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The Top 10 Badass Action Hero Moments

I love action movies. They're a great escape. It doesn't matter if it's a big set piece with complex fight sequences or a one-on-one faceoff between the hero and villain, on-screen physical conflict gets the adrenalin pumping. A lot of great action movies have been made over the decades, but only a small number of them have managed to rise above the rest. It takes a special something to stand out amongst the cacophony of car chases and shootouts. It could be a clever bit of innovation in a fight scene that sets a movie apart, or a unique trick the hero pulls off at just the right moment, or a bold action that turns the tables of the plot. Whatever it is, when executed properly, it can elevate a movie into badass territory. These are the moments you think about long after the film is over.

For a few months now I’ve been pondering my favorite scenes and characters from my favorite action movies, and I’ve compiled a list of what I think are the top 10 badass action hero moments from them.  Now, for the purposes of this list, I use a fairly broad definition of the term “action film.” If physical action is the catalyst that moves a film’s story forward in a significant way, or defines a critical point in the main character’s story arc, it qualifies as an action movie. So, on my list you’ll find westerns and even a horror movie represented. Fear not. The list is solid and I think you’ll enjoy it.

And now, the top 10 badass action hero moments.


10. Michael Bryce Ejecting Darius Kincaid’s Clip Mid-Fight

Rivals forced to work together is a popular trope in action movies. One of the best examples of this is The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017) starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel Jackson. Reynolds’ bodyguard character and Jackson’s hitman begin the film hating each other, and in their first encounter they try to kill one another in close quarter combat, but their fighting and gun-handling skills end the melee in a draw, with Reynolds somehow ejecting the clip from the pistol Jackson is pointing at him. As Reynolds flicks the bullets from the clip to the ground, Jackson passes out from a bullet wound he received earlier in the film. Unloading an opponent’s firearm during a fight scene is a difficult trick to pull off realistically. It’s been tried many times over to varying degrees of success. If you hear yourself saying “BS” in your head as you watch one of these scenes, then the director didn’t do it right. But it’s always a cool gimmick when done properly, and The Hitman’s Bodyguard does it well, made even better by Ryan Reynold’s humorous performance.


9. Mississippi’s Knife 

There’s a joke told by good guys and bad guys (depending on the film) that is intended to insult a rival’s intelligence. “You’re so dumb, you brought a knife to a gunfight.” Sean Connery says this to a would-be assassin who has broken into his home with a knife in the movie version of The Untouchables (1987). Connery, playing Jim Malone, gets the drop on the guy with a gun, and delivers the line spiced with an ethnic slur for good measure. Hey, things were different in ‘20s era Chicago. But decades earlier, in the classic John Wayne film El Dorado (1966), James Caan turns the punchline of this joke on its ear. In the film, Caan plays a cowboy named Mississippi who is seeking revenge for the killing of a friend. Atypical of such revenge-seeking cowboys, Mississippi isn’t a gun slinger. In fact, he’s so bad with a pistol that at one point Wayne gives him an overpowered sawed-off shotgun with a wide spread so he won’t miss his target. No, Mississippi’s expertise is with a knife, and in a scene where he tracks down the last of the men who murdered his friend, he challenges the murdering cowboy to a showdown, even though Mississippi isn’t wearing a gun belt. When the cowboy goes for his pistol, Mississippi reaches back to a sheath behind his neck and draws a knife faster than the gunslinger draws his gun, hurling the blade into the guy’s chest. It’s a cool turn on the old showdown scene, and one of James Caan’s most badass movie moments.


8. Van Helsing’s Crucifix

Some may argue Abraham Van Helsing doesn’t belong on a list of action heroes, but actor Peter Cushing, who played the vampire hunter in several films, would disagree. While filming the final showdown between Dracula and Van Helsing in the Hammer Film Production of Horror of Dracula in 1958, Cushing himself suggested to the director that Van Helsing should take a “jolly good leap” off the table like Errol Flynn to tear down a set of curtains and trap the vampire in a shaft of sunlight. But it isn’t this swashbuckling bit of daring-do that earns Van Helsing a place on this list. It’s what comes next. As Dracula tries to crawl out of the blistering sunbeam, Van Helsing swipes up a pair of silver candelabras and forms a crucifix to force the Prince of Darkness back into the light to disintegrate in glorious Hammer studio fashion. The act of improvising a cross from a pair of sticks (essentially) proved to be an iconic cinema moment that has endured. Variations of the move have shown up in countless other horror films and even television sitcoms over the past seventy years.  



7. Indiana Jones and the Bullwhip

When Raiders of the Lost Ark debuted in 1981, archeologist Indiana Jones immediately became the gold standard for what an action hero should be. The history professor who moonlights as a globetrotting relic hunter continuously gets himself into slam-bang fight scenes and cliffhanging situations, usually involving Nazis or mystical cultists. Although Indy’s intelligence, determination, physical durability, and proficiency with firearms gets him out of plenty of sticky situations, it’s his bullwhip that became his signature weapon. When he first uncoils it on the streets of Cairo to fend off a group of Nazi henchmen, the iconic image of Indiana Jones was set in stone. The man, the hat, the whip, it all came together and pegged the needle of badass movie moments. 



6. The Machine Gun Flip (James Bond/Harry Tasker)

So, you’re in a shootout with the bad guys, and there are a lot of them. You’re taking them down and blowing them up and so forth, but your weapon has only so many bullets. What do you do when you need to rearm? Well, there’s plenty of bad guys lying around with guns they’re not using anymore. Take one of those, right? But remember, you’re an action hero. Crouching down to pick up a rifle is very pedestrian. You need to make it cool.  If there’s one guy who knows cool, it’s James Bond.  In the film Skyfall (2012), Daniel Craig as Bond faces the above scenario. His solution? In mid-step he uses his foot to flip a machine gun off a dead bad guy into his hands. Quick, efficient, and quite badass. But Bond isn’t the only super spy to pull off this maneuver. Honorable mention for coolest machine gun flip goes to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Harry Tasker for performing a similar move in True Lies (1994).



