The 15 Best Action Scenes from Sports Movies

Matt Haupert@@matthaupFeatured ColumnistMay 26, 2014

The 15 Best Action Scenes from Sports Movies

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    LM OTERO/Associated Press

    Let's be clear here: Sports movies are about a whole lot more than just sports. Characters have deep and nuanced relationships that we become invested in. Universal themes are explored, and powerful messages are sent to viewers. Conflicts extend far beyond the field and run much deeper than Team A vs. Team B.

    But sports movies should still have awesome sports.

    This list is not concerned with character development or storyline whatsoever. The themes are not relevant here, nor are the inspiring locker room speeches.

    Rather, this list is focused on the action: Which sports films have the most exciting scenes that involve players in action—running a race, riding around a track or playing game? Which sports movies do the best job of actually showing us sports?

    I used the following criteria to determine which movies and scenes would be eligible for my list:

    1. The action has to be the primary focus of the scene. This means scenes focused on dialogue or scenes that just used action as the backdrop don't cut it.

    2. The movies need to be sports movies. Yes, I know there is a great pickup basketball scene in The Cable Guy. Doesn't count.


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Dishonorable Mention: The Natural (Roy Hobbs Home Run)

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    The Natural has the worst ending in the history of sports movies. No competition. I have a serious question for anyone who thinks Hobbs' light-smashing home run is just the neatest darn thing they've ever seen: Have you read the book?

    The entire purpose of the novel The Natural, upon which this movie is directly based, hinges on the fact that Hobbs decides to take the bribe and throw the game, striking out—not hitting a miraculous home run—in his final at-bat.

    Imagine if filmmakers decided that Eight Men Out, the story of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, would end with the Sox deciding to do their best to win the World Series.

    Classic ending? No. Not when it defeats the purpose of the story being told.

15. Angels in the Outfield (Hemmerling for Mitchell)

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    The most iconic scenes in baseball movies are rarely actually focused on playing baseball. In Field of Dreams, Ray plays catch with his dad. In Bull Durham, the best moments occur during the conversations at the mound, not during the action of the game. Everyone remembers Tom Hanks yelling, "There's no crying in baseball!" in A League of Their Own, but nobody remembers them actually playing ball in the movie.

    Angels in the Outfield, however, offers us one of the most entertaining depictions of a baseball game ever caught on film. When winged angels swoop in to help the struggling ballclub, the result is glorious.

    In this scene, a virtually useless pinch hitter is able to make it all the way around the bases to score as the ball zips around the field with a will of its own, leading to a comedy of errors that the fans and umpires don't seem to find all that strange.

14. Karate Kid (Crane Kick)

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    To be fair, this scene is far more likely to garner the reaction "This is such a classic!" than "This is such a sweet battle scene!"

    But because of its universal distinction as a classic scene from a classic film, it deserves a place on this list.

    Most surprising in this scene is the fact that Johnny does not seem to expect Daniel will use the crane kick that knocks him down and ends the match, despite the fact that Daniel has assumed a stance in which it would be impossible to do any other move.

    We'll let that slide and instead celebrate the fact that, time and time again, Daniel is able to get back up after being knocked down and persevere to victory.

13. Talladega Nights (Footrace to Finish Line)

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    A truly epic conclusion to a truly epic movie, the climactic scene of Talladega Nights has it all: crashes, explosions, flaming destroyed cars flying through the air and a dramatic footrace that concludes with both competitors diving for the finish line. The awesomeness of the scene is greatly enhanced by the soundtrack; "We Belong" by Pat Benatar adds a whole new level of passion and drama.

    As if all of that isn't enough, Will Ferrell offers Sacha Baron Cohen a passionate kiss on the racetrack following his victory, sealing himself a spot in the top 15.

    Why can't real NASCAR races be this great?

12. Remember the Titans (Leave No Doubt)

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    This classic Denzel Washington film usually has no trouble climbing its way onto any list ranking the greatest sports movies of all time—and this is no exception.

