Heater. Glock. Rod. Boomstick. Gat. Piece. What is it about guns that are so fascinating?
Guns are all about power, and with that power, since the earliest days of cinema, filmmakers have been enthralling us with their sounds, imagery and violence wrought. Some use if for good, some for evil, and all entertaining and sort of "fantasy" for people who watch. Naturally, gunfights emerge as people clash.
A good gunfight is more than just a lot of explosions and squibs, though. It needs to hold some weight to the movie itself, be relevant as a means, not merely an end, as well as be technically well-crafted. In a way, a good gunfight can tell the whole story of the film itself, almost like cliff notes, and bring to light meaning behind the barrel blasts.
To be fair, there are some movies that are built around great gunfights (especially John Woo movies) and I don't want these taking up places. Truthfully, if a movie is on this list, you can pretty much bet there are other great gunfight scenes in the film. So if you look and see Hard Boiled, for example, know the one I chose is the best out of the film, not that it's the only good one.
If you've read any of my past Top 25 articles, you know that number 25 is often put in as a little tongue-in-cheek. The tradition continues with one of the dumbest shootouts ever filmed, but so funny and ridiculous you can't leave it off. Originality goes a long way, and shooting a gun from your crotch while doing pelvic thrusts, from what I know, has never been seen before. I wonder if all Swedish cops have these types of dreams.
24: Miller's Crossing
Still Alive and Kickin'
There's something about this scene from Miller's Crossing, the Coen Brothers' gangster masterpiece, that just hits all the right notes. It's not that long, pretty unrealistic and not a ton happens. Yet, it's oddly poetic. Danny Boy playing in the background, an old man that was supposed to be an easy hit proving why he's the boss, a younger generation of gun-toting hitmen realizing the older generation still has some life in it. Sure, it may not be fancy, but it sure as hell is poetic.
23: Taxi Driver
A Dive Into Madness
Travis Bickle, who came in at number one on my Top 25 Insane Movie Characters, gradually loses his mind as he traverses the dark streets of New York City. It's a story of obsession and confusion, maybe even loneliness and societal problems regarding the mentally ill, and those things are just not made better when a gun is introduced. Everything climaxes to the final showdown, Travis truly believing he is right in his doings and wanting "save" Jodi Foster, but only wishing he had one last bullet in the end.
22: The Terminator
Present Meets Future
It was down to two scenes from the original Terminator: the Tech-Noir shootout with Kyle Reece and his awesome shotgun and this one. I went with this one because of its utter brutality and the fact that people shooting each other in a club is nothing new. A police station full of cops and guns, a supposed impenetrable fortress, being destroyed by something they couldn't possibly fathom...now you're talking.
21: The Way of the Gun
Hey, Remember Ryan Phillippe?
It starts as an homage to classic westerns, a few quips and nods to Butch and Sundance if anything. There's nothing big or poetic here, it plays out in spurts and shows our "heroes" slowly diminishing. In other words, it almost acts like what a real gunfight might act like. It's not just shoot everything, but plays off the cover and hide, then unload...rinse and repeat. I kind of consider this the thinking-man's shootout and it's certainly well-done enough to be considered as such.
20: The Matrix
I Took the Red Pill First, Right?
A pulsating beat introduces us until our hearts explode with the sound of gunfire combined with the rhythm of techno. It's auditory symphony of bullet impacts, blasts and clinking shells. No words, just triggers being pulled. The Matrix is full of gun scenes, but this one is the most popular for a reason. It smartly uses slow-motion, a little bit of dark humor and a variety of weaponry to become an impactful piece of cinematic history.
19: No Country for Old Men
The pacing, the anticipation, the ability to show drama and tension rather than just guns a-blazing. The Coens are yet again on the list in their instant classic No Country for Old Men. Some might expect the crazy silent-shotgun killing spree Chigurh goes on at the motel, but that was more an assassination if anything. The best part of this shootout isn't even the shooting, but the waiting between shots as Moss slowly comes to realize the severity of his situation. Great camerawork as expected from the Coens. Things start getting intense around the 3:45 mark:
Half Man, Half Machine, All Killer
With mathematical precision as only a robotic cop can do (or if you're Christian Bale in Equlibrium, which echoes this a bit), Robocop enters the drug factory, gives his warning, and wouldn't you know...those bad guys just don't listen. He doesn't miss, and he shoots to kill. He also apparently doesn't run out of bullets even when he's only packing a fully-automatic handgun. The clip here ends the shootout about mid-way, but you can enjoy watching Robo beat the hell out of Kurtwood Smith if you like.
