Seven Amazing Scenes of Violence in Cinema


Many times a movie feels almost incomplete unless it has at least one act of violence in it. It could be a fist fight, a sword duel, a bludgeoning of some kind or in the case of this article a bullet ripping into some flesh. While lots of films have gunfights, the question remains as to what makes a gunfight a great gunfight?
A great gunfight is a well shot scene that uses proper blocking to visually depict the action, and the action itself is usually indicative of the characters involved. Here are seven scenes of gun violence that are expertly shot and demonstrative of the characters involved as a whole.

So for this post I set up some guidelines for myself. A gun has to be involved and it has to be relatively small in scale, so no big battles or war scenes and I decided against using one on one duels, so no Sergio Leone here. I also decided against using more than one film from any one director. Otherwise this entire list would consist of scenes from Sam Peckinpah films.

 SPOILER NOTE: Some of these scenes occur at the end of their respective films. I will include a SPOILER to alert the unenlightened for these entries. Obviously there will be minor spoilers throughout as usually a gunfight involves a death of some kind.

The Wild Bunch (dir. Sam Peckinpah 1968)

“Let’s Go.” “Why Not?”

I wrote about this film in my last post and I’m writing about it again in this one, because you can never have enough Sam Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch is an amazing accomplishment in filmed violence. Peckinpah’s film is revolutionary in the way it depicted violence. Peckinpah had thought that before his film dying looked too safe in films, and he wanted to make it ugly. Dying isn’t a pretty thing, and dying by gunfire is even worse. When these men get shot, they are being ripped apart by bits of metal and they die hurting.

This is the finale of the film. The “wild bunch” in the film consists of Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden and Ernest Borgnine. They did a job stealing some guns for the sadistic General Mapache down in el Mexico, and they allowed their friend Angel to make off with some guns to give to the rebels to fight Mapache. Mapache doesn’t like that so he strings up Angel and tortures him while he throws a party. William Holden and his men are about to take off and leave Angel behind when William Holden decides that he’s going to stick up for his man. He walks up to Warren Oates and calmly states, “Let’s go.” Warren Oates squints at him a moment, figuring out what he means and retorts back, “Why not?” They pick up Ben Johnson and Ernest Borgnine and make the long walk to face Mapache.

You can watch the build up to the gunfight scene HERE

 

If you haven’t seen that before, know that you’ve just watched one of the most influential scenes in cinema.
What’s truly amazing about this scene is the way that Peckinpah blocked the shots out. Think about how many different angles we cut to but how we always know where each shot is in relation to the next. It’s the work of a master.


Miller’s Crossing (dir. Coen Brothers, 1991)

“He’s still an artist with a Thompson.” That how another character describes the fight later on in the movie, and it’s a totally accurate description. Miller’s Crossing is a gangster film directed early on in the Coen Brothers’ career. It’s set in an unnamed city during Prohibition and depicts a gang war between Albert Finney’s Irish mob boss, Leo, and Jon Polito’s Johnny Caspar, with Gabriel Byrne’s Tom wiggling between both of them.

In this scene Caspar has sent a couple of men with Tommy guns to kill Leo while he is relaxing in his home listening to a warbled version of the song “Danny Boy.”

 

What makes the scene so great is how there is not a word of dialogue in the entire thing, and every shot is incredibly precise and functional. Leo knows exactly what he’s doing and he moves like a confident machine, almost annoyed at the idea that these young upstarts think they can take him on. So he teaches them a lesson. He shows them that he’s still an artist with a Thompson. It’s pure cinema.


The Terminator (dir. James Cameron 1984)

The first Terminator film may be the greatest action film ever made. It has the perfect blending of action and character, romance and menace and it features some of the most well shot and edited action ever committed to film. That may sound like hyperbole, but it isn’t; The Terminator is just that damn good.

This scene takes place towards the end of the second act. Sarah Connor has been taken into police custody and they have convinced her that her protector from the future is crazy and that’s impossible for a robot killing machine to come back from the future to kill her. So that’s exactly when he shows up!

The thing that makes a gunfight (and action scenes in general) great is how they are set up. If a gunfight is just compounded on top a gunfight, you’re going to get bored with gunfights. You need to setup the gunfight, establish the scene, set the mood, and give a clear image of the scene’s geography before the scene lets loose with a quick burst of violence. Cameron understood that.

 

Part of what makes this scene so great is the complete lack of understanding the police officers have for their situation. It plays out like a horror film, with Arnold as the monstrous force of nature in this film, plowing through the police station like a bulldozer. But what really makes it work is the way Reese comes to Sarah’s rescue, as it becomes abundantly clear that Arnold is in no way human.


Taxi Driver (dir. Martin Scorsese 1976)

“I’m God’s Lonely Man.”

Martin Scorsese really knows what he’s doing. The shootout in Taxi Driver is both messy and precise. Messy in that the actual gunplay is very gritty and not at all glamorized; Precise in the way the camera moves, and the exactness of the editing.

