There are many lists on the internet that rank the greatest fight scenes, or the most impressive stunts pulled off by living human beings. This list is not like any of those. The following items listed below are, with some room for debate, the most influential stunts and action sequences in cinema, the ones that raised the bar and define what action movies looks like today.
From Buster Keaton to whatever Dwayne Johnson did this morning, these are the 16 most influential scenes in action movies.
16. Buster Keaton Brings Down the House (Steamboat Bill, Jr., 1928)
Fine, 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. isn’t an action movie. But it does have the first truly great movie stunt that the likes of Jackie Chan have emulated since.
Recognized as cinema’s greatest prankster, Buster Keaton is undeniably one of the first great stuntmen in history, as his physical feats were just as awe-inspiring as his knack for visual gags. In essence, Buster Keaton was the world’s first Viner.
But while Keaton has dozens of memorable stunts, the “falling house” gag from his 1928 comedy Steamboat Bill, Jr. — wherein the entire front face of a house falls “on top” of Keaton, untouched by an open attic window — is easily his most unforgettable.
There’s no innovative special effect here; it’s just good old fashioned precision. A single needle on the ground marked where Keaton stood, with a mere two inches of headspace separating himself from six tons of concrete and wood. In the 1997 biography Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase by Marion Meade, Keaton said of the stunt: “I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing.”
15. Yak’s Last Ride (Stagecoach, 1939)
Yakima Canutt, born 1895, was a champion rodeo rider until he went Hollywood, becoming one of the most renowned stuntman and stunt directors the industry had seen. His mythos was solidified in John Ford’s 1939 epic Stagecoach, where Canutt made the unbelievable jump from a running horse before “dropping” below, narrowly missing the galloping hooves and speeding wheels of the stagecoach.
If it looks familiar, it’s because Steven Spielberg paid Canutt homage in his own equally exciting chase sequence in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. A 1986 obituary published by the Los Angeles Times alleges that his Stagecoach stunt remained his favorite achievement throughout his career.
Two decades after Stagecoach, Canutt would direct yet another massively influential piece of cinema history: the chariot race in Ben-Hur.
14. Chariots of Fire (Ben-Hur, 1959)
“Scale” is the keyword for Ben-Hur. With an unprecedented budget of $15 million, William Wyler’s Oscar-grabbing Ben-Hur was, once upon a time, the epitome of Hollywood epics.
It was also an early example of a film studio taking competition from new media seriously, introducing breakthrough technologies like CinemaScope and 3D to lure audiences away from cheaper entertainment, like TV, at home. And Wyler set the gold standard for cinematic set pieces with the lavish “Chariot Race” sequence, which is big enough to have its own section in the film’s Wikipedia page.
While most of Ben-Hur was under Wyler’s direction (including the pre-race’s pageant scenes), the chariot race itself was directed by Canutt and Andrew Marton, working in a souped-up capacity of second unit directing. (Sergio Leone, who would go on to become a powerhouse director of his own as the innovator of spaghetti Westerns, was an assistant director for this sequence.)
We can illustrate the scale of this thing in cold, hard numbers: Nine teams of four horses. Five months of charioteering training. One-hundred practice laps. A 1 million-dollar set covering 18 acres. Forty-thousand short tons of sand. Eighteen chariots, each weighing 900 pounds. Twenty stable boys. Five weeks of filming. Two-hundred miles of racing. Two broken 70mm lenses, at a cost of $100,000 apiece. One heart attack, suffered by producer Sam Zimbalist who died on the Roman set at the age of 57. And 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and technical awards including Best Special Effects, Best Editing, and Best Sound.
Ultimately, the legacy of Ben-Hur and the chariot race is not just wrapped up in execution, but in the reasons for its precise maneuvers. Pressure from a changing media landscape to wow audiences forced filmmakers to put the pedal to the metal (or wood), making no object out of money. The emergence of 3D and IMAX and the attraction of even more spectacular sequences remain the hallmarks of today’s biggest Hollywood features.