17: High Noon
A unique, trend-setting western shot in real time. Gary Cooper, who won the Oscar here, is Marshall Kane who knows some men are coming to kill him, and probably take the town while they're at it. He asks for help, he gets none and the minutes tick away. You can feel the time as an element, even during the shootout which feels real and plays out in a fashion that got westerns away from just the cliche one-on-one gunfighting and showdowns. Kane uses strategy, he thinks ahead, and even depends on his lady at one point. I decided to throw in the final shots as well because it's very poignant and brings relevance to all Marshall Kane did and the bittersweetness of it all.
A Final Breath
There's really nothing special going no here, it's the 1980s version of the final scene of Bonnie and Clyde with a dash of Sam Peckinpah's Wild Bunch for good measure. It's just a hailstorm, but what a hailstorm and a complete embodiment of what Scarface is about. He's locked away in his mansion, away from the world and surrounded by opulence, and all the bad things he's done finally catch up to him in a drug-fueled fury. Tony isn't a guy that's going to die quietly at an old age, he burns out and will take you into the fire with him if need be.
And for fun, here's the ending of the original scarface which was pretty damn good in it's own right.
15: Once Upon a Time in the West
Filmmaker and spaghetti western genius Sergio Leone always, and I mean always, knew how to build up a gunfight. He followed a specific formula usually. A very, very tense buildup, sometimes taking minutes, and then very, very fast release that if you blink, you'll miss it. Here we have Charles Bronson, no strange to guns in his film career, facing down three gunfighters at the train station when he arrives. This is early in the film, we know nothing about him, and nothing about these men, but we learn it all quickly in just a few puffs of smoke: he's the good guy, they're the bad guys and they want him dead. Too bad Bronson's "Harmonica" (that's his character) is a much better shot.
Hi, I'm Christian Bale and These are My Guns
While the movie itself is relatively average, not to mention very derivative, nobody can really deny the imaginative concept and fun originality that is the made-up martial art known as "Gun Kata." It's put to best use and we're able to see the near artistic beauty of it towards the end, as noted here in this scene which is the highlight of the entire film. It's damn-near therapeutic.
A Nice Gift
Unfortunately, i could not find this scene in better quality than this one, and I don't own the DVD either (stream from netflix is my recommendation). Luc Besson rarely comes up when discussing great action directors, which is a shame. While LEON is certainly his most popular film (and just missed being on this list), his best film is Nikita (or La Femme Nikita as you might know it better). A hot woman turned assassin, and she's pretty damn good at her job even when all else is against her, which it usually is. This scene plays incredibly well, flowing from one sequence to another with suspense and a feeling that she could very well lose. Besson has you in the palm of his hand.
12: L.A. Confidential
...So They Know You're a Police Man.
A masterpiece of a film and easily the best of its kind since Chinatown, L.A. Confidential was full of twists, turns, sex, back-stabbings and a lot of guns. It's not just film-noir, it's the definition of it at the highest level. Towards the end, Bud and Ed are called to the motel known for its shady dealings. They soon realize it's a set-up: people who come to that motel usually don't come back. It's time to lock and load in a dark, gritty gunfight.
11: The Getaway
I Got a Shotgun
Steve McQueen was a man's man. Cars, motorcycles, cigarettes, sunglasses, guns, and just a piercing stare with his cold, blue eyes. He was an action star, no doubt about it, and what happens when you take an action star and put him in a Sam Peckinpah film? That action star is going to start blowing people away, that's what. He's surgical with that shotgun as he and his girl look to evade the lawmen and bounty hunters, and like the car chase in Bullitt, he offers up the highlight of the film.
10: The Untouchables
Yeah, I got 'em
The gangster classic by Brian de Palma had a good dozen memorable moments, one involving Al Capone with a baseball bat, but the best by far being the sequence at the Chicago Train Station with Ness and Stone looking to secure their witness for the prosecution. They know he's coming, and that gunmen will be with him, and this gunfight is 90% set up, 9% gunfight and 1% Kevin Costner for good measure. Eventually it all goes down quickly, and ends with a final shot between the eyes.
Outlaw v. Lawman
I can't quite place where Tombstone lands in the history of great westerns. It's a well made and well-acted film, although pretty cheesy at times and perhaps too focused on the action. However, we are lucky the action itself is so well done. It is from the director of Cobra and First Blood Part II, so you kinda know what to expect. The best gunfight in the film where every person carries a gun - full of one-liners for a chuckle from Kilmer, and a classic western shootout comes about mid-way: the infamous OK Corral.
