As fast and exciting and sexy and shiny as cars are, it’s difficult to have a lengthy fight scene on top of them, and that’s no good. Thank goodness trains are here to plug the gap, offering the speed and (relative) space required for a good punch-up, be it on the roof or inside one of its carriages. Two films released in 2013 have played around with the cinematic trope of train-based pain, and in honour of both The Wolverine and The Lone Ranger, here is a collection of some of the best train fights ever committed to celluloid.
Known both as Ethiran and The Robot, this Indian Tamil sci-fi action film may be relatively unknown to Western audiences, but to its fanatical fans in India, it’s an incredibly big deal. Breaking box office records on its release, it hauled in over 1.4 billion rupees (£15 million) and successfully reinforced the superstardom of its lead, Rajinikanth, who stands over his competitors like a Terminator, a baddie-breaking mega-machine. This particular fight scene – which is almost guaranteed to make you gasp like a startled Jane Austen character on several occasions – lasts six minutes, but for its sheer weirdness alone, it’s well worth your time. Be sure to place your first under your chin before clicking play, otherwise your jaw may well crash down on your desk.
Key moment: You try picking one.
For Bond, trains serve three functions. They are fight locations, flirting locations and keeping-the-British-end-up locations. Roger Moore’s incarnation in Live And Let Die manages all three, with Jane Seymour’s Solitaire bundled away in a bunk by Tee Hee’s (Julius Harris) super-powered tin opener arm before Bond lobs him (sans robo-limb) out of the window. See also: The Spy Who Loved Me, where a man with metal teeth (Richard Kiel's Jaws) instead of a metal arm is also tossed through a pane of glass and out of the train.
Connery does a similar trick in From Russia With Love, though Daniela Bianchi’s Tatiana Romanova is elsewhere, and no metal bodyparts are involved. What’s most notable about Octopussy’s locomotive scrap, meanwhile, is Bond turning his Merc into a petrol-powered pump trolley, rather than any funicular fisticuffs. Moore leaves that to Daniel Craig in Skyfall – until he takes his unfortunate fall through the sky.
From Russia With Love (1963)
Live And Let Die (1973)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Bond may have tackled a circus train in Octopussy, but that locomotive didn’t involve giraffes (in passing), alligators (in boxes), snakes (in trousers), rhinos (in a mood) or lions (rampant). Bond also wasn’t a teenager at the time, wasn’t wearing a cub scout uniform and didn’t have a priceless artifact dangling out of his belt. In short: when if comes to (circus) train fights, Indy’s got Bond beat. Let that pub conversation come to a definitive conclusion.
What’s more, this serves as a breakneck and very funny introduction to the various hang-ups and preocupations of the adult Jones, and gives the much-missed River Phoenix perhaps his finest comedy hour. Yes, it’s even funnier than the glasses he wears in Explorers.
Key moment: The snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?
If you’re looking for actual fisticuffs at the end of the first impossible mission, you’re going to be disappointed. Sure, there’s one bit where an old man (Jon Voight) kicks a younger man (Tom Cruise) as they’re riding the top of a (presumably) speeding channel tunnel train, but it’s not exactly Vin Diesel and The Rock going mano-a-mano in Fast Five, is it? But, and this is a big but, if you’re looking for Jean Reno and the aforementioned older gentleman getting blown up in a helicopter because of a stray piece of chewing gum, then this is the remarkably difficult mission for you.
Key moment: “Red light! Green light!” Remember, getting Ethan Hunt to remember things is an ongoing problem in the franchise. See also: “Blue is glue! Red is dead!” from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
If you have already seen both Shanghai Noon and The Lone Ranger, you’ll have noticed a couple of striking similarities. One clear connection is that our plucky hero, be he played by Owen Wilson or Armie Hammer, gets buried up to his neck in sand and then there’s the general (pun intended) train shenanigans they have to endure. There are also notable differences, including exploding safes, the presence of Walton Goggins and the awkward use of the phrase “We’ve got a Chinaman to catch!”. Still, if you’re looking for a new double bill at your local repertory cinema, go West.
Key moment: Timber! It turns out falling off a log really is that easy.
Even after watching Breakheart Pass relatively recently, most of the details become hazy at best (we do recall some shady business involving a train and a lot of snow), and only one really stands out. At a critical junction in the story, Charles Bronson, an escaped convict with an untouchable line in badassery, shoves the plot unceremoniously into the nearest luggage rack, climbs onto the roof of the train and beats the hell out of one of the villains. The rooftop smackdown ends with Bronson handing the man a one-way, no-restrictions ticket to the bottom of the nearest gorge – although not before he’s executed the kind of awesome flying body kick a 54-year-old man has no business even attempting. Do not try this on First Great Western.
Key moment: That flying kick. Prepare the ice bath and Solpadeine, nurse.
