Today, I’m taking a brief break from my “Underrated Gems” column to pay tribute to some of the most underrated action scenes of all time. While I was compiling this list, I came to the realization that the reason these scenes are underrated is because they happen to be surrounded by a less-than-stellar movie. If you were to list off the greatest fight, shootout or chase scenes of all time, it’s more than likely that they took place at the service of a very good film, which is one of the main reasons that they’re so fondly remembered. However, if the movie itself isn’t fondly remembered, even its best scenes aren’t likely to stand the test of time. As an example, let me list off the names of the movies featuring the greatest chase scenes of all time. Bullitt. The French Connection. Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Road Warrior. The Seven-Ups. Wait… The Seven-Ups?! What the hell’s that?!
I’d argue that the chase scene in The Seven-Ups is just as good as the other more famous examples listed there, but the problem is that it’s trapped in a movie that isn’t particularly memorable. I’m sure most of you haven’t heard of some of the scenes on this list simply because you haven’t heard of the actual movies. One of my biggest dilemmas I had when I worked at Blockbuster was whether I should recommend a mediocre movie to a customer simply because it had one or two great scenes. Was it worth plucking down five dollars just to see five or ten great minutes? Thankfully, a solution to that dilemma was created and it is called Youtube! Every one of the scenes on my list is available for viewing on Youtube and I’ve embedded all the clips here. Now you don’t have to bother watching the entire movie and skip straight to the good stuff!
Dragon Lord (1982) – Jackie Chan’s Climactic Fight Scene:
I have one simple way of determining the quality of a Jackie Chan film. Going in, you know ahead of time that the plot is going to be lame, so it’s just a matter of how tolerable the non-action scenes are. Thankfully, Jackie Chan’s best films are usually paced very well, so that the silly plot stuff doesn’t drag things down and you know you never have to wait too long before you’re treated to another amazing action sequence. Unfortunately, one of his earlier efforts, Dragon Lord, doesn’t really fall into this category. For the first 75 minutes or so, this is one of Jackie’s worst films, as it’s filled mostly with lame slapstick comedy and really doesn’t contain that much action. However, Dragon Lord does a lot to redeem itself with an amazing climactic fight sequence where Jackie absorbs one of the bigger ass-kickings of his career. The villain constantly beats the crap out of him, but Jackie never stays down and keeps coming back for more. Even though a lot of planning and choreography went it, you just KNOW that a lot of the falls that Jackie takes in this scene must have been really painful!
Game of Death (1978) – Bruce Lee vs. Kareem Abdul Jabbar:
“Brucesploitation” was a fairly popular subgenre during the 1970s as a lot of martial arts films were being churned out to capitalize on Bruce Lee’s fame for several years after his death. Many of them would usually star a Bruce Lee look-alike who was billed under a name like “Bruce Li” or “Bruce Le”. The most infamous example of “Brucesploitation” had to be Game of Death, a film that Bruce Lee had started filming in 1973. They shot about 30-40 minutes’ worth of footage with him, but his sudden death meant that production of the film had to be shut down. A few years later, someone came up with the idea of shooting some new scenes and splicing them together with the old Bruce Lee footage from Game of Death in order to assemble a finished film. It really didn’t work well at all and there are actually some scenes where a cardboard cutout of Bruce is used as a stand-in for him! However, the main motivation for releasing this film was because of a terrific fight scene Lee had shot with legendary basketball star, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The fight is a joy to watch because it’s just amazing to watch an agile seven-foot-tall man go toe-to-toe with Bruce Lee, and even though the finished version of Game of Death was a piece of junk, we can at least be grateful that it allowed this never-before-seen fight sequence to be shown to the world.
The International (2009) – Guggenheim Shootout:
The best way to describe The International is that it’s 7 minutes of awesomeness surrounded by 110 minutes of boredom. This is a flat, dry, incredibly talky thriller that suddenly manages to come alive for one sequence involving a massive shootout at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Rumours abound that this sequence was shoehorned into the original script in order to add more action and excitement to the story and I can believe it. The evil international bank in the movie is established as an organization that takes care of its problems discreetly and quietly, so it really doesn’t make much sense that they would suddenly decide to start unloading thousands of rounds of ammunition inside the Guggenheim! Logic issues aside, I am very glad they decided to film this sequence because it is really spectacular and would probably be heralded as one of the greatest shootouts of all time if the movie itself wasn’t such a snooze. All I can really say is: God bless Youtube!
The Master Touch (1972) – Italian Car Chase of Awesomeness:
Those who know me well know that I love to collect 50-packs of movies. These are cheaply produced box sets that contain 50 movies from a particular genre that have fallen into public domain, and they only cost between $20-30. It’s a great deal, but believe me, there is a reason most of these films are so cheap and have fallen into public domain! One of the packs I bought contained an Italian thriller called The Master Touch, a pretty forgettable heist movie starring Kirk Douglas. But man, oh man, two-thirds of the way into this film, I unexpectedly found myself glued to the screen by one hell of an amazing car chase! I honestly couldn’t even tell you the context of this chase or who these characters are, but man, does this chase feature some kick-ass stunts! It features such amazing sights as the two vehicles chasing each other down a large flight of stairs, and the cars violent bumping against a car carrier truck, which causes another car to fall off it right on top of them! If a chase like this were filmed today, it would probably be done entirely with CGI and special effects, which is why it’s such a joy to watch one that’s filmed in such an old-school, realistic fashion.
