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

*Last Updated: 4/24/2022
Still Largely Under Construction

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.

All Actions Scenes Rated & Ranked

38. "London Finale: Saving Swan from an Exploding Building" -Spectre (2015)
37. "Snow Rescue: Plane vs. Trucks" -Spectre (2015)

36. "Haiti Hotel Surprise: Bond Takes Out Thug Hiding in His Room" -Quantum of Solace (2008)
35. "Safin's Island Finale: Exploration & Destruction" -No Time to Die (2021)
34. "Finale: Submarine Shootout" -Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

33. "Opera Surveillance: Spoiling a Secret Quantum Meeting" -Quantum of Solace (2008)
32. "Attacked by Plane & Helicopter Over Bolivia" -Quantum of Solace (2008)
31. “Finale: Getting Revenge - Taking Out the General and Mr. Greene” -Quantum of Solace (2008)
30. "Mountain Fun: Aston Martin vs. Ferrari Testarossa" -Goldeneye (1995)
29. "Bridge Chase & Forest Shootout" -No Time to Die (2021)
28. "Car Chase in the Streets of Rome" -Spectre (2015)

27. “Finale: Destroying the Goldeneye Satellites” -Goldeneye (1995)
- Commentary: Bond and Natalya infiltrate the Goldeneye satellite base and radar station. After setting some charges on a leaking fuel container, Bond is captured without much of a gunfight. Natalya working in the background gets on a mainframe computer and she is eventually caught as well. This allows Sean Bean and Alan Cumming to share their evil little plans with Bond. For as much as this is a "modern" reboot it is surprising just how much of a traditional Bond template this really is. At least there's this clever little bit with a bomb pen and Alan Cumming's finicky clicking of the pen and it being a bomb - I like that part. Anyways, Bond flicks the pen into the gasoline and it all goes up in flames and James makes his way to the transmitter - Sean Bean follows him up there and a shootout occurs. Bond gets into the transmitter antenna and has a short but decent fight that spills onto a ladder that folds down and over the giant radar. Bond is in a precarious spot here, but Bean makes a mistake and knocks him off the ladder and down to the radar below. It's a pretty standard finale with an exotic location and a nice little fight - but not much beyond that.

26. “Opening: Car Chase Through the Italian Mountains” -Quantum of Solace (2008)
- Commentary: I love the idea of picking up Quantum of Solace from the ending of Casino Royale. I love the idea of throwing us right into a car chase from the word go. I really don't care for the decision to edit the car chase the way they did. I don't mind quick editing for intensity/impact, but that's normally something you do within the context of larger sequences or something you have patterned your audience to expect and understand. The way the initial minute or so of this sequence is edited causes more confusion than is necessary and becomes frustrating because there are obviously some great stunts being pulled off in these picturesque winding Italian mountain roads. The scene is Bond getting away from henchmen who are trying to get Bond after he has captured Mr. White. He winds through seaside tunnels, mountains, and construction yards and leaves some nice damage behind - I just wish it was much clearer. That said - it's clear enough to still enjoy to a point and there's enough goodness here that isn't completely ruined by the editing choices.

25. "Haiti Harbor Hopping: Saving the Girl and Speeding Away" -Quantum of Solace (2008)
- Commentary: This, like the opening car chase, is a frustrating sequence. It is obvious that a lot of time and energy went into this speedboat chase, but it's edited so poorly that we really can't rightly enjoy it like we should. The bright harbor is a beautiful location with lovely blue water and the sequence begins with a great stunt of Bond riding his motorbike up a ramp and onto a sitting boat. Bond hops across some boats until he finds a working one he likes and speeds away on it. He rams the villain's bigger boat, grabs Olga Kurylenko's Camille, hops back on his boat and speeds away. The villains send two smaller fast boats after him and its here where the sequence just surprisingly seems to hide its best stunts, cutting away too quickly, and never giving us a good view of the hard work they clearly did. It's kind of shocking because this had the makings of a solid sequence that turned into a just alright one.

24. “Opening: Arkangel Chemical Facility Operation” -Goldeneye (1995)
- Commentary: Martin Campbell's 1995 reboot of the James Bond franchise with Pierce Brosnan got off to a pretty good start with this sold, but not great cold open. The sequence begins and ends with a nice stunt as Bond must get in and out of the Arkangel Chemical Facility in Russia. The opening stunt is a free jump down the side of a damn which looks quite good. From there, James infiltrates, meets up with another agent played by Sean Bean (who I guess didn't have to make the same jump?), and they move in to take out the Russian chemicals. When they are cornered by Russian soldiers, Bean gets killed and Bond escapes with a short shootout. His escape leads to a snowy runway up in the mountains (which doesn't quite gel with the damn opening) where we get a neat stunt that sees Bond dive after a plane after its already fallen off the runway. He freefalls down into the plane and brings it up barely before it hits the ground. On paper its a neat sequence and executed it is alright. The final stunt is a bit over the top for my preference, but beyond that - it's more of a character introduction than an all out action sequence.

