WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT the distinctive ingredients of Americana, the elements that comprise what we think about when we think of what makes America so…American, it’s easy to recite the clichéd short-list: mom, apple pie, convertibles, rock and roll, McDonalds, sexual repression, colonialism, enhanced interrogations, et cetera.
But really, when you get down to it, we are all about violence. And, to a large degree, violence sort of encompasses all of the things listed above (the violence we do to others, the violence we do to the environment, the violence we do to ourselves–inherent in the desires we succumb to as well as deny, which are epitomized by most religions). But our religion is violence, and our cathedral has long been the silver screen. So we celebrate our addiction to violence in ways less brutal but more calculated than the barbaric Gladiator spectacles of yesteryear (we weren’t Americans yet): by perfecting what has become a universal aesthetic, the movie fight scene. Kind of like porn movie plots are a delivery device for the fucking, action movie plots are often a disposable fulcrum for the fighting.
The actual art of choreographed violence is serious business, literally and figuratively (i.e., in terms of time and money spent, and revenue generated) and really should not be blithely dismissed. There are books written, there are even movies made about the making of movies. So let the academics and darkened room disciples ruminate and pontificate; it’s much more enjoyable to make fun of the ritual that constitutes an entire industry. And it’s certainly a hell of a lot more satisfying to consider the sinister art of the bad fight scene, the dark cousin of the painstakingly crafted celluloid ballet. The bad fight scene, a semi-retarded pas de deux, has evolved into its own special status: it is an indispensable aspect of our culture. Thank God.
To appreciate the curious magic of the laughably bad, it’s helpful to first consider the unassailably good. I don’t know many serious film critics (or fans) who would deny that our nimble brethren from Asia have come closest to elevating the serious fight scene to unprecedented levels of artistry. Two recent examples, each featuring the obligatory one-man vs. the crowd sequence appear in Chan Wook Park’s Old Boy and Prachya Pinkaew’s Tom-Yum-Goong. (More on both, shortly.)
For the purposes of this piece, I am deliberately casting a wider net and not sticking strictly to fisticuffs. Hence, in addition to the compulsory Man vs. Man, we shall sample some essential Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Machine and even Man vs. Himself. Matrix, my ass. I’ll take Steve McQueen in a t-shirt over all those time-traveling leather fetishists any day. As such, no semi-contemporary movies with horseshit CGI. To wit, Terminator 2? Hipster, please. This is mostly old-school, mostly knuckle on flesh, and somebody usually bleeds. Except when they don’t. And especially when they get hurt on the inside, which leaves the types of scars that don’t quickly heal.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
A whole lot of brilliance crammed into a two minute scene.
“You always said any one of us could challenge you Butch.”
“Well that’s ‘cuz I figured no one would do it!”
“Figured wrong Butch.”
“Guns or knives Butch?”
“Listen, I don’t want to be a sore loser but…when it’s done, if I’m dead? Kill him.”
“Rules? In a knife fight?”
And, naturally, a sleight-of-hand that only Paul Newman, in peak rascal mode, could pull off.
We could nominate the deranged dentist Olivier doing battle with Dustin Hoffman’s teeth, but the truly tense moment is the tussle Roy Scheider gets into with his would-be assassin. Like many scenes from this one, once you see it, it’ll stay seen.
Male gymnast? Check. Pommel horse? Check. Absurdity so off the charts new charts need to be invented? Big check. To recap: the scene would be asanine enough if, say, it took place (conveniently) during an Olympic training session; the fact that there’s a pommel horse in some one-horse (see what I did there?) town? There’s only word for shark-jumping of this magnitude: perfection.
Class and Youngblood
Rob Lowe with a one-two punch to prove that pretty boys can bleed, too. The low-fi throwdown with fellow “tough guy” Andrew McCarthy in Class is quite satisfying in its way. But it’s child’s play compared to Youngblood (which features a younger Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves, immediately putting it in schlock overdrive), a cheesefest that reaches almost offensive levels of connect-the-dots corniness. Lowe has already proven he can be pretty and take a punch, but he has to learn how to deliver an ass-whupping, on skates. The bromance battling the testosterone in the final fight scene is operatic in its own hamfisted fashion.
Man vs. Nature, Kurosawa-style. This is a disarmingly gorgeous battle (sleep vs. survival) that seems played out, until the last second. Disturbing and oddly cathartic.
Woman vs. Nature…in space. Scary. Sexy. Sigourney.
When Vader cuts down Obi-Wan that represents, for so many children, the first time they’ll witness Evil beating out Good (and they’ll vaguely understand the notion of sacrifice and something…more than there here-and-now). It’s a classic moment, and no one will ever forget how devastated they were the first time it happened.
Escape from Alcatraz
Because anyone can get raped in prison, except Clint Eastwood. Bonus: handful of soap as a weapon.
Because anyone can get mugged in New York City, except Charles Bronson. Bonus: roll of quarters as a weapon.
