The action movie connoisseur’s guide to explosions

They’re a vital part of any action movie, but how many types of explosion are there? Here’s a handy Den Of Geek guide to stuff blowing up...

Explosions are one of the four cornerstones of the action movie – the other three being the one liner, the gunfight and the doomed sidekick. Explosions are the bread and butter of Hollywood movies – and if there’s one thing the movies of La-La land do better than anyone else on the planet, it’s big orange pyrotechnics.  This article then, is designed as a spotter’s guide to the various types of explosion you’re likely to find in action movies of every kind – from cheap ones, starring bearded straight-to-video bearded stars of yesterday, to modern, glossy ones featuring robots and special effects. Prepare yourself, dear reader – it’s going to be a bumpy, fiery ride…  

The heroic explosion  

As we all know, explosions are a great way of adding impact and excitement to even the most hackneyed script or threadbare plot – if you’re struggling to think of a way of making your hero look unflappable and cool under fire, simply write in a sequence where they get to walk calmly away from an explosion. If you really want to be creative, you could get the director to film the sequence in slow motion. But remember: if your protagonist flinches, looks back in horror at the fireball behind them, or starts shrieking because their hair’s been singed, the effect will be ruined – as the video below points out, cool guys don’t look at explosions.  
  The undisputed master of the heroic explosion, though, was undoubtedly Chuck Norris. Back in his 80s heyday, he could look cool in the presence of an explosion like no other man on Earth. Take a look back at 1986’s Delta Force, which may actually be the greatest film ever made. At the conclusion, Chuck (here going under the pseudonym Major Scott McCoy) shows up on a motorcycle capable of firing rockets. As an upbeat fanfare plays, Chuck helps a plane full of hostages escape from a Lebanese airstrip, performing jumps, popping wheelies and crapping missiles from the back of his bike like a bearded action god. It’s enough to bring a tear to the eye.  
  

The sweary, triumphant explosion

This one’s a vital staple for any action movie. After approximately 90 minutes of being hectored and shot at by the bad guy, the hero finally gets the upper hand, and with a witty epitaph, blows the villain sky high. In 1982’s The Thing, MacReady (Kurt Russell) comes up against his alien nemesis in its most monstrous, towering form, and with plenty of dynamite and a defiant, “Yeah, fuck you too,” blows the abomination to kingdom come.  The sweary explosion can possibly be traced back much further, but the film that popularised its usage was probably Jaws. Although the restraints of the PG certification meant that Roy Scheider could only get as far as saying, “Smile you son of a bi…” the combination of explosion, implied swearing and triumph would play out again and again in action movies for years afterwards.   Just look at Leviathan, a rather strange 1989 copy of The Thing set in an undersea science facility. At its conclusion, the film takes an abrupt left turn and turns into a Jaws clone instead; surviving cast members Peter Weller, Amanda Pays and Ernie Hudson, having escaped from said science facility, are bobbing about on the surface of the water awaiting rescue. They’re then attacked, first by a shark, and then by Stan Winston’s gigantic rubber fish-monster.   With a macho cry of “Say hi, motherfucker”, Weller slam dunks a hand grenade into the beast’s gaping maw, causing a gratifying explosion of blood and fire designed to have audiences everywhere punching the air in celebration. Possibly.  My favourite triumphant explosion, though, is the one found in the dying moments of Rambo III. Here, our well-oiled hero confronts the bad guys in a final battle using cutting edge military hardware – Rambo’s in a tank, the villains in a big Hind helicopter. With bullets proving only slightly effective against the chopper’s armour, Stallone uses the tank’s gun turret as a gigantic lance, spearing the low-flying craft and blowing it up instantly.
And since Sly Stallone’s a man of few words, his triumphant line is admittedly more primal than sweary, but the net result is the same – it’s a blood-curdling, hackle-raising “Bluuurrrrgghh!”  