Three steps to train fight glory: first, witness the theft of your beloved train; next, give fanatical chase; finally, steal train back and steam back. Simple, right? Not so much. Put it this way: The Buster Keaton Train Timetable wouldn’t sell a single copy on this evidence. It’s pure narrow-gauge mayhem when Old Stone Face takes on a nefarious posse of Union spies who have stolen his locomotive. There are none of those traditional railway fistfights here, but there are sleepers on the line, a whooping great trench mortar and that climactic moment where an entire bridge collapses. It’s basically two trains rolling up their sleeves and beating lumps out of each other and it remains, 87 years later, utterly glorious cinema.
Key moment: Johnnie Gray (Keaton) inadvertently uncouples the trench mortar. The trench mortar doesn’t take this kindly.
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As a veteran of steam-powered classics like Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Omar Sharif knows his engine from his caboose. Heck, he’s been on so many trains he can probably operate those automatic lavatories without fear of permanent entrapment. The Zuckers-Abrams-Zucker comedy, while not quite as epic in scale, reunited him with the railroads for one of the most inventive things in train history since George Stephenson built a really fast choo-choo and called it ‘The Rocket’. As Sharif’s Agent Cedric battles a heavyset goon atop a carriage, he spots a tunnel approaching and ducks accordingly, confident that his enemy will be smashed or at least de-trained by the sturdy railway bridge. The goon? He stands still and just ploughs a hole straight through the brickwork without so much as a twitch. Time for a hasty rethink of Sharif’s fight strategy.
Key moment: That double-take as his opponent survives the impact.
The Zorro sequel’s frenzied train scrap is a full ten minutes of loco lunacy that takes in horses racing atop carriages, swordfights, brawls and enormous explosions. For over-the-top fun, it sure beats signal failure at Orpington. The fiery denouement comes when Antonio Banderas’s masked maverick bests Rufus Sewell’s snarly Gallic villain at the pointy end of his own TNT express. “I’ve died on my own personal train more than once,” Sewell fondly recalled on the Empire Podcast, “but the best bad-guy death has to be in your own nitroglycerin-filled train, smashing into a cliff while screaming in a French accent. And how many people can claim that?” You know what? He’s absolutely right.
Key moment: The bit where most of San Mateo County goes BOOM.
This one we’re subtitling The Good, The Bad, The Weird And The Poor Train Driver. The gist: The Bad (Lee Byung-hun) and The Weird (Song Kang-ho) each want to steal a treasure map from a Japanese official and will stop at no level of bloody mayhem to get it. The Good (Jung Woo-sung), an opportunistic bounty hunter, turns up to grab the prize on The Bad’s head.
The Weird gets the prize, The Bad follows in pursuit accompanied by endless goons, and The Good stalks him in turn. The Train Driver, unfortunately, runs away at the first sign of trouble and is impaled on a spear, and the girl who replaces him gets shot. Health and Safety never covered this.
Key moment: As the train’s ornate carriages become increasingly peppered with bullets, a goose wanders merrily through the action.
If there’s one lesson to taken from this epic train battle – aside from the one about not giving hand grenades to soldiers with co-ordination issues – it’s that there are easier ways to win a pitched battle on a train than with a Vickers heavy machine gun. Firstly, you can’t see what you’re aiming at. Then there’s the danger of killing umpteen ticket inspectors by mistake. Add to that the risk of blasting merrily away at completely the wrong trajectory and you’ve got all the ingredients of a red-coated clusterfrak.
Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.), in drag, and Watson (Law), in high dudgeon, even find time to have one of their trademark tiffs while throwing women (OK, woman) from the train before returning fire with deadly results.
Key moment: That rogue grenade turning a large portion of the train into a fireball.
The top speed of a Shinkansen train – which translates as “new trunk line” but which we English-speaking folk insist on calling a “bullet train” because it sounds cooler – is around 200mph. That means that both Logan and his Yakuza henchman assailant have to think laterally when it comes to staying aboard the roof of this one and not, say, flying off into a Tashida Industries billboard. The Wolverine has his claws, and the goon has a knife. Who lives to fight another day? Is it the adamantium-enhanced mutant with super healing capabilities or the guy with a dagger whose name you don’t even know? Watch the clip and see your educated guess come true before your very eyes…
Key moment: Wolverine performing a one-man Fastball Special, with the Bullet Train his nearly-silent Colossus.
Doc Ock doesn’t make things easy for Spider-Man during their train fight. As well as having to battle his four intelligent mechanical tentacles, Spidey ends up flying through a bridge, catching two innocent bystanders in specially-slung webs, slamming headfirst into another oncoming train and, at the very end, stopping the out-of-control locomotive with his feet. To add insult to injury, Dr. Otto Octavius delivers a killer quip before he scarpers away: “You have a train to catch…” (he definitely had that one planned). To see what it would look like if the train hadn’t been stopped, remind yourself of Batman Begin’s highly destructive funicular finale.
Key moment: Peter’s recovery from the collision, in the supportive arms of a crowd of New Yorkers.
There’s something about Spider-Man and trains. As well as his six-limbed traintop arm wrestle with Doc Ock, there’s a brief scene with Andrew Garfield slapsticking to everything in a subway car in The Amazing Spider-Man (2011) and this underappreciated beauty from the much-maligned Spider-Man 3.
