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Monday, December 13, 2010

The 10 Best Fight Scenes in Movies*

*That I’ve seen.  

Fight scenes might well represent the fastest evolving element of popular film.  The rubber swords and slapstick duels of the silent era begat the gunfights and bar brawls of the later generation.  These rambunctious cowboys gave rise to the wire-riding samurai and their American equivalent (repetitious right hooks to the chin).

Okay, so it's a left hook... sue me.

In the modern era of film the fight scene has progressed to a computer-enhanced, gravity-defying ensemble of death-defying stunts and hamstring-defying martial arts.  As each film seeks to raise the bar again filmmakers are left desperate to find some new way to repackage one guy getting his ass kicked by another.

Sometimes this results in contrived, ridiculous scenarios (see Die Hard series) that pit grossly outmatched protagonists (see Karate Kid series) against pernicious, melodramatic villains (see anything by John Woo) and then bore us with long, pseudo-artistic sequences (see anything by Zack Snyder… or John Woo again for that matter) and stilted, prosaic banter (see Star Wars movies).

But sometimes they also get it right.  When all of the elements come together you’re left with an unforgettable struggle that stays with you forever.  Below are the ten that I painstakingly chose to represent the peak examples of this art form.

 #10) Madame Rose’s Restaurant 

The Movie: The Protector
The Hero: A man in search of the elephant he loves.
Opponent: 30 Gangsters wielding everything from chairs to vases to the kitchen sink.
The Setting: A 5 story restaurant with a circular stair going all the way up to the main bad guy.
The Weapon: Superhuman stamina

So awesome that he has to keep his
hands tied to hold back the fury.

Tony Jaa is an enigmatic virtuoso in the world of martial arts film.  His Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior showed enormous promise and in his follow up, The Protector (American Title) Jaa demonstrated some of the most forward thinking and impressive stunt work ever captured on film.  His promising career is currently sputtering through a misguided trilogy building on his debut film but teamed with the right director, Jaa could produce films to compete with the pantheon of legends in the martial-arts genre.

The Protector is chocked full of spectacular fights and stunts with pathetic attempts at story in between and the supremacy of the scene I’ve chosen here is certainly debatable.  There are several other sequences in the film where he demonstrates more impressive skills.  The significance of this scene, however, is that it all takes place in a single cut.

In one continuous camera shot, Tony Jaa marches up five flights of stairs while taking out a horde of Bruce-Lee style one-at-a-time villains.  The sequence is an exquisite choreography of stunts, dangerous pratfalls, breakaway props, ferocious knees, amazing acrobatics and unbelievable stamina.

 #9) Neo v. Agent Smith (Pre-milking it to death) 

The Movie: The Matrix
The Hero: An actor whose career would have been a punch line if not for this movie.
Opponent: A really geeky looking guy who nevertheless manages to seem like a badass.
The Setting: A subway stop in some virtual quasi-world where otherwise cheesy 70’s kung-fu flick moves are both possible and awesome.
The Weapon: Cheesy 70’s kung-fu flick moves.

"I knew I shouldn't have used the slow motion bullets!"

The brilliance of the Matrix films was the story's ability to allow us to fully suspend the disbelief that makes impossible stuff seem impossible.  By setting the movie in “The Matrix”, the directors allowed us to sit back and enjoy the same wire walking nonsense that we scoff at in poorly dubbed Kung-Fu Theater stuff.

The film culminates in a show down (complete with tumbleweed-esque newspaper blowing by before they draw their shooters) between the trilogy's everyman hero and the elf with the big forehead from Lord of the Rings.  This scene swims in terrible dialogue and cliché exchanges but it manages to offer us the same old thing with a new enough skin to force audiences to sit up and take notice.

 #8) Duel of the Fates 

The Movie: Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace
The Heroes: Two guys who have been dying to go all Jedi on somebody.
Opponent: The only good thing about Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace.
The Setting: Some laser filled Mall of America that would really benefit from handrails.
The Weapons: Three or four light sabers, depending on how you look at it.

Pictured: Intergalactic can of whoop ass.

