Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Top 10 Action Scenes of 2017

            What happened to action movies this year?  Something must have aligned on a cosmic level in 2017, because for all of the shit going on elsewhere in the world, the year was packed with awesome, solidly-made action movies.  And I’m not just talking about the summer- from the March international release of Logan all the way through New Year’s, there was nearly always at least one great action film running in theaters in a given time. 

            Some were fantastic films that will be remembered as significant game-changers within their genres, some were just solid B-movies, but nearly all of the year’s action-heavy releases had at least one great sequence in them to make then worth a watch.  And many had considerably more than just one.  And so, while it was a great year all-around for the movies, it’s especially important to take time this awards season to recall and be grateful for just how spoiled we action fans were in 2017. 

            I have thus shouldered the hellish task of trying to pick out a mere ten of the year’s best action scenes for a ranking, although there were easily over two dozen scenes that could qualify for such a list, so absence here should in no way be taken as a slight.  For this list, I looked at three primary aspects of the scene to rank them:

1. How technically impressive or innovative was the scene on a filmmaking level?
2. Does the scene have any relevance to either the film’s plot or the development of a particular character, or is it just visual fireworks for its own sake? 
3. Is it groundbreaking in some way, i.e., will it have any likely influence or importance outside the context of the film it’s in? 

            Much of this is, to a certain extent, purely subjective, so if my list doesn’t jive with yours, let me know in the comments below! Where possible, I have linked in videos to the scene in question for easier viewing, but all these films are worth watching from start to finish. 

            Oh, and spoilers for many of these films, since some of these are major plot climaxes. 

Honorable Mentions: Baby Driver- “The Foot Chase”, Dunkirk- the ship sinkings, Tiger Girl- “The Subway Fight”, Star Wars: The Last Jedi- “Opening Space Battle”, John Wick 2- “Hall of Mirrors”

10. Thor: Ragnarok- “Thor vs Hulk”

            The Marvel movies have always featured some great action beats in their films, but the most memorable tend to be the ones they have the most fun with.  Great effects and crisp fighting, sure, but with a sense of humor and a willingness to break the fourth wall in the best way.  The re-entry of Banner/The Hulk is a prime example of this- in an instant, all the serious tension these scenes usually hold is punctured by Thor’s jubilant yell and Loki’s reaction when The Hulk appears, hands-down one of the funniest things I saw in a movie all year.  The clear instinct for when and how to draw the biggest laugh on display here is essentially the whole film in miniature, and Exhibit A of why it’s The Best Marvel Movie.   

9. Guardians of the Galaxy 2- “Come A Little Bit Closer”

            And speaking of Marvel movies knowing just the right buttons to push!  This climactic moment from the second Guardians movie was, with my sincerest apologies to the entirety of Baby Driver, the single best use of a song underscoring an action scene this year, primarily through just how overtly cartoonish it is.  This should be a far more terrifying moment than it is, but the combination of the song and the slapstick manner of half the deaths made it impossible to not laugh watching this.  Slaughter has never looked (or sounded) so good. 

            And yeah, I couldn’t even fit Baby Driver onto this list.  Or Logan.  Or Blade Runner.  THAT’S how good this year was. 

8. John Wick 2- “The Catacombs”

            Hands down the best pure shoot-out of the year.  John Wick shows off just how far ahead of everyone he is when he fully plans for his employer to betray him following a hit, and he fills the catacombs of Rome beforehand with all manner of heavy firearms, strategically placing them so that he can reach each one just as the last runs out of ammo.  Suffused with blue and orange tones, the angles, colors, and setting make for an experience as ambient as it is intense.  

7. Mr. Long- “The Final Fight”

            Mr. Long could basically be summed up as “John Wick, if he were Taiwanese and could also cook.”  Forced to hide from a local Japanese gang after a hit goes awry, Long is finally found out, and the gang leader’s cronies threaten the lives of the villagers he’s befriended.  In the climactic fight scene, they finally meet face-to-face, and Long cuts.  Right.  Through.  Them.  .

            This sequence is slightly held back by being a touch tropey- they really could have tried to gang up on him a more, and yeah, that one guy with the gun does wait way too long to jump in- but as an emotional breaking point for a character whose spent an entire film clearly holding everything inside, it doesn’t get much more potent than this.  The scene alone can’t really convey the feeling you get after seeing the entire film before it and knowing just how much this guy has been holding back to try and keep his new friends safe, and just how much pain is now being released as he realizes just how badly he failed. 

6. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets- “Market Shootout and Chase”

            Despite the unevenness in tone and acting that ultimately held it back, Valerian was nothing if not a stunningly ambitious film, and its best moments could very well end up being some of the most influential visual sequences to come out of 2017.  One of the most daring was the first major shootout and chase sequence of the film, taking place in a massive, interdimensional marketplace, where a technical glitch results in the main character having his gun hand caught in one dimension and his body in another, leaving him vulnerable in both until his partner can find him and fix the glitch.  It’s a staggeringly creative scene in a movie full of amazing design ideas, and even though much of the movie ultimately didn’t work, moments like this still made it worth seeing on the big screen. 

