I’m obsessed with action movies.
As a kid, I actively tried to recruit kids from my school to form an Action Movie Viewing Club, where we’d all chip in and go see the latest Steven Seagal movie (or whatever). I lived for explosions, cheered on fight scenes, kept count of the number of kills in movies – what can I say, I was a weird kid. And while I no longer conduct such morbid statistical analyses, I do have an appreciation for the good action movie death scene.
And why the hell not? Big, explosive deaths allow us to exercise the vicious part of our imaginations, the part that never gets to come out in everyday life. It’s fun to imagine a villain, a real nasty piece of work, and watch them get what’s coming to them in the most gruesome way possible. When it’s a climax to an action flick, and it’s done right, it’s one of the coolest things you can see onscreen. Morbid and twisted, but still cool.
Here’s my top eleven. What, I can’t have eleven? Screw you. It’s my blog. Also, I wanted to include Lena Headey. Most of them are villains, with the odd hero thrown in. And it goes without saying:
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD
11. Samuel L Jackson – Deep Blue Sea
I never saw this coming.
I mean, come on, it’s Samuel L.! The coolest motherfucker in movies! An ice-cold survivor, always ready with a one-liner, not to be messed with. Three genetically engineered sharks? A group of humans trapped in a sub-sea research facility? Pfft. No problem. Not even when they start to fight. Jackson, whose Dr. Franklin once survived an avalanche, tells them to chill.
“You think water moves fast? You should see ice. It moves like it has a mind. Like it knows it killed the world once and got a taste for murder. After the avalanche, it took us a week to climb out. Now, I don’t know exactly when we turned on each other, but I know that seven of us survived the slide… and only five made it out. Now we took an oath, that I’m breaking now. We said we’d say it was the snow that killed the other two, but it wasn’t. Nature can be lethal but it doesn’t hold a candle to man. Now you’ve seen how bad things can get, and how quick they can get that way. Well, they can get a whole lot worse. So we’re not going to fight anymore! We’re going to pull together, and we’re going to find a way to get outta here. First, we’re gonna seal off this fl – “
BAM. Shark. Through floor. Chomp. Dead.
HOLY FUCK SHIT YOU KILLED SAMUEL L JESUS CHRIST NOW I AM TERRIFIED
10. Major T.J. “King” Kong – Dr Strangelove
I’ve tried to avoid really old movies here. Usually, the directors just didn’t get the concept of a good death. A gunshot, a staggering baddie, blood seeping onto a shirt, “You got me!”, thud. Meh.
But Dr. Strangelove? Hell yes. You have the greatest movie about nuclear war ever made, and you end it with Major T.J. “King” Kong literally riding a bomb as it plummets to the ground. Of course, the circumstances for this happening are completely insane, but who cares. He’s riding. A bomb.
9. The Predator
It’s an almost perfect ending.
Arnie versus the biggest, baddest bastard in the universe. One on one, mano-a-mano. A jungle battle to the death. A total explosion of unadulterated 80s masculinity and muscles. It’s passe now, but in the early 90s, when I saw it, it was the coolest thing ever.
And they couldn’t just have Arnie kill the big guy. Oh no. He’d never go out like that. Once he knew he was beaten, Preds activated his wrist-mounted super-bomb. It’s a masterfully-shot scene, beautifully written, with nothing but the ticking timer and that long, hideously human laugh to send us home. Bang. A perfect ending to a terrifying movie.
8. Brick Top – Snatch
Snatch is the single greatest gangster film of all time.
That’s an absolute. Godfather, Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco, Pulp Fiction…all good. All classics. None of them hold a candle to Snatch. It’s as sharp and lethal as a shank to the liver, bursting with incredible characters. Some friends and I once spent an entire evening talking in nothing but Snatch quotes. It’s that good.
And it has the best villain: Brick Top. A pint-sized, ancient ghoul in thick, horn-rimmed glasses, fond of suffocating his enemies and then feeding them to pigs. Alan Ford plays him with zero sentiment, a titanic performance that redefines onscreen presence.
His end comes after a boxing match gone wrong, when the gypsy whose caravan he burned (with his mum still inside) gets bloody, booming revenge. To the tune of Oasis’ Fuckin’ In The Bushes, Brick Top has to first listen to his men being slaughtered, then gets taken out by a shotgun blast to the face. Ford’s look of stunned incomprehension deserved an Oscar.