In the film era that will probably be best remembered for the incessant raping and pillaging of every thing I loved from childhood, George Lucas led the way by actually raping and pillaging himself.  His effort to expand upon the iconic trilogy that defined my generation was a failure unless you use money as your metric.

The Phantom Menace comes in at about 133 minutes and about 116 of those are pretty dull.  The majority of his fan base would say that he got most everything wrong in this first installment but there is one thing to which virtually all of them give their approval:  The villain.

Keeping in mind that Lucas was trying to create a villain that could compete with Darth Vader, perhaps the most quintessentially villainous character ever conceived, it is almost unimaginable that he would have hit upon a villain that would be universally endorsed from mother’s basements all across the country.  Darth Maul manages it by mixing one part ninja with two parts Lucifer and might well have saved the entire movie if they’d written in a part where he disemboweled Jar-Jar Binks.

 #7) Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves 

The Movie: Kill Bill, Volume I
The Heroine: (BLOOOOOP)*
Opponent: 88 sword-wielding bodyguards, a mace wielding personified fetish and the head of the Tokyo criminal underground.
The Setting: The same oriental restaurant where 36% of martial arts battles take place.
The Weapon: The finest sword ever made by a man.

*Beatrix Kiddo

"Alright guys, one at a time like we practiced..."

In Tarantino’s two-part homage to cheesy seventies fight scenes it is little surprise that we find a gem worthy of this list.  In a work marked by epic and brilliantly edited karate sequences, the sword fight between Uma Thurman’s character and the “Crazy 88” clearly stands above the rest.

This scene was so violent that large parts of it had to be shown in black and white.  Several times in the movie leading up to this fight, Tarantino deliberately desensitizes the audience to the thought of sudden amputations and beheadings.  He does so with the device of laughably exaggerated spurts of blood that constantly remind the movie-goer that this is all just make believe.

By doing so, he allows himself to guide us through the death and/or dismemberment of nearly one hundred nameless “bad guys”.  In a scene that might have been stomach turning in the hands of a lesser director (and still probably was stomach turning to some viewers) Tarantino manages to deftly shepherds us through the violence, constantly teetering on the edge of too much without going over.

 #6) The Battle of Carthage (Reenactment) 

The Movie: Gladiator
The Hero: The General who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator, the gladiator who defied an Emperor.
Opponent: A mounted regiment complete with chariots
The Setting: The Coliseum (yeah, that one)
The Weapon: Generic Hero cries like “Stay together!” and “Hold the line!” (also swords)

+2 Points for epic helmet as well.

Narrowly edging out the scene with the tigers, the third gladiatorial scene in Ridley Scott’s magnum opus makes my list through a combination of originality, beautiful cinematography and nail-biting editing.  It also helps that it has history’s best “guy throwing a sword to another guy who’s on a horse” shot.

This scene takes place shortly after our hero arrives in Rome with the instruction to impress the crowd in order to get close to his nemesis, the Emperor.  He also has to kill a bunch of well-armored chicks on horses.  This is kind of like being asked to perform your piano recital on a stage filled with hungry alligators but Russell Crowe manages it in an epic display of badassery that almost makes you forget how bad Virtuosity was.

 #5) It’s Like Popeye Only With Booze Instead of Spinach 

The Movie: The Legend of the Drunken Master (American Title)
The Hero: Jackie Chan; two parts Bruce Lee, one part Buster Keaton.
Opponent: A bunch of those guys who never learned to work as a team.
The Setting: The middle of a Chinese village with no local ordinance against public drunkenness.
The Weapon: Grandpa’s Cough Syrup.

Pictured: Awesomeness.

I’ve actively avoided turning this into a list of the greatest Jackie Chan scenes.  In my opinion, one would be fully justified in littering five or six of his mind-bending works of impossibility in any list of history’s greatest fight scenes.  But in an effort to be more inclusive, I’ve forced myself to choose only one of the many deserving scenes in his storied career.

Other major contenders included the ladder fight from First Strike, the warehouse scene in Rumble in the Bronx, the Street Fighter II homage in City Hunter and virtually every time he throws a kick in Legend of the Drunken Master.  I used this dilemma as an excuse to rewatch a number of my favorite Jackie fights before ultimately settling on this one.

