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The best movie stunts of all time

Bike chases, helicopter gymnastics and psychotic pole-vaulters.

The best movie stunts of all time
Jon Mundy
15 July 2023

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One is now troubling cinema billboards with its ludicrously convoluted title. Spare a thought, also, for all those stunt people whoe are being made to feel inadequate by one man Evel Knievel tribute Tom Cruise.

So what is Mr Cruise up to this time? He’s only base jumping off a ruddy Norwegian cliff on a motorbike.

As stunts go, this could very well be the most dangerous thing Cruise and his team have ever attempted. But is it the best movie stunt ever recorded?

The jury remains out on that one, especially with such a long list of hair-raising competition from across 100 years or so of cinematic daredevilry.

Here, then, are 20 prime examples of movie stunt work from across decades. Which one is your favourite? Be sure to vote below.

The greatest-ever movie stunts

The greatest-ever movie stunts

1. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation - Hanging out on a plane

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We could probably populate this entire list with nothing but Tom Cruise stunts taken from the Mission: Impossible franchise. If we were to choose one, however, it would have to be the one from 2015’s Rogue Nation, in which our charismatic star is filmed hanging off a huge plane as it takes off.

It’s far from the most technically demanding stunt Cruise has had to pull off in his career, but the queasy lurch the viewer experiences while watching the ground drop away below our hero is tough to beat.

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2. Raiders of the Lost Ark - Temple run

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There was no need for any fancy de-aging special effects for the first Indiana Jones film. Back in 1981, star Harrison Ford was still in his physical prime.

So much so, in fact, that director Steven Spielberg felt confident putting his leading man into bat for the iconic stunt featured in the opening sequence. We get a great view of our grizzled hero’s panicked face as he is chased through a booby-trapped tomb by a giant rolling boulder.

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The greatest-ever movie stunts

3. Project A - Clock fall

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Jackie Chan has always been a keen cinematic historian, and in one of this most hair-raising stunts he pays tributes to the silent cinema greats Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. After hanging from a clock face, Chan proceeds to drop 60 feet, his fall only broken by two flimsy awnings.

If this Project A stunt looks convincingly painful, that’s because it was. Chan attempted it only twice, and during the second one landed on his head. He was extremely fortunate not to sustain a serious neck injury.

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The greatest-ever movie stunts

4. OldBoy - Hallway fight scene

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Park Chan-wook’s breakout hit is memorable for any number of reasons, but one scene in particular continues to be referenced by action movie aficionados. It’s a scene in which our weathered hero, Oh Dae-su, fights his way along a grimy corridor filled with multiple assailants.

It’s the way the fight is staged and filmed that has left its mark on cinema. Captured in a single back-and-forth side-on shot, and with a brutal physicality that incorporates knives and hammers, you’ll do well to breath for its entire three-minute span.

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The greatest-ever movie stunts

5. The Dark Knight - Truck flip

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Christopher Nolan has always been a very modern director with very old-school views on special effects. If he can nail the shot with practical stunt work rather than CGI, he’ll do it.

The justification for this can be seen in moments like The Dark Knight’s truck flip. Sure, you could convincingly execute this forward roll of an articulated lorry on a computer, and probably add plenty of embellishment into the equation. But would it feel as physical, consequential, or downright thrilling as Batman’s epic oops-a-daisy moment does here? We highly doubt it.

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The greatest-ever movie stunts

6. The Man With the Golden Gun - Car roll

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The James Bond series is a reliable source for all manner of practical stunts. In 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun, we might just have one of the very best car stunts ever pulled off.

It sees Roger Moore’s Bond (or rather his stunt driver) performing an astonishing corkscrew jump across a downed bridge in an AMC Hornet X. Amazingly, stunt driver Loren “Bumps” Willert pulled the stunt off in a single take. The less said about John Barry’s decision to add an accompanying slide-whistle sound effect, the better.

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7. Steamboat Bill, Jr. - House front fall

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You probably haven’t seen 1928 silent movie Steamboat Bill, Jr. before, but we bet that virtually all of you have seen (or at least heard about) its most famous stunt.

That stunt sees Buster Keaton – surely the Tom Cruise of his day – standing dazed on a street as a storm rages around him. We then switch to a wider shot as the frontage of a nearby house falls down on top of our oblivious hero, who secures a miraculous escape by fitting precisely through the attic window. It’s timelessly ballsy stuff.

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8. Terminator 2 - Helicopter stunt

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Terminator 2 is rightfully lauded for its groundbreaking CGI work, but its practical stunts are just as impressive. Following an iconic scene in which the villainous T–1000 jumps his stolen motorbike into the side of a helicopter, said commandeered chopper begins to chase down our heroes, who are fleeing in an armoured van.

The key stunt sees the helicopter dipping below an overpass with very little headroom to spare. It was deemed so dangerous that the camera team refused to take part, prompting Cameron himself to put his neck on the line to capture the shot from ground level.

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9. Mad Max: Fury Road - Psychotic pole vaulters

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George Miller’s 2015 action sequel is one long sequence of gob-smacking stunts, involving automotive carnage, death defying wire work, a highly trained stunt crew, and no small amount of explosive material.

The sequence that really stands out to us is the outlandish pole vault warriors, who sway back and forth on flexible car-mounted poles, dipping down onto our heroes’ beleaguered war rig to attack or pluck one of them away. Director Miller suspected that his concept would require CGI to execute, but ultimately the sequence was executed with a crack squad of tightly drilled acrobats.

