Action heroes are always performing remarkable feats in movies, and surviving accidents that would kill ordinary mortals in an instant – it’s something we practically expect from our Hollywood blockbusters. Sometimes, though, filmmakers just go that little bit too far, resulting in scenes that look so unexpectedly outlandish that we can only sit in our cinema seats and think, “Now, hang on a minute…”
This list, then, is devoted to those action sequences that appear to defy all the known laws of nature. This isn’t to say they aren’t fun or memorable – it’s often the case that such scenes are fun and memorable precisely because they’re over the top – but their presence, in many cases, sticks out like a sore thumb.
Bear in mind that the entries below only account for a tiny percentage of possible gravity-defying action scenes, so feel free to chime in with your own contributions in the comments…
2 Fast 2 Furious
The Fast franchise has always played fast and loose with the rules of physics, and at the end of 2 Fast 2 Furious, the movie reached a kind of batty zenith. In a gonzo act of heroism worth of the Dukes Of Hazzard, crackpot driver Brian Spilner and wisecracking passenger Roman Pierce send their classic Chevrolet Camaro careening into the side of a luxury boat owned by drug baron, Carter Varone.
We’re pretty certain that, if this stunt were attempted in real life, both passenger and driver would be killed on impact. This being a Fast movie, the two heroes get out of the car with little more than a scratch. The pair must have skeletons made from Adamantium.
Jan de Bont’s relatively low budget 1994 thriller was a brisk, fun ride, thanks in part to its taut direction, but also because of its premise, which is surely the stuff of Hollywood cliché by now – crackpot bomber Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) has wired an explosive device to a busy commuter bus, which will detonate if the vehicle drops below 50 miles per hour. As Homer Simpson once said, “I think it’s called, ‘The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down’”.
Speed’s major action set piece saw the bus, with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves at the helm, jump an unfeasibly large gap in an uncompleted section of California freeway. Achieved by using a combination of practical stunts (a lightened bus was sent up a ramp to give it the requisite lift) and CGI, which was used to create the cavernous gap in the road, the resulting sequence looks genuinely odd, as though the bus is floating through the air on an invisible cushion.
Years later, the US television show Mythbusters would prove something most of us had long suspected: that a bus wouldn’t fly gracefully through the air if driven off the edge of a chasm, but would immediately plummet to its doom.
James Cameron’s 80s and 90s output ably demonstrated that, in Hollywood at least, he was the master of big, over-the-top stunts. His 1994 comedy action flick, True Lies, was full of gloriously absurd set pieces, including a motorcycle leaping between two skyscrapers, and a gigantic exploding Florida bridge.
The film did overreach itself somewhat, though, in its final ten minutes, as Arnold Schwarzenegger took to the skies in a Harrier Jump Jet. Having snagged wild-eyed terrorist Aziz (Art Malik) on the pointier section of a Sidewinder missile, Arnie issues forth one of his stirring one-liners (“You’re fired!”) and launches both bad guy and missile through the side of a building and straight into a waiting helicopter.
Picking fault with one aspect of such a wilfully over-the-top film is probably futile, but we’re going to do it anyway: with the weight of a fully-grown man dangling off it, wouldn’t the missile just drop down to the ground, perhaps blowing up any curious bystanders lurking below?
It’s certainly an alternate ending we’d like to watch, if only so we could see the inevitable reaction shot of Arnold, still sitting awkwardly in the pilot seat of the Harrier. “Oh… Shizer.”
Die Hard 4.0
The Die Hard franchise’s John McClane may have been getting on a bit by the time of the fourth film, but that didn’t mean he’d stop playing the fearless action hero – if anything, Die Hard 4.0 contains more city-levelling stunts than any of its predecessors, and for the most part, they’re great fun.
It was McLane’s tussle with an F35 fighter jet, though, that raised our eyebrows the first time we saw it. Having fallen onto the hovering plane’s wing from a wrecked juggernaut, the hero launched himself like a lemming onto a collapsed section of freeway several yards below.
Given the distance that McLane falls in those few moments, and that he lands on the tarmac feet first, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he’d crawl away from the encounter with a pair of horribly shattered legs. But because McClane’s the hero of an action movie, he simply gets up, adjusts his vest, and sprints off to the next location. Sigh.
Last year’s A-Team movie was full of CG-powered, improbable action sequences, but one stands out in particular. Hannibal and his crew of elite soldiers, on the run for a crime they didn’t commit, are making their escape in a gigantic military aircraft. When the plane’s blown up by drone aircraft, it appears that the A-Team’s adventures have come to a premature end. But wait! Resourceful to the last, the team have survived by hiding inside a heavily armoured tank, which is prevented from plummeting to the ground by three parachutes.
