Friday, December 10, 2010

Best Chases and Shootouts

By John Gilstrap
Following up on yesterday’s discussion of sex scenes in fiction, I thought I’d go the other way today and talk about violence, a fairly indispensible element of thrillers and mysteries.

Chases are staples of suspense fiction. Film is inherently better suited to chases than books are, but some books have left me gasping for breath at the end. Chases are hard to write. The secret, I think, lies with the pacing of the prose. Shorter, rapid-fire sentences give the writing a quicker pulse that passes on to the reader.
Another staple is the shoot-out, which I think is particularly difficult to pull off on the page. Movies have a decided edge here, simply because of the audio track.

All this thinking about violence and its fiction elements prompted me to cobble together my own one-voter Best List:

Most Off-Puttingly Violent Novel:
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. If you’ve read it, you know why. If you haven’t read it, know what you’re in for. Just awful.

Most Off-Puttingly Violent Movie:
This category is complicated by all of the Saw-esque stuff that rolls through the theaters. Since bloody violence and audience gross-outs are the very point of these films, I think it would be disingenuous to call them off-putting. If you’re wired that way, you shouldn’t go to spatter movies. To qualify for this category, the film needs to be a “real” movie that happens to turn my stomach. The winner, for the second category in a row, is American Psycho. (Why, one might ask, would one watch the movie after hating the book. Good question, for which I have no good answer.)

Best Chase Scene in a Novel:
This one's a slam-dunk for me: the final sequence in Frederick Forsythe's The Day of the Jackal, in which Claude Lebel is closing in on the shooter. I’ve written here before how TDOTJ is the book that made me want to write thrillers. The entire book is taut as an over-wound watch spring, but that final sequence—which, now that I think about it less of a chase than a will-he-get-there-in-time sequence—is amazing.

Best Chase Scene in a Movie:
Goodness gracious, where to start on this one? As part of my arbitrary ground rules, I decided that only serious car chases would count. That leaves out Smokey & the Bandit, and nearly every other movie Burt Reynolds made in the seventies. Even that restriction leaves a big plug of movies. The best I can do is pick a few of my favorites.

We’ll start with the obvious: Bullitt. I was 11 years old when that movie came out in 1968, so I wasn’t allowed to see it in the theater. In fact, to this day, I’ve never seen it on a screen bigger than the living room television. I really should oughta do that. Anyway, I can extrapolate from the small screen to the big, and I’m well aware that that San Francisco chase sequence between the 1968 Dodge Charger and the 1968 Mustang GT—two of the hottest cars ever—forever reset the bar for car chases.

Next up: The French Connection. We’re in 1971 now, and I saw this one live in the theater. Holy freaking cow! I had never had an experience like that in a theater. What makes it particularly interesting—and sets it apart from many other car chases—is the fact that it’s really about a car chasing a train. Rumors abound that the sequence was shot without permits or permission from the City of New York, but I find them hard to believe.

The next winner is also from 1971, and premiered on the small screen: Duel, Steven Spielberg’s first movie. Starring Dennis Weaver as a motorist terrorized by the faceless driver of a big rig, this could be one of the most unsettling, unnerving movies I’ve ever seen. Certainly, it was the most unnerving movie that I had seen until that time.

Okay, my last entry in the Chase Sweepstakes comes from 2002: The Bourne Identity. Having Franca Potente in the shotgun seat for this wild ride through Paris provided a lot of eye candy (and great acting). I consider this to be the best car chase since The French Connection, made better by the fact that it was done the old fashioned way, without benefit of computer graphics.

Best Shoot-out in a A Novel:
You know what? Nothing comes to mind.

Best Shootout in a Movie:
Time for more arbitrary rules. In this case, war movies don’t count. I know that one could argue that the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan was one long shootout, I’ll concede that it may be the best action sequence of all time, but for some reason in my mind, it does not qualify as a shootout. Feel free to disagree. Here’s my list, in no particular order:

True Grit. I so hope they don’t get this wrong in the Jeff Bridges edition of this Western classic. That scene as Rooster Cogburn charges across the field with the reins in his teeth, Colt in one hand, Winchester in the other always works for me. “I aim to kill you Ned, in one minute, or see you hang at Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s Convenience. Which’ll it be?”/ “I call that mighty bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!” / “Fill your hands, you sonofabitch!” Really. Does it get better than that?