5. James Bond and the Sub Harpoon

Although the firearm is the weapon of choice, many action heroes have employed unusual alternative weapons to defend themselves and dispatch their quarry. The alternative weapon trope is best when the weapon of choice is truly unique, plausible, and wielded to deadly effect. The alternate weapon must be innovative and used out of necessity. One of the best examples of alternate weapon use is executed by James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). In the film, the villain Stromberg is capturing submarines armed with nuclear missiles. To force the crews to surrender, Stromberg’s henchmen use a compressed gas harpoon-type device to fire a steel barb into the sub’s outer hull, and threaten to fill the sub with a deadly gas by connecting a hose to a fitting on the barb. Bond, portrayed in this film by Roger Moore, has been captured on Stromberg’s supertanker and is being escorted to detention by a pair of henchmen (dressed in matching overalls of course). While walking through the submarine pen inside the tanker, Bond breaks free from the henchmen and grabs the compressed gas harpoon. In what is Roger Moore’s most badass move as Bond, he uses the harpoon to dispatch the two guards with one shot, firing a barb through both of them. A nice bit of gritty badassery. Bravo, Mr. Bond.




4. Legolas Nocking Multiple Arrows

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the last truly great trilogy to come out of Hollywood. What made these films great is its cast of heroic characters. The archer elf Legolas stands tall among them. Legolas’ proficiency with the bow is something to behold. He draws arrows from his quiver with the speed of an old west gunslinger. He bullseyes targets from great distances with the accuracy of a modern-day sniper. He wields his bow and arrows in close quarter combat like a ninja. But the coolest feat Legolas performs, and the reason he made this list, is his tendency to nock 2 or more arrows at once, simultaneously firing them and taking down as many targets with a single draw of the bowstring. It’s like making a single barrel shotgun somehow fire as a double barrel, but being able to independently direct each shot. It’s a badass skill for an archer to have, and Legolas executes it with unequaled coolness.




3. Beck Wielding Double Shotguns

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was ascending to the throne of action hero king when his 2003 film The Rundown was released. In the film, Johnson plays Beck, a strong-arm collections enforcer for a crime boss who is sent to Brazil to retrieve the prodigal son of said crime boss. Johnson plays his normal, affable, ass-kicking self throughout the film, clashing with cruel gold mine operator Bernard Hatcher, played deliciously quirky by Christopher Walken. As Beck tries to capture his mark, there is a running joke in the film that he doesn’t like guns and doesn’t use them. He explains at one point, “bad things happen” when he picks up a gun.  Well, at the end of the movie, Hatcher is ruthlessly putting down local rebels whom Beck has befriended, and when cornered in an attempt to fight off Hatcher’s henchmen, Beck is forced to take up arms. To be precise, he takes up 2 pump-action shotguns. Now, we’ve seen two-handed gun fighting before, but there’s a certain badass poetry to the Rock wielding a shotgun in each hand, finding clever ways to rack in shells with one hand (when typically, two are required). All hail the king.   


Beck wielding 2 shotguns scene:


2. The Terminator’s Spin Cock

It’s next-level cool when a hero is so proficient with a weapon that he can wield it with an artistic grace that belies the butt kicking yet to come. Now, a lever-action rifle is cinematic. Just watching a cowboy work a Spencer repeater is engaging. It’s a step up to watch the Rifleman rapid-fire a Winchester 1812 in the opening credits of the TV series. But watching Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator spin cock a customized sawed-off Winchester 12-gauge shot gun while riding a motor cycle chasing the T-1000 is a piece of art. Director James Cameron is credited with coming up with the move, saying he wanted Arnold to twirl a shotgun around like cowboys do rifles and pistols in old westerns. The Weapons Master on Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Harry Lu, was tasked with customizing a Winchester shotgun to make the iconic move possible. It took him a month and a half to rework the balance, the gate, and the lever loop to allow Ahh-nold to perform the trick, and in the end, Lu’s efforts helped to create a straight-up classic badass movie moment.

Terminator Spin Cock Scene:



1. Rooster Cogburn’s Western Joust

The final tense stand-off between the hero and villain can make or break a film. It can be the stuff of legend, or a disappointing misfire. The stand-off in the original True Grit (1969) is definitely the former. The film borders on masterpiece from beginning to end, and the role of Marshal Rooster Cogburn earned John Wayne his one and only Oscar. Wayne’s portrayal of the grizzled, jaded, drunken federal marshal is pitch perfect, and Cogburn’s face-off with Ned Pepper across an open field on an autumn day in Colorado is a cinema classic. Having tracked Pepper and his gang through most of the film, Cogburn is dead set on ending the matter once and for all. He shouts across the field that he means to kill Ned in one minute, or see him hanged later at Fort Smith, to which Ned replies, “That’s bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.” Taking offense at the remark, Cogburn replies with what is perhaps John Wayne's all-time greatest badass line. “Fill your hands, you son-of-a-bitch!” He then takes the reins of his horse in his teeth, grabs his rifle and pistol, and charges across the field toward Ned’s gang in an Old West version of a Medieval joust, guns blazing. Cogburn even executes the spin cock maneuver during his charge, which is badass on top of badass, which ultimately put this heroic moment at the top of the list.

True Grit stand-off scene:


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