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100 Great Movie Action Scenes: Best Rescues & Escapes

100 Essential Action Scenes, Part Three: Rescues & Escapes

If you’re an action hero, pulling off daring rescues and badass escapes is just another day at the office. The rescue has been the prototypical action scene since humans have been able to put pen to paper. From Tarzan swinging in on a vine to Iron Man flying in on his jets, a hero isn’t a hero unless he can swoop in and save the damsel or the day. The only thing more exciting is if the clock is ticking on his escape. Whether it’s from a burning building, a whole planet, or an industrialized prison complex that is New York City (while rescuing the President!), putting life on the line is always the easy part; getting out alive is where it gets hard.

31. Jurassic Park (1993)
Tyrannosaurus Rex machina

Jurassic Park is a spectacle of special effects, life-like animatronics, and thrilling action set-pieces thanks to the brilliant direction of Steven Spielberg and special effects from Stan Winston and the Industrial Light & Magic team. The cat-and-mouse game between two Velociraptors and the film’s pint-sized potential prey, Lex and Tim (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazello), kicks off the film’s stunning final set-piece. It begins in the park’s very large kitchen (a sequence Bravo listed as the 95th Scariest Movie Moment ever), where the lightning cleverness of the primordial killing machines becomes very clear to us viewers. The brilliant use of negative space, the clever use of reflections, and the dazzling widescreen compositions make this a master class in building suspense. Once the children escape, they join Grant and Ellie (Sam Neil and Laura Dern) to make their way out of the defenseless park compound. The beasts stalk the quartet through a maze of air vents and industrial ceilings, then to the compound’s lavish visitor center, where Spielberg saves the characters with 9 tons of dues ex machina. It’s less a cheat than a glorious capper to one of the most nail-biting escapes in cinema history. (Ricky D)

32. Argo (2012)
Boarding the plane

If you ask the CIA, they’ll explain that the final plane chase between the Iranians and the Swiss Air flight at the end of Argo never happened. It’s an exaggerated, tacked on, Hollywood movie ending. But then, that’s exactly the point. Argo is a movie about the movies. The lies we tell via cinema helped to extract six US hostages out of Iran in 1980; the stylization and embellishment found here help director Ben Affleck craft a richer and more compelling story. The real excitement of this final escape is in just how white knuckle the tension is up until the very last moment. The cars of the Iranian security forces scurry alongside the plane, its soldiers ready to open fire, and our heroes can do nothing but sit calmly. Even after the plane has taken flight, the pressure isn’t off until they leave Iranian airspace. Affleck has a knack for suspense, crafting not just a great escape but a classic Hollywood ending. (Brian Welk)

33Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Escaping Jabba’s clutches

After the success of The Empire Strikes Back, not to mention the uncertain future of Harrison Ford in the series, Return of the Jedi had an obligation to bring something new to end the series on a high note. For a certain generation, Return of the Jedi was their first Star Wars film and what makes it a key part of childhood nostalgia is the thrill of watching this scene for the first time.  Set a year after the events of Empire, it looks all doom and gloom for heroes Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Ford), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) as they are to be fed to the Sarlacc for vile gangster Jabba the Hutt’s entertainment. As Luke is led onto a precarious plank, the tables turn when he effortlessly flips over the guard, catches his new lightsaber, and quickly dispatches all of Hutt’s guards single-handed. In terms of character development, Luke hasn’t had a chance during the first two films to memorably stand out. Thus, his rescue mission shows how much he has grown from the wannabe rebel, as well as gives the strongest indication in the series (at that point) that Jedis are back and here to stay. (Katie Wong)

34Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The hero among us

Sam Raimi’s second Spider-man adventure is a watershed moment in the history of the comic book movie, where the heart of its titular superhero is crystallized. Peter Parker (Toby Maguire), having surrendered his vigilante helm after becoming convinced New York doesn’t need him, is quickly thrown back into the superhero game when Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) kidnaps Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) to convince Peter to get his “friend” Spider-Man to surrender himself to the good doctor. Peter steals back his costume and promptly gets into a fight with Doc Ock that leads to the top of a subway train. The fight is fluid and kinetic, culminating in Spidey having to stop a runaway train. Maguire sells the stress of stopping a zooming elevated train with nothing but his spider-enhanced body, and Raimi expertly cuts from close-ups of his face to wide shots of the disaster to sell the drama. But the real power of the scene comes from the aftermath, when the patrons of the train carry a passed out and maskless Peter over their heads. This is a city that realizes how much this kid is sacrificing himself in order to protect them. Though many comic book movies would go on to recreate Spider-Man 2’s epically scaled combat sequences, more would have done better to copy the uplifting sense of pride generated by the patrons of that subway car standing up against Doc Ock and volunteering to protect Spider-Man’s identity. (JJ Perkins)

35. Star Wars (1977)
“Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”

By the time Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammil) opens a cell door aboard the Death Star and tells Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) that he’s there to rescue her, Leia has already been established as a character capable of taking action into her own hands (fighting against the Stormtroopers boarding her ship) and being sassy in the face of death (as when she’s brought before Grand Moff Tarkin). But this scene represents the moment that Leia becomes the First Lady of sci-fi film. Along with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Luke has managed to get as far as penetrating the Imperial cell block and retrieving the princess from her prison. But none of the male heroes bothered to think of a way out, leaving it to Leia to take charge of her own rescue by grabbing Luke’s weapon from him to mow down some invading troops herself before blasting an opening to a garbage chute, creating an escape route for everyone. It’s an exciting culmination to an exciting scene, and in the process, it not only gives the audience its first look at the dynamic between the series’ central trio of heroes but also announces loud and clear that Princess Leia isn’t the usual damsel in distress. (Austin Gorton)

36Captain Phillips (2013)

Paul Greenglass makes Captain Phillips a film length exercise in suspense. The true story of the freighter captain’s abduction by Somali pirates naturally climaxes with his rescue by US Navy SEALS. Though DP Barry Ackroyd’s observant lens places faces and screens above all else (unusual for an action denouement), what makes this scene fascinating isn’t the technical mechanics but the character interplay. The SEALS are pensive, knowing a wrong move will doom Phillips and create an international incident. The Somali pirates, way over their heads, still debate whether to kill their hostage; which option gives them better opportunities? The Captain himself barely matters: having lost his bluff hauteur, he’s blindfolded and screaming for help, unable to act. When the SEALS make their move it’s less relief than lancing a boil – painful, but something had to give. (Chris Saunders)

37. Die Hard (1988)
“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!”

Noted as being IGN’s “Top 25 Action Movies,” Entertainment Weekly’s “Best Action Film of All Time,” and even Empire’s “Greatest Christmas Film of All Time,” this climactic scene may as well accumulate everything that is good and glorified about the beloved action franchise. Leading up to John McClane’s (played by Bruce Willis and Empire’s twelfth greatest film character of all time) estranged wife’s rescue, terrorist leader Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman, ranked seventeen on Empire’s same list) taunts our hero by calling him a cowboy and asking if he stands a chance to survive. Without a beat McClane fires back, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker,” and history was made. Launching Bruce Willis’ career as an action star, his loner style of everyday hero spawned copycats of John McClane, including Keanu Reeves in Speed, Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57, and Jean-Claude Van Damme in Sudden Death. Yet even without the scene’s impact on action cinema, it holds up on its own as a thrilling ending. John makes a final transition from an aloof husband to a selfless man by protecting his wife from the evil grasp of Hans Gruber. As Gruber plunges to his death by letting go of Holly’s watch, time is also restored and rejuvenated for our couple. Marriage is McClane’s next challenge, and with a glimmer of hope, becomes their Christmas miracle. (Christopher Clemente)

