From Russia with Love: Orient express fight. A savage fight to the death between Sean Connery’s James Bond and Robert Shaw’s remorseless assassin Grant. In a compartment aboard the Orient Express, Grant has Bond at gunpoint, but Bond tricks him into opening an exploding briefcase. The subsequent fight is superbly staged and edited, benefiting from both actors performing most of their own stuntwork, so the camera captures their snarling faces as they smash one another against the walls of the compartment (there’s a particularly neat moment when they bounce off the unconscious Bond girl without noticing). As Grant hooks a garrotte around Bond’s neck, it ends with one of those satisfying pay-offs in which only Q’s gift (a knife concealed in the briefcase) can save Bond’s life.
The Bourne Identity: Mini Cooper chase. Amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne (matt Damon) and his love interest Marie (Franka Potente) escape from the authorities in Marie’s Mini Cooper. Paul Greengrass’s two sequels demonstrated an extraordinary new visual style for the action movie, but it’s Doug Liman’s original Bourne movie that still just wins when it comes to most satisfying car chase. The build-up nicely links the moment when the action begins to the development of the two main characters’ relationship. Bourne is on the run, and Marie is in danger of being arrested with him. As the police close in, Bourne warns her that this is her last chance to get away from him, but Marie opts to remain in the car. A marvellously funky piece of music - Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready, Steady, Go” starts playing on the soundtrack, Bourne swerves the Mini into gear and the audience knows that Bourne and Marie’s destinies are now inseparable. As in The Italian Job, the small simplicity of the Mini makes it a joy to watch as it hurtles down alleyways, slides over zebra crossings and smashes through glass, and the ingenious stunt-driving is accentuated by setups and visual punch lines: Bourne saying “We got a bump coming” as the Mini leaps down a flight of steps, his little grimace of concentration as he changes gear when they reach the bottom, Marie going “whoa” just before they smash through an open phonebox door. The chase you hope all thrillers are building up to.
The Bourne Ultimatum: Bourne vs. Desh. An assassin named Desh (Joey Ansah), is closing in on an ally of Bourne’s, as Bourne rushes across rooftops to get there first. As Desh takes aim, Bourne leaps off the balcony of an adjacent building - a glorious bit of stuntwork - and comes smashing in through the window, where the two fight like savage bulls. Paul Greengrass’s way of directing action sequences is disorientating and terrifying. It’s edited at a furious pace, going for frantic close-ups rather than panoramic shots, with excruciating sound effects, as their hands scrabble for whatever object - a cookbook, a candlestick, a razor, a towel - is at hand. By the time Bourne has throttled Desh, everyone in the audience feels beaten up.
Casino Royale: free-running chase. Daniel Craig’s Bond pursues Molanka, a bomb maker, through a construction site, and refuses to give up the chase even when Molanka makes it to an embassy. Molanka is played by parkour - or “free-running” - champion Sebastian Foucan, and this extraordinary sport is skilfully integrated into the chase, making it in equal parts thrilling and beautiful to watch, with Bond having to counter his opponent’s unusual talent with sheer determination. The sight of Bond running up a crane is one of the most heroic images in cinema. It ends on a marvellous visual punch line - and with a very big bang - as Bond hands over his pistol to the embassy soldiers, only to pull out a second one, shoot his quarry and then a gas cylinder, vanishing in a puff of smoke. Highly appropriate for such a magical sequence.
GoldenEye: tank chase. Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond commandeers a tank and pursues the car of a Russian General who’s kidnapped the Bond Girl through the streets of St Petersburg, taking on armed Russian forces and destroying a good deal of the city in the process. 1995’s GoldenEye was determined to have fun, as it had been six years without a Bond film and the public were hungry for a return. Rather than apologise for being a Bond film - something the Daniel Craig movies tend towards - GoldenEye is a glorious reinstatement. There’s a big build-up to a spectacular shot of the tank crashing through a wall, a smartly suited Bond revealed at the wheel as the James Bond theme kicks in. What sticks in your mind in the subsequent chase is not just the lavish effects and model work and explosive editing style, but the incongruous sight of an immaculate Englishman at the helm of a tank - who actually adjusts his collar at one point as a wonderful punch line - , the Bond girl’s half terrified, half thrilled reaction to her hero’s rampaging rescue attempts, and the Russian General’s increasingly enraged hipflask-guzzling, all irresistibly joyous touches.