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10. Ong Bak - Barbed wired parkour

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Ong Bak is famed in the combat film community for its brutally authentic rendering of Muay Thai martial arts through a number of tightly choreographed fight scenes. But it’s an early on-foot chase scene that heralded star Tony Jaa as a potential latter day Jackie Chan.

Taking flight from a gang of criminals, Jaa’s character nimbly (and comically) leaps over packages, tables, and even a rack full of sharp farming implements. Most impressively of all, he somehow scrunches his body up and jumps through a tight roll of barbed wire.

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11. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol - Sky scraper climb

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The fourth instalment of the Mission: Impossible franchise features one of the gutsiest stunts Tom Cruise has ever committed to, which is really saying something. In Ghost Protocol, the central set piece sees Cruise’s super-spy climbing the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

Yes, Cruise was permanently tethered to the building, with the cables digitally erased at a later date. But it’s still an awfully long way down, and the choice to make it a practical stunt results in some truly vertiginous camera angles.

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12. The Spy Who Loved Me - Skiing parachuter

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Roger Moore might not have been the all-action star his predecessor Sean Connery was, but when it comes to the wider Bond stunt team, nobody does it better.

In the pre-credits scene for The Spy Who Loved Me, a hotly pursued Bond skis off the edge of a mountain to his apparent death. After a brief tumble through space, he pulls the cord on his parachute and floats to safety. It’s all captured in a single panning shot, with the audio cutting out for added dramatic effect.

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13. GoldenEye - Dam bungee jump

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With the introduction of a brand new Bond, and following the disappointing Timothy Dalton era, the makers of GoldenEye really needed to hit the ground running. In fact, in the film’s memorable pre-credits scene, they opted to accelerate rapidly towards said ground, pulling up short thanks only to a length of elastic.

Bungee jumping was a relative novelty at the time of the film, and the height of this particular jump – off the 220 meter high Verzasca dam, no less – even more so.

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14. Police Story 3: Supercop - Bike jump

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Proving Hong Kong action cinema was about much more than Jackie Chan, a young Michelle Yeoh stepped up to star alongside the illustrious star in 1992’s Police Story 3: Supercop, agreeing to match the legend by performing her own death-defying stunts.

The most famous of these saw Yeoh jumping a dirt bike off a mound onto the top of a moving train. It would have been an impressive enough feat for a fully trained stunt professional, but Yeoh claims to have had little to no motorcycle training ahead of filming.

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15. Inception - Rotating hotel

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Inception’s mind-warping, physics-defying hotel fight sequence supplies a quite literal twist on the classic hallway fight scene. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s dream raider takes on a troublesome agent while the speeding van transporting his sleeping body in the real world is forced to take evasive manoeuvres.

Following director Christopher Nolan’s dream logic, those subconscious hotel corridors start tumbling and rotating like a particularly stylish funhouse, with the fight seamlessly transferring from floor to wall to ceiling.

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16. Armour of God - Skydive onto balloon

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Tom Cruise quite rightly gets an awful lot of praise and press for his combination of charismatic acting and risky stunt work, but he’s standing on the shoulders of giants. Jackie Chan was doing this sort of thing 50 years ago, and with even fewer safeguards.

Armour of God showcases perhaps the ultimate proto-Cruise moment from Chan – a skydive directly onto the top of a hot air balloon, with no parachute pull. The only concession was that Chan actually jumped out of plane rather than off a cliff, as was suggested in the film. The wuss.

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17. Death Proof - Bonnet chase

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Perhaps Quentin Tarantino’s most overlooked film, Death Proof is as much an ode to the role of the stunt person in Hollywood as it is to the exploitation movies of the ’70s. To that end, it casts real life stuntwoman Zoë Bell as a member of a group of friends out for a joy ride.

The stunt performer’s skills are put to the test when Kurt Russell’s former-stuntman killer attempts to ram the muscle car driven by our heroes off the road, with Bell hanging on to the bonnet for dear life.

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18. Deliverance - Waterfall fall

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As Tom Cruise has gone to prove, there’s always an extra frisson of excitement to be had when a bone fide Hollywood star does their own stunts. Back in 1972, it was Burt Reynolds placing his neck on the line for our enjoyment.

At one point in John Boorman’s redneck survival horror flick, Deliverance, Reynolds is thrown down some water rapids. Rather than swap in a stunt dummy, as was generally the procedure in those days, Reynolds opted to make the precarious journey himself, resulting in a memorable shot – and a cracked coccyx for the hirsute star’s troubles.

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19. Baby Driver - Twin 180s

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Baby Driver is nothing less than a fulsome tribute to the car stunt. Its young hero (played by Ansel Elgort) is blessed with savant-like abilities behind the wheel, and these are utilised to the max in his role as a reluctant getaway driver.

It’s an unapologetically flimsy excuse for placing a bunch of tire-squealing stunts front and centre of a movie. The highlight has to be the one in which the main character performs a 180-degree slide into a chicane of sorts, immediately followed by a reverse 180 out the other side.

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20. Ben-Hur - Chariot race

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Ben-Hur’s chariot race is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Taking five weeks to shoot, not to mention a huge chunk of the film’s overall budget, it was the undeniable centrepiece of William Wyler’s 1959 epic.

Perhaps the most famous moment is where Joe Canutt, the stuntman stand-in for Charlton Heston’s title character, was propelled over the front of his chariot, just barely managing to clamber back to safety. It was completely unplanned, but perfectly reflected the sense of inherent danger in the scene.

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