There's been no shortage of grousing around the Internet this year about how few truly quality action movies there were in 2011. And while we here at Screened might agree that action movies have not been delivering the thrills quite the way their genre forebears have been in previous decades, that hardly means there's been nothing to like for action junkies out there.
What follows here is a list of the ten action sequences that stuck with us most in 2011. These are not in a specific order, and some even come from differing definitions of "action," but they are all thrilling, exciting, and downright exhausting in their own way. No good action in 2011? Hah! Prepare to be schooled!
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part II: Escape From Gringotts
CGI has been a part of moviemaking for long enough that it feels that progress is made more gradually than in large leaps. If you're a gamer, you know the experience of seeing that first footage from a next-gen system, how bright and shiny everything looks, but you rarely get that in films, where we are often more impressed by the quantity of CGI than the quality. When I was watching Deathly Hallows, Part II, though, the sequence in which Harry and the gang escape from Gringotts atop a massive dragon (er, sorry, a Ukrainian Ironbelly) felt like it was a leap forward for CGI artistry.
Ok, there was a bit of blurriness when Harry and the crew actually mounted the dragon, but apart from that, its escape from the bowels of the bank was a superlative moment in the manipulation of 1's and 0's in 2011. The scrabbling across tile, the destruction of Gringott's foyer, and the ultimate take to the air was the culmination of one of the better heist sequences of the year. It was the perfect way to start arguably the best Potter movie yet.
Immortals: Titan Prison Fight
The clip above was released, if I recall, the day before Immortals came out, which might've been a bit too late to help it in the marketing department, but it was also shown at Comic-Con this summer, and caused me to immediately become more interested in the film than I had been before. That's perhaps a bit sad to say, that ultraviolence is what perks me up, but so be it: I had never seen anything quite like this in a film.
The actual scene in the film is perhaps twice as long, and it was absolutely thrilling to watch on the big screen. Zeus and his brightly-garbed gods take on the freshly escaped Titans, who, upon dying, become mere mortals and slow down to a more normal speed as they leave the timeframe of the gods. It's a ridiculously cool effect, and luckily director Tarsem Singh didn't skimp on the R-rated violence while portraying it.
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes: Bridge Fight
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes had some great CGI, but it didn't over-rely on action to tell its story. There are a few sequences of ape mayhem early in the film, but the bulk of it takes place in what is effectively a monkey prison. The real shit, of course, starts to go down when those monkeys escape, late in the film, and start to head out to create their own destiny, far away from the men who have controlled them up until that point.
What's great about this scene isn't necessarily the CGI, although it is superlative, but the way in which Rupert Wyatt makes it clear just how smart these apes have become. Anyone can film a straightforward fight scene between opposing forces, but Wyatt and his WETA artists ensured that you saw precisely how much smarter the apes were than the cops that they were fighting. They used cover, set up defensive emplacements, headed into the fog cover to avoid enemy surveillance, and managed to overcome the technological advantage of their opponents (read: guns) by tactical planning. Add one of the best bad-guy takedowns of the year, and you're left with a fantastic climax to a film (even if a fair amount of it was shown off in the trailers).
Super 8: Train Crash
Thanks to a relatively spoiler-free marketing campaign for Super 8, I knew relatively little about the film before seeing it. I knew that there was a bunch of kids in it, and that there might be an alien, and that there was a train crash. And holy shit, was there ever a train crash.
Part of my fondness for these scene probably came as a result of where I first saw it: in San Francisco's Castro Theater, a 1,400-seat theater that was packed almost full for an advance screening. I'm not sure who was in charge of the audio that night, but whoever it was had apparently cranked it to 11, as the train crash sequence might be the single loudest scene I have ever witnessed in a theater. I was relatively far back, but even so, I still saw people put their hands over their ears to protect themselves from the massive aural assault that was headed their way.
It helps that the sequence itself, featuring a band of barely-teenagers attempting to escape death by molten debris, was pretty thrilling, as well. Even if it was all created in some nerd's computer, it felt real, and as a setpiece, was a ridiculously over-the-top way to introduce the central actors and their plight to the audience. Plus, shit got blown up real good.
X-Men First Class: Magneto Vs. Submarine
This was, alas, one of those scenes that would've had much more impact on me had I not seen it in the trailers. As the climax of the film, though, and one of the most bad-ass and imaginative uses of CGI of the year, this was still a jaw-dropping moment in what turned out to be one of the year's best comic-book films.
In retrospect, it was kind of great to see Magneto in this film struggling with his powers and the emotions that prevented him from using them to their fullest. Knives and guns were easy enough for him to control, but anything large-scale was a struggle. Professor X's mediation allows him to gain more power until, of course, he manages to rip a hidden submarine from the water in a ridiculously impressive display of force. Michael Fassbender's wonderful acting helps sell the moment as a triumph of power and self-confidence; the later encounter between Magneto and Sebastian Shaw is the emotional climax of the film, but the submarine is no doubt the climax of the film's whiz-bang special effects.