Tombstone. Okay, I like Westerns, and I confess that this 1993 classic is as much about great mustaches as it is about plot, but it is hands-down Val Kilmer’s best performance. Among many gun-toting set pieces, my favorites are the unpleasantries at the OK Corral (“You know what, Sheriff? I don’t think I’ll let you arrest me today.”), and the 20-minute retribution sequence that peaks with Wyatt Earp wading into the stream without cover and taking care of business. Great stuff.

The Untouchables. I know in my heart that this is not a “good” movie, but it is one of my favorite guilty pleasures, and it is chock-a-block with outstanding shoot-em-up set pieces, including a shameless rip-off of Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence from the 1925 classic The Battleship Potemkin. This is Brian DePalma being Brian DePalma, with an utterly blind eye turned to history, but the movie really works for me. (“You got him?” / “Yeah, I got him.” / “Take him.” BANG!)

Heat. In many ways, this film is Michael Mann at his most self-indulgent. The movie is way too long, and way too talky, but the running shootout after the bank robbery might be the best gunfight ever filmed. Be sure to watch in with a good sound system.Wow, this is a long post. Okay, Killzoners, belly up to the bar. What have I missed?


  1. Great post, John! I agree with all of your choices, and would add these as close runners up:

    Best Chase Scene in Movies: One I just saw this week - Unstoppable, with Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. Two railroaders in a single locomotive running backwards trying to catch a runaway train loaded with toxic chemicals headed toward a populated area. Edge of seat stuff!

    Another great chase scene. The end of The Man From Snowy River, the wild horse chase through the mountains.

    Funniest Chase Scene: What's Up Doc? with Barbara Streisand.

    Best Shootout in a novel: Appalosa, by Robert B. Parker.

    Best Shootout in Movies:
    Albert Finney's tommygun scene in Millers Crossing

    The remake of 3:10 to Yuma, at the end.

    Robert Duval and Keven Kostner in Open Range

    I love westerns, too!

  2. Great list, John. I agree with your choices, and I'm also hard pressed to come up with a good shootout in a novel.

    I want to offer a couple of additions to your list. For best shootout in a movie, I propose three. The first is SMOKIN’ ACES with an incredible cast including Andy Garcia, Ben Affleck, and Jeremy Piven. There are a number of heart-stopping shootouts starting with an unbelievable two-man scene in a closed elevator between Ray Liotta and Nestor Carbonell. It’s soon followed by Taraji Henson’s character as a female hit woman whose weapon of choice is a .50 caliber sniper rifle. I’ve seen this movie a dozen times and still can’t wait to see it again.

    The second suggestion is from THE INTERNATIONAL staring Clive Owen. The shootout takes place in the Guggenheim Museum. In the end the place is wrecked.

    And let’s not forget the amazing Mexican stand-off shootout near the end of RESERVOIR DOGS.

    All these scenes are available on the Internet. Just Google “shootout in ‘name of movie’”.

    There’s also a chase scene worth mentioning in the 1981 movie OUTLAND starring Sean Connery. It’s a foot chase through a space station, but will keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.

  3. I'll throw in another options for best chase scene in a movie with The Rock starring Nic Cage and Sean Connery. If memory serves, it's a Ferrari and a Hummer through San Francisco. I might also add this movie, now that I think about it, for most tense scene PRIOR to a shootout. If you remember, this is where the SEAL team is basically in a room, the bad guys are surrounding them from above, they're all pointing guns at each other, the bad guy (Ed Harris, if you really want to call him a bad guy) is telling them to stand down, it's an undefendable position, when something falls and everybody starts shooting.

    And yeah, shootouts in books are tough, although I thought you did a pretty good job in No Mercy.

    I'm pretty partial to the same shootout scene in The Untouchables as well.

  4. Excellent list, John. I especially like that gun battle in Heat, a movie I like (though you're right, it could have had a good twenty, thirty minutes taken off).

    Chase scenes:

    Fiction: The attempted rape scene in Dean Koontz's Whispers. 17 pages! In a house. I don't think that's been topped.