13. The Dragon vs. Chuck (The Way of the Dragon, 1972)
It’s not a single physical achievement like the other stunts on this list, but the importance of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris’ fight scene from Way of the Dragon, set in a Roman coliseum, cannot be overstated. It is simply one of the greatest and most important action scenes of all time, directly influencing future movies like The Matrix (1999), Kill Bill (2003), and John Wick (2014).
Before Bruce Lee, martial arts films were often cartoonish and wacky, with actors doing 80 flips and a thousand spin kicks in a dizzying flurry. The action was also sped up, with the intent to keep the movie exciting and hide the fact most performers didn’t actually know how to fight.
But Bruce Lee (a legit tough guy who trained with the legendary Ip Man) and Chuck Norris (ex-Air Force and black belt in Tang Soo Do) knew how to fight. Their IRL strength and precision on camera made them look like brutish elephants who had the grace of swans. Their fight scene was also captured in slow-motion, because their skill deserved to be seen in its full glory.
“As a director and a fight choreographer, Lee was ahead of his time,” wrote Tom Breihan in a 2015 piece for Deadspin. “He knew to pull the camera back, to use a bit of slow-motion, to leave in extended long takes that let you see everything these guys are doing to each other. He knew this fight was his showstopper, and he treated it as such.”
In a 2014 interview with Bloody Elbow, Chuck Norris remembers Lee telling him he wanted to do a fight scene “that everyone will remember, like two gladiators fighting.” At the time Norris was asked, he was a reigning karate world champion, and Norris joked to the movie star Lee that Lee wanted to beat the world champ.
“No,” Lee said, “I want to kill the world champion.”
12. James Bond’s Astro Jump (The Man With the Golden Gun, 1974)
One of the coolest stunts in James Bond history is also one of the nerdiest, as it involved a ton of math and computing. In 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun, the ninth Bond film and the second starring Roger Moore, double-oh-seven makes a double-you-tee-eff jump over a Thailand river, “corkscrewing” his car — an AMC Hornet X — 270 degrees in mid-air.
In the film’s final cut, the stunt looks sort of goofy (unhelpfully set to the sound of a cartoonish slide whistle), but the making of it is nothing short of kick-ass calculations.
American stunt driver Jay Milligan invented the stunt, originally performing it in 1972 at the Houston Astrodome in an AMC Javelin. The stunt was even called the “Astro Spiral Jump.” Milligan then brought the stunt to the producers of James Bond, probably going, “Whaddaya think?” while with his arm over the roof. The producers then probably went, “Oh my god, yes” and immediately bought the rights to it, ensuring that no one else can legally do it ever again.
While Milligan mastered the jump in an arena, pulling it off on location and on film was another story. To make sure no one, uhh, died, the studio turned to Raymond R. McHenry, an engineer at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory (now Calspan Corp.) who was basically working out models to determine how cars worked, moved, crashed — you know, fun stuff, which also led to the creation of racing video games like Forza Motorsport.
Anyway, McHenry came up with HVOSM (Highway Vehicle Object Simulation Model), a mathematical model that is primarily used to analyze vehicular accidents. McHenry used the HVOSM to calculate the best conditions to recreate Milligan’s stunt, including driving speed (about 40 mph), roll velocity (230 degrees per second), and the distance and angles of the ramps. McHenry also implemented a computer-generated visualization, because why not?
All this math and computing was useful, as James Bond stunt driver Loren “Bumps” Willard successfully pulled off the jump. He did it in one take.
11. Race Through Paris (C’était un rendez-vous, 1976)
It might look like gameplay footage of the newest Gran Turismo, but it’s not. In 1976, French filmmaker Claude Lelouch captured eight minutes of a fast and furious drive through Paris.
Shot at the crack of dawn with a 35mm camera (and 1,000 feet of film) rigged to the bumper of a Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 (which Lelouch dubbed over with the engine of a Ferrari 275 GTB), Lelouch revved past red lights and Parisian landmarks like the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees, giving viewers a then-unseen view of a wild ride.
