‘First comes smiles, then lies. Last is gunfire’ - Roland Deschain, of Gilead
The late, great Sidney Lumet said, ‘In drama, the characters should determine the story. In melodrama, the story determines the characters.’ A well-made shootout can transcend this dichotomy like almost nothing else. By its very nature it is so often the denouement, the violent climax at an inevitable crossroads where everything comes down to — in the words of Roland again — ‘five minutes worth of blood and stupidity’. But damn can it be fun to watch.
There are four key elements that, if mixed properly, can create a shootout that sears itself into your memory like hot lead: characters; action; tension; and space. The first is needed to give a meaning and weight to the violence; the second is what we’re all here for; the third is what gives life to the second; and the fourth is the canvas upon which the carnage can be painted. ‘C.A.T.S.’, if you will. Each of the scenes below will be scored on this system.
A list like this needed serious boundaries. ‘Modern American’ was a necessity to prevent this thing from either bloating like a tragically beached whale, or from ending up so restricted that far too many essential entries were left out. Thus, classic Westerns, Woo-era Hong Kong, and the new wave of Korean crime movies had to be excised, to name but a few.
Obviously, because of the aforementioned climactic nature of shootouts, there be spoilers ahead.
The Matrix - The lobby
It had to be on here. Watched from today’s perspective, it can seem underwhelming. The bullet time; the shiny, shiny leather; the weightlessness of it all — it just doesn’t have the substance that it once felt like it did. But it had to be on here. 16 years ago, if you were in the cinema when this happened, you knew that you had just seen something that nobody had ever seen before. A daring attempt to rescue Morpheus from the clutches of Agent Smith starts with the destruction of this very well designed lobby. You mostly know where everyone is in relation to everyone else, and you care enough about Morpheus for it have weight. But it’s mostly an empty, albeit very enjoyable spectacle.
C - 6
A - 7
T - 4
S - 7
The Way of The Gun - Final shootout
The Way of the Gun is not a great movie. The script, by Usual Suspect’s scribe Christopher McQuarrrie — while overstuffed and too-clever at times — does have some tasty work; and the direction, too, is solid-to-good. The movie does have some great moments, however. Chiefly among them this set piece right near the end. Fantastic camera work delineates the battleground precisely, and a choice of claustrophobic and over-the-shoulder shots makes the relatively open space feel like a hemmed in labyrinth. But, you know, it’s difficult to really give a shit about anyone. This movie isn’t really about the characters. Even if one of them is Benicio Del Toro.
C - 3
A - 6
T - 6
S - 7
Grosse Point Blank - Final shootout
The only entry on this list with any real amount of overt humour — which is completely in keeping with George Armitage’s 1997 fantastic flick about John Cusack’s hitman attending a high school reunion, only for it to all culminate in a shootout with an assassin syndicate led by his rival, Dan Aykroyd’s Grocer. The closed spaces of the giant house, and the fact that Cusack’s high school sweetheart and her father are hiding in the upstairs bathroom, make for a tense few minutes. Somehow the humour — Aykroyd’s voice echoing throughout with terrifyingly confusing gibberish, Hank Azaria and his FBI colleague getting completely blown away — doesn’t undercut the stakes one bit. This is Cusack’s character’s redemption; and if that redemption happens to come via a television to Dan Aykroyd’s head, then so be it.
C - 8
A - 7
T - 7
S - 7
Collateral - Club Fever
Michael Mann and Dion Beebe shoot Tom Cruise’s hitman, Vincent, searching for his prey in the crowded nightclub like an ant in a neon termite’s nest. Collateral’s stellar digital camerawork really shines here, in the darkness between pulsing lights and amidst the heaving mass of bodies as separate armed groups converge independently of each other to try and find Vincent before he finds his target. Most of the scene is filmed in tight, constrained angles, but there’s a gorgeous shot right near the start that stops following Vincent for a moment and instead stands still, slowly panning up to really show us the scale of the room and to let Vincent disappear into the massive crowd. But then we’re straight back into the fray, constantly switching perspectives frantically until Vincent — still undetected — finally assesses a route to his target, and then all hell breaks loose. And that’s not even mentioning Vincent using Jamie Foxx’s character, Max, as a distraction — as bait because the cops have no idea what he actually looks like, because they think that Max is Vincent — and the lone cop who actually knows Max’s real identity. This a lot of information to juggle in a shootout, and Mann and Beebe pull it off like virtuosos.
C - 7
A - 7
T - 8
S - 8
No Country For Old Men - Terror in the dark
Pray that the Coen Brothers never make a horror movie, because if they do, there won’t be a clean pair of underwear left in the theatre on opening night. This almost wordless scene, which I shouldn’t even need to describe because it must be burned into everyone’s retinas from the moment it came out, is pure terror. As the physical avatar of death in the Coens’ classic, Anton Chigurh, stalks Moss from his hotel room, down an alleyway, and out into the streets, we never once leave Moss’ perspective; we never once catch a glimpse of what hunts him. His presence is felt in the trail of death that he’s left getting into the hotel, and in the all-too-close shotgun blasts that seem to be coming from just behind Moss. This visual absence magnifies Chirgurh and the threat he poses a hundred-fold. It’s masterful stuff. Especially once the flip comes, near the end. Moss hides, and gets one up on Chigurh, and suddenly, gloriously, we’re allowed to see death become the hunted. Moss emerges from cover and rains fire down on Chigurh’s hiding spot, but before we get to celebrate, he’s gone. Maybe not a ‘shootout’ in the strictest sense that many might imagine, but this is pure film-making magic from the best directors working today, and it absolutely belongs on here.