    Movies: The opening chase (on foot!) in the Daniel Craig Casino Royale. Another on foot: Mel Gibson chasing Gary Busey in Hollywood in Lethal Weapon


    The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
    The Wild Bunch
    Ride the High Country (I mean, c'mon, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott!)
    High Noon (climactic gun battle with a twist ending)

    David Morrell has a great opening shootout in The Protector (2003). It's what happens in between shots that makes a scene like this work in fiction.

  5. Interesting how easy it is to come up with movie chase, violence and shoot-out scenes but tougher to recall written.

    Effective movie violence award candidates - 1) First Blood, the initial Rambo not sophisticated but a guilty pleasure 2) Jeremiah Johnson 3) One flew over the cuckoo's Nest, nurse ratchet(?sp)getting handled Apart from the visuals the violence was integral and seemed justified.Perhaps that is why they resonate?
    Effective but bordering on gratuitous - Scarface

    Written violence -
    The Godfather
    Of Mice and Men, Curly's hand being crushed...tremendous impact

    I remember 'The Duel' - I agree,a little recognized film but incredible suspense

    Why is it so difficult to recall great written chase, violence and shoot-outs? Is it just me?

    Fun post. Thanks

  6. Great thoughtful post, John. I agree with all of it and the comments so far. So much great material buried among so much drek. Part of our job is to root out the good, and sadly that involves going through so much bad.

    I watched The Untouchables the other day and what truly chaps my ass every time I watch it is the hideous historical travesty involving Nitty. Frank Nitty was not thrown off a building to his death by Ness or Santa Claus. He wasn't a Mad Dog Coll type of guy at all, but a thoughtful businessman who stacked up cash and had people killed when necessary. He was Capone's successor and he committed suicide because he couldn't face going to prison.

  7. Dave, I agree with you on What's Up Doc as the funniest chase scene. 3:10 To Yuma almost made my short list, except I never bought the premise of why the bad guy agreed so easily to come along with the good guy.

    Joe, I think I need to give Smokin' Aces another try. The first time I saw it, I was sick in a hotel room in Italy, and I really didn't think much of it. Now that I think about it, it might have been more the circumstance than the movie. As for Reservoir Dogs, well, I just hate everything about that movie. There are some great lines, but overall, it's just not my cuppa.

    Thanks, Mark, for the nod to the shoot-out in No Mercy. I know the scene you're talking about in The Rock. Good candidate.

    Jim, how could I have missed the Casino Royale chase? Excellent addition.

    tjc, I think the visual medium is just more powerful than the written medium. Think of all the people who thought Cival War history was boring before Ken Burns brought it to life on the small screen. To your other points, Jeremiah Johnson is one of my favorite movies; good call. As for Scarface, well, I hate every frame of that film.

    Miller, I'm shocked. I thought for sure that I had teed up Road to Perdition for you (speaking of Frank Nitty). The penultimate sequence in the rain--in silence--is a brilliant bit of filmmaking. I didn't include it on my list because of one HUGE continuity error that ejected me from the scene. (To discuss it would be to spoil to much.)

    John Gilstrap

  8. Here's the elevator shootout in SMOKIN' ACES. Warning: it's rated R.

  9. Great list, John. I would add to it the following:

    Best chase scene in a movie:
    $ (1971) --the last thirty minutes of the film

    Best shootout in a movie:
    THE WILD BUNCH (1969) --the finale
    DILLINGER (1971) --the scene at the Wisonsin lodge

  10. John,

    The Nitty in PUBLIC ENEMY was perfect.

    I have watched ROAD TO PERDITION thirty or more times, since you first showed it to me on DVD when it was up for Oscar consideration. Tucci was great as Frank Nitty. In fact it's on the DVD player as I type. I've never caught in continuity issue, but I'll look for it later today.

    My question with UNTOUCHABLES is what producer suggested Nitti become a mad dog killer who dies. I mean. just change the character's to Walter Mitty or some other name for Christ sake. It ruined the movie for me, and I like the rest of it for the good scenes. Sean Connery was perfection.

  11. I'm with you on Duel. That was one intense--and overlooked--movie.

  12. Best shootout scene in a movie: TRUE ROMANCE, hands down.

    Chase Scene: RONIN. That part where they're driving backward, the wrong way through the tunnel? Insane.

  13. Great post and great comments. I'll add a few.

    Movie shootout,

    Without a doubt, Smokin' Aces has some of the most stylish and unapologetically violent shooting I've ever seen. The story had problems (I've been in intensive care, the rooms do not lock on the inside), but the action was unbelievable.