I chose it because more than any other single fight scene in his career, this scene exemplifies both his superhuman physical abilities and the cross-cultural appeal of his sense of humor.  By combining the two he creates an extraordinary battle against a few generic goons who quickly degenerate into biological punching bags as his powers of drunkenness grow.

#4) Quiet Man Ain’t So Quiet Now, Is He?

The Movie: The Quiet Man
The Hero: John-Freaking-Wayne
Opponent: A dude who has been asking for it since he was introduced.
The Setting: Pretty much all of Ireland.
The Weapon: Righteous fury.

"How do you say 'Bring It' in Irish?"

While this scene lacks the split second timing and cinematic fireballs we associate with fight scenes today, the beautiful backdrop and cutting edge cinematography earn it a spot in my top ten.  Even viewed through today’s critical lens it earns points for brutality, scope and the too-often forgotten part where it actually fits in with the story and has anything to do with anything.

I often fault those who assemble lists of “The Greatest ___ In Movie History” for force-fitting classic movies into places they don’t belong.  This “toss the old folks a bone” strategy is usually disingenuous and ignores the fact that filmmaking is such a young and fast evolving art form.  In other words, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t have Alfred Hitchcock’s shoulders to stand on.

With that being said, in the context of the film itself and for the profound effect that it had on future fight scenes (depending on who you ask), John Wayne kicking the crap out of Red from one side of Ireland to the other is well deserving of its place in my top 5.  I’m not saying it couldn’t have been improved if Victor McLaglen’s character hadn’t had a posse of ninja’s with flaming katanas that the Duke had to fight off with laser-nunchaku, but it’s still a really good scene.

 #3) The Long Distance Sword Fight 

The Movie: Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Hero: James Bond with a PhD and a bullwhip.
Opponent: A big dude with an impressive scimitar that may or may not be compensating for something.
The Setting: A place with a lot of sand and dust.
The Weapon: Vastly superior to that scimitar.

Technically counts as a fight scene.

Perhaps the quintessential American movie hero, Indiana Jones is a geeky academic by day and a womanizing adventurer by night… and often also by day.  Known for his clinical obsession with his hat, his extreme phobia of snakes and having only a right hook in his arsenal of physical attacks, Indiana Jones is so iconic that even his silhouette looks heroic.

The fight scene in question is by far the briefest of any on the list.  In the midst of a chase scene through one of those dusty desert villages the franchise would become known for, Indy is confronted with a large, angry dude spinning a scimitar around in just such a way as to say, “Hey look, I know how to use this scimitar.”

In what may be the second best example of America’s unique brand of heroism, Indiana Jones draws his pistol and shoots the guy before he gets within twenty feet of him.  This scene is rumored to be an improvisation that Harrison Ford dreamed up after several unsuccessful attempts to film a scene in which Dr. Jones would pull the sword from the antagonist's hand with his trusty whip.  Whether or not this is true, even the rumor makes the scene that much more awesome.

 #2) “Rules?  In a Knife Fight?” 

The Movie: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
The Hero: The reason why “Butch” means manly.
Opponent: A guy way bigger than Butch.
The Setting: A showdown for leadership of the gang.
The Weapon: Resourcefulness and literalism.

Butch Cassidy shown here with a guy that proves you
can be ferocious even if you have a My Little Pony name.

Sadly, many of my readers will not be familiar with this scene.  Like my choice for number three, it is a brief exchange that defines the American version of a hero.   It takes place toward the opening of the film and thus it would take only a few minutes to watch it, but you would then be all but guaranteed to have to watch the whole movie so even just this tidbit could wind up costing you a couple of hours.

This one once again lacks the kung fu and wall walking we have come to expect from a fight scene.  Instead, it relies only on wit and brilliant dialogue.  So brilliant was the banter that is has been rivaled only once since Butch Cassidy debuted in 1969.

 #1) “I’m Not Left Handed Either.” 

The Movie: The Princess Bride
The Hero: Take your pick.
The Villain: The fact that the scene couldn’t be longer.
The Setting: The rocky remains of some old fort.
The Weapon: Deftly guided swords, ambidexterity, one-liners

"Which one is the Man in Black?"

