Everybody loves a good gunfight at the movies. Of course, not all shootouts are created equal. Below is a list of the on-screen gun fights we think are the most epic in history thus far.
The Matrix (1999)
Widely considered one of the all-time best sci-fi films, The Matrix is also a pretty philosophical flick, dealing with heady issues like the nature of reality, free will, and the absence of silverware. But when it’s not musing on predetermination or making thinly veiled Biblical references, The Matrix revels in its crazy kung fu scenes, from the opening kick to the final fistfight.
But smack dab in the middle of all that martial arts action is a show-stopping shootout involving guns, lots of guns. It all starts after the villainous Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) kidnaps resistance leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Unwilling to let their friend die, Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss) suit up for battle, arriving at a government building with enough guns to mow down a small army…which is exactly what they do.
The resulting gunfight involves slow-mo, machine guns, and a staggering amount of collateral damage. It also took a lot of work to get this shootout on the silver screen. The lobby gunfight took ten whole days to film, during which time Carrie Anne Moss suffered a nasty injury. “During the government lobby scene,” the actress explained, “just before I had to do my cartwheel kick on the wall, I hurt one of my ankles so badly I felt sure I had broken it.”
According to Moss, the adrenaline kept her going for the duration of the scene, one that involved all sorts of wild stunts. True, the actors were supported by wires (which were later painted out), but still, Keanu Reeves really did that crazy handstand and that impressive triple kick. Pretty much everything you see onscreen is real, including all those explosions. Those are real charges destroying real sets, and if the crew needed to recapture a scene (say, if Reeves were to slip while running), it took between six to eight hours to rebuild the whole set.
And you thought cleaning your room was a chore.
Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’ve heard the famous line: “Say hello to my little friend!” It’s the battle cry of Tony Montana (Al Pacino), the Cuban drug lord who gets into a rather fiery disagreement with the Colombian cartel. Alone in his throne room, surrounded by TV monitors and cocaine, Montana finds himself in a life-and-death struggle against an army of machine gun-toting mobsters, but hey, they don’t have an RPG.
And, yeah, Brian De Palma’s climactic finale is one for the history books, but as it turns out, the final Scarface shootout was a pain to film….quite literally. After firing his machine gun, Al Pacino placed his hand on the barrel and severely burned himself. The injury was pretty icky, with Pacino later saying, “My hand stuck to the sucker.” As a result, the actor was out for two weeks, forcing De Palma to film around him, instead focusing on the wave after wave of Colombians storming Montana’s mansion.
However, the Scarface gunfight was also a scene of great innovation. Wanting to capture the image of flames spitting from a gun barrel, De Palma had special effects supervisors Ken Pepiot and Stan Parks rig up a system that would sync the assault rifles to the camera shutters, allowing audiences to witness those fiery machine gun bursts in all their glory.
Django Unchained (2012)
A loving homage to spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation films, Django Unchained focuses on a freed slave (Jamie Foxx as the titular Django) who’s trying to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of homicidal Francophile Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). With the help of a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), Django heads to Candie’s plantation and nearly frees his bride…but things take a grisly turn when Schultz puts a bullet in Candie’s heart.
What follows has got to be one of the greatest (and goriest) revenge sequences of all time, with an armed slave going toe-to-toe with a gang of racists. But what seems like an obvious scene was actually absent from the original shooting script. According to editor Fred Raskin, Schultz was supposed to kill Candie, and then Django would immediately surrender. “But that created a problem,” Raskin told Slant Magazine. “You’re losing the most dynamic character in the movie—Schultz—and Candie is a close second. The movie is taking a hit by losing them both in the same instance.”
Realizing he needed a way to transition from the charismatic dentist to the soft-spoken gunfighter, Tarantino decided to do what Tarantino does best: write a bloody action scene. And there to help the director achieve peak bloodshed was special effects coordinator John MacLeod. Evidently, Tarantino had been encouraging MacLeod to get bigger and bloodier with the squibs, saying, “I wanna see a meaty effect!” As a result, MacLeod devised some of “biggest squibs I’ve ever done on humans.”
Talking to Vulture, the SFX man confessed to using “hundreds of gallons of blood.” All that gore you see on the walls? It came from the thousands of squibs strapped onto those poor, poor extras, many of whom walked away with sizable bruises.
Black Hawk Down (2011)
Based on Mark Bowden’s best-selling book, Black Hawk Down is the story of a U.S. mission in Somalia that went very, very wrong. And, honestly, it’s also one big gunfight, with a few pauses here and there for the actors to catch their breath.
