vulture lists

The 25 Best Cold-Open Action Scenes in Film History

Photo: Paramount Pictures, Lucasfilm, Milestone Pictures, Eon Productions, Warner Brothers

Last week saw the opening of Spectre, the long-awaited, much-speculated-upon, fairly contentious new entry in the James Bond series. While it’s sure to make money hand over fist (good start so far), the Daniel Craig–led spy thriller is proving rather divisive among both moviegoers and critics. Still, if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that Spectre has one of the better, opening pre-credits action scenes of the Bond movies. The idea of starting a movie with an action scene right off the bat was not so common once upon a time; it’s been perfected by the Bond movies over the years, though its roots reach far earlier than that. Along the way, with the popularity of Bond, as well as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, these opening action scenes – sometimes pre-credits, sometimes post-, sometimes with a bit of context, sometimes with pretty much none — have become practically de rigueur among a certain type of film. So we decided to look back at this trend via the most notable opening action scenes from over the years. Somehow we did it while limiting ourselves to just three Bond entries.

25. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
The second installment of the Mel Gibson–Danny Glover buddy-cop action-comedy movies opens on Riggs (Gibson) mid-scream (or is it mid-whoop?) as they careen down a street in Murtaugh’s (Glover) wife’s station wagon chasing a group of perps. As their dispatcher shouts warnings into the radio and their fellow cops take bets as to their fate, the two protagonists yell and bicker and banter (as is their wont). It all eventually goes wonderfully haywire, with Riggs chasing down the car on foot, a helicopter getaway ensuing, and an endless supply of squad cars lining the scene — all topped off by a couple of impressively explosive climaxes.

24. Enter the Dragon (1973)
Bruce Lee’s greatest film (and also the last one he ever completed) opens with a scene of him sparring with a fellow student at the Shaolin temple, demonstrating his uncommon grace. It’s not nearly as stunning as many of the other fight scenes in the film, but it’s a great introduction to Lee’s smooth, powerfully acrobatic moves. Oh, and the guy he beats is played by the then largely unknown future-superstar Sammo Hung!

23. Speed (1994)
“Bob, what button did you push?” In the opening sequence of this high-octane, bus-gone-wild thriller that solidified Sandra Bullock as a star and Keanu Reeves as an action hero, crazy bomber Dennis Hopper takes an office elevator hostage by remote, while wise-cracking SWAT team officers Reeves and Jeff Daniels rush to the rescue. Extremely taut, but also very well-written: Reeves and Daniels’s banter about what to do during hostage standoffs (“Shoot the hostage … Take her out of the equation”) winds up paying off in a hilarious, and quite suspenseful, way at the end of the sequence.

22. Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
Matthew Vaughn’s half-serious, half-spoof spy hit starts off in “the Middle East” (pretty vague there, no?) as a helicopter makes its way toward a huge templelike structure, in the middle of a battle, to show us a standoff wherein one Kingsman super-spy sacrifices himself for the others on his team. Kingsman is a fascinating beast: Both a send-up and an escalation of the spy genre, the film maintaining a tone that somehow manages to be tongue-in-cheek while staying quite involving. This opening — with its flying credit titles, its odd moments of slapstick, and its fatal stakes — is a perfect example of the film’s careful balance.

21. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
The M:I films have been a terrific vehicle for Tom Cruise to demonstrate his penchant for doing his own stunts, and this summer’s fifth entry in the franchise kicked off with what might be his greatest one yet, as he hung off the side of an airplane while it took off (and yes, that really was him). It was also an awesome sequence in general: At once, an ideal cold open that threw us right into the action without context, but also a chance to highlight the teamwork that has become this series’ trademark, with each member of the group in a different geographic location.

20. The Other Guys (2010)
What is certainly one of the greatest comedies of the millennium opens the only way it can: In the middle of an insane chase with hero cop the Rock hanging off the top of a car while his partner (and fellow hero cop) Samuel L. Jackson tails behind in another car, firing at the perp while wisecracking. This sequence also involves them running right into a New York City tour bus (“Did somebody call 9-1-holy shit?”) and commandeering the bus, and concludes with Jackson driving his car straight into Trump Tower while firing both guns and blowing all holy hell out of the place. Of course, that’s sort of the joke: This is a movie about hapless, desk-bound duo Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg having to take over an investigation after these two badasses die cavalierly (and, might we add, hilariously) during one of their subsequent crazy acts of heroism.

19. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Toward the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) appeared to fall to his death when the Balrog dragged him down into a bottomless chasm in the Mines of Moria. So the second film in The Lord of the Rings series begins in medias res, showing us the tail end of that sequence before following Gandalf’s long plunge to the bottom with the Balrog, as he continues fighting the giant, terrifying beast. Admittedly, the Lord of the Rings films exist as much as a three-part whole as they do as three individual films, but either way, this opening was a bracing way to kick off this most action-packed and streamlined installment of the series.

18. The Matrix (1999)
You have to think back to the mysterious way in which this now-classic sci-fi film was introduced to truly appreciate this opening scene. Back then, we didn’t know what “the Matrix” was, and the film’s pioneering use of special effects had only been revealed in drips and drabs. So when it all began with a vaguely noirish scene in which we witnessed the mysterious Trinity (Carrie Anne-Moss) kick a bunch of cops’ asses in bullet-time, then leap from one far rooftop to another, then dive horizontally off one building and right through the window of another, we realized we were watching something truly wonderful. Needless to say, the approach served as an effective way to set up this world, while also hinting at what the film’s protagonist Neo (Keanu Reeves) would eventually discover.

17. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)
Sure, this Monty Python comedy isn’t an action movie, but it does begin with one of the funniest, most exciting things the legendary British comedy troupe ever shot: a short film-within-a-film called The Crimson Permanent Assurance, in which a group of elderly British insurance workers, enslaved by a new, slick (and obviously American) corporate regime, rise up against their masters, take over the building as if it were a ship, then pull anchor (no, really) and sail away. Now having turned into pirates, they go around raiding other corporations, doing battle against the young, well-heeled corporate types that populate them. It’s not only hilarious, it’s a pointed dig at the way that Margaret Thatcher’s England saw small, family-owned businesses taken over by ruthless hypercapitalists and Wall Street types.

16. Sherlock Holmes (2009)
The Guy Ritchie reinvention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective isn’t really a good movie, but it does have a great opening scene that playfully introduces this new, more ass-kicking version of Holmes. As he prepares to take down a bad guy, we hear Holmes’s calculations (“Head cocked to the left. Partial deafness in ear. First point of attack!”) as he plans out his confrontation and then quickly executes, making sure to have some casual banter with his sidekick Dr. Watson as he does so. It’s a funny and exciting way to motivate the film’s hyperstylized approach to the material, which is initially fun until it grows thoroughly tiresome.

15. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
This is one of the simpler, shorter Bond openings, but it also features some amazing ski moves (that backwards flip!) and great stunt photography, including 007’s leap off a cliff and, after some flailing in the air, opening of his parachute – which, of course, is the Union Jack. It also features this immortal exchange between Bond and an anonymous sexual conquest: “But James, I need you.” “So does England.”

14. Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
The last Star Wars movie that George Lucas directed started off with one of the most striking sequences of the entire series, with Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) weaving through seemingly endless armies of space-ships in the middle of the Clone Wars. Lucas had always been fond of showing speed onscreen, and here, he gave viewers what might have been his fastest, most graceful depiction of it yet. Some have criticized the effects in the prequels as being too weightless and artificial compared to the earlier trilogy. But at moments like these, that weightlessness and artifice are put to good use: The airy and nimble movements of these ships and people have a captivating elegance all their own.

13. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Okay, we’re cheating a bit here, because the opening of Temple of Doom is actually a huge, amazing musical number featuring Kate Capshaw singing “Anything Goes.” But it then fluidly continues to elsewhere in the same Shanghai night club, where Indiana Jones faces off against Lao Che, before an over-the-top melee in which our hero simultaneously fights and tries to get his hands on an antidote to counteract the poison the bad guys just gave him. Delirious, wondrous chaos ensues, all impeccably orchestrated by director Steven Spielberg.