Feel free to pretend this is #1. It is, it isn’t, and above all, it’s too obvious. Stallone would become such a hack it’s still remarkable—and impressive—to recall he had the restraint and good judgment to let Rocky lose. (Of course, it also opened the door for many sequels.)
Butch vs. Marsellus. It starts in a car, spills into the street, continues down the block, ends up in a pawn shop. And then things get really interesting.
Errol Flynn and the great Basil Rathbone keeping it real, and the only thing more impressive than the swordplay is the exchange of smiles during this duel. One of them is about to die, and they are both having the time of their lives. As the tide washes over the vanquished foe’s face, Flynn offers up an epitaph for the ages: “And that, my friend, ends a partnership that should never have begun.” Any questions?
Because before he became a Coors Lite shilling sell-out, Ice Cube used to be a brilliant musician. Dude could act too. The final, vindicating fight scene is like a rap version of The Karate Kid.
No comment necessary, or allowed. Because of the first and second rules. Well-played, boys.
Best car-on-car action ever captured on film. Man vs. Man, in Machines. Steve McQueen was incapable of doing anything in first gear.
Life Imitates Art: Glorious Bastards
Darker Than Amber
How about a fight scene between two bad-ass brutes that (accounts vary as to who threw the first real punch) turned into an actual mêlée as the cameras rolled? According to legend, after the first few stunt punches, the rest of this (including the bottle, lamp and broken mirror) is all real (!) resulting in William Smith nursing three broken ribs and Rod Taylor getting a broken nose. Any way you cut it, this one belongs in its own category.
The 50 Greatest
50. Cannonball Run
A suitably over-the-top pastiche of great movie punch-ups, taken to that “other level” by the inimitalbe Dom DeLuise, aka “Captain Chaos”. Can—and should—still make the most crusty old guy feel like a little kid again.
49. Breaking Away
The Cutters vs. the College Kids. In a bowling alley, wherein a bowling ball gets used as a weapon. All the tension that has simmered boiling over in the three words that can start a war: “Smart move, Shorty.”
48. Every Which Way But Loose
Like Steve McQueen, and several other heavyweights on this list, Clint Eastwood could have at least a dozen entries and all of them would be warranted. But in a movie about figthing (and featuring a character named Philo Beddoe) the ultimate fight scene, where Beddoe tanks against the legendary Tank Murdock, is the best kind of anti-climax. By losing on purpose, the protagonist wins, and a movie that includes an orangutan named Clyde manages to say something more than slightly profound about myth vs. reality, integrity vs. image and what being a man is really about. Seriously.
47. Jason and the Argonauts
Props to Ray Harryhausen, who was way ahead of his time (and it’s a nice nod, years later in The Terminator, when the aesthetic combination of steel heels and still-primitive tech makes the robot look and walk a lot like the skeletons that pop out of the ground, swords in hand).
46. Raging Bull
Although this still gets credited with some of the most realistic, and disturbing boxing scenes in cinema history, the ultimate fight occurs outside the ring. And no, it’s not when LaMotta brutalizes his brother in front of his children (a genuinely sickening scene), it’s when the tough guy gig is almost up, and Jake faces off against himself, and his demons, in a squalid prison cell. He has been figuratively punching brick walls his entire life; in this difficult-to-watch unraveling, we see what happens when an irrestistible force confronts an unmovable object.
45. Malcolm X
A scene that undoubtedly used Raging Bull as a model (just like Lee has often payed homage to Scorsese throughout his career), we get one of the more convicing battle scenes, wherein man encounters himself. After years of hustling and hurting, the street rat is in solitary, strung out and there is nowhere, finally, for him to direct his rage. We shouldn’t use words like tour de force lightly and we don’t: this entire role from start to finish establishes Denzel Washington as one of the supreme actors of his generation, and this scene is a highlight in a career full of them. (Tension, acting aplomb and a different type of mano a mano, here.)
44. Cool Hand Luke
Man vs. Eggs? Maybe. But the fight scene, which sets the tone for Luke’s relationship with the inmates, succeeds on literal and figurative levels. Outmatched and beaten to a bloody mess by the larger Dragline (George Kennedy), Luke refuses to stay down. With a lesser script and lesser actors (!), the image of Luke lurching in punch-drunk circles, long after his foe has walked away in disgust, would be too easy, too much. But it succeeds, utterly, in illuminating the way(s) Luke would refuse to lose, unless it was on his terms.
43. The Wild Ones
Marlon Brando vs. Lee Marvin. In leather. Whaddya got?
Man vs. Beast! We’ve already seen what this shark can do, and as has been often written about, serendipity saved the day for Spielberg; with mechanical failures preventing the fake shark from being filmed, the director had to rely on things like suspense and story. As such, the cat and mouse game the shark plays with the barrels allows us to appreciate what a freak of nature it is (“He can’t stay down with three barrels on ‘im!”), and forces us to respect the “bad guy” who almost, almost seems to be clowning these hunters.