    At the end of the movie, the Titans are forced to play not only against the opposing team, but also against the referees, who are intentionally rigging the game in favor of the Titans' all-white opponents.

    This won't be enough to make our heroes quit. The Titans fight on in one of the most gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring scenes in any football movie, complete with some classic inspirational coaching and accentuated by the vivid sounds of agony and brute force every time an opposing player is relentlessly thrown to the ground.

    Following the orders of their coach, these Titans "leave no doubt" that their story deserves a place in history.

11. Seabiscuit (Final Race)

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    The final scene of Seabiscuit succeeds in its simplicity. As Red takes his horse around the track, the sound of the screaming crowd is completely swallowed up by the sound of hoofs pounding against dirt. The music is barely audible, leaving all of the focus on a man, his horse and his dream.

    As they gallop ahead of the pack in slow motion, no epic celebration or giant swell in music is needed to build suspense or intensity or excitement. Instead, we get a poignant voiceover by Tobey Maguire and a silent fade to black, going more for the tear-in-the-eye reaction than the jump-for-joy variety.

10. Little Giants (Fumblerooski)

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    This may go down as the greatest touchdown ever scored.

    Indeed, when the Little Giants finally put it all together and pull off an unlikely victory, they certainly do it in style. The adorable little band of misfits pulls off the fumblerooski, completely baffling the mighty Cowboys, and then proceeds to pitch the ball back and forth and back and forth until finally the littlest Giant of all makes the long run through the end zone and right into the goal post.

    The unlikely play brought fans to their feet, left the Cowboys in complete shock and had NFL scouts begging to lower the minimum age requirement for the draft by another 10 years or so.

9. Hoosiers ("I'll Make the Shot")

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    Another timeless classic, Hoosiers tells the story of a bunch of obscenely scrawny and unathletic kids who manage to win a basketball game despite scoring only 42 points.

    OK, so maybe there's more to it than that—and you have to admit that few sports flicks match the last-second drama offered in the film's final game. As soon as young Jimmy Chitwood promises his coach he'll make the last shot, the suspense is heightened. The ball echoes as it bounces off of the floor, flies to the hoop in slow motion and sinks through the net to complete our heroes' improbable journey.

    Chitwood follows up his shot with a priceless little high-knees celebration, further emphasizing his awkwardness on a basketball court and his place in our hearts.

8. Miracle (USA Defeats USSR)

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    After finding this video on YouTube and embedding it into the article, I decided to watch the clip one more time as I decided what I could possibly say about this legendary scene.

    As the clock slowly ticked away and the announcer asked, "Do you believe in miracles?," I promptly screamed "YES!," threw my computer off my lap, leaped to my feet and ran around my house celebrating with my arms in the air for approximately seven minutes.

    Keep in mind this was at least the 23rd time I had watched this scene.

7. Chariots of Fire (Final Race)

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    Everything that Seabiscuit did so well in its final scene, Chariots of Fire did even better a few years earlier. Much of the race is completed with no background music whatsoever, letting the runners build suspense by themselves.

    Then, it happens: one of the most powerful, inspiring moments ever to cross the silver screen. All noise cuts out, save for a single voiceover:

    "I believe God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast."

    Eric Liddell turns his face to the heavens as the crowd erupts and music finally joins in to accompany his slow-motion gallop to victory. Mouth wide-open and hair blowing in the wind, Liddell's is a face of true joy and triumph.

    A fitting conclusion to movie that was a triumph of its own.

6. He Got Game (Playground Scene)

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    The playground basketball scene in He Got Game is by no means as inspiring as most of the scenes that fall below it on this list. It's not going to bring anyone to tears or change lives.

    The reason this scene lands so high on the list is because it offers us the most legitimately impressive display of basketball that you can find anywhere in movies. This can be attributed partially to the cast—the movie's star, Ray Allen, has actually played a little basketball himself.

