[2 April 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
They say that violence solves nothing. They also argue that might makes right. Apparently, the notions of conflict and its brutal byplay are at odds with each other - just like those both for and against such sentiments. Indeed, when it comes to the movies, ending things in a hail of gunfire has been a creative go to move. From the moment we saw The Great Train Robbery and its weapon aimed directly at the audience to today’s reliance of shaky cam chaos to create a sense of “being there,” bullets and the devices which deliver them have become the exclamation point on any action effort. Indeed, the genre seems to be built on the notion of bigger and badder, from the accent on increased bloodshed to the attempt to turn such aggression into a thing of (questionable) beauty.
It’s with that in mind that we offer up this take on 10 of the Greatest Last Act Shoot Outs in Modern Movie History. Yes, we are avoiding almost everything prior to the ‘70s, since in the earliest days of the medium, firefights were almost cartoonish in the brevity…and believability. As we entered the Me Decade, splatter became the new black, meaning that many a great filmmaker needed to add arterial spray to their already over the top treatment of the whole good guy/bad guy dynamic. Nowadays, (as in the new release, Easy Money, out on DVD and Blur-ray) no fashionable finale would be seen dead without a healthy dose of gore. While there are other examples worth noting (the last hurrah for Butch and Sundance, Bonnie and Clyde, and of course, anything in Shoot ‘Em Up, these are our favorites, beginning with one of the guiltiest of gun-based pleasures.
As far as outrageous bloodbaths go, you can’t beat Sylvester Stallone against what seems to be the entire Burmese army. Stationed behind a massive mobile gun, tons of ammunition at his disposal, and a turkey shoot vantage point, our aging mercenary blows off more arms, legs, heads, and other body parts than a series of ludicrous landmines. Add in the moments of gory hand to hand, and you’ve got one of the more sadistic splatter jobs ever. Satisfying, in a sickening kind of way.
You’ve got to love a film that envisions Adolf Hitler getting a mini-moustache full of hot lead. In this case, Quentin Tarantino rewrites history by having a movie theater filled with Nazis experience the kind of fiery Blitzkrieg the Germans had been spreading around Europe for the previous years. As an inferno rages around them, Brad Pitt’s title terrors unleash a torrent of machine gun fire that wipes both the Third Reich, and reality, clean away.
Set against the backdrop of the end of humanity, Clive Owens’ goal of getting the last pregnant woman to a science group offshore is complicated by, of all things, an all our war between British soldiers and those rebelling against this dystopian military state. Masterfully manipulated by director Alfonso Cuaron and featuring a real emotional investment for the audience, it remains one of the most devastating last act battles ever.
Michael Mann promised us fireworks when he came up with this contemporary urban cops vs. robbers, and the stand-off between the crew of criminal Robert DeNiro and cops lead by Al Pacino is as electrifying as it is brutal. In fact, the gunplay was so authentic that it would inspire a similar, real life crime a few years later. Of all the movies in his amazing canon, Mann manages the near impossible as he creates a definitive depiction of sadistic street fighting.
Controversial in its day for the extent of violence and blood, Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant revisionist Western more or less killed off the genre while massacring most of its cast. Representing a last stand for the aging outlaws, the face-off between the title crew, the Mexican troops, and German advisers remains a post modern primer for all things gun. Pekinpah may not have made any friends in the commercial realm of Hollywood, but his arterial spray statement became the basis for all movie shoot outs to come.
Referencing everything from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin to his own unique oeuvre, Brian DePalma offered up proof of his bravura action filmmaking (his first of two appearances on this list) with this amazing standoff between Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness and Al Capone’s men. Guarding a key witness, they will do anything, including endangering an infant, to see their boss go free. Staged with a staggering amount of skill, it remains a terrific combination of horror and homage.
For his first appearance on this list, John Woo rewrites the gunfight rulebook - and never looks back. Featuring an assassin, an undercover cop, and a well-armed Triad throng out to get them both, the serene backdrop of a church becomes the stage for one of the most spectacular examples of firepower ever. Just for the sheer audacity of the sequence, Woo deserves praise. That is still stands head and shoulder above his imitators is a testament to his undeniable talent.
How can you hate a last act standoff which sees bullets curving in space, fragments of woven papyrus flying about, and a direct hit to the temple of co-star Angelina Jolie…and that doesn’t take into consideration the opening of such a salvo, which includes trained suicide bomber rats and more ammunition acrobatics than a hitman’s Olympics. Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov has an inspired way with action, mixing slo-mo with static imagery to give us details and designs we might never see otherwise.
“SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!” indeed. The minute Al Pacino’s Tony Montana brings out his big gun, it’s “adios” to the diminutive drug dealer with a savage, survivalist attitude. Taking on a veritable barrage of bullets from the crew representing Alejandro Sosa, our angry antihero demands more, and Brian DePalma delivers just that. By the end, with the walls painted red, we can’t imagine a bloodier goodbye. And then things really get out of control.
John Woo again, and this time he delivers a masterpiece of mayhem unequalled in the hallowed halls of bullet ballet. It begins in the basement of a hospital (where the bad guys have hidden a wealth of weapons), transfers over to the infant ward (requiring our hero to evacuate the enclosed kids down the side of the building) and ends with our lead literally taking on all comers. As he does with all of his crime drama, Woo stages his shoot outs with a kind of perverse locational logic which makes every fallen body another step toward the fabulous finale.