23. "Finale: Safin's Island Staircase Shootout" -No Time to Die (2021)
- Commentary: 

22. "Matera Opening: Chased by Bike & Car" -No Time to Die (2021)
- Commentary: 

21. "Cuba Shootout: Spectre, MI6, & CIA Fight for a Scientist" -No Time to Die (2021)
- Commentary: 

20. “Chasing Silva: From the Tube to the Court Shootout” -Skyfall (2012)
- Commentary: Yes - Silva's plan relies a lot on coincidence and is a bit too much like Joker's plan in The Dark Knight. However, I have to say that in movies, execution and context is everything and the way that Sam Mendes executes the same makes the plan feel as intuitive and grounded as it could be. Being a former MI6 agent, being able to hack into their systems and no their sites well, one can suspend disbelief. Silva's escape from his glass prison leads Bond to an underground chase through the subway system. There's some nice back and forth here - the visuals are always stunning and Bond's knack for still closing in on Silva despite the head start is pretty neat. The moment that Silva blows up a charge and has a subway burst through is a neat stunt but has got to be the worst moment of the sequence. The sequence culminates in a shootout at the hearing about MI6 that M is currently at - this was supposed to be her assassination moment but Bond interrupts that. If the great coincidences and that tube stunt didn't sabotage this otherwise great chase, I could see it ranking even higher.

19. “Hovercraft Havoc in North Korea” -Die Another Day (2002)
- Commentary:

18. “Speedboat Chase on the River Thames” -The World Is Not Enough (1999)
- Commentary:

17. “Shanghai Assassination: Tracking & a Silhouette Fight” -Skyfall (2012)
- Commentary: This is just one slick piece of action here. It begins with Bond tracking a suspect from the Shanghai airport to a skyscraper. He athletically (though struggle, he is old) follows along by holding on to the elevator as it ascends dozens of floors. He gets off and the glass floor is filled with neon lights from surrounding buildings. It's a cool look. The assassin suspect is setting up and getting ready to take a target out in a building across the way. After the attempt, Bond engages him in a fight that is done nearly all in silhouette and in one take. It's sweet looking. The assassin ends up falling out of the window and to the ground below. While not a great example of fighting style, tracking technique, or anything like that - this scene excels simply on atmosphere and cinematography. It might be the single "coolest" sequence in the Bond canon.

16. “Bond's Lotus Car is Attacked by Cars, Helicopters, and Scuba Divers” -The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
- Commentary:

15. “Opening: Day of the Dead Mayhem” -Spectre (2015)
- Commentary:

14. “Ski Chase in the Alpines by an Olympic Medalist” -For Your Eyes Only (1981)
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13. “Train fight with Hinx” -Spectre (2015)
- Commentary:

12. “Remote Control Car Chase in the Garage” -Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) Link
- Commentary:

11. “Finale: House Battle in Scotland” -Skyfall (2012)
- Commentary: This sequence is sometimes lampooned as the James Bond version of Home Alone. While I get that criticism, I think it misses the key idea here. The goal for Bond is that by going back to traditional roots, he would level the playing field - no computers to outthink his old traditional soul. Here he knows the the escape routes, he knows things like booby traps, and traditional gunplay. If Silva took the bait, he might have a chance. I get the thinking and it works in a cinematic way. Beyond that however, is the atmosphere and dread that Mendes adds through how he shoots this attack. As the first wave attacks, Bond hides out in the classic Aston Martin DB5 and ambushes the group. The few that make it inside are taken out by the booby traps. The first wave done and then Silva comes in on the helicopter. It's here the scene goes from good to memorable. The sound design, with Silva playing music on the speakers, and then machine gunning the house, is incredible. The gun just tears the house apart. Silva lands with another wave of soldiers and Bond is trapped. They toss in grenades and begin a fire. The glowing red contrasts the cold ice blue outside so perfectly here. Bond wisely decides to blow the house in general and escape using an old tunnel system. The resultant blast takes down the helicopter in a glorious blaze. Silva knocked down by the blaze, looks around wildly and notices M far away moving to the chapel. He begins to chase her down, Bond heads out after. The final showdown takes place in the chapel where Bond gets the last word. I quite like this finale the more I watch it.