Of course, you can’t really sell realistic violence if your actors don’t know how to handle guns. So striving for realism, director Ridley Scott partnered up with the Department of Defense, allowing the Pentagon to review the screenplay in exchange for unprecedented assistance. The government loaned the filmmaker eight helicopters and over 100 soldiers. But most importantly, the military allowed the actors to train at actual Army bases.
Soldiers portraying Rangers, like Ewan McGregor, attended boot camp at Georgia’s Fort Benning, where they learned how to handle M16 rifles and squad automatic weapons (SAWs). After getting the hang of their firearms, the actors had to battle their way down a fake village while avoiding enemy fire. “I got shot, of course,” McGregor admitted, “but the psychological aspect of the orientation program was fascinating.”
As for the actors playing Delta Force soldiers, like Eric Bana and William Fichtner, they trained at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where they learned how to blast open doors and clear buildings. Similar to the Rangers, these guys also got an opportunity to put their skills to the test, fighting their way through a mock city while trying to reach a downed chopper. On top of the extensive training, a lot of the actors had the opportunity to talk with the real-life people they were playing, giving them a unique look into what it was really like to fight in the streets of Mogadishu.
Thanks to their boot camp experience, the actors got a little glimpse of military life, giving them something to work with during those intense Ridley Scott shootouts. And evidently, the training did the trick, leading at least one high-ranking general to describe the film as “authentic.”
If preparation is the key to success, then Michael Mann has got to be the most successful director in the business. For proof, look no further than Heat. This 1995 crime thriller stars Al Pacino as Lt. Vincent Hanna, a cop on the hunt for bank robber Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). Eventually, this unstoppable force runs straight into that immovable object, with Hanna and his fellow policemen throwing down with McCauley and his band of thieves.
To prepare for the showdown, Mann had his actors undergo three months of extensive firearm training at the L.A. County Sheriff’s range. Armed with real guns filled with live ammo, the actors would hustle from one target to the next, while practicing on a replica of the city street where they’d actually film the firefight. All the while, the actors received coaching from Mick Gould and Andy McNab, veterans of the British Special Air Service.
In addition to the firearm training, the actors playing the criminals actually got to case a bank. And while they were practicing their outlaw skills, the crew was busy getting a hold of cars, mailboxes, lamp posts, and anything else that would be used in the scene. Of course, when it was finally magic time, the actors went to war on an actual street. True, filming the battle was difficult as they could only shoot the scene on Saturday and Sunday, but Mann managed to make it work.
In total, the actors fired about 800 to 1,000 rounds for each and every take. Cooler still, the sounds you hear in the film are the sounds recorded during the street fight. But most impressively, Michael Mann claims that Val Kilmer became so proficient at reloading his assault rifle than his scenes are actually played for soldiers in the Special Forces. Load machine guns, kill man-eating lions, and play volleyball…is there anything Kilmer can’t do?
The Wild Bunch (1969)
When Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch hit theaters in 1969, some people loved it, some people hated it, but everybody left the theater with their mouths hanging open. After all, the film’s climactic shootout is an absolute orgy of slow-mo violence, a ballet where all the dancers are chopped down by a machine gun. Of course, what other way could you end a movie about aging outlaws living on borrowed time?
After a bank robbery gone wrong, the aforementioned outlaws wind up in Mexico, where they’re caught between revolutionaries and a drunken despot named Mapache (Emilio Fernández). Through an unfortunate series of violent events, Mapache eventually arrests one of the criminals, a young Mexican named Angel (Jaime Sánchez) who’s sympathetic to the revolution. The psychopathic general begins torturing the outlaw, but eventually, Angel’s buddies decide to put a stop to it, leading to one of the most controversial climaxes of all time.
It was also one of the most complicated climaxes—to film, that is. According to film critic Kenneth Turan, over 90,000 rounds were fired during the making of The Wild Bunch, and it’s safe to assume a good chunk of those were used during the faceoff between the four bandits and Mapache’s army. The scene took 12 days to film and involved a staggering 300 extras and 500 animals. On top of that, the set was rigged with a jaw-dropping 10,000 squibs (all loaded with meat and artificial blood), one of which misfired and burned William Holden’s arm.
Holden wasn’t the only one injured during the shootout, however. Actor Ben Johnson broke his finger while firing a mounted machine gun. But it seems like the extras had the worst. There were approximately 300 playing Mapache’s troops, but Peckinpah wanted it to seem like there were more. So after an extra was “killed,” he’d go off-set and hand his bloody outfit to someone who’d clean off the fake goo. Next, someone would place tape behind the hole left by the squib and then paint the piece of tape khaki. Finally, someone would use a pair of old gloves to make the tape look like worn material. Then the extra would put the uniform back on and head out into the fray, ready to be squibbed again. Talk about dedication to your job.