The Best Single Take Action Scenes
If you’ve been to any blockbuster in the last few years, you know how choppy and borderline incoherent most of them have become. A recent film’s action sequences were so shaky and vertiginous that they actually made me nauseous in my seat at the movie theater. I had to take off my glasses for a minutes and take some deep breaths to make sure I didn’t actually puke up my Twizzlers. That’s not great.
The generally depressing state of movie action got me thinking about the films that go in a different direction, emphasizing clarity over frenetic pacing and cutting. Going a long time without cutting is difficult in any film, but it’s especially complicated in action movies, with their intricate choreography and computer effects. Any little mistake can ruin seconds or even minutes of otherwise usable footage. But the rewards when long takes are done properly are enormous. The 25 scene below, ranked in order of my personal preference, are proof of that.
All of 1917 appears as if it was filmed in a one extremely long take. Of all the war and action sequences in the film, the one that stands out from the rest involves the story’s hero, Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) running through a raging World War I battlefield to reach his commanders in time to call off an attack that will likely result in massive casualties for the British army. While hundreds of soldiers charge into the battlefield, the camera focuses on Schofield as races along the edge of a British trench, perpendicular to the fighting. Sometimes 1917’s long takes feel like they detract from the film’s dramatic potential, but in this case they effectively show the enormous impact one brave person can have in the face of overwhelming adversity and danger.
Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013)
Scott Adkins is one of the brightest stars in the current wave of low-budget, direct-to-video-and-streaming action movies. His skills are on full display in this sequence from his masterpiece, Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, a ferocious martial-arts spectacular about a warrior out to avenge his wife’s murder. The trail eventually leads him to a dojo, where he defeats an entire crew of martial artists single-handedly in this awesome long take.
Crazy Samurai: 400 vs. 1 (2020)
In between a brief prologue and epilogue, the majority of this 90-minute movie is a long, single-take fight scene between a samurai (Tak Sakaguchi) and an army of bad guys. A 70-minute sword fight isn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds; after a while it becomes clear that instead of 400 extras they probably had like 20, and after they are “killed” by Sakaguchi, they stumble off camera and then pop back up a minute later to be “killed” again. The structure is sort of like a video game; the samurai fights off waves of generic underlings then occasionally works up to a boss with a cooler weapon, and then the whole thing starts over again. As a movie unto itself, it’s a little repetitious. As a technical exercise, it’s still pretty impressive.
Mission: Impossible — Fallout (2018)
Tom Cruise really did several HALO jumps for this showstopping sequence from Mission: Impossible — Fallout, and the single take here (really three different jumps stitched together through hidden edits) allows you to appreciate how long it takes to freefall from high altitude. The longer the sequence goes without a visible cut, the more convincing the illusion that Cruise’s Ethan Hunt comes within a split second of splatting on a Parisian rooftop.
Stake Land (2010)
You know what they say about necessity being the mother of invention. With limited time to shoot an entire action sequence, Stake Land director Jim Mickle decided to condense all of it into a single, frenetic shot. The decision not only saved time, it really captured the existential dread of living in a world overrun by vampires, where any fleeting moment of happiness can be interrupted by a horde of hungry bloodsuckers.
The Revenant (2015)
One of the main benefits of long take is the sense of intensity they bring to any sequence. Plop a character down in the middle of a hellacious battle, stay tracked on them while blood and bullets fly around them, and it really captures the chaos and arbitrary nature of war. That’s certainly what happens in The Revenant during the Arikara’s raid on a camp full of trappers.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Batman is supposed to be one of the world’s greatest hand-to-hand fighters. When you see someone playing Batman in a movie, you want to see that sort of skill up on the screen. That has traditionally been difficult to pull off, though, because most movie Batmen are a) actors and not stuntmen and b) wearing big bulky costumes that severely limit their movement. That’s why the “Knightmare” sequence from Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman is one of the film’s highlights. It actually shows Batman looking like the Batman you always imagined while reading comic books, as he fights off an entire army of Darkseid’s minions by himself.
Game of Thrones (2016)
Television’s tight shooting schedules have typically kept small-screen series from creating really memorable single-take action scenes; they’re just too time-intensive for shows that churn out new content every week. That has changed a little in recent years with the rise of prestige shows on cable, that tend to shoot fewer episodes over longer stretches of time, affording them the ability to pull off more elaborate action scenes. Game of Thrones had several such moments, but the most famous is probably Jon Snow fighting his way through the Season 6 episode “Battle of the Bastards.” Surrounded by horses, swords, and arrows, Snow fights on, and survives through a combination of tenacity and dumb luck. The horses slamming into people and each other in this shot has a ferocity you don’t see in many other battle sequences, whether they’re shot with long takes or not.