Blade: disco bloodbath. In the opening sequence, a very chic disco is taking place, with hip young things writhing to throbbing music. As the dancing reaches its frenzied climax, blood pours from the sprinkler systems, and the dancers sprout fangs. OK, so we’re watching a horror movie. Then suddenly a huge black dude in shades, armour and leather trench coat appears. The vampires snarl. He snarls back. They pounce, and he pulls out a shotgun and blasts several vampires into ash with silver bullets, rifle-butts one, and rams silver stakes into others, before finishing off the rest with a machine-pistol. We’re not watching a horror movie, but something way more exciting. Reinforcements arrive, and he puts away the gun and unsheathes his sword. His movements are balletic, ferocious, and awesome; the lighting, editing and techno soundtrack irresistible. Now that’s how a movie opens.
Blade 2: Blade vs. vampire guards. Having being drained of blood - the source of his superpowers - Wesley Snipes’s half human, half vampire hero leaps into a giant vat of the stuff. He rises from the blood in a clear nod to Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, and as dozens of henchmen approach defiantly clenches his bare fists. As they attack, he knocks them down like ninepins, sends them spinning like wooden tops into the vat, kicks, twists, and shoves, all to the sound of the Crystal Method‘s “The Name of the Game“. While watching this martial arts display and listening to the music, brutality ceases to become brutality and becomes art.
The Matrix Reloaded: Neo vs. the Merovingian‘s guards. The only sequence on this list from a lacklustre movie. The Matrix Reloaded may have failed to inspire, but the fight between Neo and the Merovingian’s men is a perfect example of how music, choreography, stunts and special effects create an aesthetic effect unlike any other. There’s a beautiful symmetry to the kung-fu and wire work. Neo and the henchmen swivel, somersault, leap, duck and almost dance, all the time playing musical chairs with daggers, swords, spears, maces and sai, to the strident sound of Rob Dougan‘s "Chateau".
Raiders of the Lost Ark: truck chase. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) pursues a Nazi truck and convoy on horseback, leaps onto the truck and throws out the driver. What happens next demonstrates how an action sequence works like a comedy set piece: it depends on the build-up of excess, and the increasing sense of audacity as the ludicrous occurs and yet maintains conviction. One of the Nazis from the convoy leaps into the truck and shoots Indy in the arm. He punches Indy in the wounded arm, and sends him smashing through the windscreen. Indy clings to the bars of the front grill which start to break off in his hands. The Nazi speeds up the truck and attempts to crush Indy against the car containing the main villains. Indy climbs under the bottom of the speeding truck, attaches his whip and slides out from under the back, dragged along by the whip in a nod to Stagecoach. He climbs back on, makes his way to the front, gives the Nazi the thump he deserves and hurls him out through the broken windscreen.
Spider-Man 2: train fight. Spiderman and Doctor Octopus are both gloriously realised onscreen, the latter in particular a superb fusion of CGI, puppetry and sound effects, so it’s a joy to watch them duke it out. The film - while not the modern classic it is sometimes made out to be - is better structured than its predecessor, so there’s a satisfying build up to their second fight, with Spiderman regaining his powers, his costume and his determination in time to confront Dock Ock - who’s kidnapped his girlfriend - atop a clock tower, in a fight which continues as they plummet onto a passing train at the bottom.
The French Connection. Gene Hackman’s tough New York cop Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle pursues an assassin by car - but the assassin’s in an elevated train and Doyle’s driving underneath. This unusual visual composition is enough to make it memorable, but the frantic cutting between Doyle’s charged face, the obstacles under the railway overpass - including a classic “mind that pram” moment - and the speeding train make it among the tensest chases filmed.
