Saturday, February 14, 2015

The best shoot 'em up movies of all time

Photo credit: David Lee
Anyone attempting to list the best gun movies of all time has to deal with what I'll call The Heat Test. The 1995 Michael Mann film includes cinema's finest gun battle. But the movie isn't really dedicated to gloriously choreographed shootouts. It's an operatic tragedy that happens to be set in a criminal world.

The Heat Test eliminates a lot of the films on one's short list. Raid: Redemption is a kung fu flick with guns. The Matrix is a sci-fi film with guns. The Wild Bunch is a western with guns. Boondock Saints is a revenge flick with guns. In fact, almost no director sets out with the explicit goal of firing as many bullets as possible over the course of 90 minutes.

Too, one has to grapple with whether to include war movies. By definition, there are guns in war. But while Saving Private Ryan lets fly a whole lot of ammo, it's not exactly a shoot 'em up.

Finally one has to decide just how much one cares about authenticity. There's something to be said for precise tactical execution. But there's also something wonderful about reimagining violence as a surreal ballet. Hence, number six on my list:

6. Equilibrium. Gun katas are patently ridiculous but so, so cool. A martial art dedicated to the mathematical flight of bullets and the most likely locations of men moving with firearms? Yes, please.

5. Hard Boiled. Choreographically stunning and exhaustingly loud, with a 2:42 set piece that was almost certainly the inspiration for everything from Philips ads to True Detective.

4. Collateral. Tom Cruise spent months training with SAS and LAPD weapons experts for his role as a hitman sent to L.A with an HK USP and a list. The speed with which he executes complex tactical moves is something else. And unlike, say, Antonio Bandaras, he doesn't flinch every time that chunk of metal in his hands makes a loud banging noise.

3. Wanted. By the end of this movie, Wesley is so dependent on his HK USP Compact he can't even open the trunk of a garbage van without it. But with it, he shoots the wings off a fly. He breaks the laws of physics. He knocks bullets out of the air. And he mows down about a million assassins in one of the most exhilarating sequences ever filmed.

2. Way of the Gun. The climactic gunfight between our antiheroes and The Association Of Retired Bagmen is, by itself, enough to land this film on this list. But the reason it's placed so highly is its attention to detail. The IWB holsters. The malfunction clears. The brass checks. The one-handed reloads. It all feels so gritty, so raw, so real.

1. John Wick. I started making this list last week because I saw this movie and joygasmed. Jesus. Just, Jesus. It's so pretty. It's a tribute to raw physicality and precise choreography. Watching Keanu Reeves reload in the middle of lightning fast, close quarters combat is surreally fun. Every gunfight happens within grappling distance and every kill ends with a headshot. It's one of those movies you watch with a thumb on the rewind button. It's that good.

All these films share one thing. Great editing. If the stars and cinematographers and choreographers have done their jobs, you don't need to hide the dance behind a frenzy of jittery cuts. You let the audience see the actors work. And the bodies fall. And the bullets fly.

That's the list. It's completely exhaustive and guaranteed accurate. Want to argue for A Better Tomorrow or Shoot 'Em Up? Tell it to someone else.

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