Another benefit of long takes is the way they can transition slowly from an ordinary scene to an aggressive altercation, generating a huge amount of suspense along the way. The longer this shot from the Joe Wright spy thriller Hanna goes, the more you become convinced that something bad is about to happen. It helps that Wright, who also used long takes effectively in Atonement, knows the right way to use a moving camera. Consider the moment early in the shot when the camera passes behind a pillar, revealing a man quietly waiting to follow Eric Bana’s character. The billboards advertising eyeglasses also enhance the feeling of paranoia in the sequence, which eventually builds to an all-out fight in an underground subway station.
Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
Kingman’s villain’s plan involves controlling people’s minds through their cellular phones. And how do you show to the audience just how effective this mind-control technology is? By having an entire church of parishioners suddenly turn into raging murderers, all trying to kill each other and the film’s hero, secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth), simultaneously. The special effects work here is a bit too visible; it’s pretty obvious that what we’re watching is not happening in a single take. Still, the choreography and camerawork are undeniably impressive, and the fact that Harry survived all that mayhem makes it even more shocking when he finally walks out of the church only to immediately get shot in the head by Samuel L. Jackson’s Richmond Valentine.
Kickboxer: Retaliation (2018)
This relatively obscure DTV martial-arts film features several excellent long take sequences, including one set to the song “Wipeout” of all things. This prison-set fight featuring star Alain Moussi is particularly impressive, not just because of its length and the sheer number of fights it contains, but because the camera seems unmoored from gravity at several points. It follows Moussi up a staircase and down a long balcony, then begins to float off the building as he makes his way through an endless army of bad guys and down a nearby scaffolding. In a movie about a guy stuck in a prison, the sense of freedom imparted by these camera movements is particularly appropriate.
Breaking News (2004)
Johnnie To puts his camera right in the middle of a blistering shootout at the start of Breaking News, then watches the violence unfold for seven straight minutes. Rather than tracking with a particular character through an elaborate series of movements, the camera largely plants itself in the middle of a street, then pans in a circle to methodically document the accumulating destruction. Then, in a bravura moment, the camera swoops into the sky to find a character leaping out of a window (with a machine gun, of course). All the while there are squibs going off, cars driving up, and incredibly complicated movements by the characters in and out of buildings. For an action movie, this is quite an opening salvo, so to speak.
There are lots of movie plane crashes but few capture the ground-level horror of experiencing such a catastrophe like Alex Proyas’ Knowing. Nicolas Cage’s character watches as a plane plows into a field, and then stumbles into the subsequent wreckage, trying to help the survivors amidst more explosions and carnage. It’s a bleak sight, made all the more disturbing by the you-are-there immediacy of the long take. By the end of the shot, you’re so overwhelmed you understand why people in these sorts of situations go into shock.
True Detective (2014)
Episode 4 of True Detective Season 1 culminates in a seven-minute long odyssey through a housing project after a robbery goes bad. There’s gunplay, fistfights, chases, and even a moment when two men climb over a fence and the camera climbs with them. (Director Cary Joji Fukunaga pulled that part off by having the Steadicam operator step onto a crane arm, which lifted him over the fence and placed him down on the other side.) The passage of time was hugely important on True Detective — the season jumped between multiple eras in the lives of the characters — and that was never more true than in this standout scene, where an extra second here or there could mean the death of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle.
The Avengers (2012)
Plenty of long takes are flashy, but do they serve a larger purpose beyond looking really cool? In the case of The Avengers, the answer is yes. The entire film is about how this group of misfit heroes reluctantly comes together — or whether they can come together at all. During the Battle of New York, they finally begin acting like a cohesive team. The long take that drifts between all six Avengers is the moment where you see them become the Avengers. Putting them all together in a single shot emphasizes their new sense of unity.
We all understand that Alfonso Cuarón did not actually go into space to make Gravity, but the illusion that he did is made even more convincing through his use of long takes, particularly in the film’s remarkable opening. A routine spacewalk becomes a disaster, as space debris rains down on the Hubble telescope, sending a new astronaut (played by Sandra Bullock) hurtling off into space on her own. Precise cinematography and effects allows Bullock’s character to pinwheel through outer space, passing inches from the lens (or the lens’ CGI equivalent), before the camera seamlessly syncs its movements with her, so that the entire universe seems to be spinning around her. Particularly when seen in IMAX, few movies have given viewers a more visceral sensation of weightlessness, or of existential terror, than Gravity.