The shootout in Taxi Driver occurs at the end of the film, after we’ve come to understand Travis Bickle (Robert Deniro) and the world he lives in, and the way he lives in that world. He can’t connect to people, he feels estranged from society and at the end of the film goes on a rampage in a brothel to rescue a pre-teen prostitute, played by Jodie Foster, because he wants to die.

 

Scorsese doesn’t shy away from the ugliness in this scene. He makes no attempt to glorify Travis’ actions. They are brutal and real and incredibly visceral. I saw this on the big screen a few months back and I felt dirty watching this unfold in a movie theater. Travis is a sick, sad man, and in this shootout Scorsese allows us to both feel his pain and feel abhorred by it at the same time.


Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino 2009)

“Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don’t mind if I go out speaking the King’s.”

Here’s a more recent film, and one just as excellent as my previous entries. Inglourious Basterds is a glorious blending of the Spaghetti Western and World War II film genres that really only consists of about a dozen scenes. The film is totally dialogue driven, so when the violence hits, it hits hard and fast.
Take this scene from the middle of the film that takes place in a basement bar in Nazi occupied France. The scene itself is rather lengthy detailing Michael Fassbender trying to exact information out of a German double agent. Tension rises as they are repeatedly interrupted by drunken Nazi soldiers, and then eventually their commanding officer. When Fassebender finally breaks his cover this is what ensues:

 

I wish I could link to the entire scene, but this actually helps to prove my point. Most of the scene is pure dialogue and suspense and when the violence finally hits, it lasts for a mere twenty seconds. That was all that was necessary, and it’s one of the elements that makes Inglourious Basterds a movie to watch for years to come.


A History of Violence (dir. David Cronenberg 2005)

“I’m pretty pissed at you broham.”
Spoilers

David Cronenberg is amazing. He might be my favorite living director. While his modern work is a little bit more palatable for the mainstream, it doesn’t make it any less effective. A History Violence is a film where the violence truly serves to develop the characters, as the film is first and foremost a character piece. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is an everyday guy who has a family and owns a local diner.

He’s a loving father and a devoted husband, and he also might just be a brutal ex-mobster with a penchant for violence named Joey. This scene showcases Tom the nice guy, and Joey the efficient killing machine within the span of three minutes. Just watch Viggo’s eyes during this scene.


 

Viggo’s physicality is what makes this scene standout. Watch his eyes and the way he reacts to the gun. It’s all instinctual motor movements. He even seems a little surprised himself. One can gather when watching the film that Tom has suppressed all of Joey’s violent tendencies and probably hasn’t indulged in them in nearly twenty years. This event brings things to a head and forces him to confront his violent past. Watching the effect that has on him and his family is pretty invigorating.


Boogie Nights (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson 1998)

“That’s what I goddamn came here to motherfucking do and that’s what I’m going to fucking do.”

In Boogie Nights Marky Mark plays a porn star named Dirk Diggler and we follow his rise in the 70’s through his fall in the 80’s. By this scene he’s down and out and is trying to make a big score with his coke snorting buddies played by John C. Reilly and Tom Jane. Things do not go as planned.

If I were to call this scene transcendent I would not be exaggerating. Among many things it totally changed my perspective on the song “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield. Before this scene I considered it as nothing more than a cheap 80’s pop song, now I listen to it all time and I love it without a hint of irony. This scene provides a context for the song and lends it a thematic depth that was non-existent beforehand.

 

PTA is a master of his domain and he knows exactly what to show us, and he allows us to stew with Marky Mark in his buddies waiting for the deal to fuck up before finally erupting in violence. Just watch that long close up on Marky Mark, while “Jessie’s Gir”l plays. It’s a perfect moment.

There’s an energy in this scene that is hard to put into words. I still can’t get over how amazing the actors are in this scene. Mark Whalberg, John C. Reilly, Tom Jane and Alfred Molina rock this scene like no other. It’s a perfect blending of the performances, the camera work, the editing, and the music selection that creates what may be one of the standout scenes in cinema. If you haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and buy it. You’ll want to watch it more than once.


Conclusion

These seven scenes are examples from some of the finest films ever made, and these are surely seven of the best scenes of violence using guns in cinema. If this post sounds at all like I’m gushing, it’s literally from the excitement I get from watching these films, as they are truly the cream of the crop. Watch all of these scenes and the films they come from many times over and thank me later.

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Categories: Film

Author:Colin Holmes

I love movies. I love watching them and I love writing about them. My taste ranges from Jean Pierre Melville to Jean Claude Van Damme and everything in between as long as it isn’t mediocre. I’ll take a crazy failure of a movie over a middle of the road one any day. I'm an American currently living abroad in Oz and am relishing how my accent makes me sound like a cowboy to everyone I meet here.

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2 Comments on “Seven Amazing Scenes of Violence in Cinema”

  1. 08.26.11 at 7:52 PM #

    This is a fantastic list. Bravo, sir. I couldn’t agree with your choices more, although I may have to add the final showdown from For A Few Dollars More.

    • Colin Holmes
      08.27.11 at 3:32 AM #

      A Few Dollars More is amazing, and I love that finale. I think only the final showdown in Once Upon A Time in the West has it beat. I might have to do an entire list dedicated to Sergio Leone.

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