C - 9
A - 7
T - 10
S - 9
Inglourious Basterds - The basement bar
The best part of the best scene of Tarantino’s best movie. I could leave it at that. But the most notable part of this absolutely incredible scene is — and I can’t believe I’m saying this for a Tarantino movie — that it might be the one of the most realistic shootouts in cinema. Why? The shooting itself lasts just fifteen seconds. After all the tension and veiled threats and deception, the carnage itself devolves into what it usually does in real life: pure, ephemeral chaos, bodies littering the floor in the aftermath; fate having decided that no-one — protagonist or villain — is special and deserving of a free pass on this one. Fifteen seconds in a crowded German basement bar. They can’t say they weren’t warned. Lt. Aldo Raine said it quite explicitly: ‘You know, fightin’ in a basement offers a lot of difficulties. Number one being, you’re fightin’ in a basement!’ But those fifteen seconds carry a huge weight, primarily because we are so aware of what’s at stake, why it’s happening, and who is involved — and how much of a clusterfuck chain reaction it’ll be if one little thing goes wrong. It does go wrong, and fifteen seconds later everyone’s dead and we’re almost knocked out by the movie mastery at play.
C - 9
A - 8
T - 10
S - 9
John Wick - The club scene
John Wick is a modern action masterpiece. Revenge movies are a dime a dozen, but when one takes this much care with form, and crafts each scene with so much love for the genre, then it stands head and shoulders above the competition. It helps that the script takes its time in getting to this. The violence doesn’t begin until the second act, when Keanu Reeves’ John Wick and his backstory has been fleshed out in enough depth, but without any flab. He’s an unbelievably dangerous ex-hitman whose wife passed away and left him a dog; his ex-employer’s son kills his dog without knowing who he is; he takes revenge. That’s it. That’s all there needs to be, because Chad Stahelski and David Leitch create a colourful universe with a heightened reality that exists somewhere parallel to ours, and they let Keanu Reeves take out wave after wave of henchmen with some of the most balletic gunfights ever depicted — and this scene is the pinnacle of it. Economy of movement; a camera that shows distance and scale — none of this shaky-cam bullshit; and action where every impact has weight. That, and John Wick doesn’t have infinite magazines - he actually has to pause to reload his guns!
C - 9
A - 10
T - 8
S - 10
Heat - The heist
This is it. This entire list could just have been this scene. Michael Mann and Dante Spinotti’s heist-gone-wrong takes what was said earlier about boundaries, and it shreds them, because there is no finer example, anywhere, from any time, of what a movie shootout should look like, feel like, and sound like.
Because, my god, the sound! Play that clip through some good speakers. Guns — in most movies — sound like pale imitations of what they actually are. Not in Heat. These are violent, jarring explosions, shattering the ambience of downtown Los Angeles like mini sonic booms. And it really is downtown Los Angeles, mid-afternoon. Not a single soundstage was used to help create the visceral, perfect cacophony of a run-and-gun chase between the LAPD and a band of heavily armed, professional thieves.
The pivotal moment in this scene occurs just before it all goes wrong, when everything seems - from the crooks’ perspectives at least - to be completely right. It happens just as the perfectly executed, high stakes bank robbery is reaching its final phase: get in the car and drive away. The tension throughout the heist — as the thieves pacify the people inside and empty the vault, and while we watch Pacino’s LAPD rapidly approaching on foot, is as thick as soup. Val Kilmer’s character is the last out of the bank. He is heading straight for the waiting car, filled with the rest of his gang. He allows himself a smile as it looks like an impossible plan has been pulled off flawlessly, when suddenly a van moves in traffic and he spots the trap - the cops know, they’re here, and they are armed. His smile vanishes instantly and without a moment’s hesitation he shoots.
From then on it’s retreat under fire as the weight of the LAPD descends on the gang. But they give as good as they take - they are proficient marksmen, and though their numbers dwindle, they move with discipline and exact a heavier toll on the other side. It’s a much bandied about bit of trivia, but it needs to be repeated here that this footage of De Niro, Kilmer, and the rest of his crew has been shown to United States Marine recruits as an example of perfect form under fire.
The precision of their movements is only matched by the camera, which keeps us so close to the action that we are basically right there, while at the same time never letting us get lost in the carnage — we always know where everything is in relation to everything else. It’s a phenomenal bit of work that beggars belief. It’s cold, it’s clinical (it is Michael Mann after all), but the work that the script has done before this scene gives it all weighty emotional heft too.
And then there’s this:
Pacino peels off and pursues a straggler from De Niro’s crew, who snatches up a little girl and holds her close with one arm while firing with the other. Pacino winds his way around to head him off. He sees the girl in the man’s arms and knows that he has to stop him, but has zero room for error. For what seems like an eternity he steadies his aim before the man turns, and then, just as they face each other across the distance, he fires. The man goes down, the little girl lives, and the greatest shootout ever filmed is over.
C - 10
A - 10
T - 10
S - 10