Many of cinema history’s most memorable action scenes thrive on their environment. The French Connection car chase needs Brooklyn, just like Die Hard needs Nakatomi Plaza and Enter the Dragon needs its hall of mirrors.
So it’s no coincidence that the best action scenes filmed in Oregon all feel distinctly of this state. They deploy our forests, railroads and jetties as playgrounds. And the films bring with them a sense of childlike improvisation and destruction, the way kids will dream and fight with whatever weird shit they discover in the backyard.
With more than 100 years to choose from, let’s anoint the best action scenes ever filmed in Oregon.
Green Room (2015): New Tactics
“This is a nightmare,” murmurs Pat (the late Anton Yelchin) as he surveys the carnage wrought in the claustrophobic, Portland-made thriller that pits punks vs. neo-Nazis. He’s right; director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) does tend to savor dread and horror over pure action in the hyperviolent Green Room.
Yet intermittently, the film’s terrifying potential energy turns kinetic, especially when final survivors Pat and Amber (Imogen Poots) decide the only way they can defeat the skinheads is by adjusting their fighting tactics to almost absurd, faithless wavelengths. When our heroes snatch back the upper hand by painting their faces, shaving heads, and distracting the Nazis by dropping corpses into a heroin lab, diversion becomes a performance unto itself.
The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid (1972): Busted Robbery
In this jaunty, reflective Western, director Philip Kaufman (pre-The Right Stuff and Invasion of the Body Snatchers) has an ace in the hole: peerless craftsmanship. And when bank robbers Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) and Jesse James (Robert Duvall) climactically hold up an unsuspecting Midwest town (actually Jacksonville, Ore.), The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid turns grindingly, mesmerizingly tense.
It’s all sound, ambience and editing. Rain pours on a hazy afternoon, practically blind townspeople start firing on the outlaws, and the robbery’s first victim topples onto the promotional calliope outside the bank, scoring the scene with a siren that never ceases wailing.
Free Willy (1993): Leap to Freedom
Marshaling the emotional manipulation that defined what we called “family movies” in the ‘90s, Free Willy goes from miscast and middling to delivering a triumphant crescendo when Willy the orca finally makes good on the film’s title.
Trying to end the whale’s captivity, a pro-Willy contingent led by 12-year-old orphan Jesse floors its whale transport truck backward down a boat ramp. The Hammond Marina on the Oregon Coast is presented like a gateway to the Pacific, as a massive water-bound scrum ensues between whale haters and whale saviors.
Meanwhile, Willy appears all but dead and then suddenly takes to the sea, all while the camera keeps finding villainous actor extraordinaire Michael Ironside snarling. It’s heart-wrenching chaos, maestro’d by a crying boy, right up until Willy soars over the jetty like Michael Jordan in Space Jam.
The Hunted (2003): Blades Only
William Friedkin’s lean, mean Oregon-made thriller boils down to knife fights. Special forces instructor L.T. (Tommy Lee Jones) is called in by the FBI to track a former pupil gone rogue (Benicio Del Toro) in the Pacific Northwest wilderness, an echo of First Blood for a new century of war.
When the two Sayoc Kali knife-fighting experts square off in Silver Falls State Park, Friedkin imbues the film with some pronounced Abrahamic themes about the father (Jones) slaying the son (Del Toro) in the name of a higher calling. It’s a thematically rich but blood-simple confrontation of slashing, diving and shoulder dislocation in the verdant moss.
The General (1926): Playing on the Railroad
It may never get better for Oregon action than when Buster Keaton took over Cottage Grove, hired 1,500 locals, affixed Civil War cannons to railroad cars, and quite literally crashed a train through a 200-foot trestle bridge into the Row River.
But if we’re going by best scene…the most timeless action of The General has to involve Keaton’s own physicality. There’s clear Mission: Impossible DNA in the inventive, thrill-seeking way the silent-era genius plays an engineer chasing Union soldiers who’ve commandeered his beloved steam engine (“The General”).
What follows is a wild escalation of track obstruction, culminating in Keaton inching down the front of his train’s cow catcher and whacking one railroad piling off the tracks with another, as though he were flipping a plastic spoon off a table by its handle. And it all unfolds in two uncut shots wherein Keaton would’ve been fatally pancaked by a moving train had anything gone wrong. If you can reckon with The General’s obvious Confederate sympathies, it features some of the most transcendent stunt work you’ll ever lay eyes on.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Emperor of the North Pole