Rapid Fire (1992) – Brandon Lee vs. Al Leong:
You may not be familiar with the name Al Leong, but if you’ve ever seen an action film in your life, you’ve probably seen him. Leong is an Asian actor/stuntman with a big Fu Manchu moustache who’s had memorable bit parts in some of the most famous action films of all time, whether it be torturing Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon or eating a candy bar in the middle of a shootout in Die Hard or destroying a sporting goods store when he played Genghis Khan in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The scene where he best demonstrates his considerable martial arts skills is a very cool fight sequence with Brandon Lee in Rapid Fire. Unfortunately, Brandon Lee never really got a good starring vehicle until The Crow, the movie that tragically cost him his life. Rapid Fire is a pretty forgettable, by-the-numbers cop thriller, but it does have a few good fight scenes, the most impressive being Brandon’s showdown with Al Leong. It only runs about 90 seconds, but it’s an amazingly well-choreographed 90 seconds, and one of the few times where you can see the amazing resemblances between Brandon Lee and his father when they’re practicing martial arts.
The Seven-Ups (1973) – The Bullitt/French Connection Crossbreed Car Chase:
If there’s one name you can associate with some of the greatest movie chases of all time, look no further than Bill Hickman. This legendary stunt driver drove the villains’ car during the iconic chase scene in Bullitt and (in addition to playing the role of an FBI agent in that film) did most of Gene Hackman’s stunt driving during the classic chase in The French Connection. Hickman would also be the driver of the villains’ car for a huge chase in a movie called The Seven-Ups, which combined many elements from the chases in the previous two films, and could almost be described as the chase from Bullitt in New York City. I like to classify these three chases as the “Bill Hickman trilogy”, but alas, the chase in The Seven-Ups is nowhere near as well-known as the chases from the other two films. That’s probably because The Seven-Ups is a pretty inferior French Connection clone and the presence of so many actors from that film, including Roy Scheider, only makes the unfortunate comparisons inevitable. This chase scene is pretty amazing, however, and it climaxes with one of the most insane, dangerous-looking car crashes I have ever seen.
Short Time (1990) – Dabney Coleman’s Suicidal Car Chase:
Short Time is one of those long-forgotten films that I wouldn’t mind seeing remade since it’s a prime example of a movie with a great premise that’s executed unsuccessfully. Dabney Coleman plays a cop who is mistakenly diagnosed with a terminal illness, so in order to leave a large insurance settlement to his family, he wants to get killed in the line of duty before he dies of natural causes. The screwball action/comedy scenes where Coleman tries to get himself killed are pure gold, but unfortunately, the movie is incredibly uneven and really falls apart once it starts getting serious and sentimental. The highlight of the film is definitely this amazing car chase where Coleman does everything in his power to make sure he goes out in a blaze of glory, but much to his disgust, sheer luck winds up keeping him alive. In addition to being hilarious and brilliantly clever, the sequence features some great car stunts, and most straight action films can’t boast about having a chase this good. If the rest of the movie had been this good, Short Time might have become a comedy classic.
Striking Distance (1993) – Bruce Willis’ Best Car Chase:
It’s ironic that the best chase scene in Bruce Willis’ illustrious career takes place in one of his very worst movies. Striking Distance is a pretty lame, formulaic and clichéd police thriller involving a mystery killer whose identity you can probably guess almost instantly. The whole film suffers greatly in comparison to Willis’ best action pictures, but if you were judging it based on the first fifteen minutes, you’d think it was an action classic since it does open with one hell of a bang! The first act of the film contains a terrific car chase through Pittsburgh, which is not the most common location for a movie chase scene, so that helps add a lot of freshness to the proceedings. The section where the getaway car and its police pursuers bounce up and down while driving over a series of large speed bumps is just beautiful to watch. Unfortunately, since Striking Distance pretty much blows its entire wad right away, nothing else in the film can come up close to measuring up to this, but at least you’re given the opportunity to turn it off early before you have to watch the rest of it.
Stone Cold (1991) – Supreme Court Carnage:
It’s not uncommon for Hollywood to try and take famous athletes and turn them into action movie stars, but one of their strangest choices had to be former football star, Brian “The Boz” Bosworth. The Boz had one of the greatest mullets ever known to man and was very popular during his tenure in the NFL, but he only played three years before being forced to retire due to injury. His first starring vehicle, Stone Cold, involved him playing a cop who went undercover to infiltrate an evil biker gang led by Lance Henriksen. Needless to say, Stone Cold didn’t exactly set the world on fire and the Boz did not become the next Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, I have to concede that the movie does contain one hell of an entertaining climax, where Henriksen’s biker gang launches a siege on the Mississippi Supreme Court and the Boz flies a helicopter through a police barricade in order to bust inside and save the day. The stunt work in this sequence is pretty damn impressive and there’s a gratuitously high body count to boot. I’ll also mention that Lance Henriksen had of my all-time favourite one-liners in this film: “This reminds me of my father’s last words: ‘Don’t, son! That gun is loaded!’”.
Terminal Velocity (1994) – Midair Rescue from a Freefalling Car:
Terminal Velocity is a ridiculously stupid movie where Charlie Sheen plays a skydiver who gets involved in some silly espionage plot involving the KGB and the Russian mafia, but even though the film received almost unanimously bad reviews, virtually every critic had to acknowledge that they were impressed by its big climactic stunt sequence. I heard so much buzz about this scene that I was willing to go out and rent the movie and sit through the whole thing just to see it. And while the movie was just as dumb as they said it was, the stunt was also definitely as amazing as they said it was! It involves Charlie Sheen driving a car out of the back of a plane with a bad guy holding onto the hood and Natassja Kinski locked in the trunk. While the car is freefalling towards the ground, Sheen has to dispose of the bad guy, unlock Kinski from the trunk and parachute them both to safety! Like I’ve said before, this sequence would look nowhere near as good if it was filmed today because it would be done entirely with CGI, but the more limited technology that was available to them at the time only forced them to be more creative and, as a result, the scene wound up looking more awesome!