Bullitt: San Francisco car chase. Detective Frank Bullitt pursues two hitman through the streets of San Francisco. The touchstone of car chases, still impressive after all these years. McQueen, his Thunderbird, the rolling hubcaps and the hatchet faces of the two bad guys are iconic, and the sight of cars leaping over the hills of San Francisco is one of the enduring images of the cinema. The squealing of brakes makes for perfect incidental music.
Superman 3 - junkyard fight. Somewhat underrated, Superman 3 contains a sequence that was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen as a child Superman has been poisoned by some badly-synthesised kryptonite, and turned evil. Trying to fight off the effects mid-flight, he crash-lands in a junkyard and splits into two: a suited and bespectacled Clark Kent, and an unshaven Wicked Superman in a dark costume. The resulting fight is like a live-action version of a Loony Tunes or Tom and Jerry fight, but played straight enough to maintain tension. Clark hurls Wicked Superman into an acid pit. Wicked Superman leaps out and attacks Clark with a car bumper. Clark hurls tyres at Wicked Superman, encircling him. Wicked Superman breaks the tyres into pieces with a single bound, and drops a large magnet on top of Clark. He puts the unconscious Clark into a crusher, and symbolically crushes his glasses in his hand. Then Clark smashes straight through the wall of the crusher, grabs his alter ego by the throat and squeezes: Wicked Superman fades into thin air, Clark rips aside his shirt to reveal the brighter shades of the true Superman costume (I still find this a moving moment after all these years), and flies off to the triumphant John Williams theme. Perhaps it’s a depiction of the superego versus the id. Perhaps it represents the eternal struggle of good versus evil. The only thing for certain is that it’s a series of images with a unique effect on the viewer.
Kill Bill Vol.1: Beatrix Kiddo vs. the crazy 88. To justify its gruesome excess, Tarantino’s film needs a truly grand guignol climax to reach some kind of catharsis, and it doesn’t disappoint. This is probably the goriest swordfight filmed, as Uma Thurman’s arch assassin Beatrix Kiddo arrives to take revenge on one of the killers that left her for dead (Lucy Liu), but first has to fight her way through her gang of cronies, the Crazy 88, with only a samurai sword. It’s hard not to share Tarantino’s infatuation with Uma Thurman here, clad in that striking yellow tracksuit and wielding the “most perfect sword ever made by man”, her angry defiant beauty providing a heroic contrast to the brutality around her. The fight is so violent it shifts into black and white for the most part to get past the censor. Beatrix slices and dices, and even plucks an eye out (thank God for the black and white), but one could no more take offence than at the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where John Cleese’s Black Knight is dismembered but insists it’s a flesh wound. Just as the black-and-white effect disappears, someone cuts the lights and Beatrix and her opponents are seen only in silhouette. The fight has transcended violence and conflict between characters, and become purely aesthetic. It’s not quite comedy, it’s not quite dramatic tension, it’s something in-between.
Duel: final chase. Dennis Weaver’s stressed businessman David is being pursued by a truck driver suffering an extreme form of road rage. At the climax, David attempts to outwit his nemesis by driving up a steep grade, but just at his moment of triumph his radiator hose fails (has there ever been a more agonising moment in the cinema?) and his overheating car starts to lose speed. Spielberg’s first film is a thing of real beauty. The rusty, filthy, dragon-faced truck and the bland orange car are as superbly cast as Weaver. David reaches a precipice, turns round, jams his briefcase down on the accelerator, and leaps from the car as it ploughs into the truck. The truck gives the terrible roar of a behemoth as it and the smashed car plunge over the precipice. Filmed in slow motion, it’s oddly one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see in cinema. As David gibbers with glee at his victory, the audience has a sense of exhilaration that feels like it comes from somewhere deep inside us, and has lain there since the days of Beowulf and Grendel.