12. Vertigo (1958)
Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece isn’t an action flick, but it does have one of the most legendary cold opens of all time: It kicks off in the middle of a silent, breathtaking rooftop chase with detective Jimmy Stewart and a couple of cops pursuing an unnamed criminal. Of course, the movie is called Vertigo, so the scene winds up being not about capturing the criminal but about our hero’s paralyzing fear of heights.

11. Thunderball (1965)
“My dear Madame, I’ve come to offer my sincere condolences.” PUNCH! The opening sequence to the fourth Connery Bond film starts at a funeral for Bond nemesis Colonel Jacques Bouvar, but quickly retires to a country home where Bond shows up to reveal that Bouvar’s widow is actually the villain in disguise (opening his own car door was a tip-off). The sequence is full of surprises and impressively intense fighting (in heels, no less) but really, what makes it special is the jet-pack Bond flies away on.

10. True Lies (1994)
James Cameron’s 1994 hit is partly an homage to James Bond movies – or maybe, James Cameron showing us how awesome one of his Bond movies might be – so it makes sense that it begins with an homage to Goldfinger’s opening. Super-agent Arnold Schwarzenegger infiltrates an elegant party filled with baddies in Lake Geneva, Switzerland (of course, he scuba dives there, duh), does a sexy tango with Tia Carrere, then makes his explosive, slippery getaway while disposable henchmen on skis and snowmobiles attempt to blow him away.

9. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
Fritz Lang’s 1933 thriller has influenced many later works – from the Bond films to the Dark Knight films – and it starts with one of the great in medias res openings of all time. In a throbbing, eerie print shop, the camera locates a man hiding in a corner. He’s quietly spotted by two sinister henchmen who come into the room, but they pretend they haven’t seen him. He tries to escape, but doesn’t go too far before he’s confronted by several other henchmen. He tries to place a call to the police, but he’s ignored – this is when we find out that he himself is a disgraced former cop. It’s a beautiful example of how opening the film without context can actually create suspense, lending even the slightest gesture and the most mundane bit of information great narrative importance. A hypnotic sequence, and proof that Lang was one of the great masters of visual cinematic narrative.

8. Spectre (2015)
The most recent opening Bond action pre-credits is also one of the best. It starts off with a lengthy single-shot traveling across a Mexican Day of the Dead parade, then following a masked Bond and a beautiful woman as they go into a hotel, travel up an elevator, and enter a room to get it on. Then 007 abandons his amorous conquest (wait … what?) and makes his way across a rooftop to carry out an assassination. The single shot ends there, but what’s most remarkable is what happens next – with crumbling buildings, a foot chase through a crowded square, and an elaborate face-off in a helicopter that seems to level half the town. The escalating chaos of this sequence is something to behold; it might actually be the best part of Spectre.

7. Star Wars (1977)
After that infamous opening crawl, against a vast starfield, a massive space ship lumbers into view as it chases a smaller ship, and it just seems to keep going and going and going; the scale is breathtaking. And then, cut to the battle raging inside the small ship, where we’re introduced to C3PO and R2D2, as an anonymous group of Rebel soldiers face off futilely against a group of eerie white-armor-clad Storm Troopers … and then, Jesus, who’s that terrifying dude all clad in black, with the breathing, and the cape? This is how so many were introduced to Star Wars, forever hooked.

6. Hard Boiled (1992)
In the opening moments of John Woo’s epochal Hong Kong action masterpiece, jazz-loving loose-cannon cop Chow Yun-Fat (who just played a sax solo intercut with the opening credits) and his partner shoot up a tea house so thoroughly that you’re kind of amazed the film doesn’t just end right there. The mayhem is delirious – from the bad guy trying to make his way out by blowing away any and all bystanders, to the poultry flying every which direction, to our hero’s iconic slide-down-a-railing-with-guns-blazing move. And it all ends with one final bit of brutal poetry, as Chow materializes out of a cloud of flour, looking like a phantom from the past, and blows his nemesis away — a shock of red blood spurting on his ghostly white face. ::Shivers::

5. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
Okay, this is maybe also sort of kind of cheating, since technically speaking, the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus is actually a close-up of a bloodied Bride (Uma Thurman) as her former lover and now-nemesis Bill (David Carradine) delivers a creepy monologue about how he’s being more masochistic than sadistic by blowing her away. But that scene is so fragmentary, and, quite frankly, there’s no way we’re skipping this incredible action opening: The Bride drives into a nice Pasadena suburb to face off with her former teammate Copperhead (Vivica Fox) in a knock-down, drag-out fight that sees kicks, punches, knives, and fireplace pokers flying, as the two women completely destroy the house. At the time, there was some speculation as to whether Tarantino, whose films up until then were known mainly for their witty dialogue and Mexican standoffs, could even direct an action scene. By kicking this ambitious film off with such a bravura fistfight, the director quickly put the matter to rest.