Fast Five: The Train Heist
Fast Five was the first 2011 movie to actually deliver what people want from an action movie: big, dumb action sequences featuring stupidly heroic characters we all love. And honestly, who do action fans love more these days than Vin Diesel and Paul Walker?
While Fast Five featured a few different amazing action sequences, none of the others quite topped the film's first big sequence, which combines the hard-driving action of the earlier films with the new heist-focused storyline of the later flicks.
This scene has everything, from a crazy-looking giant truck crashing into a goddamned moving train, to heroes leaping from a cliff-plunging sports car to their seeming deaths. And all with what only appears to be a modicum of CG-aiding, to boot.
Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol - The Burj Khalifa
There is a valid reason why the folks at Paramount chose to make the sequence in Ghost Protocol where Tom Cruise hangs precariously from the tallest building in the world--the Burj Khalifa in Dubai--the "stinger" for all its trailers and promotional materials: it's fucking awesome.
One of the best things about Ghost Protocol in general is how good director Brad Bird is at making every single sequence seem like the most dangerous, life-threatening thing in the world. These guys are always hanging on by a thread, where the slightest error in timing will result in painful, horrible death. Nowhere is this more the case than during the Burj Khalifa scene, in which Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt must scale the side of an all-glass building using electronically sticky gloves that, of course, malfunction at various times. Especially in IMAX, the scene is utterly breathtaking from start to finish, and concludes with one of the only moments in film this year worth an actual audible gasp. Just awesome stuff.
The Adventures of Tintin: The Moroccan Chase
Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the classic comic series The Adventures of Tintin had a few memorable action pieces (not the least of which was an end battle that featured two men literally dueling one another with GIANT CARGO CRANES), but nothing quite stood out as memorably as the mid-movie chase through the busy streets of a Moroccan city.
This is one of those great chase sequences where the peril just keeps stacking and stacking until it hits levels of utter ludicrousness. It's kooky enough at the outset, with heroes Tintin and Captain Haddock in a sidecar motorcycle chasing after the film's villain and his henchmen, and Haddock accidentally unleashing a torrential wall of water from a nearby dam after firing a rocket launcher in the wrong direction.
After that, however, things just keep getting nuttier. A tank gets involved. An eagle (which has the precious artifacts Tintin is after) keeps flying around, eluding everyone. A whole hotel building starts crashing through the city too. At one point, the motorcycle crashes and Tintin finds himself using the front handlebars as a makeshift zipline down an old clothesline. It's bananas with a capital BANANAS.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon: A Decepticon Crushes a Goddamn Building
Look, no one around here is going to accuse Transformers: Dark of the Moon of being a good, or even particularly watchable movie. That said, there is at least one scene in this overlong piece of junk that is worth remembering, and possibly even praising.
It's the late-movie scene in which our human heroes find themselves traipsing through a ruined Chicago cityscape, trying to combat the vile Decepticons as they ready their takeover of humanity. I don't remember exactly how it is they ended up there (not much about that movie, apart from this scene, exists as more of than a headachey blur in my brain), but at one point the heroes end up in an abandoned skyscraper, and suddenly are hunted by a big, honking, drill-crazy Decepticon that straight up obliterates the entire building.
It's a sincerely jaw-dropping moment in a film that surprisingly has precious few of them. Michael Bay's penchant for unabashed disasterin' is world renowned, which makes the two hours of mostly boring crap prior to this sequence all the more inexplicable. Watching this thing bust up a building with almost excruciating detail paid to every little piece of debris almost made up for having to watch the rest of Dark of the Moon. Almost...
Drive: The Opening Heist
Drive is, in many ways, the opposite of nearly every other movie on this list. It's a film full of tightly choreographed, almost painfully tense action, and yet it is in no way a "blockbuster." Everything about Drive is slightly understated, affected far more by mood and atmosphere than noise and chaos. It's part of what makes the film's action so unbelievably good.
Nowhere is this more evident than the film's opening car chase. The movie actually features three distinct car sequences, but this one is by far the most enrapturing, mixing tense, evasive moments of hold-your-breath discomfort with engine-roaring speed as the titular Driver tears ass through the city streets of Los Angeles to get his employers home safe. It's an expertly crafted sequence, owing to the likes of John Frankenheimer and Michael Mann equally, but with enough distinctive flavor to call it something of director Nicolas Winding Refn's own. It's not big, blistering action the way these nine other films delivered it, but it's every bit as tense and crazy as anything those films delivered.
In addition to all of these scenes, there are definitely a few more that were in the running: Thor's fight against the Destroyer, for instance, or perhaps the final troll encounter in The Troll Hunter. We miss any of your favorites?