The Best Explosions in Movie History
Cinema has a language. Scenes are its words; sequences are sentences. And explosions are the exclamation points. They're the decisive ending of a statement, an emphatic punctuation on an action. And they’re one hell of a visual.
If any of us came face to face with an explosion in real life, we would be terrified. So why do we love looking at them on film? Maybe it’s because they are (thankfully) something most of us only see up close in movies. They are exotic and rare. Perhaps it’s because Hollywood’s pyrotechnic experts have gotten so good at blowing stuff up that they truly have turned mass destruction into an art. Or perhaps there’s something deep within the recesses of our lizard brains that subconsciously delights in chaos.
I don’t know the reason; I just know that I like them. And so that is why I watched and rewatched dozens of examples and created this incendiary list of the best of the best, with video footage of all of my choices to back them up. Get to a safe distance, brace yourself, and get ready to be blown away.
25. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Directed by David Lean
Although The Bridge on the River Kwai has been surpassed on the level of sheer bombast, the film’s famous ending remains one of the most iconic moments in the history of war cinema. And they really did blow up that bridge. In fact, the first take was botched, wrecking the train. It had to be repaired in a day to get the shot right.
24. The Glimmer Man (1996)
Directed by John Gray
Love or hate Steven Seagal, there’s one undisputed fact: The dude knows a thing or two about movie explosions. ’90s movie lovers remember the hilarious shot in his magnum opus On Deadly Ground, where he stands placidly and pushes the button on a detonator as what looks like half the world blows up right behind him. That may be trumped, though, by this scene from The Glimmer Man, in which a car flips, triggering one explosion, and then slides into a gas tanker, trigger a second, bigger explosion. Also, right in the middle of the chaos, a guy does a very dramatic jump and roll. (It’s at 37 seconds of the clip above.) It’s totally unnecessary, and therefore magnificent.
23. The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly (1966)
Directed by Sergio Leone
It looks like way more than a fistful of dynamite blew up this bridge from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Generally, I prefer explosions captured at close, low angles, which accentuate their size and ferocity. In this case, framing the explosion mostly in the deep background does the same. The actors are so far away from this explosion and it still fills the frame. That’s a really big boom.
22. Malone (1987)
Directed by Harley Cokeliss
We covered this one in an old video about people in action movies walking away from explosions, but we still love the ending of this Burt Reynolds flick, when Reynolds’ Malone blows up the bad guy’s compound in an explosion so large it actually makes Burt Reynolds flinch. If you can get a rise out of Burt, who’d been making action movies for 15 years at that point, you were doing something right.
21. Ride Along (2014)
Directed by Tim Story
It can sometimes be tough to tell the difference between a large explosion and a comically large explosion, because there’s no such thing as too big in the world of Hollywood. This Ride Along scene plays nicely with the convention of the gigantic fireball by having Ice Cube and Kevin Hart unimpressed by an initial bang, followed by a truly epic blast.
20. Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)
Directed by Russell Mulcahy
A strange fact of cinema: Many of the greatest explosions ever recorded by film cameras are situated within many of the dirt worst movies in history. Case in point: This frankly amazing moment from Highlander II: The Quickening, which is in contention for the title of most awful sequel ever devised. Highlanders absorb each other’s powers and the process is often quite combustible. Here Christopher Lambert’s Connor MacLeod gets the life juice out of a decapitated Highlander and basically the entire city he’s in bursts into flame. The effect where it looks like Lambert is sitting in a giant ball of fire is truly spectacular.
19. Lethal Weapon 3 (1992)
Directed by Richard Donner
Lethal Weapon 3 legitimately blew up this building. It was the old City Hall in Orlando, which wanted to demolish in order to replace it. Lucky for them, Joel Silver was looking for a building to blow up as part of a flashy sequence in the third Lethal Weapon at exactly the same time. The production paid the city $50,000 for the rights to turn thee building into rubble.
18. The Dark Knight (2008)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
There’s an archetypal Hollywood action movie explosion: The massive fireball, the debris scattering everywhere, the actors leaping into a ditch or a pool just before the flames engulf them. The great thing about The Dark Knight is how it subverts all of that. Just like the chaos that the Joker lets loose on Gotham City, this explosion is messy and ugly and scary.
17. No Escape (1994)
Directed by Martin Campbell
Oh I see why there is no escape. Ray Liotta shot everyone.
16. The Rookie (1990)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
There should be more movies about Clint Eastwood in cars riding explosions, in my opinion.
