Crash! Boom! Pow! The 15 Best Action Sequences Of 2013

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by The Playlist Staff
December 23, 2013 9:05 PM
25 Comments
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3. The Barrel Ride From “The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug”
The cynic in us half believes the the barrel ride sequence in “The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug” was designed to produce a theme park ride down the road (keep an eye on this one, we won’t be shocked if it happens; Warner Bros. & Disney deals are already rumored). After all, the sequence is one rollicking, slam bam waterslide extravaganza built as a thrilling adventure ride. It begins with formerly incarcerated Bilbo and the band of thirteen dwarves escaping the Elvenking’s Great Hall in wine barrels floating down the Forest River until they hit Lake Town. But not only are they rushing down a perilous river akin to extreme white-water rafting, a pack of Orcs are waiting to pick them midstream. Oh, and then there are the angry Woodland elves led by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), miffed that the dwarves have escaped but even more vexed to find evil orcs brazen enough to enter the realm of Mirkwood. So 14 members of this new fellowship whooshing downstream at dangerous velocity, murderous Orcs playing fish in a barrel and peeved elves trying to cut them off at the pass. It goes by so lightning fast that it’s hard to tell what’s animated and what’s real but it doesn’t make a lick of difference really. Balletic and turbulent, the camera pirouettes downstream as elves pull off their astonishing action aerobatics, killing off orcs a dime a dozen in the most insanely absurd and yet completely entertaining manner.  Even the Dwarves get in on the action, fighting back with timely precision as they tumble down the river. The speed, pace and tension of this dance is really breathtaking and when Legolas begins to fight the Orcs while balancing on the heads of dwarves racing downwards, it's the pièce de résistance of action chutzpah. Whatever your thoughts are on “The Desolation of Smaug”'s  middle chapter (and our review wasn’t that kind), the film’s center set piece barrel sequence is virtuosic in its delivery of roller coaster-like thrills, tumult and ruckus. Conceived of to essentially compel audiences to high-five and cheer at its conclusion, the impressive sequence does just that.

2. The World's Longest Train in "The Grandmaster"
If overall “The Grandmaster” proved one of our bigger disappointments this year, then there are scenes and moments in it that kept on bringing us back in, and one of those has to be the fight between Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er and her father’s old protégé/nemesis that takes place on a snowy train platform at night, as a neverending train whistles past. Director Wong Kar Wai is clearly a fan of making the very air visible in some way—elsewhere in the film sheets of rain shear up from flailing limbs, or tiny puffs of dust are sent up with every movement—and here is no exception, with the snow that begins to fall giving an added hazy beauty to the balletic movements that make up the fight, and tiny drifts of it mounting up underfoot as the two dance round each other, nimble as cats. But there is also something deeply anti-action about this sequence (and many of the others); the beauty of Zhang's movements, for example, her emotionless face and the swish of her clothing, her feet stepping lightly through the snow are all fetishized to the point that it seems clear that the thrust of Wong and Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is not to communicate force, but grace. And a sense of near-airlessness, of this fight existing in the idea of a train station rather than a physical space, and also of it taking place somehow outside time (it is shown in flashback, after all) is compounded by the unusual use of sound, which occasionally dials the ambient noise down to silence, or effects a kind of aural close up on a tiny slo-mo detail—a cuff ruffling, a bolt working itself free, a foot sliding to a stop in snow. In actual technique, there may not be a huge amount to choose between it and several of the other fights Wong stages in the course of the film, but this is Gong Er’s biggest moment, and if you are going to render your action sequences as tone poems, Zhang Ziyi, as a muse, is perfection itself.

