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A Bullet in the Head - The Ten Best Shoot-out's
by The Guv'nor

Ask anyone to list their five greatest fears, and it’s odds-on that being murdered will be up there with public speaking and being sodomised by banjo-plucking hillbillies. It seems a little strange, then, that we take such pleasure in watching people blow each other away on the silver screen – but for the grace of God, it could be you or I checking out of this joint courtesy of a bullet with our name on it.

Psychologists probably have an explanation for this kind of thing – I would imagine it’s something to do with confronting our fears in a fantasy setting, or perhaps it’s merely a manifestation of our accident-scene mentality. I would suggest, however, that it’s more to do with our desire to retreat to a world where justice prevails, where those who perpetrate evil earn themselves an extended sojourn in a pine box six feet under. The muzzle speaks, and the word it forms is “vengeance”.

The celluloid shoot-out has a long and glorious history, and so I feel the time is right to separate the wheat from the chaff. Good action sequences are not merely about the body count – they’re about style, and the best will have you nailing yourself to the seat to avoid being blown through the back wall of the cinema.

Before we begin, a couple of notes:

(i) A battle is not a shoot-out, so the likes of the opening twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan are excluded from consideration.

(ii) To be eligible, the shoot-out in question must be a reasonably definable set-piece which focuses on gunplay. The sequence in Aliens where Ripley and the remaining marines attempt to escape the clutches of H.R. Giger’s most enduring creation is a nail-biter, but it falls outside the definition by virtue of the fact that it’s less about guns and more about running like hell.

(iii) Every sequence which makes the list is described in enough detail to ruin the film if you haven’t seen it. In case you missed it the first time, I’ll say it again – this essay contains major spoilers. If you plan on catching any of these films, skip over the relevant section and save yourself the trouble of fronting up to my place of residence with a lynch mob in tow.

Introduction over – let’s get down to business.

#9 - L.A. Confidential (1997)
Directed by Curtis Hanson

The finger on the trigger: Corner-cutting cop Bud White (Russell Crowe) and his straight-laced compatriot (Guy Pearce).

Dead men walking: Farmer Hoggett from Babe and his corrupt cronies.

Motivation for mayhem: Through a series of events too complicated to relate, our heroes attract the delicate attentions of their money-grubbing superior. The City of Angels is a long way from the Alamo, so they settle on a rather small house instead.

The legacy of lead: Shotgun blasts ring out in the dead of night, goons learn why you should check under the floorboards before entering a strange building, and Rollo Tomasi wanders in for a look-see.

The end result: James Cromwell lives to regret showing Pearce the ropes.

The bottom line: For a film which spends 95% of its extended duration concentrating on plot, character development and style, L.A. Confidential sure knows how to end with a bang. The shoot-out takes place in a confined space, but this actually works in its favour since it lends a claustrophobic air to the proceedings. The first time you see it you’re on the edge of your seat, and it’s a powerhouse climax to a great film.

#8 - The Matrix (1999)
Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

The finger on the trigger: Thomas Anderson, a.k.a. Neo (Keanu Reeves) and femme fatale Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss).

Dead men walking: The poor slobs manning a security checkpoint, and a bunch of soldiers who should have stuck to cleaning the latrines.

Motivation for mayhem: The Agents have kidnapped rebel leader Moebius and imprisoned him at the top of an office building. Neo and Trinity equip themselves with guns (lots of them, in fact) and proceed to perpetrate the biggest massacre since Little Big Horn.

The legacy of lead: For once, the fact that the goons can’t shoot straight is for reasons other than to avoid a premature end to the movie. Neo and Trinity run up walls, dodge bullets and kill a great many people without breaking a sweat.

The end result: Lots of flag-draped coffins.

The bottom line: An exhilarating set-piece, accompanied by pounding music and ridiculously loud Foley-assisted gunfire. Only minus – the soldiers have no idea that they’re helping protect the scourge of the human race, so in effect the rampage is less about justice and more about cold-blooded murder. Shame on us for enjoying it so much.

#7 - Commando (1985)
Directed by Mark Lester

The finger on the trigger: John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a family man who proves the adage “once a mercenary, always a mercenary”.

Dead men walking: A death squad inhabiting an island villa. Oh, and Wez from Mad Max 2.