    "From Dusk til Dawn" is also stylish, freakish and unbelievably violent.

    As for TV, the new AMC series "The Walking Dead" has a few great shooting scenes and doesn't skimp on the realism either.

    Book shootout

    The Gunslinger by Stephen King. An entire town goes zombie and Roland has to take care of business.

    M.M. Kaye nails it in "The Far Pavillions" when the local Afghanis overwhelm the British embassy in Kabul and the Brits die to the last man.

    As a previous commenter said, "Godfather" is a winner as well.

    Chase scenes:

    I am really skeptical of chase scenes. I often see them as gratutious and, in books, refer to them as "The Big Boss Battle" after my husband's vid gaming hobby. I've abandoned more than one book when otherwise intelligent characters get involved in an improbable chase/fight.

    Howevah, all mentioned here are awesome.

    Back to the 1970s, I'll add "Vanishing Point" and "Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry." Neither of these were comedic chases and both had serious consequences for the characters. The end of the chases were chilling.

    I also liked Michelle's ending in The Gatekeeper. Not a neat happy ending wrapped up in a big bow. The good guys won, but paid a huge price.

    Yesterday I watched an episode of Law & Order SVU that used an interesting spin on the big chase. A parent hired a cut-rate K&R mercenary to recover his child. Things go wrong and a police chase ensues. The bozo goes off a bridge, killing himself and the precious cargo. That is where the story started rather than the end. It was well done.


  14. I have to mention the car chase in GONE IN 60 SECONDS (2000) with Nicolas Cage. (I didn't know it was a remake of a 1974 film until I googled it.) It has a great chase scene toward the end. Very well-done. Made me nostalgic for a bye-gone era of classic cars - and I'm not a car buff!

    Seeing the list of goodies here makes me want to flesh out my Amazon wishlist. I'm definitely going to have to watch Smokin' Aces again (and is the sequel out yet?) as well as several of these other classics. I'm nothing if not a movie buff but now I know what to look for in these films.

    Great post.

  15. Daniel, Smokin' Aces 2 came out earlier this year. Although sequels are rarely as good as the original, this one wasn't half bad. Basically the same theme but with new twists. It's worth 120 minutes of your time. Here's the trailer:

  16. Hmmm, the shootouts in Stephen King's The Dark Tower books. Someone mentions The Gunslinger, but once the books came up I thought of the entire battle sequence in The Wolves of the Kala section, which was pretty terrific indeed.

  17. Thanks for such a fun post! I have an offering for best shoot-out in a book: the climax of Lawrence Block's "A Long Line of Dead Men." Awesome.

    And for best shootout in a movie, I have a love for the recent Ed Harris film "Apaloosa." The shootout was only about ninety seconds long, and was capped by the two wounded heroes crawling toward one another: "Well that was over quick," says one. "Everybody could shoot," says the other. Gotta love it.

    Thanks again! :-)

  18. Tombstone, Heat and The Rock are some of my favorite movies,so I'd be hard pressed to add to that list -- but for the best shootout in a book I'd add the book I just finished by a new author Tom Hinshelwood -- the book is titled The Killer (assassin) -- and not sure how I stumbled upon it, but was glad that I did -- in fact, the shootout scene I"m talking about was during a chase, but I remember when it ended thinking "wow", as it painted a terrific visual


  19. I got here late, so these are all seconding motions, but worth mentioning.

    I like John's list, and would add RONIN for car chases. Like Michelle says, through the tunnel is wild.


    And you're right: DUEL is as intense a movie as I've seen. hard to believe it's so forgotten, considering it's Spielberg's first.

  20. Here's an interesting coda to this post: Today I received a screener for the new version of TRUE GRIT, starring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn. I was so worried that they would screw things up, but my worries were completely unfounded. It's entirely possible that the new movie is BETTER than the original. Five stars!

  21. No really you are awesome for saying, bourne Identity. That's exactly what I was thinking. That chase scene kicked so much ass.

    that whole movie kicked ass.

  22. LOVE this post - I love action and movies! Before the Bourne Identity came out, I would have said The French Connection, but now in my mind, it's BI hands down.

    As for shoot out scenes, here's my pick: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Also a GREAT screenplay!