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The best single-location action movies of all time

Contributed by
Jul 12, 2018

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but the upcoming summer blockbuster Skyscraper is not a movie in which Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson engages in combat with a large building. Rather, the movie is about Johnson's character's efforts to protect his family from sinister forces that lay siege to the tallest building in the world. The trailer promises fistfights, explosions, and a whole lot of heart as well as the Rock jumping from a crane to an open window like, a billion feet above the ground (which is honestly going to be worth the price of admission alone).

Aside from being the next step in the Rock's master plan to dominate the entertainment industry on all fronts — dude is seriously gonna EGOT one day, mark my words — Skyscraper is the latest entry in the long lineage of single-location action movies. The subgenre has been a part of action cinema for decades but is a bit rarer than other sorts. These films might not literally be confined to one place but the bulk of the story's action will take place in one building, room, or vehicle.

By nature, an action film tends to make you think of a wide space for the characters to play in. Car chases, exotic locales, and the sheer necessity of physical action scenes not having physical barriers are very much part of the genre. Confining it to a single location blends the kinetic energy of a great action movie with the claustrophobic tension of a horror film. You'd think this would work against it on principle but no, single location (when done well) can actually accentuate action. It removes the possibility of escape, both from the forces of evil targeting our heroes and the roundhouse kick coming straight for their skull. Confined spaces, even if they're the tallest skyscraper on the planet, breed that unique tension.

With Skyscraper out this weekend, there's never been a better time to take a look back at some of the best of what the genre has to offer.

The Towering Inferno (1974)

The Rock has been relatively upfront about the DNA that makes up Skyscraper. The Towering Inferno is right at the top of the list of its influences. The film features an all-time great cast that includes Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunnaway, and Fred Astaire, among others. The film tells the story of disaster breaking out at the opening gala for a state-of-the-art skyscraper. With many civilians trapped inside, the man who designed the building and the local fire chief are forced to work together to save them. The Towering Inferno is one of the great disaster movies of all time, garnering a Best Picture nomination and making bank at the box office. It's still very much the blueprint for disaster films today.

Die Hard (1988)

There's no need to mince words here: Die Hard very well may be the greatest action movie of all time. The story of John McClane singlehandedly taking on a gang of terrorists posted up in Nakatomi Plaza has defined action cinema since its release. It's infinitely quotable, from, "Now I have a machine gun" to "Yippe-ki-yay, motherf***er." The pacing, the cinematography, the writing, all top notch and all unrivaled to this day.

The Raid (2011)

There are few action movie experiences of the last decade that can compare to sitting down and watching The Raid for the first time. The Indonesian martial arts film is a savage, brutal flick, relentless in its violence and pace. A group of of special tactics officers are tasked with raiding an apartment complex housing a drug operation. They soon find themselves trapped inside with dozens of lethal killers and no escape in sight. The film features intense martial arts choreography executed by one of the best stunt teams in the world — men who have worked together for so long that many of the strikes thrown in the movie aren’t pulled. Men are thrown through doors and walls, shattering thick plaster like a glass plate hitting a kitchen floor. It's a vicious, intense adrenaline rush of a movie that has yet to be topped in the years since its release.

Speed (1994)

What if an action film took place in a confined space that also happens to be mobile? Speed is one of the great high-concepts of all time: a city bus is rigged with a bomb that will explode if the bus goes below 50 MPH. It's a killer concept, at once creating an immediate claustrophobia while allowing the story to occupy a larger space. Don't let the lousy sequel convince you Speed is anything other than a bonafide action masterpiece. Also, Keanu. It has Keanu. Always a good thing.

Dredd (2012)

Dredd and The Raid seem to share a lot of the same DNA. Both feature elite police forces trapped in high-rises housing elite drug trades - and it probably doesn't help that they both hit theaters in 2012. However, Dredd is its own beast entirely, one that manages to separate itself entirely from The Raid. Where the latter is a grim and realistic, Dredd is a technicolor special effects-heavy juggernaut. It's not campy by any means, but there's definitely a heightened sensibility to the action and the story. Taking place inside a giant highrise known as a Mega Block, the film follows Karl Urban's Judge Dredd and Olivia Thirlby's Judge Anderson as they investigate a murder. They soon find the building locked down by Lena Headey's drug lord Mama and have no choice but to shoot their way out. It's a mean little movie that has developed quite the cult following in the years since its unfortunate underperformance at the box office.

Free Fire (2016)

Sometimes all you need for a good time is a movie about a bunch of bad people with guns trapped in a room together. Director Ben Wheatley gives us just that 2017's massively underrated Free Fire. With an insanely stacked cast that includes Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, and Cillian Murphy, it's a genuine shock this one didn't take off. It tells the story of an arms deal gone wrong, leaving all involved parties trapped in a warehouse full of guns. As soon as the bullets start flying the film hardly takes a breath. It's a funny, biting action comedy that seems like a future cult favorite just waiting for its moment.

Train to Busan (2016)

"What if Speed, but there are zombies?" What if, indeed. The concept of Korean action thriller Train to Busan is borderline sadistic: a passenger train bound for Busan finds itself in the middle of a zombie outbreak, one that finds its way onto the train. The passengers quickly realize that the outside world has been overrun and that their final destination of Busan has become a quarantine zone. Much like Speed, it takes the claustrophobia inherent in people being trapped in a moving vehicle and then ratchets it up to 11 by throwing zombies into the mix. It's simultaneously a race against time and a fight for survival, an instant modern classic that shouldn't be missed by fans of action or horror.