Motivation for mayhem: Ex-dictator Arius wants his old job back, and elects Arnie as the man for the mission. To ensure his compliance, he kidnaps Matrix’s daughter and spirits her away to an uncharted island. After a pleasant day spent breaking necks, leaping out of the cargo bay of a 747 and dropping David Patrick Kelly off a cliff, Matrix goes for the goon-extermination record for an encore.

The legacy of lead: Proving that Stallone’s not the only person who can fire a plastic M-60 one-handed, Arnie momentarily shelves his one-liners in favour of blood-drenched mayhem. To break the monotony, he finds time to go goon-gardening with the contents of a tool shed.

The end result: Vernon Wells lets off some steam.

The bottom line: Somewhat nastier than the other entries on this list (the sight of a soldier copping a circular-saw blade to the noggin is not for the squeamish), this slice of vintage Schwarzenegger still packs a wallop. And if you’ve ever wondered whether Arnie’s acting ability has improved over the years, the first five minutes of this film provide the answer.

#6 - Scarface (1983)
Directed by Brian DePalma

The finger on the trigger: Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a gangster with an unfortunate habit of getting high on his own supply.

Dead men walking: An assassination squad comprising long-haired types who look like they should be handing out flowers in the Haight, as opposed to committing acts of bloodthirsty butchery.

Motivation for mayhem: After a spell of increasingly irrational behaviour, Montana refuses to complete a hit on the grounds that a woman and child are involved (this being despite the fact that he has shown no compunction about wasting everyone he comes into contact with, up to and including his best friend. This is one dude whose sister you don’t want to seduce.) The Colombian drug lord who sponsored the hit is less than impressed with Tony’s response to his polite enquires about what the hell went wrong, so he arms the local commune and orders them to bring him Montana’s head on a plate.

The legacy of lead: Wielding a ridiculously large automatic rifle (with optional underslung grenade launcher), Montana cuts a bloody swathe through his oppressors. Since he’s the last of the red-hot tough guys, seeking cover is the last thing on his mind as he hails equal quantities of abuse and automatic weapon fire upon his enemies, the fact that he should be dead from numerous bullet wounds failing to penetrate his coke-sodden brain.

The end result: A cowardly shotgun blast to the back finally shuts his mouth, much to the relief of Christian movie monitors everywhere.

The bottom line: A powerful sequence, its impact partially diminished by the passage of time, appalling background music and a number of recent high-octane releases.

#5 - Heat (1995)
Directed by Michael Mann

The finger on the trigger: To the left: DeNiro and his band of ice-cool heistmeisters. To the right: Pacino and the boys in blue. In the middle: everyone with the misfortune of being in downtown Los Angeles on that particular day.

Dead men walking: Fifty/fifty each way.

Motivation for mayhem: Bringing DeNiro to justice has become Pacino’s mission in life. DeNiro believes that you should be able to leave your entire life behind at the drop of a hat. Having failed to resolve their philosophical differences over a cappucino in a roadside diner, they let their trigger fingers do the talking.

The legacy of lead: Armed with bad-ass automatic rifles and an even worse attitude, DeNiro and Co. proceed to shoot up the entire downtown area. They’re outnumbered, but certainly not outgunned, and the cops are left to curse whoever decided that a .38 calibre pistol should be standard issue for frontline troops in an urban assault.

The end result: Tom Sizemore learns that when it comes to choosing a human shield, fat slobs are preferable to four-foot children.

The bottom line: The guns rattle with the force of helicopter rotors, bullets slam into parked cars, windows explode, and the tension hits the red zone as you wonder how the hell anybody’s going to get out of this one alive. This shoot-out is almost unique in that you’re not sure who you’re supposed to be rooting for (I say almost, because Face/Off pulled a similar stunt), but that merely adds to the excitement.

#4 - A Better Tomorrow II (1987)
Directed by John Woo

The finger on the trigger: Rice-loving gunslinger Ken (Chow Yun-Fat), reformed gangster Ho (Lung Ti), and part-time drooling lunatic Lung (Dean Shek).

Dead men walking: The boys from Goons-R-Us, complemented by one super-cool tough guy who is definitely surrounded by idiots.

Motivation for mayhem: A local mob boss kills Ho‘s brother, which rates about a 9 on the Reasons To Be Wasted scale.

The legacy of lead: You might imagine that three guys planning an assault on a heavily-guarded mansion would choose to sneak in through a sewer pipe, blow up a neighbouring house as a diversion, or wheel a giant wooden horse up to the front gates. That all seems like too much trouble for our heroes, so they march straight up the driveway, impressing the twenty goons guarding the front door with their chutzpah. To nobody’s surprise, violence ensues.