The “Oh my God, they’re not screwing around!” explosion

These days, it takes more than a raised eyebrow or a moustache twiddle to show us who the bad guy is. No, real villains have to prove their villainy – usually by killing a hostage, the good guy’s dog, or in more expensive movies, blowing up the occasional passenger jet.   For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to this tactic as the ‘Oh my God, they’re not screwing around’ explosion. William Sadler’s naturist villain in Die Hard 2 demonstrated just how committed he was to evil by causing a plane crash – a shocking moment, perhaps, but hero John McClane needn’t worry too much; the plane wasn’t the one carrying his wife, but one full of tea-supping British people. “We’re just like British Rail, love,” an air hostess with a Dick van Dyke accent tells a passenger. “We may be late, but we get there!”    Cue massive explosion.  
Another “we mean business” explosion can be found in 1993’s Demolition Man, in which the evil Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) blows up a building and then blames it on Sylvester Stallone. In 1994’s Speed, Dennis Hopper’s demented bomber plants explosive devices in various Los Angeles elevators, blows up a bus, and to prove he really means business, wires up his own house – the resulting explosion killing nice cop Harry Temple (more on this particular explosion later).   In the otherwise forgettable Swordfish, John Travolta makes his evil presence felt by blowing up an innocent woman clad in an exploding vest. This being a post Matrix movie, the whole tragic event was captured in a 360-degree shot of fire and whizzing ball bearings.   The most famous and eye-popping recent example of “they’re not screwing around” can be found in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Here, The Joker blows up a Gotham City hospital building – actually the Brach Candy Factory in Chicago – a moment that establishes the character’s ruthlessness and utter indifference to danger, as he toddles merrily up the road with chaos raining down behind him. Could this be Christopher Nolan slyly inverting the traditional ‘cool guys don’t look at explosions’ thing mentioned earlier? It’s certainly possible.  

The “Oh my God… No!” explosion

At first glance, this category may sound dangerously close to the one above, but it isn’t. Honest. In fact, The Dark Knight also happens to contain an “Oh my God… No!” explosion, and it’s perhaps the most dramatic moment in the film – it’s the bit where Batman is forced to choose between saving Rachel Dawes or hero attorney Harvey Dent from death by detonation.  This category of explosion differs from the “they’re not screwing around” variety for one vital reason: the detonation will have a direct, personal connection to the hero. In Speed, mentioned earlier, the bus explosion near the beginning establishes Dennis Hopper’s villainy (hence, he’s “not screwing around”), while the house explosion which kills nice cop Harry Temple is the “Oh my God… No!” explosion – it has a personal impact on Keanu Reeves’ character, since they were best friends. This inciting incident gives Reeves the emotional push he needs to pursue and take down his nemesis with a mixture of skill, determination and slightly puzzled facial expressions.  Of course, it’s not unusual for the “they’re not screwing around” and “Oh my God… No!” categories to become fused at a screenwriter’s whim – perhaps the best example can be found in the 1994 Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle, Timecop. Here, a group of villains led by Ron Silver blow up JCVD’s house with his wife (played by Mia Sara) still in it. The moment gives us a reason to root for Van Damme and hate silver’s evil Senator McComb, and also provides the hero with a MacGuffin, of sorts, as he later attempts to use the power of time travel to rescue his wife from her fate.   
It’s also worth pointing out that the explosion that destroys Jean Claude Van Damme’s house is absolutely huge – I mean massive, as big as the exploding jumbo jet in Die Hard 2. This, of course, means that it’s also extremely cool.  

Exploding objects

If the movies have taught us nothing else, it’s this: if you shoot anything with petrol or gas in it, it will blow up. This is true of cars, canisters, oil drums, and even, in the case of The Rock, San Francisco trams.   Even small things like computers or other electrical devices will explode or emit a blinding flash of sparks when provoked – just look at the bit in Commando where Arnold Schwarzenegger dramatically lifts a telephone box up with a man still inside it. To mark the occasion, a burst of fire and electricity erupts from the floor beneath it, as though someone’s set off a box of sparklers. Which they probably had.  Numerous TV shows have debunked the notion that you can detonate a Honda Civic or an oil drum with a bullet, but such action flick myths still persist – partially, we suspect, because the myths are so much more fun to look at than the reality.   Can you imagine if, when Roy Scheider shot the oxygen tanks sticking out of the shark’s mouth at the end of Jaws, we got a depressing rush of air instead of a gratifying explosion?  Or if, at the end of the classic car chase in Bullitt, the bad guys’ vehicle had merely fizzled when it hit the petrol station instead of exploding in a colossal fireball?
Somehow, the phrase “crashed and smouldered” simply doesn’t have the same ring.   

