Ever since one of the first films ever made, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, ended with the image of a man firing a gun into the camera, the relationship between cinema and shooting has been a close and symbiotic one.
Although the preponderance of mass gun violence in America in recent years has meant that there are considerably fewer films released now including shoot-outs – instead, the current trend is for fantastical fight scenes – there is no denying that some of the greatest and most exciting action scenes in the history of cinema have featured the combination of a hero, multiple antagonists and apparently limitless rounds of ammunition.
Unsurprisingly, some directors appear more than once in this list (hello, Mr Woo). Some of the films are stone-cold, Oscar-winning classics whereas others are largely remembered for one particular set-piece. And there were many films that came close to making it (The Town, Tombstone, The Wild Bunch and Inglourious Basterds, to name but four, were all in consideration), but these are the crème de la crème.
To have a list of the greatest gun battles in cinema and to omit Heat would be sacrilege. Michael Mann’s cops ‘n’ robbers epic is highly regarded today for its famous pivotal scene between Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, but it is the artillery-heavy centrepiece, when de Niro’s crew attempt to leave the scene of a heist only to walk into an ambush masterminded by the LAPD, that has been the subject of countless imitations.
Eschewing the fancy cinematography of many of the other films on the list, it is a thrilling and entirely realistic depiction of urban warfare, with some major surprises (the trained robbers are more competent and deadly than the cops) and its overall effectiveness can be gauged by the fact that Marines are shown it during their training as an example of how to handle weapons in a combat situation.
Although the sequels were largely rubbish, the first Matrix film was a thrilling and audacious exercise in mind-bending dystopia, not least in the pulse-pounding set-pieces. There is no better example of this than the lobby shoot-out, when Keanu Reeves’ Neo and Carrie-Anne Moss’s Trinity arrive to rescue their mentor, Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus, armed to the teeth and able to deploy the most gracious and astonishing of moves in balletic slow-motion. Although the scene owes an undeniable debt to John Woo, its kinetic brilliance makes it entirely its own beast.
For some reason, Brian de Palma’s excellent update of the classic Prohibition-set saga, in which upstanding federal agent Eliot Ness attempts to bring down the gangster Al Capone, remains underrated. Its pivotal scene, a shoot-out in Grand Central Station, is still one of the highlights in de Palma’s impressive filmography. Mixing explicit debts to Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin with a thrillingly choreographed gun battle between Ness, his cohort George Stone and a series of desperate mobsters, and all unfolding in balletic slow-motion, it is a remarkable and astonishing scene.
The International (2009)
Most of Tom Tykwer’s globe-trotting conspiracy thriller, with Clive Owen as a stern-faced Interpol agent on the trail of money launderers, is accomplished but unmemorable. But its major action set-piece, a gun battle in New York’s Guggenheim museum, is something else entirely. Utterly compelling from start to finish, as the gallery is shredded by automatic gunfire and Owen tries to protect his asset from assassins, it redeems the entire film and justifies a place on this extremely competitive list. It gets bonus points for recreating the entire Guggenheim on a Berlin sound stage, and then destroying it.
John Woo’s gloriously over-the-top take on the body-swap film is saturated with epic gunfights and tension-building Mexican stand-offs, but two in particular linger in the memory. The first is the conclusion to the opening set-piece, as gleefully insane supervillain Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) manages to battle what seems like the entirety of the LAPD in an aircraft hanger, firing two absurdly stylish gold handguns while diving out of an aeroplane in endless slow-motion.
And the second is another scene involving Cage, this time as his nemesis Sean Archer, as a violent gun battle rages in a mobster’s loft and a small boy is shown listening to ‘Over the Rainbow’ as the carnage continues around him. Both are innovative and witty, and laced with the authentic touch of mayhem that saw Woo, briefly, regarded as the king of action cinema.
True Romance (1993)
There’s no Tarantino on this list, because he has never been as great a director of action as he has been of slow-building tension. This doesn’t mean, however, that this isn’t a great shoot-out in his oeuvre, only that it belongs in the film that he scripted and Tony Scott directed, True Romance. The finale brings together a disparate group of people – DEA agents, gangsters and Hollywood types – and lets rip with a brilliantly staged and protracted gun battle that Scott directs with brutal assurance. In a film stuffed with memorable set-pieces, this might be the highlight of all of them.
Michael Mann demonstrated with Heat that he knew his way around a shoot-out, but his 2004 Tom Cruise thriller Collateral features a set-piece that is very nearly its equal. Focusing on the tense and uneasy relationship between innocent cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) and ruthless assassin Vincent (Cruise), there is a scene late in the film where Max seems finally to be about to escape from Vincent’s clutches, as the latter seems to have met his match in a nightclub swarming with a mobster’s hitmen and a target’s bodyguards.
However, like Robert de Niro’s criminal in Heat, Vincent is nothing if not versatile, and proceeds to lay waste to all of his adversaries, closing the scene by killing Mark Ruffalo’s FBI agent and thereby putting paid to Max’s increasingly faint hopes of escape from his clutches.
John Wick (2015)
Keanu Reeves is rightly associated with three of the best action films ever made in Speed, Point Break and The Matrix, but for many his role in the John Wick series remains his most iconic. There is something especially satisfying about the first gun battle in the first film, as we watch the long, slow build-up to the Wick character unearthing his previously concealed aptitude for violence after a mobster’s son is idiotic enough to steal his car and kill his dog, as we learn about his reputation as ‘Baba Yaga’: not only is the deadly Wick ‘the man you send to kill the bogeyman’, but his peerless skills at fighting are shown to thrilling and jaw-droppingly exciting effect.
There are plenty of stunning scenes throughout the films, but the first one remains the best, even down to the comic pay-off, as a sympathetic cop, observing the carnage, asks ‘You working again, John?’
Hard Boiled (1992)
The film that led John Woo to pursue a (now curtailed) Hollywood career, Hard Boiled is nowhere near as sophisticated or thematically rich as The Killer, but makes up for it with a smorgasbord of intricately choreographed action. The epic hospital-set finale, which lasts for nearly an hour, is a particular highlight, as it follows indefatigable cop Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) and undercover double agent Alan (Tony Leung) as they wage war against apparently endless numbers of gangsters, all the while attempting to rescue a wardful of babies. Amidst the slow-motion carnage and earnest scenes of heroic male bonding in great adversity, there is a playful wit to Woo’s vision that makes this extraordinary gun battle endlessly entertaining to watch.