7 Heart Stopping Movie Shootouts

The Matrix

An action movie without a solid gun-fight is hardly an action movie worth watching, but these bullet-fests have infected almost every genre of film from comedy to sci-fi. A single, searing case of lead holds the key to life and death. In cinema, bullets have tremendous power. This is not only because they are granted the opportunity to take a life, but also because they are capable of killing characters, and characters are like our friends and their loss can be devastating. The willingness or unwillingness to use firearms can speak volumes about a character, particularly a protagonist. A shootout doesn’t have to be some mindless action-packed set piece, but a meaningful and spectacular battle that can define a movie and its characters.

I’ll admit though, whether senseless or not, a powerful shootout can be can be difficult to ignore, but as evidenced by many a Michael Bay movie, it just gets boring if we don’t care about the characters involved. There will be nothing at stake, no sense of danger, no tension. And if tension is what you want, believe me you’ve come to the right place. In no particular order, here’s seven of the greatest, most breathtaking shootouts ever committed to film.

No Country for Old Men – Hotel Showdown

Moss turned out the light and waited for a psychopath so efficient he can be considered death incarnate – my heart stopped. Perhaps more of a chase scene than a shootout, but the build a face-off between these two men was insane, and the result was every bit as tense as the pursuit. Moss could only run as his attacker fired volley after volley of his signature silenced shotgun from the dark, but his fight for survival was also one of greed. He could’ve left the money and escaped persecution, but whether Chigurh would’ve simply let him go is unlikely, for there have been few serial killers ever in a movie so unrelenting and cold-blooded.

Hard Boiled – Hospital

Few have even heard of John Woo’s greatest action flick, but the shootout he crafted as this pair defiantly clear a hospital of criminals is one of the greatest sequences ever filled. Sticking to a single, endless shot, the choreography of this scene is incredible – imagine the hate if some extra ruined the take at the very end. It flows with almost the fluidity of a well-paced videogame with the camera sticking to the main characters like a fly, documenting the efficiency in which these cops dispatch their enemies. Impossible to describe, you just have to see it to believe it.

Heat – Bank Heist

What can I say about this gunfight that hasn’t already been said? Even spawning tributes in the world of videogaming, Heat’s failed bank heist has it all – from gut wrenching sound fx to vehicular mayhem to dozens of wasted police. This is the ultimate of cops VS robbers, and they pretty much turn a normal business day into an urban warzone as the hopelessly outgunned police officers are riddled with bullets, but it quickly becomes apparent that these criminals are not fighting for money but survival. Ironically Robert De Niro’s character Neil McCauley parted with a long time companion at the beginning of the film for needlessly killing an armored car guard, and yet he was forced into killing dozens.

Heat (1995) - De Niro & Val Kilmer vs Al Pacino - Shooting [FR]

Taxi Driver – Hotel Massacre

Taxi Driver is a difficult movie to describe. “It’s about a guy who was in Vietnam and now he drives taxi’s and sometimes narrates about things,” but of course, there is so much more to it – so much goes on underneath. It’s been said many times that Travis Bickel is one of the greatest film characters of all time, but the climax of his journey is as absorbing as it is bathing in irony. This lunatic could’ve just as easily massacred a crowd of pedestrians, but instead he shot up a brothel and was hailed as a hero for it. And during this shootout everything was as unpredictable as Travis himself. He cut down flesh-merchants and pimps, and was terribly wounded in the process and he would’ve killed himself if he hadn’t he ran out of bullets, but the girl he did all this to ‘save’ was horrified by his brutality. That’s just the stark brilliance of Taxi Driver, because it forces you to choose between what was right and wrong through the perspective of a man who days earlier would’ve assassinated a presidential candidate if only he’d been a little bit faster. This scene was so disturbing in fact that Martin Scorsese was forced by the studio to desaturate colour of the blood, which originally was a rich red instead of the pale brownish-red as it appears in the final cut.

Taxi Driver - Hotel Shootout

The Matrix – Bullet Time

Generally the lobby shootout is far better regarded due to its sheer ferocity, and true it is a breathtaking scene, but the style of this slow-motion bullet dodging set-piece truly separates The Matrix apart from the other sci-fi action pretenders. This scene is also a culmination of Neo’s journey of self-realisation, showing the abilities he’s granted as he is finally able to let go of what he thinks is real, and is also saved by his love, Trinity, a pair who would be there for each other until the very end. Unforgettably exhilarating, the other films in this trilogy tried so hard to reach the heights of the original, but thanks to moments like this they never quite lived up the The Matrix’s quality and originality. The technology behind this scene was as impressive as the visuals. Dozens of cameras were deployed in an array around Neo all shooting at a precise moment to simulate an impossible camera movement.

The Matrix: Dodge this

The Hurt Locker – Sniper Duel

Though lacking the pure action of some of these other shootout scenes, every shot fired in this pivotal military moment meant something. There is a brutal, heart shattering tension as a chess game between two dueling snipers unfolds over hundreds and hundreds of metres. The pacing was slow, but every missed shot or delay could be the difference between life and death, and Kathyrn Bigelow’s use of slow motion of final kill’s shell casing was extraordinary, dispatching an adversary who until that moment had proved himself extremely skilled.