4. The Dark Knight (2008)
Before we even see Batman in the second of Christopher Nolan’s films about the superhero, we’re treated to this elaborate, brutal heist in which the Joker (Heath Ledger) and several minions take down a bank. It’s a perfect example of how Nolan keeps adding threads to his narrative: Not only is it a bank robbery, it’s a mob bank (which means the manager pulls out a shotgun and start firing) and, in a terrifying display of the Joker’s monstrous power (plus a fun nod to game theory), the various robbers methodically kill each other throughout the sequence. In the end, the Joker’s the only one standing, and he just rides away in a school bus he sent crashing into the building. What an excellent way to introduce this most mysterious of super-villains.

3. The Wild Bunch (1969)
The opening shootout of Sam Peckinpah’s notorious masterpiece has rightly gone down in history: It was during this opening gunfight that audiences realized they were seeing a truly groundbreaking movie in terms of storytelling, style, and violence. To be precise, the film doesn’t immediately open on the shoot-out. Rather, we see the titular outlaws riding into town and methodically approaching the bank they’re about to rob. Meanwhile, the Temperance Union holds a meeting right outside, and all along one of the rooftops, a group of pseudo-lawmen lie in wait for our heroes. When the shooting starts, the sheer deluge of violence – cut together in a rhythmic, repetitive style that also incorporates copious amounts of slow-motion – is sad, disturbing, and electrifying.

2. Mad Max (1979) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
We can’t decide between these two, so they’re tied for second place. It’s always worth remembering that the first film in what would become one of the most influential dystopian sci-fi series of all time wasn’t really post-apocalyptic at all. It was set a few years in the future, and the extent of its dystopia was to show a few government buildings in seeming disrepair. The apocalypse, however, was there in spirit if not milieu, as director George Miller hurtled us headlong into a deranged car chase that had a lunatic named the Night Rider (“I am a fuel-injected suicide machine!”) dragging several squad cars of cops along with him. As they slammed into trailers, and vans, and phone booths, and buildings, and narrowly – narrowly – missed a small child, the lunacy mounted. But it wasn’t just a thrilling road chase, it was also a great way to introduce a character. Because it was only after the other cops had been taken out that our hero, the stoic Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) came onto the scene, coolly chasing down the Night Rider until the man started to cry, right before meeting his explosive end.

Thirty-six years after that auspicious debut, Miller gave us Mad Max: Fury Road, another revolutionary action masterpiece. While its opening provided a bit more context (with a brooding voice-over by a lizard-eating Max, now played by Tom Hardy, vaguely explaining what’s happened to the world), it still basically threw us headlong into the madness. This time, it was Max being chased in his car, by the shrieking, demonic war-boys of the tyrannical Immortan Joe. And they caught him. And they tattooed him. And then he escaped. And then they caught him again. And then they enslaved him — all before the opening title. This whole sequence established the film’s waking-nightmare quality, setting us up for the visionary horrors (and car chases) to come.

1. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
We’re all familiar with the unforgettable opening to Spielberg’s 1981 masterpiece, with Indiana Jones and a couple of guides (among them a fresh-faced Alfred Molina, as the duplicitous Satipo) making their way through thick jungle and into an ancient, booby-trapped temple, then stealing a golden idol and dodging (and in some cases not dodging) deadly arrows, crumbling walls, and one ridiculous boulder. It’s a deliriously fun start to a deliriously fun movie, but it also does a great job of introducing us to Indy himself: He’s resourceful and unfazed, except when he has to make a quick getaway, in which case he’ll run and scream for dear life like nobody’s business. Watching these scenes, we realize we like this guy, and we want to be him. That can be an important quality in an action hero.

The 25 Best Cold-Open Action Scenes in Movies