Today, one can’t watch C’était un rendez-vous without thinking of the hundreds of action movies and GoPro videos that were directly influenced by Lelouch’s daredevil drive through the city of love.
10. I Am Your Father (Empire Strikes Back, 1980)
Also like Bruce Lee beating Chuck Norris, Mark Hamill fighting the late fencer Bob Anderson in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back is a fully-loaded action scene, one imbued by the saga’s story, themes, and groundbreaking achievement in visual effects.
Infinitely more physical than Obi-Wan and Vader’s poke-y duel in A New Hope, and more raw than the polished 2-vs.-1 fight in The Phantom Menace, the battle between a space dictator and his (unknowing) hippie rebel son cemented not just Star Wars as the grand pooh-bah of epic film trilogies, but audience expectations for sequels.
Both Hamill and Anderson spent weeks training and rehearsing their fight; scour the internet for behind-the-scenes photos, or that recently unearthed making-of documentary, and you can see how ripped Hamill was.
And the length of Luke and Vader’s duel — also shot in medium and wide angles, similar to Bruce Lee — demanded the most out of Lucasfilm’s VFX and sound teams, which achieved the effect of lightsabers through frame-by-frame doctoring known in animation as rotoscoping. It’s one thing to render the effect in After Effects in 2018. It’s another thing entirely to do it by hand in 1980.
9. Leap of Faith (Police Story, 1990)
Nothing more needs to be said about Jackie Chan, the martial arts master and his generation’s Buster Keaton. But it’s his seriously deadly and spectacular stunt — sliding down a pole lit up with electric lights several stories down — in the finale of 1990’s Police Story that cemented Chan as an icon.
Shot with 15 cameras rolling simultaneously in the middle of a Hong Kong shopping mall (and under pressure to get the shot before the mall opened), Chan made his death-defying leap powered by sheer adrenaline. You can see and hear him scream just before leaping in the movie.
The stunt resulted in second-degree burns on his palms, broken seventh and eighth vertebrae, and a dislocated pelvis. After a beer and a nap, he went to shoot another movie, Heart of Dragon, where he found himself unable to open the door of his car.
8. One Shot, Many Bullets (Hard Boiled, 1992)
John Woo didn’t invent the “oner,” or a single shot filmed in one long continuous take, but he did make it thrilling: He added guns to the mix.
In his brilliant 1992 action noir Hard Boiled, Chinese director John Woo and cinematographer Wing-Hang Wong utilize a dynamic mix of close-ups, wide angles, and slow-motion to follow two heroic cops — played by Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung — armed to the teeth in firepower as they storm through a hospital overrun by violent criminals.
Throw a rock, and you’ll find an action movie or TV show today that has its own version of the oner. But almost all of them owe a debt to John Woo.
7. Arnold’s Ride Down (Terminator 2: Judgement Day, 1992)
The entire highway chase sequence in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day deserves to be archived for future generations. But one singular moment — Arnold Schwarzenegger’s big leap on a motorcycle — is a monster moment on its own.
Here’s the thing: Riding a 780-pound motorcycle to drop 40 feet is a recipe for literal disaster. To pull it off, stunt coordinator Gary Davis attached the motorcycle — driven by Peter Kent (who entered the Hollywood Stuntman’s Hall of Fame for this feat) — to wires, which alleviated a lot of the bike’s weight so only 180 pounds of the Harley Davidson hit the ground.
“It wasn’t a jump at all,” Davis explained to Motorcyclist. “We flew it in. We put a big crane at each end of this run, and the cranes were, I’m gonna say, about 150 yards apart, and then a cable ran between them pulled tight. Think of it as a curtain rod. Then we hung the Harley with two cables in the rear up to that curtain rod, then two cables in the front. So it just swung in the air. Then there was a third element, a fifth cable, attached to the Harley, and we would pull it along the top cable.”