In this rare mixture of brilliant swordsmanship and unparalleled in-fight dialogue, two of Hollywood’s most memorable characters face off in a sword fight that is truly deserving of the top spot on this list.  Even before the fight begins the banter between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black endears the audience to both contenders.  When the two square off we are not sure if either is hero or villain.

The script is so good throughout that it would be easy to overlook the brilliance of the actual fight choreography.  Either element may well have stood on its own but combined together they form a harmony that could all but define perfection in film.

It’s interesting to note that the number one and two scenes on my list come from the same brilliant screenwriter.  William Goldman has proven himself to be something of a national treasure when it comes to originality in filmmaking.  His characters and stories serve to remind us on occasion that there are still things Hollywood can offer that we’ve not yet seen.

Keep ‘em coming, William… only no more of this Hearts of Atlantis nonsense.

Aaron Davies

PS I apologize to my fast acting and astute readers that saw this blog before 6:48 pm est.  After a quick reread I saw 10 grammatical and/or spelling errors that needed corrected.  Blognoscor readers deserve better than that and thus as penance I will be slapping myself repeatedly for 10 days.  Oh, and I corrected those errors... hard to do when one is slapping oneself.  


  1. When I saw Tony at 10 I was a bit surprised, but you make some good arguments. I might have even put Indy up a spot or two, cause that scene is so quintessentially American/ Indiana Jones. Once questions though: Why no Bruce Lee? He revolutionized how hand to hand combat was filmed!

  2. I considered adding a "notables not mentioned" section at the end where I certainly would have included Bruce Lee (and Peter vs. the Giant Chicken). I debated whether or not to include the scene in Enter the Dragon where he takes on the entire nation of China but I was also actively trying to avoid putting together a list that would be dominated by martial arts films. I also neglected Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for the same reason.

    The nature of the list makes it impossible to include everything that belongs there and a list of 20 might have been easier to write. Sincere apologies to Bruce Lee fans, though, as he is clearly the most obvious exclusion. I hope it helps that he was my number 11...

  3. Bit embarassed to say I've only seen 2 of these fight scenes, Kill Bill and Butch Cassidy. But I have to thank-you for answering a nagging question that struck me while watching Jim Carey's "Yes Man" movie, in it there's a hilarious fight scene where he states we have to have ground rules- and it seemed like I saw that before somewhere, and now I know where! Thx The Butch Cassidy scene is much more iconic but the Jim Carey's is funny too

  4. You mentioned Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon" I would assert that the fight with O'Hara could have been on the list. When they initially face off, it appears Lee is just straight punching him in the face if you slow it down he is actually bringing up his other arm to slap/hold down O'Hara's and then punches him! Incredibly fast. This was one of my fav.movies but rewatching it- yikes! - it looks old!

  5. @mikeoz Only Kill Bill and Butch Cassidy? You haven't seen Raiders of the Lost Ark or Princess Bride? They were such staples of my childhood (and adulthood for that matter) that I find that hard to even imagine. This blog will certainly be worth having written if it inspires you to check out at least those two films.

    If you liked the fight w/ O'Hara, I would strongly urge you to check out Legend of the Drunken Master as well. I've yet to see more talent packed in to a single film in my life. It also manages a lot more wit and genuine humor than we've come to expect from dubbed over Chinese kung-fu flicks. Overall a spectacular work and, in my opinion, the capstone on Chan's brilliant career.

    And as always, thanks for the comments.

  6. Wait, sorry, I guess I skimmed this too quickly, I did see Raiders of the Lost Ark, the scene you mentioned doesn't have much of a fight in it- think thats why I didn't list it but ya i saw it. Definitely going to check out Drunken Master, I really admire Jackie Chan's skill, but I avoided this movie because I thought it was more of a 'spoof' movie with maybe silly fight scenes, but if you say its good I will watch it, thx

  7. The story that I knew about the Indiana Jones scene was that Harrison Ford was slightly sick that day, and din't want to film the sword fight. The guy walks up and twirls his scimitar and Ford, just messing around, draws his pistol and "shoots" him. Completely improvised, but the film crew loved it and made it part of the movie.