Here, a black-suited Peter Parker takes on The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) in an underground train terminus. There’s real emotion in this fight, a fierce series of slugs between the man who killed Uncle Ben (kind of) and your unfriendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. It is one of the genuinely good bits of the threequel, of which there are more than you care to admit…
Key moment: Spidey encouraging The Sandman to eat train.
The original Under Siege – complete with Tommy Lee Jones doing a Mick Jagger impression, Gary Busey wearing inflatable breasts and a Playboy bunny bursting out of a cake – was almost entirely set on a battleship. Under Siege 2 is almost entirely set on a train, and given that kick-ass chef Casey Ryback’s modus operandi is essentially kicking people until they cry or die or both, there are many train-set fight scenes while Seagal is in ‘Dark Territory’. The best of the bunch is in the train’s kitchen, where Ryback has a complicated slap-fight with a goon and his cleaver. It all ends abruptly when the man of the hour gives the poor fool an enthusiastic neck hug. Shame, really, as we were so hoping he’d be slapped to death, but you can’t have everything.
Key moment: The Foley work you can hear when one henchman’s fingers (and then his entire hand) break in several places.
There’s a moment in Oliver Megaton’s otherwise dreadful Transporter 3 where Jason Statham’s Frank drives his beloved Audi onto the top of a train, then drives it into a train. Wanted goes one step further by incorporating bullet ballet. It also swaps The Stath and his Audi for Angelina Jolie and what looks like a box on wheels. Elsewhere in the movie, James McAvoy indulges in some long distance assassination whilst on top of a moving loco, but really, it’s all about trains falling into canyons and metal slugs smushing together mid-air in busy passenger compartments.
Key moment: The look on the innocent commuter’s face when she’s caught between two curving bullets.
The train fight scene in Transporter 3 may have been a touch on the merde side, but Statham more than makes up for it in Safe, clearing out a carriage full of thugs whilst sporting a skull cap and a slightly rickety American accent. Stand-out moments include the vicious crotch-on-metal-pole move and the unfortunate incident of the broken knuckles on the night train, both reminding the world that it is never wise to get aggro with our Jason in enclosed spaces.
Key moment: Of the two previously mentioned, it has to be the noise made when groin hits train furniture. “DING!”
Like Wanted, The Lone Ranger has more than one railroad fight scene, with the opening action beat – a clip of which you can watch here – seeing the newly-acquainted Tonto (Johnny Depp) and John Reid (Armie Hammer) chained together as they deal with Harry Treadaway and his gang trying to kill them. As with the climactic loco-set-piece, it owes a lot to Buster Keaton’s The General, but this time around, there’s a man with a bird on his head and a budget the size of a smallish-country’s GDP. To give you a tease of what to expect, there’s a moment a lot like Captain Jack’s introduction in the original Pirates Of The Caribbean but with runaway trains and a huge ladder.
Key moment: In this clip, it would have to be the train’s elaborate cessation of velocity.
You never need a reason to watch Police Story 3, but if you insist on having one, let it be the insane blooper reel over the credits. You see Michelle Yeoh’s numerous attempts to launch a motocross bike on to the top of a moving train, Jackie Chan nearly blowing himself up, and all the goofs from this final fight scene. The epitome of what happens when Chan’s sense of humour and willingness to put himself in harm’s way slot together perfectly, this makes the most of the train location and showcases Chan’s superlative action/comedy chops. It’s just one part of a movie that no less an authority than Quentin Tarantino rates extremely highly. See also: Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) and his hat-tip in Hot Fuzz.
Key moment: It’s got to be the nipple tickling. That's generally a key moment in any scene in which it appears.
There are so many action set pieces in Fast Five (or Fast & Furious 5 or Fast & Furious 5: Rio Heist or whatever you want to call it) that it’s easy to forget some. After all, this is a movie that opens with a prison transport coach flipping over a dozen times in the first two minutes. So amongst your favela chases and your safe stealing you may have forgotten the first-act train heist, but trust us, it’s there, and it’s a peach. The team need to steal some fast cars from a moving train by driving them full-tilt off the side and across the desert, which they do, but just afterwards Dom (Vin Diesel) and Brian (Paul Walker) Butch and Sundance their way into a canyon… and survive.
Key moment: Though you can’t see it in this particular clip, the CGI splashes in the river below always raise a smile.
It’s not a movie, it never played in cinemas and it features toy trains instead of real ones, but no discussion of train-top battles is complete without at least one person saying, “Well, none of these can beat The Wrong Trousers.” It’s hard to think of any feature film that wouldn’t be improved by the addition of a never-ending train set and an evil penguin with a rubber glove on its head. Then again, that may well be something that happens in The Penguins Of Madagascar movie – fingers crossed it turns out that Benedict Cumberbatch is playing Feathers McGraw (provided he somehow learns how to talk). Also, as it’s not used in the clip on the left, here’s a link to the original theme that goes with the scene, because it really is worth a listen.
Key moment: Bottled penguin. “Well done Gromit, we did it!”