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