The Secret In Their Eyes (2009)
This one is so impressive it almost defies belief. It begins with a helicopter passing over a packed soccer stadium, then zooms in until the camera is somehow magically in the stands with the crowd (the cut that transitions between the two is nearly invisible). Two investigators hunt a man among the fans, and he slips through their grasp when one of the teams scores a goal. Then they pursue him through the stadium, up and down the stairs, and even off a balcony at one point, with the camera hustling to keep up with all of them. You feel the urgency of the chase in every step.
Every season of Netflix’s Daredevil included a lengthy fight, typically in and out of a hallway, done in a single take. The first season’s hallway fight became the series’ calling card, and the second season did another version of it. Daredevil showrunner Erik Oleson later said that for the show’s third season their goal “was to actually go far beyond what that hallway fight was.” Mission accomplished, with a nearly 15-minute sequence following Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock fighting his way out of a prison. It’s an impressive achievement; Oleson said it’s the one he’s “most proud of in my entire career after doing more than a dozen television series,”
For 12 straight minutes, Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) attempts to escape a locked-down city with Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), the teenage son of a drug kingpin. As they navigate their way through the streets of Dhaka, the camera (seemingly) never cuts, even as they go from a getaway car into a building, across two rooftops, down another building, and into another vehicle, all with numerous fist fights and shootouts along the way. It makes sense that Extraction director Sam Hargrave previously made his living as a stunt coordinator for big Hollywood movies; the guy clearly knows his craft. The rest of Extraction might have been a typical thriller, but that centerpiece sequence was a clear highlight.
Atomic Blonde (2017)
The plot of Atomic Blonde is not easy to follow. But when the film also features a shot like its crazy stairwell battle, where Charlize Theron’s Agent Lorraine Broughton slowly works her way down a building from top to bottom, kicking, punching, stabbing, shooting, and throwing one bad guy after another, does it really matter? Reader, I would argue it does not.
Rocky movies traditionally approached fight scenes with a lot of cuts and montages, condensing 12 rounds of combat into a couple minutes. Ryan Coogler’s Creed sets itself apart from its predecessors by going in the complete opposite direction, capturing an entire fight — even the break between rounds — in one single take. It puts the camera right inside the ring with Michael B Jordan’s Adonis Creed and his opponent, letting the audience feel every punch and clinch.
Children of Men (2006)
No list of great long takes in film is complete without a mention of Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer behind several titles on this list, and quite a few more non-action movies filled with extravagantly lengthy shots. His magnum opus remains Children of Men, which features several unbelievable long takes where ordinary people are suddenly engulfed by eruptions of violence. The final one is probably the best, with Clive Owen searching for a lost ally through several city blocks in the midst of a fierce firefight. The camera stays so close to Owen as he races through the rubble that blood from a squib sprays the camera lens. It stays there through the rest of the sequence. It wasn’t supposed to happen — director Alfonso Cuaron tried to call cut, but the noise of all the gunshots and explosions drowned him out and the cameras kept rolling — but the accidental splatter lends the scene an even more realistic atmosphere.
Tom-Yum-Goong (The Protector) (2005)
Hot take: Tony Jaa is a good action star. In Tom-Yum-Goong (released in the U.S. as The Protector) his skills are quite evident in this unbelievable sequence, where he takes on an entire building full of thugs, starting at the bottom and systematically working his way up a big set of spiral staircase. Eventually, he’s tossing guys down several stories to the foyer below. That’s gotta hurt.
The justifiably famous “hallway fight” from Oldboy took 17 takes across three days to perfect. And by perfect, I mean the perfect amount of messy, sloppy, angry brawling, with Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) squaring off with a whole crew of guys with only a hammer to protect himself. The length of the shot adds one dimension, because by the end of it everyone is huffing and groaning and barely able to stand. The camera placement adds another; instead of sitting in the middle of the action, it’s off at a remove from the fighting where it can glide left and right, adding a surreal ambiance to the bloodshed.
Hard Boiled (1992)
The long take during the hospital scene in Hard Boiled really has it all: Gun play, explosions, slow-motion, and then, in a real show-stopping moment, an elevator ride from one floor to the next. The sequence was shot in a studio, not in a real hospital, so the elevator is actually an ingenious bit of movie magic. When Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung step into the elevator, crew members had 20 seconds to sweep the floors and prep the next round of squibs before the doors opened again in order to make it look like they had traveled to a new floor. 30 years later, this sequence remains completely mind-blowing, and the gold standard for any sort of long take involving shootouts and fake elevators.