15. Raw Deal (1986)
Directed by John Irvin
Though more famous for the immortal Schwarzenegger line “You should not drink and bake,” Raw Deal also features this astounding sequence, where Arnold blows up an entire refinery. The shot of him driving on his motorcycle away from the wall of oil drums is insane. Why would you stack oil drums in a big flimsy wall like that?!? To get an awesome shot in a movie, that’s why.
14. Cutthroat Island (1995)
Directed by Renny Harlin
Renny Harlin is a poet of explosives. He even turned a pirate movie into an orgy of destruction. Knock the guy’s movies all you want; the dude knows his way around a great cannonball gag.
13. Ricochet (1991)
Directed by Russell Mulcahy
If you haven’t seen Ricochet, and this scene doesn’t make you want to watch Richochet right this second we can’t be friends. Look at that reflection of the explosion in John Lithgow’s eye!
12. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Directed by George Miller
Fury Road is really more of a film about prolonged madness than brief bursts of insanity. Still, this incredible stunt, with Max (Tom Hardy) and one of the War Boys battling inches from the dirt road while being swung back and forth on a pole as a truck explodes behind them, is unforgettable.
11. Steel Frontier (1995)
Directed by Jacobsen Hart and Paul G. Volk
From the Wikipedia plot summary for this film: “In 2019, a gang of bandits called the "United Regime" invade the town of New Hope.” Just one year to go! Get ready! (Seriously though, watch this one to the very end. I have never seen a smokestack explosion like this before or since.)
10. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Directed by Renny Harlin
Renny Harlin is back, with an explosion that makes that pirate ship one from Cutthroat Island look like a kid playing with M-80s on Independence Day. It legitimately looks like a car is inches from the biggest explosion in recorded history here. At least Craig Bierko gets what’s coming to him.
9. Born to Fight (2004)
Directed by Panna Rittikrai
I suspect this movie did not end with a “No villages were harmed during the making of this film” disclaimer.
8. Demolition Man (1993)
Directed by Marco Brambilla
Los Angeles, 1996. The city is on fire. Only one man can stop the terror and/or create more terror by blowing up a building the size of a small New England town. His name is John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) and he is called the “Demolition Man.” Repeatedly. Like, people keep saying he’s the Demolition Man. And darn it, he earns that title.
7. Stealth (2005)
Directed by Rob Cohen
There are other sequences in Stealth that lean heavily on digital effects. (It is, after all, a movie about a made-up plane doing crazy stuff.) But this sequence is good old fashioned practical mayhem with many layers to the detonation, with cars and people and Josh Lucases all going flying.
6. Speed (1994)
Directed by Jan de Bont
This whole movie is spent in suspense, waiting to see if a bomb planted under this city bus is going to blow up. So when it does explode, it has to be good. Jan de Bont did not disappoint, sending his public transport bomb careening into a parked jet airplane. Ka, I would like you to meet my good pal boom.
5. Blown Away (1994)
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Similarly, you can’t make a movie about a bomb expert and then fizzle things out at the end. The audience is waiting for something massive, which Blown Away delivers. Thanks to the magic of slow motion, this boat appears to explode for about 12 straight minutes.
4. Spectre (2015)
Directed by Sam Mendes
This gargantuan eruption from Spectre actually broke a Guinness World Record as the biggest in cinematic history. (You can watch the making-of the stunt here.) Bond and Madeleine Swann stand and watch as Blofeld’s compound goes up in flames. It’s quite a big compound, too.
3. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Combine one seriously disturbing explosion with one of the most famous lines in the history of movies (Robert Duvall loves the smell of napalm in the morning, doncha know) and you have an immortal classic. And it’s not just a director showing off, either; the massive destruction of that tree line is part of the portrait Francis Ford Coppola was painting of the Vietnam War as this mad, doomed descent into hell.
2. Fair Game (1995)
Directed by Andrew Sipes
Believe it or not, the Cindy Crawford/William Baldwin action vehicle Fair Game has several (not just one!) extremely badass explosions. The finale is the best, with our intrepid and highly photogenic heroes racing to escape a boat just as the entire thing turns into a floating pile of debris. Don’t get me wrong; this movie is trash. But this explosion is a thing of beauty.
1. Another Stakeout (1993)
Directed by John Badham
Yes, the best explosion in movie history can be found in the forgotten sequel to the buddy cop comedy Stakeout. (This follow-up is about a stakeout, but it’s another one.) This really does combine pretty much every single beat you love into the mother of all explosion gags. It has a flammable tanker truck, a flying car, an exploding house, people running from fireballs, people diving into pools to get away from explosions, dudes on fire, slow motion, a helicopter shot and just when it looks like it’s over there’s an even bigger explosion when the entire house goes up (and three more people jump out of the way in even slower motion). A masterpiece. Think I’m wrong? Just watch.
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