Here comes one of the worst admissions I’ve ever had to make. I have not seen Heat. If I were in a room with anyone reading this, I would use the next few seconds to curl into a hedgehog ball and await bombardment by shoe, vegetable and/or comedy anvil.
I had to confess though, because by all accounts Heat would likely make one of the top five spots. But it remains in my to-watch pile, so it can’t be included, so I’m very sorry and you all hate me and that’s okay. Oh and to make matters worse there’s no Scarface, no Clint Eastwood and no Magnificent Seven. I’m so sorry.
But at least it means there’ll be a few entries that will likely surprise you. Try to enjoy.
I first watched Robocop when I was 9 years-old. I taped it on my mum and dad’s VCR and watched it in secret. And I loved it! After my first viewing I would walk around the house pretending to pick drug dealers off on my landing and shoot fat guys in the chest in the kitchen, little knowing that I had been witness to one of the classic gunfights in action cinema. I love it just as much over 25 years later. And no matter how many times I see Clarence Boddicker thrown through plate glass, it’s still not enough.
I’m never quite sure whether this sequence is so good because it’s so visceral, or so bloody over-the-top ridiculous. By this point in Rambo we’ve seen true horror and are desperate to see Sly Stallone enact massive vengeance. So when he unloads round after round of body splattering bullets at the militia beneath him, it’s at once cathartic and outrageous. There’s not many films that are willing to show wave after wave of men literally being sliced in two and exploded by bullets, but Rambo goes that extra mile for you.
One of the best buddy movies also gets a truly great shootout. What elevates this one are the stakes. By this point we are rooting so much for the heroes that every shot feels like balancing on a knife edge. We’re desperate for these lovable rogues to make a getaway, even though (spoiler alert) we know they really won’t. So every move matters and we are on the edge of our seat the whole way through.
The John Wick of the early noughties, Shoot ’em Up is so filled with amazing gunplay (including the use of a carrot as a bullet!) that it’s difficult to just settle on a single sequence. But this truly innovative escape scene is right up there, with Clive Owen using anything and everything as a means to help him, whilst also shooting bad guys in the face with near ESP ability. The soundtrack is a welcome addition too, giving you chance to whack out your air drums and air guitar as you watch countless hoods being shot to death.
I can already hear some of you shouting at me for wasting an entry with under 20 seconds of pure silliness, but I couldn’t help myself. Sometimes you need to laugh at a thing to truly understand it, and there’s no funnier shootout than this. God bless Leslie Nielsen.
John Woo. That’s really all you need to say to warrant an entry on this list. His influence can still be felt on new action directors wanting to create maximum impact with their gunfights, and his slick style has often been imitated but never truly emulated (and certainly never bettered). This is one of those sequences that you can feel changing the game, even as it unfolds before you.
The Wachowskis did so much for cinema with The Matrix. They ushered in pioneering technical know-how, brought martial arts to a mass audience, and with this scene gave us a truly jaw dropping gun battle. One of the many things that makes the lobby shootout so special is how much of the sequence was achieved practically. All those pillars were built and rigged with explosives, then blasted to hell several times to achieve the chaos that we see on screen, and it feels so much more real because of it. When you add in the insane wire-work choreography and Bill Pope’s gorgeous cinematography, you get one of the greats.
You can’t have a shootout list without a Tarantino on it, which means this choice will probably be contentious, as I’m sure you all have your favourite. But this is mine. There’s so much tension in the build up to this massacre that when it unleashes it’s like getting hit with icy cold and soothing warm water at the same time. All the deaths are deserved and the blood squibs are some of the most explosive in cinema history. The fact that Tarantino placed his tongue firmly in cheek by having the bullets lift their victims off their feet and carry them back several feet only adds to the brilliance too.
I love all of Tombstone. You can take any single gunshot in this film and it would rank high on the list. The sound editing is just incredible. If you’ve never done it, you need to watch Tombstone on a decent sound system cranked all the way up. The gunshots are so loud you can feel them in your chest and through your teeth. So in this sequence, where several henchmen go up against Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Doc Holliday in extremely close quarters, it’s enough to leave your ears ringing for days. It’s what the Wild West was made for!
How can you not give the top spot to Sam Peckinpah’s shootout? This is the one that inspired so many others. Before The Wild Bunch nobody knew how beautiful and gruesome a shootout could be at the same time. The frenetic yet geographically grounded editing, the use of poignant slow motion. The saturated red blood spilling all over the dusty ground. It’s the perfect execution (pun intended) of a shootout.
Because I’m an idiot for not including any Sergio Leone in this list, enjoy the greatest opening scene of any film ever, which happens to include another stunning (albeit very quick) gunfight in it. Ladies and gentlemen, pray silence for Once Upon a Time in the West