While the tank descends, two of the parachutes are damaged by the drone aircraft, but Face (Bradley Cooper) gets his revenge by shooting them down with a heavy machine gun mounted on the tank’s roof.
And just when you think things can’t get any more ridiculous, The A-Team slow the tank’s descent by firing its cannon directly at the ground. We’re no physicists, but we’re guessing this tactic wouldn’t work in the real world. It’s the kind of ridiculous sequence that few films would get away with, but it fits with The A-Team’s camp, absurd charm.
Resident Evil: Afterlife
One of the most memorable moments in the otherwise forgettable Resident Evil sequel, Afterlife, was also one of the most outlandish – which probably isn’t a coincidence, thinking about it. Near the beginning of the movie, Milla Jovovich’s heroine Alice manages to land a little red aeroplane on the top of a Los Angeles skyscraper.
Now, if you’ve ever seen a light aircraft coming into land, you’ll know that it needs a few hundred feet to touch down and roll safely to a halt. In Afterlife, Jovovich manages to bring her bird in to land – just about – in an area roughly the size of a multi-storey car park. Hmm. We’re not convinced.
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
For most cinema goers, the great bone of contention in Spielberg’s fourth, mostly dreadful Indiana Jones movie was the infamous nuking the fridge scene. For me, though, that sequence is as nothing compared to the frankly horrid sight of Shia LaBeouf swinging through a jungle at the end of the film.
Looking like a cross between Tarzan and Shakin’ Stevens, the leather-clad Shia swings from vine to vine, with an entourage of cute little monkeys following in his wake. Having subjected us to this nausea-inducing sight, Spielberg then expects us to believe that Shia has swung through the vines at such an insanely fast speed that he manages to catch up with Cate Blanchett’s Soviet villainess, Irena Spalko, who’s driving a military jeep at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour.
For us, it was this depressingly fake scene that had our inner child clamouring to leave the cinema in a sulk.
There are some movie sequences that steam straight through implausibility and straight into the realms of chuckle-inducing madness. Jason Statham’s Transporter and Crank movies are jam packed full of them, but if we had to choose just one, it has to be the moment in Transporter 2, where Statham manages to do a spot of bomb disposal while driving at what appears to be 600 miles per hour.
Hurtling along in a glistening Audi A8, Statham has mere seconds before the evil Lola (Kate Nauta) detonates a bomb strapped to the car’s undercarriage. Statham, extraordinarily skilled as he is, drives up a conveniently placed ramp, flicking the car upside-down, and manages to snag the bomb on a waiting crane hook. The Audi then continues on its 360-degree barrel roll, before landing neatly back on its wheels like a gymnast dismounting a pommel horse.
If Statham pulled off this stunt for real, this makes him an extraordinarily skilled driver, a bomb disposal expert, and some kind of dark necromancer, capable of warping the laws of time and space to meet his whim. Either that, or the entire crazy sequence was concocted using computers.
One of Michael Bay’s best movies, The Rock benefits from a fun high-concept premise (terrorists take over Alcatraz) and a great cast, with Nic Cage on scenery-chewing form, and Sean Connery making a late career return to an action film.
Bay’s infamous for his ludicrously large explosions and wholesale carnage, and the largely gratuitous chase scene that punctuates the first hour of The Rock is one of his earliest and most unhinged. In it, Nic Cage, driving a Ferrari, pursues Connery, who’s driving a Land Rover Discovery, or something like that.
Having wrecked most of San Francisco, the sequence ends with a tram falling on its side and sliding down one of the city’s famously steep hills. Upon hitting a parked car, an unexpectedly generous explosion launches the tram approximately 30 feet up in the air – it’s an amusing moment, but looks as though God’s giant invisible hand has reached down and picked the thing up at Bay’s behest. Which, for all we know, may have been how the effect was achieved.
The inspiration for this list, Fast Five is perhaps the last word in outlandish, ridiculous action sequences. In the Rio heist that serves as the movie’s biggest set piece, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew of felons successfully manage to steal a safe by attaching it to the back of a pair of Mustangs, and dragging it from its hiding place in a police station.
With the law now in pursuit, Toretto and his cohort Brian speed down busy Rio streets, with the gigantic safe swinging back and forth like a cuboid wrecking ball. We can’t begin to imagine the kind of split-second coordination and judgement you’d need to be able to pull off a manoeuvre like this in the real world, but in the crazy alternate universe of the franchise, where it’s possible to pilot a car in the side of a luxury yacht and live to tell the tale, it’s all in a day’s work…