1. The Free Fall From "Iron Man 3"
For some reason, in the weeks that followed the release of the exemplary "Iron Man 3," it got the reputation that it was somehow "light on action." Maybe because Shane Black and Drew Pearce's script actually had people talking a lot and solving mysteries instead of simply blasting beams of light at each other? (There was plenty of beam-blasting, too.) Unlike in most superhero movies the action really meant something here— each set piece felt hefty and momentous. The best of these sequences was, of course, an attack on Air Force One that culminated in a group of passengers being tossed out of the crippled aircraft. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is faced with an impossible problem: wrangling all of these falling survivors to safety, even though his suit can only carry so many. The solution: to daisy-chain the survivors together (he zaps them to make sure they hold) and drop them into the ocean. What makes the sequence so much fun is how much of it was practical – there were really skydivers jumping out of planes for this thing – and how director Black always has a way of upping the ante and letting you know how real the stakes are (the best shot is one from below, where you watch the remains of Air Force One burst into flame and start to plummet downwards). Black, who also is a huge fan of smart-ass twists, also has the sense to end the sequence on a wonderful shock—as Iron Man starts to fly away from the happy (if somewhat wet) survivors, he's hit by a train (again! a train!) and it's revealed that he was never in the suit, for the entire sequence, but was controlling his Iron Man get-up from afar. So many emotions! At the end of it, though, you're left with a smile on your face, which is really what all of the best action sequences should do. This is pure movie magic, breathlessly told and wonderfully fun. Also: when Disney finally gets around to putting the superheroes in the theme parks… they have a pretty good place to start, at least after construction on Thor's Asgardian Ale House is complete.

Additionally, there were some awesome action sequences this year that we simply didn't have time to squeeze into our list. The Chinese restaurant hold up in "Spring Breakers," conveyed simply with a single, super-long shot, not only set the tone and character but was an ominous foreshadow of the chaos to come. While something of a retread of the original film's platform jump, the ship-to-ship sequence from "Star Trek Into Darkness" remains one of the film's most noteworthy highlights. The axe fight in "Bullet to the Head" enlivened a mostly dreary Sylvester Stallone vehicle, while the cornfield chase in "The Last Stand," starring Sly's BFF Arnold Schwarzenegger was easily the best part of that movie, and one of the only indications that South Korean visionary Kim Ji-woon actually directed this movie. Keanu Reeves and Chen Hu facing off at the end of "Man of Tai Chi" was a whole lot of fun. And the Ryan Gosling beat-down in "Only God Forgives" is notable, if only for the amount of blood spilled and the fact that Gosling, easily one of the biggest (and prettiest) actors in Hollywood, allowed himself to get beaten to a bloody pulp.  -- Drew Taylor, Katie Walsh, Gabe Toro, Oliver Lyttleton, Rodrigo Perez, Jessica Kiang

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25 Comments

  • Kevin | March 24, 2014 4:33 PMReply

    What the F*ck !! Come on if you gonna put Iron Man 3 on this list put the last action sequences between the suits and the extremis-persons. And with that scene it shouldn't be on the first place. And I believe that Man of Steel shoud have 2 of 3 action sequences on this list. (Krypton, Smallville and Metropolis). The Wolverine scene that you have chosen should be replaced with "Wolverine vs Ninjas" especiallyon the extended version. That scene was just awesome.

  • Gunjan | January 24, 2014 9:01 PMReply

    I could not take this list seriously the moment I realised that the Smallville action sequence from Man of Steel had not been included.

  • Jon | December 21, 2013 12:16 PMReply

    I think it's insane to exclude Johnnie To's "Drug War" from this list. To might be the best action director around.

  • Gabe Toro | January 3, 2014 12:42 AM

    Agreed 100%. I fought for this, but alas...

  • joseph | December 21, 2013 10:03 AMReply

    Those are fantastic movies

  • ET | December 17, 2013 12:06 PMReply

    "fatal wombs" lol

  • cineman | December 17, 2013 12:04 PMReply

    The mediocrity of most of that list really highlights what a disappointing year it's been

  • David | December 18, 2013 6:46 PM

    You're mediocre. Try to make a film before bashing one, moron.

  • ET | December 17, 2013 12:12 PM

    Agreed!

  • Grego | December 17, 2013 11:44 AMReply

    I suggest anyone who finds The Grandmaster disappointing should watch it a second, and then a third time. And also see every version of it. I know the need to see every version of it (Hong Kong 130 minute cut, Internation 123 minute cut, and US 108 minute cut) by definition may prove that any single version is a disappointment, but I believe this movie is an exception. Wong edited the Hong Kong cut based on TIME, and the US cut based on CHARACTER, and once you see both its impossible to not have one in your head while you're watching the other. There are a few sequences in the US cut that, if inserted into the Hong Kong or International cut, would make for a perfect film. I'm still holding out hope for an edit resembling Wong's original 4- hour cut. The film is a masterpiece in some (possibly as yet unseen) form. At any rate, it's the most underrated movie of the year and the one that I've found most repays repeat viewings.

