In this week's installment, we're shining a spotlight on the scenes that get our adrenaline pumping. Even in Hollywood's earliest days, silent filmmakers like Buster Keaton were trying to figure out how to concoct mind-blowing action sequences. In the decades since, the stunts have only gotten crazier — but that underlying thrill has never changed. Whether it's a nerve-wracking car chase or a high-flying aerial sequence, action sequences are the movies' jet fuel. Here are our picks for the five greatest we've ever seen.
The prisoner transfer scene in The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan is sometimes criticized for his actions scenes being more chaotic and kinetic than necessarily logical: it's more about the power than the particulars. (Though Dunkirk may have dispelled that notion forever.)
What's most impressive about the prisoner transfer sequence in The Dark Knight is how meticulous it is. An armored vehicle is on one side of Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago/Gotham. A semi truck, with The Joker trotting out an increasingly powerful assortment of weaponry, is on the other. We track them both, above ground and underground, and we're never lost even though we are swept away in the moment. Nolan keeps building, adding new variables, even introducing the Bat-Pod, leading to the jaw-dropping spectacle of a semi truck going perpendicular after a shocking game of chicken. (It even gets one last punch-line in.) It's smart, straightforward and flabbergasting. And it was shot in IMAX!
The car chase in Bullitt (1968)
A masterpiece of precision, Bullitt's centerpiece action sequence involves Steve McQueen's Lt. Frank Bullitt going after some hit men. And even though director Peter Yates’ crime thriller is 50 years old, that sequence remains a stunner. Why?
Because it captures beautifully how exciting and suspenseful it is to be riding in a car that's going too fast.
Because there's no music on the soundtrack, which allows you to soak up every squeal of the brakes and roar of the engine as Bullitt and his prey race around San Francisco.
Because it goes on longer than you'd expect, clocking in just over 10 minutes, continually throwing new surprises at you.
Because McQueen was the king of the stoic tough guys, grounding the preposterous action in grizzled, bad-ass realism so that we always believed this kind of insane car chase could actually happen.
And because it has an incredible ending — after all, with a chase like that, you gotta wrap things up with an impressive fireball of fury.
The tower walk in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
The Mission: Impossible movies have been Tom Cruise's biggest franchise, in part because they've let the ageless wonder indulge his favorite vice: doing his own stunts.
The series has had its share of amazing action sequences, but the best is, in some ways, the simplest. In Ghost Protocol, Cruise's Ethan Hunt just has to go from one room in a skyscraper to another. Well, except it's Abu Dhabi's Burj Khalifa, the tallest building on Earth — and Ethan has to get to that other room by climbing on the outside of the building hundreds of feet off the ground.
Yup, Cruise did the stunt himself, and even though he was held up by cables, it's undeniably terrifying and thrilling to watch a movie star put himself into that kind of danger. There are plenty of nerve-wracking moments in the sequence, but director Brad Bird perhaps never tops that initial camera move as we join Cruise on his walk. The camera goes over the actor's head and out the window, looking straight down as we see just how far he could fall. All you hear is the wind — and the sound of your furiously beating heart.
The run on the Death Star in Star Wars (1977)
It’s stunning to watch this again today and marvel in George Lucas' simplicity. Years later, Lucas would get bogged down in technological details with all sorts of distractions and doo-dads whirring in every possible direction. But the Death Star run works because it's so basic and easy to follow. Luke is flying toward the Death Star's weak spot. CUT. Three TIE Fighters are on his tail, including one with Darth Vader. CUT. Vader is closing in. CUT. What's that sound ... it's Han Solo and the Falcon! Down goes Vader! CUT. Luke uses the Force, then shoots. CUT. Direct hit. CUT. Boom. If Lucas could have been as economical with the rest of the films as he was here, he'd probably still be making them.
The truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
"Indy, we have no time. If you still want the Ark, it has been loaded onto a truck for Cairo." "A truck? What truck?" And then ... we are off. There are so many scenes to pick from in what we still believe to be Steven Spielberg's best movie, but nothing makes you grab the arm of your seat or the person sitting next to you than the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The fun of Indy's attempt to grab the Ark of the Covenant out of a moving truck surrounded by Nazis with machine guns is its impossibility. He has no gun. He's on horseback. And there are three trucks, all of which are full of people trying to kill him. No problem!
Hop on one truck. Throw a guy out of the truck. Hit the gas and brakes a couple times to fling another guy out of the back of the truck. Struggle over the wheel with the driver for a while until you punch him out of the truck. Ram one of the Nazi cars off the road. Smile because you think you've won, because Harrison Ford is always doing that too early. Knock over the motorcycle that just showed up. Send another Nazi car careening off a cliff. Swerve to knock off the Nazis in the back of your truck who are climbing toward you with guns. Get shot in the arm by a Nazi you didn't realize was there. Get kicked out of the driver's seat by a Nazi who keeps punching you in that arm and then throws you through the windshield. Hang onto the hood ornament for dear life. Get stuck in the front grill like a bug. Climb under and then down the truck WHILE IT'S MOVING, and then tie your whip to the truck so it drags you along behind it. Climb your way back to and up the truck. Leap back into the bed of the truck and kick the guy who just threw you out to the passenger seat, and then through the windshield, where he'll fail to pull off the maneuver you just did and end up run over. Run the last Nazi car off the road and then drive away with the Ark. He makes it look so easy!
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/grierson-leitch/id1076170640?mt=2 . Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.