The action genre may not always be subtle, but when done right, it has a way of capturing some of the most visceral aspects of the human experience. These are the genre’s most influential scenes.
1. The Chase Sequence | Bullitt (1968)
One of the greatest car chases ever put to film is in 1968’s Bullitt. Directed by Peter Yates, this sequence features Steve McQueen as the titular character in a thrilling pursuit through the streets of San Francisco. It’s a scene that raised the bar on action movie car chases forever.
The sequence begins slowly, with Bullitt being tailed by the bad guys. He catches on to them immediately and turns the tables, and after losing his foes for a moment, his forest green Mustang appears in their rearview mirror. They literally fasten their seatbelts as the music drops and gives way to squealing tires.
Editor Frank P. Keller won an Oscar for what follows. A series of POV shots put the viewer in the driver’s seat for this gripping chase. Not a word is spoken for more than 10 minutes, yet the tension, stakes, emotions, and geography are perfectly clear, all the way to the fiery end.
The car chase from Bullitt is easily one of the best in any action movie, and its influence can be found in the work and Steven Spielberg, Edgar Wright, and many more.
2. The Truck Chase | Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Speaking of Steven Spielberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a treasure trove of action sequences. Most filmmakers of the current generation can trace aspects of their work back to Spielberg, but the Indiana Jones films remain some of the legend’s most influential work.
Indy’s pursuit of the Nazis as they haul the Ark of the Covenant out of Cairo is the action crown jewel of the movie. It begins with Jones chasing down the Nazi convoy on horseback — until he jumps from the horse onto a truck. The rest is classic Spielberg. The sequence is fast, witty, and constantly turning.
Through all the layers of complex forces acting in this scene, Spielberg never compromises geography and still manages to capture the full magic of insane stunts that include dragging Harrison Ford behind a moving vehicle. The Indiana Jones films are chock full of influential moments, but this truck chase remains the franchise’s most studied sequence.
3. The Hallway Fight | Oldboy (2003)
Have you ever geeked over an action hero beating the hell out of a mob of people in a gritty hallway, all in one long, unbroken take? You can thank Oldboy for that.
This 2003 masterpiece from Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook is still an action movie staple, and its corridor fight sequence is one the biggest reasons why. The sequence tracks laterally through a hallway as the film’s lead character takes on more than 20 men and wins.
The scene was shot with 17 takes over the course of three days before the team finally nailed it. The only editing in the sequence is a digitally added knife in the hero’s back, which remains stuck in him through the most grueling moments of the brutal fight.
Oldboy’s hallway fight has been imitated in many an action movie and TV show, but there is nothing like the original.
4. Normandy Beach | Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Spielberg is having nothing but fun in the Indiana Jones films, but he switches gears for Saving Private Ryan. Considered by many to be the greatest WWII film ever made, this visceral action movie opens with a massacre on the beach at Normandy.
It begins with the young soldiers on their way to the beach, capturing their humanity and profound nervousness. Then they land, and the sequence pulls no punches in, showing the horrific violence of the event.
The footage is shot at a higher shutter speed than a typical film sequence, eliminating motion blur and giving the movement on screen a choppy, staccato look. This technique has since been employed in many action sequences and can be spotted in any Marvel movie directed by the Russo Brothers.
Saving Private Ryan still sets the bar for war films, and its opening sequence is one that is referenced constantly. The violent, harrowing tone of this action movie is not what most people immediately associate with Steven Spielberg, but this sequence remains one of the filmmaker’s greatest achievements.
5. “I’ll Be Back” | The Terminator (1984)
You can’t get to the most influential action movie scene without considering the work of James Cameron. Of all the mind-blowing work he has done over his storied career, perhaps his most influential action movie scene is in one of his earliest films – the police station sequence in The Terminator.
The sequence ratchets the film to a new level of brutality and terror while also giving Arnold Schwarzenegger the defining line of his career. He walks into the police station looking for Sarah Connor. When simply asking for her does not yield the result he wants, he tells the officer, “I’ll be back.”
He wasn’t lying. The Terminator walks back in, guns blazing, in a violent sequence that is surprising but really shouldn’t be. The sequence set the pace for Schwarzenegger’s entire career, serving as the wellspring for decades of action movie classics and originating the one-liner the star would carry into nearly every film he made after.
6. The Trench Run | Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
When George Lucas made Star Wars, no one understood quite what he was trying to do. His vision for the film’s space dogfights was particularly innovative, and none is more complex than the film’s climactic trench run.
Edited by Richard Crew, Paul Hirsch, and Marcia Lucas, this groundbreaking action movie sequence is a heart-pounding thrill ride that perfectly tracks geography and character development in the vacuum of space. The sequence ebbs and flows, delivering escalating tension and a myriad of satisfying surprises.
If you can find a filmmaker that does not cite Star Wars as an influence, capture them because they might just be a mythical creature. The film was a seismic shift that has affected nearly every action movie after it, and the trench run is a prime example of why.
7. The Lobby Fight | The Matrix (1999)
No action movie has inspired as many copycats as The Matrix. The influence of this film is so easy to track because its techniques are so specific. Its famous use of “bullet time” remains a landmark moment in cinema. In a sea of great moments, the film’s greatest is the lobby scene.
When Neo and Trinity enter a maximum security high rise to save Morpheus, they come in with guns. Lots of guns.
The movie is unbelievably cool from start to finish, but the lobby scene is set to the coolest song on the soundtrack. Neo and Trinity kick major ass, mostly in slow motion, through an atmosphere of exploding concrete and gun smoke.
The lobby scene perfectly captures exactly what The Matrix set out to do. Its exaggerated, stylized action is so awe-inspiring that it raised the bar for the action movie genre to a level that is still rarely achieved nearly 25 years later.