While it looks legit, the stunt was only possible because of VFX. “In the early days, when we flew stuff around, we used piano wire, and we would do our best to dull it, hide it from cameras,” Davis said. “This stunt came along just when [James] Cameron changed the way we were filming, using computers. So now we can use big cable and don’t have to hide it at all. In fact, the more visible, the better! That makes it easier for the computer to “read” the cable; it’s easier to make it disappear. Now everything we’re doing can be much safer.”
To have done it for real, in Davis’ words, “would have been really stupid.”
6. Tom Cruise Hangs Loose (Mission: Impossible, 1996)
The franchise that cemented Tom Cruise’s reputation for having a death wish begins with Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible from 1996. In the two decades since the films began, Cruise has done everything from free climb a goddamn mountain without wires to hanging off an actual moving airplane. But the most iconic stunt of the first film, in which Cruise’s Ethan Hunt sneaks in hanging by wires, was just as dangerous, and the one that permanently raised expectations forever.
“It’s very difficult to hang straight up like that,” De Palma said in a making-of documentary. “It takes tremendous amount of muscle control. Tom was able to bring reality to it. You see the terrific tension he’s under.”
“That was very difficult actually because you’re hanging upside down for a long period of time,” Cruise said. “It can make people nauseous. But the most difficult part of it was the point where I dropped down.”
Two handlers held Cruise on rope, basically treating the actor like a theater curtain and feeding him up and down. It looks easy, but the speed Cruise yo-yoed would mean a full-force collision with the ground could be fatal.
“That looks effortless, but that was a really difficult stunt,” said producer Paula Wagner, “and if you drop him too far down, that’s not good. Because he was coming fast, down. That I think is one of the hardest stunts that Tom’s done.” Oh, no one had seen anything yet.
5. One Man Army (The Protector, 2005)
Alfred Hitchcock never could have predicted Thai action star Tony Jaa. In a lengthy four-minute sequence, the longest continuous fight scene in film history, the Muay Thai master takes on an entire gang of several dozen men alone in a Sydney, Australia, high-rise.
According to Tom-Yum-Goong (released as The Protector in the US) director Prachya Pinkaew on the film’s DVD commentary, the fight scene took five full takes due to factors like stunt objects failing to break and stuntmen missing cues. All five takes were filmed over a one-month period.
“This sequence is not only a showcase for Jaa’s stamina, but also his charisma,” wrote Simon Abrams in a 2017 piece for Vulture. “Other stars would have to ramp up the brutality to hold your attention for four minutes of nonstop ass-kicking. More would get lost in a technically impressive scene that might have felt like a cut scene from a beat-’em-up video game. But Jaa holds your attention throughout. You feel his exhaustion; by the time he’s reached the top of the stairs, you feel like you’ve climbed all that way with him.”
4. The Hallway Fight (Inception, 2010)
Although just 30 seconds of screen time, the show-stopping “hallway dream fight” epitomizes the bonkers premise of Inception, in which an eclectic group of thieves use dreams to perform corporate espionage.
Not one to do things digitally, director Christopher Nolan and renowned cinematographer Wally Pfister shot the scene as practically as possible. To do so, a colossal spinning stage was built inside the large RAF Cardington sheds in Bedfordshire (where Nolan also filmed scenes of his Batman trilogy).
It was then up to special effects supervisor Chris Corbould and production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas to solve how to bring Nolan’s vision to life. Influenced by the spinning station of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the team built a spinning corridor, 120 feet long and 30 feet wide, which possessed a skeleton of seven I-beam rings with roller wheels every 16 feet along the corridor.
Popular Mechanics revealed that the room spun thanks to two computer-controlled electric motors, which ran at a speed of 55 horsepower. The filmmakers just had to press a button. The room completed one revolution every 10 seconds.
Now try fighting in it.
“The corridor rotates in a constant rhythm, and you have to stay on beat,” said actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who performed the film’s fight scene in an interview with Popular Mechanics. “You have to know when the floor becomes the wall and the wall becomes the ceiling. I would count and repeat melodies — usually Bach — in my head to keep me on time.”