The improvised explosion

As well as being able to walk away from explosions without flinching, action heroes need to be cunning and resourceful. It’s not enough for a hero to be good at shooting, driving or fighting; they also need to be able to make a tank with a children’s climbing frame and a blowtorch, as The A-Team could, or be able to disarm a missile with a paper clip, like that master of 80s improv, MacGyver.   In the movies, Die Hard’s John McClane memorably made a huge explosion with a block of C4, an office chair and a computer monitor, while in Die Hard 4, he killed a helicopter with a flying car. In The Bourne Supremacy, Matt Damon’s character blew up a house with a magazine, some gas and a toaster. Sly Stallone and Jason Statham used their combined ingenuity to blow up a jetty full of bad guys with some spare aviation fuel and a flare gun in The Expendables.
One of the finest recent examples, though, comes courtesy of Angelina Jolie’s enigmatic protagonist in 2010’s Salt. Trapped in a store room by a bunch of guys in SWAT team outfits, Jolie manages to make her escape by improvising a rocket launcher out of little more than a metal table leg, a pair of tights and a box of washing powder. I may be remembering this sequence slightly wrong, though.  

The rag doll physics explosion

Nothing gets across the impact of an explosion better than a flying stunt man. It’s something we’ve seen in everything from war movies via The A-Team TV series to the present: someone fires a rocket-propelled grenade at a shed, and the resulting explosion flings some luckless goon ten feet up into the air. Rambo managed the feat several times in First Blood Part II, where he successfully projected at least three bad guys into the sky with the rockets mounted on his stolen helicopter.
There was also a sequence where he blew a man up with an explosive-tipped arrow, resulting in an oddly bloodless cloud of stuff that looked like old clothes and feathers.  In reality, of course, the impact of grenades and rockets on frail human bodies is far more gruesome than 80s action movies would have us believe. And as if to atone for years of bloodless flying stunt men, 2008’s Rambo was absolutely full of gore and shattered body parts. The end product is one of the most violent midlife crises ever committed to film.    

The “let’s get outta here!” explosion

This is the big, special explosion reserved for the end of the movie. Justice has been done, revenge meted out, henchmen slaughtered, big bad villain bested. But wait – there’s one final task for the protagonist to complete (along with their love interest or best friend, assuming they’re still alive): get the hell outta there.   It’s a story device that’s as old as the fairytale – the mysteriously collapsing lair. For some reason, hideouts have always been directly connected to the villain’s mortality, which means that when an evil king kicks the bucket, his castle will collapse with him.   In action movies, the collapsing castle is replaced by an exploding lair. The “let’s get outta here” explosion can therefore be found in everything from James Bond movies (including, but not limited to, Dr No, Moonraker and GoldenEye), Alien, Aliens, Star Wars, The Rocketeer and Mystery Men, to cite just a few examples.   The rather weird action comedy Drive (the 1997 one, not the 2011 Nicolas Winding Refn one) ended with hero Mark Dacascos and sidekick Kadeem Hardison running away from an exploding NASA-themed nightclub – a moment so strange that it almost reads as a parody of the whole “let’s get outta here” action flick staple. 

  

Let’s end this section with a look at a particular fine example of this kind of explosion: 1994’s The Specialist. It’s yet another Stallone movie, but this one has a major difference from his other action outings: in this one, he kills almost everyone by blowing them up somehow. Starring as Ray Quick, a hitman with a special line in booby traps, Stallone blows up various people in cars, a nightclub, and an expensive seafront condo. He blows up an old man with a deadly gold picture frame, and even kills Eric Roberts with a specially rigged teacup.    The Specialist ends with a final confrontation with the main villain, played by James Woods, which ends, predictably enough, with a “let’s get outta here!” moment, as Ray and his love interest May (Sharon Stone) escape from a bomb-filled warehouse that appears to explode for all eternity. Obviously, this is very, very cool.  

The Michael Bay explosion

Although Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen made approximately $100 billion at the box office, no one on the planet liked it. No one. But did you know that this most reviled of movies actually set a Guinness World Record? Well it did.   Already a director associated with wholesale destruction, Michael Bay really outdid himself with Revenge Of The Fallen, which contained officially the biggest explosion ever captured with actors in the same frame. For Bay, that record’s probably the equivalent of winning five Academy Awards.  At any rate, it wouldn’t be fair to compile an article about explosions without mentioning Bay – whatever you make of his movies, he’s undoubtedly the current reigning monarch of exploding stuff. Everything explodes in Michael Bay movies – parked cars, trams, jets, men, robots, lampposts, space stations, rockets, Egyptian dwellings – everything. Even explosions explode in Michael Bay movies.   It’s like the law of Chekhov’s Gun taken to its logical extreme: if anything appears in a Michael Bay film – even something innocent, like a tree or book – it will inevitably erupt in a grand curtain of fire.   

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