Action junkies didn’t have a lot of innovation to champion in 2011. The top popcorn blockbusters were sequels and/or prequels as Harry Potter delivered its eighth installment, Fast and the Furious turned five, and both X-Men and Planet of the Apes went back to franchise basics.
But within these blockbusters, we found memorable action set pieces and bone-crunching fistfights that deserved recognition. (And in the case of Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, we enjoyed a steady stream of both!) These are the ten most memorable fights and action set pieces from the year in films. Have a different favorite? Let me hear about it in our comments section.
WARNING: Some of these scenes come near the end of their given films and could be considered spoilers. Be warned!
#10: Highway Car Chase Fright Night
Attempting to flee their neighboring vampire (Colin Farrell), Toni Colette piles Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots into her suburban-tested mini van and escapes into the desert. But the bloodsucker follows in his muscular pick up truck and – in one masterful single-take shot – stops them dead in their tracks. Stylishly mapped-out motor sequences like this are unexpected in remakes of throwaway horror pleasures. But the minute the motorcycle tire punctuates the back window of Colette’s car, we know Fright Night director Craig Gillespie is eager to step up his game, and the rest of the picture follows his lead.
#9: Skyscraper Slide Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Michael Bay’s usually good for one or two “holy shit” moments in his otherwise empty blockbusters. As bloated as Bad Boys 2 is, there’s still that memorable highway chase where Will Smith and Martin Lawrence weave through cars that drop and scatter like rain drops in a storm. Same goes for his latest Transformers sequel, Dark of the Moon. I can’t recall specifics about the “plot” (if you can call it that), but I certainly remember Shia LaBeouf, Tyrese Gibson and a team of soldiers sliding on the outside of a Chicago skyscraper, right before an octopus Decepticon “hugged” the building to death.
#8: Golden Gate Bridge showdown Rise of the Planet of the Apes
A surprise hit of summer 2011, Rupert Wyatt’s Apes stayed true to franchise mythology while attempting to explain how the planet Charlton Heston discovered at the end of his 1968 classic came to pass. Yet for all of its sci-fi mumbo jumbo about curing human illnesses through ape-inspired experimentation, Apes really kicked into high gear once James Franco’s lab “rats” escaped, and took over San Francisco. Why cookie Rocket? More like, “Stop shooting at Caesar, or his monkey buddies are going to take your helicopter down!”
#7: Molly Weasley vs. Bellatrix Lestrange Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
So many critical characters fought to the death in Deathly Hallows, the eighth and final Harry Potter film, that we could have gone with multiple battles involving Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) or our beloved Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). But hands down, the best had to be protective parent Molly Weasley (Julie Walters) decimating the demonic Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) with the flick of a wand and the unforgettable bellow, “Not my daughter, you bitch.”
#6: Magneto intercepts a handful of missiles X-Men: First Class
Plugging superheroes into American history was a trend in 2011. Captain America also injected a legend into our nation’s past, and rewrote the future as a result. But Matthew Vaughn’s Cuban Missile Crisis standoff – which concluded X-Men: First Class -- escalated with such impressive precision and unexpected thrills that by the time Magneto (Michael Fassbender) protected his fellow mutants by intercepting an army of missiles, it became crystal clear that Vaughn had delivered a first-class X-Men movie … and I only hope he’s given the chance to bring us another one, soon.
#5: The Baghar chase The Adventures of Tintin
Can it really be considered a single shot when the cinematography is animated and the “camera” is part of a complicated motion-capture process that makes physically impossible movements downright easy? Doesn’t matter. The Baghar chase in Steven Spielberg’s Tintin, which finds the intrepid journalist (Jamie Bell) piloting a motorcycle through a bustling African city in pursuit of three scraps of treasure map, was a giddy – and a wee bit showy – burst of breathtaking action choreography that ranks up there with the dangling trailer sequence from Jurassic Park: The Lost World or the mine car chase from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That’s saying a lot.
#4: Vin Diesel vs. The Rock Fast Five
Sure, the sight of career criminals Dom (Diesel) and Brian (Paul Walker) dragging a safe through downtown Rio de Janeiro could have made this list. But those of us who adore an earth-shattering brawl left Fast Five raving about Diesel’s bout with The Rock, which was a sweaty mess of jabs, roundhouses, adrenaline, shattered glass, overconfidence and broken bones. Who won? Call it a draw. But if you stayed through the end credits of Fast Five, you know that Diesel vs. Rock: Round Two likely is in order. Bring the popcorn.
#3: Race through a sandstorm Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Technically, the sequence begins with Tom Cruise scaling the side of the Burj Khalifa, a spectacular achievement that needs to be seen in IMAX to appreciate the sheer chutzpah of it all. But after a tense standoff between rival agents, a villain escapes from the tower with nuclear launch codes in his possession, and Cruise’s Ethan Hunt pursues him through a blinding sand storm. Brad Bird’s work on the wire-walk is impressive, but the sandstorm sequence is an inspired sprint through unexpected obstacles, and the two set pieces together form one of the most memorable stunts in the entire Impossible series.
#2: Eric Bana vs. subway terrorists Hanna
Joe Wright loves his unbroken tracking shots. And while he has yet to top the wartime beach walk in Atonement, his Hanna tracking shot is an impressive feat of timing and face-smashing fight choreography. You get the sense that something special is happening as Eric Bana steps off a bus, works his way through a terminal and back onto the street without the camera cutting away. But as Wright descends to a subway platform, and Bana’s character finds himself surrounded by thugs, Hanna pounds its sweet spot to the thumping beats of a Chemical Brothers score. Genius.
#1: Every Tom Hardy bout Warrior
I can’t decide what’s more impressive: Tom Hardy leveling opponents with one bone-crunching punch; or his bullish character, Tommy, exiting the ring the second his unworthy challenger hits the mat. Hardy’s march through the mixed martial arts tournament at the end of Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior amounts to all six Rocky movies rolled into one rousing sequence. Tommy takes down impossibly tough Russian champions, past rivals, and – in the anticipated turn of events – his own brother. But the escalating intensity of each bout helps turn Warrior into a crowd-pleasing underdog drama for the ages, one hard-hitting sports thriller we won’t soon forget.
For more of our end-of-the-year coverage, visit our Best of 2011 page.