BONUS BRICK TOP STORY: My friend was once lost in London, and walked up to an old geezer on the corner to ask directions. The man turned around, and it was Alan Ford, dressed remarkably like Brick Top. My mate nearly shat himself. As would I. As would you.
7. Agent Smith – The Matrix
The video above is from The Matrix Revolutions – I couldn’t find Agent Smith’s original death scene on Youtube, for some reason. But his end in the first movie ranks with the best.
It’s up here because when he dies, Smith thinks he’s won. He’s killed Neo. He finished it. And then, against all odds, his nemesis rises up – not just back, but more powerful than ever before. He enters Smith, exploding him from the inside, and like Brick Top, Smith’s incomprehension is just majestic. Nothing is more gut-wrenching than seeing a villain die without understanding why. You might hate them, but it hurts to watch such a terrifying figure finally figure out that they’ve lost.
Smith was back, of course. And his death in TMR was nothing compared to his first good-bye. Still, a wonderful way to go.
5. Cyrus The Virus – Con Air
Oh, your bad guy got shot? Stabbed? Eaten by a shark.
That shit is amateur hour. Jerry Bruckheimer is no amateur. He does not fuck around. When he wants to eliminate John Malkovich’s Cyrus The Virus in the majestically stupid Con Air, he goes all out. First he has Cyrus get pinned to the ladder of a firetruck. Then he crashes him through a bridge. And finally, he launches the guy onto a set of powerlines. Just to make sure.
All of this, by the way, happens after a plane crash. In Vegas. Because Vegas.
5. Castor Troy – Face/Off
Another one I couldn’t find on YouTube. You’ll have to be content with “Let’s just kill each other.”
Very few villain deaths are satisfying as the spear gun John Travolta receives to the stomach, after a massive boat chase followed by him trying to cut off his own face to spite Nicolas Cage’s Sean Archer. Throughout the entire film, he has been a scenery-chewing nasty, a dangerous lunatic who thinks nothing of wrecking lives. He’s the closest thing to the The Joker without actually being The Joker, and John Travolta nails him.
The final thud when Cage fires the spear gun is nothing short of epic. I loved this film, and I don’t understand why it isn’t as revered as it should be. It’s John Woo at his absolute best, and if you haven’t seen it, you’ve missed out.
4. Alonzo Harris – Training Day
Denzel Washington deserved his Oscar for this, Antoine Fuqua’s paean to the streets of Los Angeles. Unrealistic it may be, but you can’t look away from Detective Alonzo Harris, the whip-smart, sociopathic detective who slowly traps Ethan Hawke’s rookie Jake Hoyt in a web of criminal activity.
When Alonzo finally meets his match, at the hands of the Russian mafia hitmen he’s been trying to outrun, it’s in ignominious fashion: under an overpass, hemmed in, gunned down by automatic weapons. And he knows. He knows as he pulls up that it’s all over. He’s finally done. And yet, he’s still thinking. Is there a way out? A palm to grease, a job to take, a favour to do? Someone he could –
No. Harris gets everything coming to him, and right up until the final volley, he thinks he can get out of it. By the time he slumps on the tarmac, bleeding out, you almost want him to make it.
Denzel. Deserved. His. Oscar.
3. Koobus Venter – District 9
Apologies for the video quality. Only one I could find.
I have a real love for this film. Of course I do – I’m South African. That’s my city being blown to smithereens and infested by aliens. To my mind, this is one of the great scifi films: a scary, all-too-real vision of Apartheid gone even more wrong than it already was.
David James plays Koobus Venter, a government agent charged with hunting down the mutating Wikus Van Der Merwe. He is a prime example of a man who starts out doing a job and becomes obsessed. By the time the final battle rolls around, he is completely locked-in, thirsting for blood, not just keen to finish the job but personally wanting to put a bullet in Wikus’ skull, his hatred for the Prawns focused into one burning point.
And then just as he’s about to do the deed, he’s ambushed by the very Prawns he hates so much. And they take him apart. His death occurs in seconds, and is a reminder that when it comes down it, obsession won’t protect him. He’s still a man. He is mortal. He can be killed. He is no better, or worse, than anyone else.
