eats it. I would waste the hours of my day compiling a half-a$$ list that won’t hit the mark, but I’m sure all of you have already preconceived ideas already lined up in your noggins. So, bite me!

  • Jake

    Almost forgot, Transformers. How could you not forget the kick-a$$ action scenes in that movie. C’mon, y’all. Where’s the love for robot action violence? I didn’t even watch the entire cartoon series/movies and still got a jolt out of it. Man, y’all are slacking off. You’re fired. Clean out your desks by 5pm. Security!

  • victor

    What, did everyone just forget about Saving Private Ryan !?!?!

  • victor

    and I did see the comment about movies from 2000 on, but it is ridiculous to create a list like this without including SPR, a groundbreaking moment in cinematography…

    although you could include Taegukgi…

  • http://www.filmjunk.com/category/columns/treknobabble/ Reed Farrington

    I finally got around to watching Equilibrium. I loved it, but I guess that’s not surprising since Goon claims the movie seems like it was written by a 12-year-old. I would have to agree since the movie is rather straight-forward in its handling of the moral quandary that the movie proposes; however, I doubt whether a 12-year-old would come up with the idea of “vestigial words.” I also have to mention that I laughed at the brazen puppy dog scenes.

    But I agree with kurt and MrZenCool regarding the coolness of the gun-kata stuff. The explanation for how it works is so outlandish, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief because it looked awesome. In my opinion, the Batman films need the type of fight choreography displayed in Equilibrium.

  • http://link BadGirl91

    And I wanted to give readers a good idea of what they could expect to find inside my books. ,

  • bill

    I know this is mostly newer movies.
    but if we’re looking at all time…

    The helicopter invasion in apocolypse now

  • Tucker

    District 13, the whole movie! The parkour scenes are freaking amazing.

  • Mucha Libreroxxxx

    No Jackie Chan or Tony Jaa films?…..

  • http://www.spilasers.com/ Tom @ SPI Lasers

    I love the Bourne Ultimatum one. I tend to really enjoy it when the action sequence is huge, like in 300 or saving private ryan. Check this post for some classic laser scenes: http://www.squidoo.com/top-10-lasers-in-the-movies

  • http://thesmokelesscigarettereview.com/ Jeff Hays

    Love the kill bill scene and agree on Saving Private Ryan comment, first war movie to ever have a shock factor like that.

  • csidle

    The comments on here lambasting Jay for not including films that clearly do not meet the requirements for this list is really fucking funny. This list is four years old but I just sat here laughing my ass off at these comments.

  • Fuck you

    Wow if these scenes changed you, you are fucked

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