Once Upon a Time in the West – Frank vs Harmonica

In many ways Westerns are pretty much all the same, but one thing they consistently nail time and time again is creating a deep, personal conflict. Never mind the Star Wars approach to villainy, where a distant menace terrorizes distant people and never poses any threat to the hero until the climax. Gritty, intimate encounters between a protagonist and antagonist truly creates a ferocious villain, and with this in mind Once Upon a Time in the West proves that pure tension make single shots more spectacular than thousands. The dialogueless buildup, bolstered by Ennio Morricone’s riveting score, seems to drag on forever, but dares viewers to look away even for a second, as if the entire world could fall apart in that one lapse of attention. A journey that has defined the lives of these two men finally culminates into a single moment – one pull of the trigger. Nothing in the universe mattered, just who was the faster draw.

Once Upon a Time in the West - Final Duel -

More important than all the guns and bullets and blood, these scenes show characters struggling for good, revenge, or pure survival, and above all that is what makes a great shootout. Action can only take a movie so far – story and character have to go the rest of the way or else no one will even care about what they’re seeing. Film is powerful, and the right narrative can change a person’s life. Whether it’s the emotional beauty of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the greedy desperation of No Country for Old Men, the effect movies can have on us is profound. It’s fitting that amongst all the storytelling and character development are kickass shootouts to remind us that sometimes its just great to see a hated villain get shot in the face.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Derrick

    No “Way of the Gun?” No “L.A. Confidential?” Well, to each there own I guess. Tombstone’s hard to put on here, though, because the only crazy epic shootout is the scene with Russell yelling “No!” a lot.

    • I was really hoping to see “The Way of the Gun” on this list too. That is a really timeless shootout. by far one of the coolest moments in film.

  2. laverne law

    In my mind i was like “Alright. Two movies have to be on this list, otherwise it’s a not a good list… Open Range, and The Matrix” And what do you know! One is here 😉

  3. Not a bad list but missing one of the best shootouts ever. The movie ‘Way of the gun’. So Many good shootouts in that movie not to mention the movie itself is amazing. I don’t know which shootout to choose from all amazing.

  4. Glad to see a Sergio Leone western in the list! But all of these would qualify:

    “A Fistful of Dollars”: Duel at the end of the movie between the Man With No Name and the rest of the Rojo clan.

    “For A Few Dollars More”: The final duel between the Colonel and El Indio with the Man With No Name on the sidelines (pocket watch in hand!).

    “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”: The “triello” in the cemetery between Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes.

  5. Nothing will beat HEAT in my eyes. Mann nailed the shoot-out with that film, And as far as I’m concerned wrote the final word with them. The look, and dear god the sound of these fights…and there’s no stupid back ground music to take you out of it.

  6. Boondock Saints has some fun ones. Idk if it’d qualify as I haven’t seen all these films. Feel like there are likely a few other ones too. If you count anime, then this is no where near the best gunfight list.

  7. Santos Ortega

    Another good article but man the choices are too many to come up with a definitive list that will not arouse controversy, well I want to point out that the following would have been more than worthy to be in there: The end scene from State of Grace (the artistic editing with the whole scene shot in slow motion is delightful), the end scene from The Long arm of the law (the movie that started the genre I would say before John Woo ect), Smoking Aces, Johnny To’s The Exiled (opening scene), John Woo’s A bullet in the head (cabaret scene) and The Assembly (ok this one would qualify like Saving private Ryan and can be left out).

  8. Sam Gray

    Might disagree with you calling Westerns “all the same” but this isn’t a bad list. It’s interesting that a shoot-out can either be tense or cathartic experience, and there seems to be a good mix of those on this list, although I would have added The Wild Bunch and perhaps one of Tarantino’s Mexican stand-off scenes (the bar scene in Inglorious Basterds perhaps).

  9. Colin Patton

    The bar shootout in Total Recall deserves an honourable mention. Any scene involving dwarf hookers with Uzis must be recognised somehow, lest we forget!

  10. I kinda knew that Hard Boiled would be in this list and it totally deserves it. I mean i saw that scene many times and it makes my head dizzy just by imagining how on earth they shot that scene.

  11. Jimenez

    How can Predator not be on this list? The scene where where they raid the village and the subsequent “deforestation” scene have to be the single best arsenal of guns ever assembled in film.

    Also the scene in T2 at Cyberdyne

  12. Certainly agreed on The Hurt Locker. Surprised not to see any Lethal Weapon or Die Hard scenes here though – especially with Mel Gibson’s character in Lethal Weapon being such a good marksman. End of Leathal Weapon 4 is one to think about

  13. I think they could have put the nightclub shootout from Terminator on here. When Sarah Conner knocks the salt shaker off of the table and bends over to pick it up right when the terminator looks at her table and then she sees Reese and thinks he’s there to kill her. That is an epic moment in cinema.

  14. Matthew Sims

    While I agree with every one on this list, some honourable mentions just for good measure is Equilibrium (very silly, but stunning nonetheless), L.A. Confidential, Reservoir Dogs and The Wild Bunch.

  15. Kevin Licht

    As far as heart-stopping goes I think Heat and No Country are the choices that grabbed me the most. Based on the criteria given, was there any consideration to the Normandy Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan? Might be on too large of a scale to be thinking of it as a shootout.

    Also… Pineapple Express finale? Anyone? Anyone?

  16. This might be one of the reasons for No Country for Old Men’s popularity at the time it was released.

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