The Hong Kong Battle In Pacific Rim Is The Best Action Scene Ever

(Welcome to Best Action Scene Ever, a column dedicated to breaking down the best, most effective action sequences throughout the genre. In this edition, Guillermo del Toro stages an epic Jaeger-on-Kaiju brawl in the under-appreciated "Pacific Rim.")

Certain established filmmakers have managed to carve out their own niche in the industry, playing in a very specific sandbox that best showcases their talent and interests. Christopher Nolan is typically going to err on the side of big-budget, crowd-pleasing entertainment with a cerebral twist. Wes Anderson is never going to let the "quirky" allegations of his critics stop him from delivering immaculately-composed movies unfolding with an almost childlike sense of wonder. And then there's Guillermo del Toro, the monster-loving Mexican filmmaker who is never afraid to branch out from one genre (or even an entire medium) to the next if that's what best suits the story.

In 2013, the director unleashed perhaps his most gleefully silly and over-the-top film yet: "Pacific Rim," his take on all the beloved kaiju films that came before. Now known predominantly for horror, gothic fairytales, a couple of incredibly distinct comic book movies, and even a Best Picture-winning film about a woman who falls in love with a fish-man, this unabashedly ridiculous blockbuster stands out all the more in retrospect. Well, despite a somewhat tepid critical response and relatively modest box office earnings, time has only continued to be kind to del Toro's monster mayhem movie. Littered with breathtaking action sequences that begged to be seen on the biggest possible screen, even detractors have to admit that the thrills lived up to the hype — particularly the Hong Kong set piece, which took the action from the harbor to the city to the skies without ever once letting up.

The scene

Humanity is under attack by a never-ending parade of massive kaiju incursions from an inter-dimensional portal on the ocean floor. Conventional defenses haven't been able to stop the monsters without paying a heavy price. So what are the governments of the world to do? Obviously, pool their resources to build monsters of their own and use giant mechs to wrestle their foes into submission. Thankfully, "Pacific Rim" breezes right past the absurdity of its premise and spends much of the first hour convincing doubters that the leaps in logic are worth it because of just how plain cool such visuals are.

But halfway through the film, the stakes raise impossibly high. Just as our main heroes Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) utterly fail their main test to become co-pilots of their Jaeger, a "double event" occurs featuring two of the biggest and baddest kaiju the world has ever seen. With only precious few Jaegers left and an entire city full of innocents at risk, you can likely see where this is going. The good guys are picked off brutally quick, leaving Raleigh and Mako as our only hope left. So they suit up and enter the fray in a gorgeously-rendered and prolonged battle sequence that proves that even the silliest action can feel like a masterclass when under the eye of a filmmaker as gifted as Guillermo del Toro.

It has it all: an ocean-set brawl, a boat used as a bat, and a wonderfully unexpected aerial sequence ending with a sword reveal that played like gangbusters with an audience.

Why it works

Look at some of the most successful and well-received hits in the last year or so — "Top Gun: Maverick" and "Avatar: The Way of Water" — and it's fair to say that these films helped cut through the mind-numbing spectacle reinforced by almost two decades of fairly lackluster blockbuster action. "Pacific Rim" may not boast the most tightly-wound script in a conventional sense, but it certainly succeeds in what it set out to do. That's plain for all to see in the Hong Kong set piece, in which Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham finally let loose with 20 minutes of nearly uninterrupted action.

Closer inspection reveals that "Pacific Rim" is cut from a cloth far more reminiscent of "Mad Max: Fury Road" than a franchise like "Transformers," however. Its director's expert storytelling eye always keeps concepts such as perspective, weight, and narrative propulsion at the forefront of the action. Boosted to another level entirely by some of the most stunning VFX work of the decade and Ramin Djawadi's excellent original score, del Toro is left free to run completely wild with a constantly escalating fight that takes us from the Hong Kong harbor to the city streets.

Purposefully staged like an anime battle, the sequence ensures that we truly feel every thrown punch and every back-breaking collision. Never once do audiences get lost amid the pixels on-screen, thanks to a steady camera and precise editing that consistently puts viewers in the perspective of either terrified onlookers on the ground or the larger-than-life combatants themselves. It certainly helps that the entire sequence is so damn creative, boasting a level of imagination that puts most superhero movies to shame — from the creature designs to the weapons (including, yes, that boat-bat) to the neon-colored setting itself.

The key moment

Truthfully, the simple fact of the matter is that action movies don't follow any different storytelling "rules" than other genres. Universal concepts such as setups and payoffs, clear and concise motivations, and cause and effect all hold true here as with any other kind of movie, but "Pacific Rim" truly sets itself apart from its peers in this particular sequence. It largely comes down to a steadily increasing sense of escalation.

Initially, Guillermo del Toro establishes what's at stake by giving us our first action scene with multiple Jaegers in the fight ... only to have them taken down by the kaiju with deflating ease. When our heroes are airlifted into the action, they're working with one arm metaphorically tied behind their back since one monster has already made it to the mainland and is intent on ruining the day of some of our lovable supporting characters: Charlie Day's Dr. Newton Geiszler and Ron Perlman's mustache-twirling Hannibal Chau. By the time Raleigh and Mako fight their way into the city, del Toro holds back his ace in the sleeve until precisely the right moment. Just as our heroes appear to be gaining the upper hand on the second and last acid-spitting kaiju, it suddenly unfolds its wings and drags our heroes into the sky.

Look, does it make any logical sense to hold back a retractable sword ability until the last moment? Not really. Does it provide one of the best moments of the entire movie on a purely visceral level? You bet. The results speak for themselves, proving del Toro's ability as a magician who thrives on playing the emotions of his audience like a fiddle. It all adds up to the standout highlight of the film and one of the decade's most thrilling action sequences.