Cinema’s most epic shootouts

6 minutes



Action films are great. They allow you to escape reality and immerse yourself in adrenaline-fuelled drama that has you on the edge of the seat. To celebrate Ben Wheatley’s upcoming Free Fire, here are the most epic shootouts in movie history.

If you haven’t heard about Free Fire yet, add it to your calendar of things to watch. It comes to UK theatres on 31 March 2017. This is Wheatley’s sixth film, and if you hadn’t guessed already, features an amazing twelve-way shootout which keeps the action going up until the final cut. The film takes place in 1978, and the film is almost entirely shot within a tumbledown harbour side warehouse situated in Boston, Massachusetts, as representatives from the Irish Republican Army are collecting a shipment of assault rifles from a South African gun-runner and his pals.

As the deal goes, inevitably, southwards you can imagine the bloodbath that unravels as the two sides battle. So what makes a shootout so captivating to us? Is it the sense of impending danger we feel for the characters we connect with? Perhaps the sense of justice when the good guys, or sometimes the better guys, prevail over the baddies? Or our intense fascination with high adrenaline action, which balances the fine line between life and death, that seems somewhat impossible for us average-joes. Whatever your reason to love shootouts there are some absolute corkers that you should watch (if you haven’t already).

“Say hello to my little friend” must be one of the most renowned movie lines of all time. Scarface follows Tony Montana, played by acting legend Al Pacino, who rises from Cuban refugee with nothing to Miami’s most powerful drug kingpin. Tony Montana’s little friend is actually a M16 assault rifle with an M203 40mm grenade launcher attached to it, which, although shooting blanks, coincidently burnt Al Pacino’s hand during filming. Of course, live-firing guns are not allowed in Hollywood nowadays, and are often replaced with decorated air rifles and pistols. The not-so-little rifle is the source of vast destruction as swarms of gangsters bombard Montana’s office to kill him. The gangsters are unbelievably scattered around, in a one against many shootout which defies the odds.

Camera shutter speeds were electronically synchronised with the guns to effectively show the muzzle flashes. What makes this shootout legendary is the feeling the audience gets, even for a split second, that Montana is invincible as he withstands the multitude of bullets that pierce him. Standing on top of the balcony, with his arms held defiantly and that mix of crazy and ballsy look in his eye from all the cocaine, we are witnesses to the power of determination and his inevitable fall. In a crucifixion-pose, this is an epic climax, and stark reminder, that none of us are invincible.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
What classic movie shootout list would be complete without some western entries? Technically not a shootout in the traditional sense, as the scene only includes two shots fired, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a must for movie-lovers simply for its mastery over the cinematography. This 1960s classic creates a buildup of tension through carefully considered cuts of close ups and wide shots, synchronised with an incredible score by Ennio Morricone, that adds to the pending sense of death, and a doubt about who will be left standing. The drama unfolds against a backdrop of an eerily quiet graveyard, which is a blatant symbolic reference to the impending deaths. This stand-off optimises what makes westerns so enthralling to watch.

The Wild Bunch
Another western added to the list is The Wild Bunch. Unlike the western genre we all know and love, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch sets to overcome the romanticised vision of the Wild West through the gratuitous violence in a real portrayal of outlaws. The film was heavily criticised when it was released in 1969 for the heavy violence that unfolds. Peckinpah’s objective was to highlight the sanitised western TV at the time, through the violent themes of his movies, in the face of the violent reality unfolding in the Vietnamese war. The shootout scene in The Wild Bunch is known as one of the most violent ever made, with its sense of realism compared to other films within the genre, but with the over-styling of the violence – with intense zooms, rapid edits, and slow motion, the scene is somewhat desensitising. No-one is spared in the suicide mission in The Wild Bunch, with many dying in the shootout. Peckinpah wanted to capture so many deaths within the film that extras had to “die”, clean-up and “die” all over again.

The Matrix
If the link to real life is too much for you to immerse yourself in the shootout then switch over to the sci-fi genre, for shootouts that defy the realms of possibilities. The Matrix is a film that will forever go down in cinematic history and one that launched Keanu Reeves into the spotlight. If you don’t love The Matrix for the slow-motion, dodging bullet scenes that are a humanly impossible and impressive display of physic-bending acrobatics, then you must watch it simply for the iconic lobby scene. The scene took an incredible 10 whole days to shoot because it did not use CGI to create the unfolding destruction you witness, but instead used a series of explosions to create this non-stop fantastic display. However, when the actors went wrong, the scene had to be re-created and started again from the beginning (no wonder it took ten days). The result, however, is remarkable and everyone knows and appreciates the film for the larger-than-life action that inspired the way action scenes were shot in American action films.

Dream team Di Niro and Pacino come together in this mob film that is loved by many. Michael Mann’s Heat is about a big heist conducted by Di Niro’s character Neil McCauley that gets interrupted by the cops (Pacino’s team). What makes this shootout so special, and a big contender for biggest shootout of all time, is that all the gunfire sounds is the audio from the day of shooting, rather than added in post-production, with the echoes of the fire making the action more realistic. The scene is nail-bitingly tense as for ten minutes it is unsure who will be victorious in this stand-off.

And one you may not know…State of Grace
Cult classic State of Grace follows an undercover cop (Sean Penn) who goes back to the neighbourhood where he grew up to investigate the Irish mob. What makes the shooting scene in this film so significant to mention is the eerie silence of the complete scene. With only the sounds of guns present in the shootout, coupled with the slowed pace of the action, this film can be a hard one to watch due to its more realistic and heart-wrenching portrayal of violence, and the sense that no one will make it out alive.

Do you agree? What is your favourite movie shootout?

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