38. The Matrix (1999)
The power of One

Every action hero has that moment when he or she has to accept their destiny as a hero. The Wachowski’s The Matrix may have reinvented how action movies look, move, and feel, but at its heart, it’s a standard hero’s journey. But oh boy, does it look and move and feel like no other. Neo’s (Keanu Reeves) journey from the reluctant hacker to ultimate messiah takes its first big step when he enters the matrix to save his mentor, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). He and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) make their way to the top of an office stronghold and commandeer a helicopter, whose mini gun they use to blast through Morpheus’ holding room. In a beautifully composed under-view shot, a tethered Neo jumps from the chopper into the air and catches Morpheus. The Wachowski’s and cinematographer Dick Pope take a painterly approach to their compositions. Shots linger, drinking in the beauty of bodies performing acrobatic feats. Space is wide and open, so those bodies (not to mention bullets and machines) can inhabit their space. It’s an approach antithetical to today’s chopped up action, more akin to the Eastern actioners that defined the arthouse scene of the ’90s. After Neo drops off the dangling Morpheus, he uses his tether as a rope for Trinity to swing out of the damaged helicopter just as it slams into a building. It’s here where the Wachowski’s visual style pays off, providing a breathtaking money shot of the chopper exploding behind Trinity as she swings away. “Do you believe it now,” asks Morpheus to his newly rescued comrade and practically to the audience. For most action films, a feat like this would be the only showstopper. Here, it’s a prelude to even greater action and character beats. (Shane Ramirez)

39. Aliens (1986)
Ripley to the rescue

The Xenomorphs of Aliens are creatures of pure, unadulterated violence. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) survived her first encounter with one, but after waking up from 57 years of cryosleep, she discovers that humans have colonized the very planet the xenomorphs call home. One little girl, Newt, has inexplicably survived the slaughter of the colony and is taken under Ripley’s protective wing. Alien may have been effective in creating dread, but James Cameron’s sequel ups the ante in the action department, dropping aliens from the ceiling, popping them out of floors, and stuffing them in ventilation shafts by the dozens. With most of the colonial marines dead, Ripley goes back for the kidnapped Newt with nothing more than a pulse rifle and a flame thrower against the alien queen. She saves her young charge in badass form, mowing down xenos left and right and torching the queen’s nest of eggs. It’s a rescue scene essential to the action genre because of how it simultaneously depicts Ripley as a strong leader/warrior and a mother figure. In one sequence, Ripley evolves from the haunted survivor trying to escape the xenomorph to being the only crew member capable of taking on the mother of all aliens and saving everyone on board. (Colin Biggs)

40. Alien (1979)
Nostromo to Narcissus

Like a lot of classic horror films, Alien is most effective when it takes the ‘less is more’ approach. If any sequence highlights this, it’s the finale, when series protagonist Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) sets the spaceship Nostromo to self-detonate and makes her way breathlessly to the Narcissus escape pod. The scene is partially built on Ripley’s sudden isolation; all of her crewmates are dead, with only the ship’s cat to fend off the Freudian terror lurking the hallways. Where once she was part of a small community of tired, pay-hungry space truckers, now she’s the “final girl” in a horror movie in space. But more importantly, the scene is remarkable in that, for a frantic escape from a drooling nightmare of fangs and phalli, you barely ever see the darn thing. Ripley encounters the alien once throughout the whole sequence, and it doesn’t even spot her. Because the film up to this point has had a fun time having the alien creep up on the crew of the Nostromo, we expect it to re-appear at any moment, if only so that Ripley can give it a face full of a flamethrower. And yet, nothing. Besides that one appearance early on, Ripley’s journey from the Nostromo’s cockpit to the pod is mostly devoid of the thing she’s actually escaping from. First time viewers spend the entire sequence bracing for the alien to appear, and after a while, the wait becomes almost excruciating. It’s only when we and Ripley think that safety has arrived that the alien finally pounces. This sequence is a master class in maintaining suspense while revealing as little as possible, and it stands out even today as one of the tensest escapes in film history. (Thomas O’Connor)

We will be updating this over the next few days so be sure to visit our site later in the week.

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6 | PART 7 | PART 8 | PART 9 | PART 10

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