The end result: The police find the trio sitting in armchairs, surrounded by a mound of bodies. They are crowned masters of their domain.

The bottom line: Before he blew us away with The Killer Woo honed his style with this underrated gem, which was once listed as Tarantino’s favourite shoot-out. In addition to the usual arcing bodies and gratuitous explosions, this set-piece is notable for providing us with a remedial study in the use of a samurai sword when you’re short on ammunition; an object lesson in why goons shouldn’t pack themselves into corridors when automatic weapons are about; and a one-on-one between Chow Yun and the mob bosses’ right hand man which conjures visions of Flynn and Rathbone in a swashbuckling duel to the death (okay, so I’m going a bit far with that last one). It’s not as free-flowing as I would have liked, and the goons are even stupider than usual, but a flawed Woo action sequence is still better than most directors’ best.

#3 - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Directed by Sergio Leone

The finger on the trigger: High plains drifter “Blondie” (Clint Eastwood), gutter trash Tuco (Eli Wallach) and hired killer “Angel-Eyes” (Lee van Cleef).

Dead men walking: Il brutto.

Motivation for mayhem: Tuco, Blondie and Angel-Eyes are on a mission to locate a cashbox of stolen bullion, buried in a graveyard somewhere in the American West. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours they change allegiances several times, catch up with old friends, help fight the Civil War, and smoke a great many stogies.

The legacy of lead: After an extended three-way stand-off, Eastwood blows Angel Eyes into a freshly-dug grave. As an afterthought, he shoots his black hat in after him (Leone was no stranger to symbolism).

The end result: There are two kinds of people in this world - those with loaded guns, and those who dig. Tuco digs.

The bottom line: Only one bullet is fired in anger, but this effort earns its place through the spellbinding lead-up. You can almost feel the heat rising from the sun-baked stones as Leone zooms in on sweaty brows, furtive eyes and twitching trigger fingers, while Morricone’s Il Triello saws away in the background. Then, just when you don’t think you can take it for another second, the music cuts and they go for their guns. Not just one of the ten best shoot-out’s, but one of the ten greatest movie moments you’re ever likely to witness.

#2 - The Wild Bunch (1969)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah

The finger on the trigger: Four ageing, tough-as-nails outlaws (William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates), fresh from a lifetime spent riding roughshod over the American West.

Dead men walking: An entire army of hard-bitten Mexicans.

Motivation for mayhem: After indulging in a spot of gun-running, our grizzled gunslingers become houseguests of the mildly-demented General Mapache. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, he gets it into his head that imprisoning their latest recruit, Angel (Jaime Sánchez), on trumped-up charges of theft is an appropriate way to repay their kindness. In direct contravention of the Geneva Convention, he proceeds to amuse himself by dragging Angel behind one of those new-fangled horseless carriages, cutting his throat for an encore. Needless to say, our heroes are not amused.

The legacy of lead: In a truly vicarious display of vengeance, Angel’s body has barely hit the ground before the General’s internal ventilation system is improved via a number of rather large bullet holes. An orgy of violent retribution follows, with the odds evened by the fact that the soldiers have spent the last twenty-four hours drinking an entire town dry. To quote Steve Buscemi’s character from Desperado: “Cut-throat scumbags were coming out of the woodwork and dying much deserved deaths”, and matters improve dramatically once a tripod-mounted machine gun comes into play (this was later ripped off by Walter Hill for Extreme Prejudice – he’ll tell you it was a homage, but you and I know better). The violence portrayed in this extended shoot-out was considered shocking in 1969, and thirty-one years later it still leaves you reeling.

The end result: Our heroes earn a one-way trip to Boot Hill, while the Mexican army set their sights on a mass grave.

The bottom line: Absolutely stunning, and all the more affecting because you actually care about the characters. It may be an elegy for the West, but it’s also one of the most heroic last stands you’re ever likely to witness.

#1 - The Killer (1989)
Directed by John Woo

The finger on the trigger: Mild-mannered assassin-with-a-conscience “Jeff” (the incomparable Chow Yun-Fat) and sympathetic cop Lee (Danny Lee).

Dead men walking: The entire criminal population of Hong Kong.