10. “Gas Truck Chase Finale” -License to Kill (1989)
- Commentary:

9. “A Yellow Citroen Chase in the Countryside” -For Your Eyes Only (1981)
- Commentary:

8. “Train Car Fist Fight” -From Russia with Love (1963)
- Commentary:

7. “Across the Rooftops of Siena: Chasing Down a Mole” -Quantum of Solace (2008)
- Commentary: Coming not long after the opening car chase, the villainous Mr. White is being interrogated when he insinuates that their organization "has people everywhere" - which is a signal for one of the MI6 agents nearby (who is with him) to open fire. The agent runs away and Bond gives chase through the Siena underground and pops out during the Siena Palio - a medieval style horse race with thousands in attendance. They run through doors, up stairs, and make their way to the distinctive tiled rooftops with a stunning skyline of architecture. During a stretch Bond is forced to run and jump from balcony to balcony, then onto a bus roof, and onto a gutter drain. It's a cool sequence, edited with a quick pace (it works here!) to emphasize the speed and intensity. The two meet at a bell tower and take a jaw dropping drop through the skylight of a building into its open atrium where scaffolds and ropes are present for construction purposes. They fight back and forth, get caught up in the ropes, swing back and forth and Bond ends up near the floor where his gun landed. There's a scramble, Bond grabs the gun, turns around and shoots the agent just before being shot. It's a quick paced and intense chase in the vein (but not quite as good) of the Tangiers/Desh chase from 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum

6. “Stopping a Bomb at the Airport” -Casino Royale (2006)
- 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.

5. “Opening: Chasing After a Hard Drive in Istanbul” -Skyfall (2012)
- Commentary: When James arrives on the scene an MI6 operative has already been robbed and shot. James is told to leave him and get after whoever did it. He walks out into the loud and crowded streets of Istanbul. He's picked up by Eve in a 4x4 and they have the bad guys tailed in an Audi. It's not long before they are tailed by cops and they are able to get the bad guys to crash. A gunfight ensues in the market and the motorcycle cops are taken down. Bond and one of the bad guys get the motorcycles and begin a chase on them. We take a bit of a sight seeing tour and they end up on the rooftops of the grand bazaar with landmarks in the background. It's cool looking stuff shot wide M tracks everything from rainy London and Eve continues to back Bond up. They break through a window and into the marketplace below. Cut off by Bond and Eve on a bridge, the bad guy jumps onto a train below the bridge. Bond follows suit by jumping from his motorcycle and a really cool looking stunt. A shootout occurs on the train rooftops and Bond only gets an advantage when he gets into a construction crane being shipped on one of the cars. He uses the shovel hand for bullet protection and begins knocking off cars and eventually comes down onto the train car with the bad guy on it. Again, great stunts. Eve follows along and ends up driving ahead to get a good shot when they get out of town on the train. Bond and the bad guy end up in a fist fight on top of the train and Eve must make a decision to take a shot - possibly hitting Bond in the process. M encourages her loudly to take the shot. Eve shoots and takes Bond down. He flies off the train, down into the water below as the credits roll. It's an iconic opening - the second base cold open of the entire series. Not only does this sequence show the Bond filmmakers at the top of their action game, but it wonderfully incorporates a central theme of the film: M is willing to sacrifice these men at her will. She (standing in for love of country) doesn't really care about who she has to sacrifice. It's a theme that will drive the villain and the rest of the film.

4. “Boat Chase in the Bayou” -Live and Let Die (1973)
- 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 (1995)
- Commentary: 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. It begins with Bond and Natalya being interrogated by a Russian general. Bond takes advantage of a weak moment to escape and the chase makes its way to a library where there's a shootout between Bond and the bad guys. They capture Natalya and make off with her in a car. James scans his options in the parking lot and happens upon a tank. We don't see his choice until he comes busting through a brick wall. Like the Bayou chase from Live and Let Die, 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. There are so many scenes here of alleys, cars, and wall getting practically destroyed that its hard not to watch with a boyish grin as Bond keeps trucking along in his tank. I love how 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 alot Director Martin Campbell!

2. “Escape from Carver: Handcuffed Bike Chase” -Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
- Commentary: This is the ultimate example of balancing the big, expensive, and practical set pieces of James Bond while still crossing the line of believability in a grand, flashy, but never insulting way. The sequence begins with Michelle Yeoh and Brosnan’s Bond escaping from Carver in an awesome looking stunt as they use a banner on the side of a skyscraper building to slide down to the ground. They get a motorcycle and a chase through the streets ensue. The chase lasts through several phases – escaping gunfire and giving us a lot of nice destruction and stunts. I’d place this sequence even higher, but I’m not a fan of the final moment where a helicopter uses its blades as an obstacle. The chase is great Bond action that finds a way to be epic and grounded, but that’s just crosses the line into comedy a bit too far in my opinion.

1. “Chase Thru Construction Site/Embassy Shootout” -Casino Royale (2006)
- 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 cliché, 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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