  • Glass | December 23, 2013 8:19 PM

    "I suggest anyone who finds The Grandmaster disappointing should watch it a second, and then a third time. And also see every version of it."

    lol you're kidding right? Some people aren't unemployed.

  • Alberto | December 16, 2013 8:52 PMReply

    Sorry, but The Grandmaster –just focusing on the films I found, or wanted to find, relevant in the list– didn't make it as a movie or in the action scenes, that remembered me of Alice In Chain's "Man In The Box" video, chopped, blurred, kitsch and with a 4 fps slow mo with an escenario made up of overtly drawn CGI.

  • swell | December 16, 2013 6:19 PMReply

    Yeah, not bad... The second fight in World's End and 2 or 3 sequences from Gravity were the standouts for me. Would have liked to see some love for the Thor finale. Felt fresh and relatively inventive but nothing was exactly The Raid or anything this year...

  • Jake17 | December 16, 2013 5:06 PMReply

    Am I the only one who thought that sequence in Iron Man 3 was terrible? Then again, I was so bored with the film at that point, it was hard for me to care.

  • David | December 18, 2013 6:49 PM

    ANTONIO M: He doesn't carry them. They're carrying themselves by holding hands each other.

  • ANTONIO M | December 18, 2013 4:27 PM

    Nope. You weren't. Actually I found it kind of a cop out: Jarvis says the suit can carry 3 people, and Iron Man ends up carrying all of them. I mean, geesh, that's some piece of lazy writing.

  • george P | December 16, 2013 5:32 PM

    Nope. You are not the only one.

  • Kevin Klawitter | December 16, 2013 4:07 PMReply

    "Man of Steel" is a 'a terrible, inert, ridiculous mess', but "The Lone Ranger" is 'incredibly strange, darkly comic, and hugely expensive western that had moments of intermittent beauty and excitement'? MoS wasn't perfect or even great by any means, but it was miles better than "The Lone Ranger" (even factoring in the fantastic final set piece).

    I know you guys pride yourselves on being self-consciously against the grain, but this is seriously trying too hard.

  • moo | December 16, 2013 8:27 PM

    Your argument assumes that by being focus on one genre, the critic can't also be more critical than a general critic and therefore more useful. If the point of movie criticism is to educate an audience about the merits of a particular movie, then the person doing that review should understand their subject as much as possible. I think this site is clearly aiming for an expertise in a certain movie genre that is specifically not action and that's why an article posted here about action scenes has little credibility to me.

  • Kevin Klawitter | December 16, 2013 7:12 PM

    I don't think that's a good idea at all.

    First of all, not all music critics are specialists. Second, based on what I've seen from websites such as Bloody Disgusting and the like that already have genre focuses, they are much more likely to give pieces of crap a pass if they have the bare minimum of the required genre goods. Do enough people die in a colorful way? Well, that means it's a good horror movie! Since most modern horror movies are basically technical exercises anyway, this makes the critic serve the same purpose as a professor, grading the aesthetic aspects rather than judging it as a piece of art.

    Also, when looking at websites like The Dissolve, it's fairly clear that certain critics are more likely to be review certain kinds of movies anyway; Nathan Rabin, for instance, mostly reviews comedies, and nearly always gets the low-rent types like "Grown Ups 2" and "A Madea Christmas" (whether this is by request, design, or coincidence I am not aware).

    Movies should be judged against others of their genre, yes, but that doesn't mean they should be looked at PURELY in terms of their genre, because that creates a limit on how they can be viewed.

  • moo | December 16, 2013 5:00 PM

    Thank you. I can't remember in which interview he talked about this, but Jerry Bruckheimer said he thinks movie critics should be like music critics where critics specialize in a specific genre and review only those works. This list is a perfect example of why that makes sense.

  • NewYorker | December 16, 2013 4:03 PMReply

    my 10 favorite movies with cool action sequences are defently(don't feel like to name the action sequence lol)
    1-Fast and Furious 6
    2-Man Of Steel
    3-Gangster Squad
    4-Iron Man 3
    5-G.I. Joe: Retaliation
    6-Bullet To The Head
    7-2 Guns
    8-Oldboy
    9-Empire State
    10-The Wolverine

  • David I. | December 16, 2013 4:02 PMReply

    Where's/why no Man of Steel? :/

  • Look Closer | December 16, 2013 5:23 PM

    Look closer

  • Rick | December 16, 2013 4:00 PMReply

    I feel like the Iron Man series in general has always been kind of light on action.

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