It’s a masterpiece of film-making, a triumph for James and for director Neill Blomkamp. You gotta see it.
2. MaMa – Dredd
Can death be beautiful?
In real life, never. In movies? Sure. After all, if we are to confront death, we need to remove it of its power – and why not do that by giving it beauty? By making it calm, measured, contemplative. Even when it comes at terminal velocity after a fall from the top of a tower block.
That’s the fate of Lena Headey’s MaMa, gang warlord and controller of Mega City One’s Peachtree’s tower block. Judge Dredd wants her, and what Dredd wants, Dredd gets. She does everything to take him and his partner, Judge Anderson, down, but to no avail. Dredd finds her. And because Dredd is about justice, he does the one thing that would make sense.
MaMa’s product of choice is SloMo, a drug that reduces time to 1% of its speed. Dredd shoots her full of it, and tosses her off the top balcony. Cue a long, delicious, kaleidoscopic fall that ranks as one of the best death scenes ever. By the time MaMa hits the floor – slowly, oh so slowly – we almost believe she welcomes it. It’s unnerving, uncomfortable, and gorgeous.
Watch in full HD, on the biggest TV you can find, with sound turned up to eleven.
1. Hans Gruber – Die Hard
God, I miss Alan Rickman.
2016 has taken a lot from us. Of course, no celebrity death can ever overshadow the horrors in France, in Syria, in Turkey, in the US. But celebrity deaths have been a feature of this year, and for me, Rickman’s death hurt the most. He was a titan.
The death of his Die Hard character Hans Gruber is perhaps his greatest moment. And it’s his greatest moment because he wasn’t acting.
As The Independent reported earlier this year, Rickman’s priceless expression when Hans Gruber finally falls to his death wasn’t faked. Director John McTiernan told the stunt crew to drop him on one, not zero. Twenty-five feet onto an airbag. He is genuinely stunned. But – and it’s a big but – it fits perfectly. Throughout the movie, Rickman portrays Gruber as calm, in control, never ruffled, never perturbed. If you were Gruber, and you fell, wouldn’t you meet it with disbelief? With a sheer refusal to accept the facts?
This isn’t a sympathy nomination. Rickman has always been number one for me. His death, as far as action movies go, is perfect. It is the final, crystal moment of catharsis we need, a release of tension that to this day is unmatched.
BONUS ALAN RICKMAN STORY: I flew to LA the other day for a mini-break. On the way back, I caught a movie called Eye In The Sky, about a drone warfare operation. It has a surprisingly amazing cast: Helen Mirren, Barkhad Abdi, Aaron Paul…and Alan Rickman, as the acerbic British general Frank Benson, overseeing a strike on a terrorist cell in Nairobi.
Spoiler alert. Big time.
Throughout the movie, Benson is gunning for the strike to go ahead, despite the presence of a child at the target. He pushes for it. Hard. The strike goes ahead, the kid doesn’t make it, and as the assembled ministers and secretaries leave the room, Monica Dolan’s Undersecretary of State for Africa Angela Northman tells Benson that he’s a disgrace. That he just killed someone from the comfort of his office chair.
Slowly, Benson turns. He tells Northman that he has personally attended the aftermath of five suicide bombings. And then, with perfect Rickman steel, with a face so cold it raises goosebumps on your arms, he says, “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”
The scene was so good I rewound to watch it again. Eye In The Sky was seen by almost no-one, and that’s a crying shame. Watch it. It’s incredible.
Go well, Alan. We’ll miss you.
TRACER is out now (Amazon / B&N / Indigo Chapters)
Our planet is in ruins. Three hundred miles above its scarred surface orbits Outer Earth: a space station with a million souls on board. They are all that remain of the human race.
Darnell is the head of the station’s biotech lab. He’s also a man with dark secrets. And he has ambitions for Outer Earth that no one will see coming.
Prakesh is a scientist, and he has no idea what his boss Darnell is capable of. He’ll have to move fast if he doesn’t want to end up dead.
And then there’s Riley. She’s a tracer – a courier. For her, speed is everything. But with her latest cargo, she’s taken on more than she bargained for.
A chilling conspiracy connects them all. The countdown has begun for Outer Earth – and for mankind.