    If the basketball isn't enough to keep you entertained, the choice of soundtrack surely will. Aaron Copland's "Hoe-Down," the piece that accompanies the game, seems more fitting for a group of Pilgrims dancing at a festival than a group of basketball players tossing alley-oops—which is precisely why it works.

5. Moneyball (20-Game Winning Streak)

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    Perhaps no movie has used a more innovative method of showing its in-game action scenes than Moneyball.

    Not only is the cinematography creative—the whole scene is eerily dark, and the camera follows the ball all the way to the bat—but all of the playing scenes are also infused with actual footage of the games at hand.

    The drama of the real event is used to enhance the drama of the movie, and the result is fascinating and unique. Like Seabiscuit and Chariots of Fire, Moneyball relies on suspenseful silence and simple emotional music to send chills down its viewers' spines and make everyone in America an A's fan for at least a few minutes.

    While you're watching, pay special attention to the way Brad Pitt expertly turns his head and gazes into space after hearing the ball crack off the bat—a career-defining moment for Pitt and the gaze that clinched him an Oscar nomination. 

4. Space Jam (Final Game)

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    OK, seriously, has a more exciting game of any kind of sport ever been played?

    Maybe it's because they're indestructible cartoon characters, but those Looney Tunes and Monstars go hard, even using dynamite to assist on defense at one point in the game. (To be fair, this would definitely be a technical and flagrant foul in the NBA, but only because that whole league is a bunch of softies.)

    Where Space Jam really leaves its mark, though, is on its final play. Michael Jordan leaps into the air and is tackled by two giant animated monsters, but he defies physics (actually not that hard to do in Tune Land) and extends his arm all the way across the court to the basket just before the sound of the final buzzer.

    Following the filming of this movie, MJ was unable to duplicate this move even once in his time with the Bulls and Wizards, leading to an entirely disappointing NBA career.

3. Friday Night Lights (State Championship Game)

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    Friday Night Lights delivers a breathtakingly raw and real look into the world of high school sports in the small town of Odessa, Texas.

    The football scenes stand out as some of the most exciting and most beautifully shot games in the sports movie genre. The final game of the movie, however—the state championship—stands out because of its ending.

    The game's final play starts out like so many other final plays from sports dramas: time ticks down, the quarterback rolls out of the pocket in slow motion, fans wait in suspense, he lunges for the goal line while defenders drag him to the ground...

    But then, out of nowhere, the referee calls him down short of the end zone and the game is over. Panthers lose.

    The wrong team charges the field to celebrate as we get an up-close and personal look at exactly how it feels to fall just short of your one and only goal.

    It's unexpected and heartbreaking, but a more powerful, revealing and profound finish than a victory could have ever delivered.

2. The Last Boy Scout ("Win at All Costs")

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    The Last Boy Scout earns the second spot on my list because of the brutal intensity of the game itself and the gut-wrenching conclusion to this scene. As rain pours and the field turns to mud, neither team is showing any signs of letting up.

    At halftime, star wide receiver Billy Cole gets a threatening call telling him to "win at all costs." Cole takes this to the extreme, bringing a gun onto the field and shooting the defenders who stand in his way of the end zone. After crossing the goal line, Cole kneels down in the mud, takes off his helmet and kills himself with four final words:

    "Ain't life a bitch?"

1. Rocky (Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed)

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    Not much to say about this one, folks. I mean, is there really any disagreement that the climactic fight from Rocky should stand alone at the top of this list?

    From the first punch to the bruised eye to his desperate cry for Adrian at the end of the fight, no sports movie before or since has been able to come close to packing the literal and emotional punch of Sylvester Stallone's inspiring tale. Rocky's incredible journey—his struggles, his passion, his unmatched perseverance—is all on the line as he faces the greatest in the world with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

    Though he may have fallen just short against Apollo Creed, on this list, Rocky is a winner.


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