Best Action Scenes of All-Time: James Bond Edition - The Part-Time Critic

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: James Bond Edition

James Bond is not just one of the most beloved and longest running franchises of all-time, it's one of the few that allow us to see the evolution of cinematic action over the span of many decades. The James Bond franchise began with Dr. No in 1963 and boasts 26 total films over nearly 60 years! At times, the Bond franchise was the trend setter in action, at times it was just mediocre, and at times it merely imitated the trends of the day. 

In general, the earliest action sequences just do not hold up well. You won't find many of them on this list as compared to modern Bonds. While the overall plots and characters might continue to be fun, most of the major set pieces from the first couple decades suffer from poor pacing, overly simplistic choreography, and over-dependency on outlandish and stylized sets. Most of the fist-fighting of the early Bond films is hard to watch too. In this way, it did not separate itself from the trends of the day. Outside of a stellar fist-fight on a train (you'll see on the list) in From Russia with Love, fight choreography is generally of the "circle with fists up, one person swings wildly and misses, Bond swings and knocks them out with one punch" variety. Now, I don't think it needed to look like my Hong Kong style favorites, but in a series on action, I'd be remiss not to point out how a franchise that relies on fist fights in so many of its films did little to innovate or stand out in that area.

In general, the area where the James Bond franchise stands out are the large scale chase scenes. The outlandish spy plots provide many opportunities for a lot of "Bond chasing a villain" or  "villain chasing Bond " moments and coming up with increasingly creative and exciting ways to do it is the real action substance of the franchise. The series is at its best when it is devising clever and creative ways to film grandiose, visceral, and cheeky chases. You'll find many of those scenes populate the twenty best scenes ranked below.

Top Twenty Action Scenes
20. “Hovercraft Havoc in North Korea” -Die Another Day (Link)
19. “Speedboat Chase on the River Thames” -The World Is Not Enough (Link)
18. “Chasing Silva: From the Tube to the Court Shootout” -Skyfall (Part 1) (Part 2)
17. “Opening: Car Chase Through the Italian Mountains” -Quantum of Solace (Link)
16. “Finale: House Battle in Scotland” -Skyfall (Link)
15. “Bond's Lotus Car is Attacked by Cars, Helicopters, and Scuba Divers” -The Spy Who Loved Me (Link)
14. “Infiltrating, Blowing Up, and Escaping the Chemical Facility” -Goldeneye (Link)
13. “Ski Chase in the Alpines by an Olympic Medalist” -For Your Eyes Only (Link)
12. “Remote Control Car Chase in the Garage” -Tomorrow Never Dies (Link)
11. “Gas Truck Chase Finale” -License to Kill (Part 1) (Part 2)

10. “A Yellow Citroen Chase in the Countryside” -For Your Eyes Only (Link)
9. “Across the Rooftops: Chasing Down M's Killer” -Quantum of Solace (Link)
8. “Opening: Chasing After a Hard Drive in Istanbul” -Skyfall (Part 1) (Part 2)
7. “Train Car Fist Fight” -From Russia with Love (Link)
6. “Train fight with Hinx” -Spectre (Link)

5. “Stopping a Bomb at the Airport” -Casino Royale (Link)
- I think this is an underrated and oft forgotten action sequence of the film it is in, let alone the franchise. I've often said that the Casino Royale Bond was built in the shadow of Jason Bourne and that's never more apparent than in this sequence: The extended pursuit displaying a matching of wits as much as muscles which ultimately explodes into traditional action set to quicker edits and the feeling of a camera in handheld style. Though it is imitative, it is nonetheless a satisfying and accomplished action sequence in its own right.

4. “Boat Chase in the Bayou” -Live and Let Die (Link)
- This is probably the most surprising find of all 26 Bond films. As I mentioned in the opening, these large scale chases are the bread and butter of the series, but most of the sequences from the earlier years just don't hold up. The chase here is done practically with great on-location vistas (something I really miss in these CGI dependent days). It's a lengthy sequence, but there is strong story being told within the scene (along with some side comedy from a cop that actually works), that it provides enough engaging context to really enjoy the numerous boat stunts on display.

3. “Escape: Driving a Tank in St. Petersburg” -Goldeneye (Link)
- I love that they took what could have been a disastrously cheesy concept "Tank chases cars through St. Petersburg" and instead turned out a gloriously cheeky action spectacle that remains grounded enough to never feel out of hand. Tanks Martin Campbell! Like the Bayou chase, the realness (that seems like a real tank!) and setting of this chase (they are actually in the streets!) help it stand out from today's CGI sequences, but it's still shot with modern action sensibilities. The sequence is the epitome of what made Goldeneye such a success - it captures the best of traditional James Bond chase sequences, but managed to combine it with the best of modern action sensibilities.

2. “Escape from Carver: Handcuffed Bike Chase” -Tomorrow Never Dies (Link)
- The follow-up film to Goldeneye provided the standout action set piece of the Pierce Brosnan era. After this sequence, it would mostly devolve into cheesier and more outlandish sequences that felt closer to the early era Bond in their conception. There's only one moment (to me) that comes close that here and it's the final "sliding under the helicopter blades" ending stunt, but it thankfully comes after so many grounded and believably staged stunts that it becomes acceptable to me. If Bond was alone on the bike, this would still be a stunning motorcycle chase with fun stunts, enjoyable environmental damage, and strong camerawork, but the additional twist of having to do the entire chase while handcuffed to another person gives it an extra edge. They do a good job using that concept for some additional comedy and tension.

1. “Chase Thru Construction Site/Embassy Shootout” -Casino Royale (Link)
- After the silly action excesses at the end of Brosnan's era, the franchise needed a reboot. The producers looked again to Martin Campbell, who rebooted Bond in Goldeneye, to re-introduce Bond to a post-Bourne era. The opening action sequence (aside from the black and white prologue) crafted specifically for this re-introduction became the single greatest action sequence in the entire franchise. Per the usual cliche, this is Bond chasing down a villain, this time it's a particularly fast and agile bomb maker. The chase leads to a construction site and provides the filmmakers ample opportunity to show that Daniel Craig's Bond is more brute force than previous Bonds. This is illustrated well with several great moments contrasting the agility and grace of the bomb maker's parkour moves with Bond's clunkier but still athletic responses. Thankfully, Campbell spends some extra time here with giant sweeping moves showcasing the height and beauty of the setting as well. The stunts and views at the top of the construction site are some of the best in all of action cinema. At other times, when Bond can't keep up physically, he resorts to using his wit to keep up. Finally, the sequence ends by presenting Bond with a key ethical decision. The entire sequence masterfully builds the character (according to the first time viewer) entirely through action rather than words.

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