5. Atomic Blonde- “Staircase Fight”

            Charlize Theron’s recent turn as an action lead has been nothing short of inspired, and her performance is the key reason to watch this neon-glazed return to the genre of Cold War spy thrillers.  The plot has the usual twists and double-turns, but it’s in the action beats that the film hits its stride, and its best sequence by far is this brutal, third-act fight in a staircase and apartment.  Painstakingly crafted to look like it was done in a single take (several people from the John Wick movies were involved in the production), this is part of an extended third-act climax where Theron tries to navigate a turncoat spy out of East Berlin despite a raft of Soviet agents sent to stop her, include one of the main henchmen who’d been dogging her since she arrived from London.  Much of the scene’s tension comes from how the actors realistically show just how.  Effing.  Exhausting.  This level of combat is and the toll it takes on the body. 

4. John Wick 2- “John Wick vs. The Assassins”

            After a bounty is placed on his head, John Wick finds himself beset on all sides by seemingly every assassin in New York.  The mixed nature of these fights allows for a really creative and impressive variety of weapons, people, and techniques used to take John Wick down (and all of them failing).  We finally learn why the thought of John Wick with a pencil sends shivers down the crime world’s collective spine (and oh God, is it horrifying), and it ends with a sequence of him and Common shooting at each other covertly before ending their battle with a heart-stopping knife fight inside a subway. 

3. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi- “The Throneroom”

**sadly no clip of this scene in good quality is on Youtube.  You really should watch the film anyway**

            There were so many action beats in the latest Star Wars movie that could be on this list, but the highlight for me is and shall remain the throne room battle between Rey and Kylo and the red-cloaked guards of Snoke following his death.  The film’s motif of red hits a particular intensity here, with the walls and uniforms of the soldiers appearing uniformly threatening as they close in around the two.  It also allows for a surprising amount of hard-edged brutality to the fight in a franchise known more often for being “clean” in its violence.  The whole affair ends with the two alone and seemingly surrounding by raining fireballs, as both the battle outside and their own emotional journeys within the film reach one of the year’s most powerful climaxes. 

2. Dunkirk- The Air Combat

            Dunkirk was about as intense an experience as it got in theaters in 2017, with the technical mastery of Nolan and his crew on full display in each scene showing the inherent chaos and overwhelming sensory overload of war.  Nowhere was this more impressive (at least in my book) than in the air combat scenes, possibly the best-made and most realistic of such sequences we’ve yet gotten in a war movie. 

            The intimate closeness of the camera within the cockpit allows you to feel how small and cramped it must have been to fly the planes, and how few your options for surviving are if you’re hit.  Up close, we rattle, and swerve and duck with the pilots, each one managing to act remarkably effectively through their heavy airmen’s gear.  But then, when the scene cuts to the outside, the camera sweeps out in dizzyingly grand angles, making these machines of death appear small and insignificant when compared with the magnificence backdrop of nature’s beauty.  Every shot, every turn, every bailout or crash has a real weight that makes you feel each second you spend in the air with the pilots.  I don’t expect to see a WWII movie match this one for a long, long time.  

1. Wonder Woman- “No Man’s Land”

            The best action scene of the year succeeded in being so many things at once, I don’t even think I could manage to list them all here.  At long last, we finally got the first real, live-action Wonder Woman movie, which doubled as the first real studio attempt at a blockbuster comic book film starring a woman (and directed by one too!).  It broke the box office and broke the Meninists, and in the first year of the world having to endure Donald Trump in the Oval Office, the strength and courage this movie was able to provide to women and girls around the world was not something to sniff at. 

            As a whole it was not quite as great as it could have been- a slow and uneven third act drags the film out of “Best of the Year” category- but the first two thirds are damn near perfect, culminating in a powerhouse extended sequence where Diana charges out into a WWI killing field, takes a line of trenches, and frees the occupied Belgian town beyond. 

            There is so much that happens in this scene that I could spend hours dissecting it.  Diana’s character, her status as a true hero, her transformation into Wonder Woman, are all cemented in an instant when she decides that yes, she will take on the impossible, and yes, she will try to save everyone, because that’s who she is.  The image of her standing alone, taking on an entire line of gunfire, was perhaps the best visual metaphor our new age of #MeToo and #TimesUp could have ever dreamed of. 

            It’s also a scene of remarkable variety.  Guns and explosives are used aplenty, but Diana also uses her shield, sword, and lasso, chairs and tables and guns are used as clubs and battering rams, and even her own body serves as a wrecking ball for a sniper’s bell tower.  Her connection with Chris Pine is cemented when they fight alongside each other and can each see and respect the other as fellow warriors, striving for good.  This culminates in one of the film’s best single moments of payoff, when Pine remembers a tactic he saw the Amazons use earlier, gets the guys to follow him without question, and with a single word signals to Diana what he intends to do, and she immediately follows along. 

            Oh yeah, and Diana THROWS A TANK.  A F***ING TANK. 

            This scene lifted me up and made my spirit soar in a way only a handful of other moments this year did, and for that, this scene earns my spot as the single best action scene of 2017.  Godspeed, Diana.  Your move, Black Panther

-Noah Franc 

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