8: The Killer
Trying to select a John Woo gunfight to put onto a list of shootouts is like trying to decide which Playmate to go home with. John Woo, really, is the reason I insisted that only one scene per film be included, because you can get a good handful from just about any of his films. In his Hong-Kong bloody classic, The Killer, starring his go-to guy Chow Yun Fat, we get a great scene that takes place in relatively close-quarters (before expanding).
A Father's Determination (and his guns)
Don't piss of Arnold, when will people learn? The man will break into a supply store, equip himself with every gun on the planet and go and pay your puny little island a visit. This is quintessential Arnold here from a guilty pleasure of all guilty pleasures. The highlight? The final showdown with a shotgun and Dan Hedaya in the sights. Commando may not be artful, but it makes everything a lot of fun.
6: A Fistful of Dollars
Get Three Coffins Ready (My Mistake, Four Coffins)
Between his Dirty Harry films (Sudden Impact nearly making this list) and the Spaghetti Westerns, Clint Eastwood is a name synonymous with guns. Many of those iconic scenes he's been involved with seem to all, somehow, conjure up this scene in some way. The snarky comments, the dark humor, the perfectly timed gun fires that kill people in one shot. It defined "badass" before that was even a word. Here,as with all of Leone's films, it's all about a great buildup and a precise, visceral release.
I'll tell you right now, I absolutely love this movie. A great lead, a sharp script and some utterly brilliant action set pieces. Robert Rodriguez never quite captured this magic in a bottle again, but it's a bottle worth putting in a museum as a great action movie. No better scene than the very first: the shootout in the bar as our hero, the sexy and swarthy Antonio Banderas, arrives with his guitar case. It's frantic yet easy to follow, somehow, and has a great sense of tension and even a bit of humor to it all.
4: The Wild Bunch
As expected, there's a good handful of westerns with really good gunfights and the one that seems to top every list is the violent and bloody The Wild Bunch from 1969. Most would agree, though, that Sam Peckinpah's take on the western is something entirely in its own league. It's violent, it's bloody, it's just a great film with one amazing climatic gun battle to top it all with. It all seems confusing and random, but there's an art to Peckinpah's approach that focuses on a lot of characters in various situations during the battle.
Winner of the "Obvious" award
Coming as no surprise we have Michael Mann's fantastic film, Heat, kicking off the Top Three. I probably don't need to go into why, it's just so well designed, paced and very realistic in how it handles it all from the bank robbery itself to the firefight out in the middle of the streets of Los Angeles. Mann knows how to direct action (Miami Vice, Collateral and Public Enemies having damn good gun fights themselves) and this is just him at the top of his game. Heat isn't an action movie, it's a crime drama if not a character study, yet it has one of the best action sequences ever filmed.
2: Hard Boiled
A Visit to the Doctor's
As flawless of an action sequence as you can get, and this is only a portion of it, this scene alone would make Hard Boiled worth watching. There just happens to be a good two or three others that could have easily made the list as well. When it comes to gun fights as a whole, Hard Boiled is pretty damn hard to beat. It's the entire basis of the film, and it climaxes here and makes all those amazing action sequences before look like foreplay. This is John Woo at his very best. I'm highlighting the extended single-shot here for it's utter beauty.
1: The Good the Bad and the Ugly
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
If you've seen The Good the Bad and the Ugly, you know this scene. Most likely, you can think back to when you first saw the film and how you likely had no idea on how it will all end. The way the film played out, any one of these men could end up with a bullet. This is the standoff and showdown to end them all, and nothing comes close. Why is it number one when, obviously, some are technically superior and have more happening?
Because it barely needs to fire a single bullet. It's about the suspense and anticipation of the gun being fired than the barrel actually exploding with lead and smoke, blood flailing on the ground and people running or ducking for cover. Classic standoffs like this shows more how people "fear" a gun than actually fear of one that's being fired at them. It's the breath taken in before the release that creates the tension. For example, in number two above, the best part I found is when they are in the elevator and then unleash when the door opens. It's the gravity of the situation rather than thunder and bangs. In a way, this final showdown exemplifies everything we love about gunfights with nary a shot even being fired.
More Gun Play: Die Hard 2, The Fifth Element, The International, Tokyo Drifter, Terminator 2, Miami Vice, Rio Bravo, Hot Shots Part Deux, Face/Off, Unforgiven, True Lies, Young Guns, Sudden Impact, Wanted, A Better Tomorrow, Last Man Standing, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Boondock Saints, Predator, Open Range, Die Hard, Collateral, Rambo, Shoot 'em Up, Hot Fuzz, 3:10 to Yuma, Leon.