Motivation for mayhem: Having partially blinded a nightclub singer during a botched hit, Jeff needs his blood money to finance her eye operation (I am not making this up). Mob boss Johnny Weng decides that killing him would be easier than forking over the cash, proving that he is a rather poor judge of character.

The legacy of lead: Following a preliminary skirmish which is considerably better than the climax of most action films, Weng, super-cool hitman Frankie Foong and the entire guest list of the 1989 Hong Kong Goon Convention front up to a church with the intention of putting paid to their little problem. Wielding enough weaponry to finance a Central American revolution, Jeff and Lee put paid to their little problem.

The end result: A bumper year for the Kowloon Undertakers Guild.

The bottom line: There’s never been anything like it, and there probably never will be again. Double-pistol mayhem; a back-to-back rotating whirlwind of death; Chow Yun pirouetting gracefully while unloading an entire Magnum clip into some poor slob; three guys on a scaffold dancing to the tune of automatic weapon fire; appropriate use of slo-mo, music and silence – Woo doesn’t know when to stop, and as a result we are treated to the most astonishing shoot-out ever staged for our viewing pleasure. Woo recycled much of the action for later releases, but this is the original and best. Only problem – after you’ve seen it, you’ll never be able to unreservedly praise another gun-heavy action sequence again.


#10 - Near misses (take your pick)

– the shoot-out between the SWAT team and Troy’s cronies should have been something for action fans to talk about for years to come. Unfortunately, Woo makes a couple of uncharacteristic errors – not only is it impossible to work out what’s going on, he sees fit to play out half of the action to the tune of Over the Rainbow (and yeah, I know it was meant to juxtapose the innocence of youth with the evil that men do, but an action set-piece is no place for such shenanigans). A major disappointment.

Desperado – the preliminary skirmish in the bar is certainly stylish, but the fact that Rodriguez is a Woo fan ensures we’ve seen it all before. The climactic gunfight is notable for a couple of lethal guitar cases, but again there’s nothing particularly original, and the scene where Banderas rushes the wounded kid to hospital had action fans wondering why Rodriguez felt the need to recreate the only boring sequence in The Killer.

True Romance – a three-way stand off between the cops, a couple of bodyguards and four Mafia hitmen probably sounded good on paper, but the fact that it takes place in a confined space means that it plays out too quickly – it’s difficult to work out who’s wasting who, and to cap it off the two smarmiest, stupidest protagonists in movie history are the only ones who fail to cop a bullet.

Hardboiled – Woo strikes again with an extended climactic shoot-out, but it’s a little unfocussed and eventually outstays its welcome. It also marks the nadir of Woo’s obsession with dragging children into the action – the sight of Chow Yun holding a shotgun in one hand and a baby in the other will have you praying for a dose of selective amnesia.

The Long Riders – the James Gang gets shot to pieces as they ride out of town. Top-notch choreography and stunt-work make it memorable, but it’s short on heroics.

Young Guns – the final shoot-out is better than it has any right to be, and features a memorable scene where a soldier unloads an entire crate of gatling gun ammunition into an unarmed lawyer for no better reason than because it seems like a good idea at the time (I imagine there are many viewers who can appreciate the sentiment).

The Punisher – approximately twenty Japanese swordsmen kneel in a dojo, having become lean, mean killing machines through years of painstaking practice. Dolph Lundgren and Jeroen Krabbe wander in and machine-gun the lot of them. I laughed.

The Island – approximately a dozen modern-day pirates dance a jig on the corpses of a navy crew, having become lean, mean killing machines through years of murdering unarmed civilians. Michael Caine wanders in and machine-guns the lot of them. I laughed again.

The Professional (a.k.a. Leon) - the cops front up to Jean Reno's place of residence, intent on bringing the reclusive hit-man to justice. Unfortunately for them, they reckoned without Reno's penchant for scaling walls and his natural talent for firing two pistols upside-down while performing manoeuvres which, in another life, would have made him a shoo-in for the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. It's a polished sequence, but suffers from the fact that it involves the murder of a large number of innocent cops who, to be honest, are justified in their desire to take Reno down.

Unforgiven – bar owner Skinny eschews Christmas decorations in favour of Morgan Freeman’s corpse, so Clint kills him, bad boy Bill Daggett and a bunch of amiable deputies. He even shoots one poor slob in the back, proving that sportsmanship is best left to the swashbucklers.

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originally posted: 05/26/00 16:29:42
last updated: 05/27/00 11:47:06
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