Here’s Daniel Rutledge’s guide to the best action scenes of the year from the big and small screen—including a 12 minute one-take in Extraction to a brief but awesome sword fight in The Witcher.
Among everything in 2020 you’d perhaps rather forget, we were still treated to plenty of great action experiences. While not all of the movies and series they appear in might trouble best-of-2020 lists, here are the scenes that proved most memorable.
The best action scene of the year is Extraction‘s incredible 12 minute one-take sequence. The film is Sam Hargrave’s debut feature after working as stuntman and fight coordinator on the best Marvel movies with the Russo Brothers, who produced this. But this is not comic book shit—this is hard R-rated violence that channels The Raid and John Wick.
The oner involves a lengthy car chase with the camera going in and out of multiple vehicles, a lengthy apartment complex hunt that explodes into a brutal gunfight over multiple storeys, before it all ends with a vicious 1v1 knife fight on the street. There’s a fair bit of digital stitching going on so it’s not a oner in the purest sense, but who cares—the end result is still absolutely exhilarating.
Harley Quinn putting her ‘fun gun’ to work on a bunch of cops and then on a bunch of crims is a real joy. Margot Robbie’s playful, delightfully creepy facial expressions as she bashes a bunch of dudes are great, as are the big-budget visual effect flourishes that really make this zing.
The film’s screamingly loud aesthetic is expressed perhaps the most boldly in this scene as Harley fills the place with blue and purple smoke, in between knocking chaps out with overly flashy moves. COVID-19 robbed us of the chance to see many comic book movies in-cinema this year, so I’m especially thankful that this one we did get delivered well on the action front.
This whole season is brilliant and packed with great action sequences, but its finest moment is the 20-minute climactic gunfight in episode five. The episode takes place in Wales, with a Danish hit squad getting more than they bargained for while trying to take out a couple of Welsh travelers wanted dead by the British mob.
Director Gareth Evans just goes to town in this sequence, which is so excellently put together I felt giddy with excitement for every second of it. But it’s not just how spectacular and amazing the action is—this whole episode is basically a short film that’s an absolute masterclass in building tension, then delivering on it in the best way possible.
Toward the end of the first episode of Netflix‘s hit fantasy series is this particularly awesome sword sequence. Unlike some of the protracted scenes in this list, this one is all over in under a minute—but it’s one hell of a minute. In it, Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia slices eight silly buggers to death, all in what is made to look like a oner.
There’s a beautiful style to how he dispatches these blokes, but there’s also bonus points for him getting part of his beautiful blonde wig across his face in a kind of stylised Japanese movie way. He also utters a one-word sentence before the killing when he realises he has to carry it out: “Fuck.” It’s good shit.
Both the Debt Collector films are decidedly average Scott Adkins vehicles, but both have a fair bit of charm. Jesse V Johnson doesn’t have the skill to showcase Adkins’ ability as well as other filmmakers he works with, but the man absolutely loves action cinema and always tries his hardest to please fans of action cinema.
This sequel has a handful of decent sequences, but the most entertaining is the tribute to They Live—a ridiculously lengthy side-street one-on-one between Adkins and his costar Louis Mandylor. They’re both tremendously bloodied by the end of it, but will likely be getting a beer together shortly after it’s finished.
This one is great because it expresses excellently the panic, chaos, and desperation of gun battles that is often missing from other action sequences. Sure, most action goes for thrills and spectacle over realism, but there’s a lot to be said for realism sometimes.
The Iraqi SWAT soldiers we follow through this film are completely exhausted by the time their motorcade is ambushed by ISIS terrorists in this scene and shit goes wrong quick, with devastating friendly fire and a terribly unlucky grenade toss part of the results. But there’s also a wonderful array of weaponry put to work and instead of canned foley stuff, the real sounds of each firearm is used, which really helps make it resonate.
This was a fairly mediocre movie, but it did have some very enjoyable sequences. Charlize Theron and some mates play a small crew of immortal soldiers whose wounds always heal after combat, even if they’re bullets through the head. This is introduced in this first combat sequence about 15 minutes in where they all get shot to pieces, before arising and massacring their would-be killers.
It’s all flashy gun-fu with pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, and assault rifles, but then someone gets a sword out for good measure. Just when it seems like things can’t get sillier, Charlize busts out a fantasy axe with a circular blade to slash a few of the last chaps up. Good stuff.
There’s so much awesome action in this series I just have to highlight another bit. This scrap, the central action sequence of the first episode, is wonderfully exciting as pretty much exactly what you’d expect from the guy who made The Raid doing his version of a classic British pub fight. You really feel every impact portrayed onscreen, they’re all emphasised to just a delicious degree.
The scrap is punctuated with a few nastily distorted bodies and an ashtray put to particularly nasty use in one poor chap’s mouth. Then a dart is incorporated into the ruckus, puncturing many a cockney thug’s skin and muscle. This is exactly what I want to see in a TV show and I can’t wait for season two.