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The Seven Best Action Scenes of the Last 20 Years

December 5, 2010  |  12:00pm
The Seven Best Action Scenes of the Last 20 Years

After years writing screenplays and working in the editing booth with Peter Berg, Michael Mann, and other greats, Richmond Riedel took the plunge into feature filmmaking this year with Target Practice, a harrowing outdoor action film that comes out on DVD this week. Unable to stop at five, Riedel chose his seven favorite action scenes of the last 20 years for Paste:

7. Children of Men – Single-shot fight-scene finale
How long is that shot? It just goes on and on, and there’s an amazing amount of carnage in that scene. It’s like, “You’re kidding me, we’re still on this shot? We went from around the corner, through the street, tanks are blowing up buildings, we’re running into this doorway and up the stairs into another room where people are shooting, and we’re still on the same take?” I hope they didn’t have to do too many takes on that shot. You know, “Back to one!” It’s amazing. It’s like a Scorsese shot through the middle of a battlefield.

6. The Thin Red Line – The attack on the Japanese pillbox
That scene so inspired me because it’s such a great feat of silent filmmaking. The shots of John Cusack and the rest of the guys sneaking through high grass slowly swaying in the wind. And you know that they’re walking right up into a s*#@storm. You’re on the edge of your seat, waiting for it to happen as that tension just builds and builds. And then it happens all at once. And again there’s not a lot of cutting, just Japanese soldiers coming in from everywhere. Malick lets the camera move basically with the point of view of the characters. That scene really taught me the strength of silence in building tension, and of the camera being right there with your guys.

5. Death Proof – Car-chase finale
I was just so impressed with Quentin Tarantino here, because this isn’t really what he’s known for. He’s more known for violent action and amazing dialogue. But the big screen image of this girl lying on the hood of the car, it’s absurd but it works. I was stunned by the imagery in that scene; it’s a really exciting car chase. And Kurt Russell is such a great villain in that film. The cinematography and wide screen imagery is so dynamic. A real tour de force for Tarantino.

4. Saving Private Ryan – The final battle in the French village
The most amazing war sequences ever put together. The way it was shot, with that crystal clarity that has since become almost a cliche in action scenes, that wide-open lens look. That hyper-kinetic, hyper-real look, and also how it just goes on and on, and how well it’s choreographed. Everyone looks to that opening beach scene, but that final battle in the French village is overlooked, this wonderful 30-minute battle scene that’s just as gripping. The moments of hand-to-hand combat, like when Adam Goldberg’s character gets that knife stuck into him. Watching that slow death is as horrendous as anything in the storming of the beach, and it’s even more powerful because now you know all these guys.

3. Heat – Downtown LA shootout scene
That’s one of the most amazing shootouts ever filmed. It’s kind of the anti-Sam Peckinpah shootout. Peckinpah’s scene in The Wild Bunch has all the slow motion, all the cuts back and forth, all the doubled-up action, and that’s all spectacular, and that scene would be on my all-time list. But in Heat, there’s such a documentary feel, where the camera just stays with it. Normally in a scene like that there’s many many cuts, but here there’s just so few. And then like a month afterwards there was that North Hollywood shootout with the bank robbers, and we all thought, “Wait, I just saw this in Heat.” That’s how real it was.

2. Point Break – Foot chase
Point Break also has one of the best skydiving sequence I’ve ever seen—better than Moonraker even. But that foot-chase scene—people in the theater were jumping out of their seats and applauding. It’s more exciting than a car chase, the way Kathryn Bigelow shot it with that camera traveling, chasing after guys and moving past guys and then spinning around and catching the next piece of action. Following them over a fence and through houses and everything. It’s one of the greatest chase scenes, period—car chase, anything—that I’ve ever seen. Bigelow is just amazing. That initial scene of Keanu Reeves walking into the FBI office builds tension through that same fluid camera motion.

1. Casino Royale – Opening chase scene
I remember sitting in a theater watching that scene for the first time and just grinning from ear to ear. You can’t take your eyes off the screen, and all it is is two guys chasing each other through all these obstacles. It’s just a dazzling piece of work, and it’s so simple. It’s not overly cutty, but the impact of each cut as it comes is just beautiful.

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