Wally Pfister told MTV News that shooting happened piecemeal over three weeks. “We kept coming back to it,” he said. “We’d shoot out a part of a sequence and then the riggers would have to adjust something. We’d duck out and shoot something else and come back a few hours later and shoot more. The whole thing was spread out over about three weeks. You’ve never seen anything like this before.”
3. Fast Fall (Fast Five, 2011)
Before it was a juggernaut film franchise, the Fast and the Furious movies were humble crime dramas set in the world of street racing. That all changed with 2011’s Fast Five, which also introduced Dwayne Johnson to the series in a calculated move that buffed up the franchise’s box office potential.
In a sharp pivot from racing to straight action, filmmaker Justin Lin made sure to come out of the gate swinging with a jaw-dropping stunt that would communicate to audiences exactly just where the Fast and the Furious movies were going: down.
For the climax to the film’s opening train heist, Brian (Paul Walker) and Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) make a getaway on an exotic Chevy Corvette before leaping 300 feet down from a cliff and into a river below.
Did the filmmakers of Fast Five actually throw luxury cars and actors for a 300-foot drop? Of course not. They threw luxury cars and actors down a 50-foot drop.
“Basically there was this quarry in Atlanta,” said MPC VFX supervisor Guillaume Rocheron in an interview with fxguide. “They basically threw an empty car in the water and they had two stunt guys jumping from the cliff edge into the water. We used parts of the live action to comp into the shots.”
Essentially filmed in three parts, the filmmakers shot two stuntmen wired by harness to jump 50 feet down, straight into water. They then shot the car, which was launched on what was “basically an air cannon,” explained Michael J. Wassel, VFX supervisor, in a making-of feature on the film’s Blu-ray bonus feature. And then, the actors shot their close-ups in front of a green screen on a parking lot, with the actors actually hoisted up a few dozen feet in the air.
Before this stunt, the Fast and the Furious films basically kept to the ground. But this stunt from Fast Five really elevated their game to a whole new level.
2. Burj Khalifa (Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, 2011)
Imagine dangling 1,700 feet in the air, 250 higher than the top of the Empire State Building, with only a wire the size of a piano cable holding all your weight. Now imagine being Tom Cruise. Of course you say yes.
For Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, directed by Brad Bird, Tom Cruise actually, physically scaled the outside of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest structure located in Dubai, for a major set piece in the movie. Over the course of eight days, the filmmakers dangled the then 49-year-old action star in an operation that Bird jokes had as much careful planning “as a D-Day invasion.”
“One night, after one of the earliest shooting days, I bolted up in bed realizing that we had our star dangling about a mile up in the air on a thin wire, and my brain was screaming, ‘What the hell are we doing,’” Bird told the New York Daily News in an email. “The whole thing was one, extended, hair-raising moment but we planned well.”
1. Hanging Tight (Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, 2015)
The spectacle of the Burj Khalifa climb marked the return of the eminent Mission: Impossible series. Four years later, for Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Cruise was compelled to top the Burj Khalifa by attaching himself to a freaking moving plane!
“It wasn’t in the script. It was just something that Tom wanted to do, said stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood in an interview with Inverse.
While it was easy for the filmmakers to be on board, Airbus — the manufacturer of the A400M Atlas used in the film — was super hesitant at first. “Long story short, [we] ended up doing another trip down to France with some drawings and diagrams that presented the stunt from the pilot’s perspective,” Eastwood said. “I’m also a pilot, so I presented something about how we’re going to make it as safe as possible, and how we were going to protect the aircraft, which is worth a fortune and very much still in the test phase.”
After the pitch, the chief test pilot “agreed with a handshake.” Two weeks later, “the plane showed up, the crew jumped out, and basically they gave us the keys.”
The shot took five takes to get right. “[H]e had to fly the full circuit,” Eastwood said. “Tom insisted on feeling all the forces — he didn’t want to act it, and he wanted the audience to feel it. When you see the plane taking off it’s flying at 35 degrees. It’s doing an airshow takeoff, which they do at shows to make it look dramatic and wow the audience. We did airshow simulation takeoffs and circuits so that he was really flipping on the plane and really falling.”