41. 48 Hours
“I fight dirty”: Nolte and a young upstart named Eddie Murphy square off. This is the movie that made Eddie even more famous (the next couple would put him into the stratosphere). Interesting note: although this buddy film puts a black man almost on equal footing with his white co-star, Hollywood—and America—still wasn’t ready for the black man to win. Nolte’s Cates, despite being an overweight, chain-smoking, alcoholic mess (a real stretch for Nolte), manages to outmaneuever the younger Reggie Hammond.
40. Superman II
The (Super)Man vs. (Super)Man fight scene (Clark Kent vs. “Bad” Super Man) in Superman III has more literary import, but we’re talking fight scenes here. As such, it’s hard to top our hero facing off against his three (almost) equals, in NYC (or, Metropolis), naturally. “General, would you care to step outside?” (Bonus points for the awesome and always-elegant Terence Stamp camping it up to full effect as Zod. Extra bonus points for some of the most aggressive, albeit easy, product placement in movie history.)
39. Animal House
The food fight that launched a thousand imitations, both in movies and in cafeterias across America. Preceded by one of the best provocations in cinematic history: “See if you can guess what I am now!”
38. The Last Detail
While there is a perfectly suitable, if pedestrian, fracas in a restroom (Navy vs. Marines), the best fight in this film occurs without a single punch thrown. As Billy “Badass” Buddusky, Nicholson does the Nicholson Thing before doing the Nicholson Thing became The Nicholson Thing. And his rage is righteous, as he rises to the defense of his African-American shipmate, who is maligned by the redneck bartender.
-Buddusky: “I’m gonna’ kick your ass around the block.”
-Bartender: “You try it and I’ll call the shore patrol.”
Buddusky, brandishing gun: “I AM the motherfucking shore patrol MOTHERFUCKER! I AM THE MOTHERFUCKING SHORE PATROL! NOW GIVE THIS MAN A BEER!!”
37. The Deer Hunter
Another one where no blows are thrown, yet the verbal barbs land, but good. The boastful and tiresome (and lovable, RIP John Cazale!) Stan pushes group leader Mike (De Niro) too far and gets a talking to that’s equal parts philosophical and nonsensical: “This is This” is what all of us would love to say to any blowhard, whether it’s a friend, an idiot at the end of the bar, or our boss.
36. A Clockwork Orange
Man vs. Droogs. There are many outstanding candidates from this single film, all of them disturbing in their own weird, wonderful ways. But the stylized irony of group leader Alex, stewing over the putative mutiny amongst his soldiers, and then being inspired by hearing Beethoven from an open window before delivering a slow motion smack down, all choreographed to Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie Overture” (proving once again that no one, except possibly Scorsese, ever used music to such enchating effect), is violent ballet of the first order.
35. King Kong
This one still hurts. And it’s difficult to overstate its impact, not merely the super-ape sized shadow it still casts over cinema, but the (unintentional?) commentary it provides for us, as ugly Americans, and our ceaseless capacity to misunderstand, appropriate and, yes, murder the natural (and unnatural) beauty we can neither appreciate nor preserve. It’s all in here, Man Vs. Beast, Beast vs. Machines, Beasty vs. Beauty and yes, Man Vs. Man. Also: one of the best closing lines and epitaphs ever: “It was beauty killed the Beast.”
34. The Warriors
If your movie is going to be silly, own it. Wallow in it. The Warriors is 93 minutes of glorious, gluttonous wallowing, and it’s impossible to stop watching. Props to Walter Hill and the entire assembled crew (including the poor, ignored Orphans) for achieving something like a stylized video game disguised as a movie. Or something. So, on their way to eluding or thrashing every gang from the Bronx to Coney Island, we get gangs in buses (the baldheaded Turnbull AC’s) to all-female outfits (The Lizzies) to dudes in overalls and rollerskates (The Punks). But for style points and the best brawl, caps off to the Baseball Furies. Painted faces and Yankees uniforms (yuck!), at first The Warriors flee, then face-off against these major league wimps. Timeless line: “I’m gonna’ shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle.” Ajax FTW.
33. Cape Fear
Your mileage may vary on the remake (for my money, it’s Scorsese getting too Scoresesian for his own good), but De Niro certainly doesn’t phone it in. Yet, as scary as his Max Cady manages to be, no one on the planet could be as menacing as Robert Mitchum. The scene where the hired goons realize they’ve bitten off way more than they can chew is a little bit hilarious and a lot horrifying. Mitchum is scarier here than any and all fake Tinseltown monsters ever imagined.
(Like any proper fight, I brought some back-up. Brother Sean Beaudoin making sure Mitchum gets appropriate homage. Tag-team in effect: Worth mentioning that Mitchum ran away from home as a teenager and worked on trains as a stevedore, a brutal job. He was expelled from school for beating up the principle. He also boxed professionally, and did time on a chain gang in the deep south….also, unlike Bogey and Cagney and Tom Cruise, he was actually as big a dude in real life as on the screen. He was so fucking terrifying in Night of the Hunter that he didn’t have to fight, just tattoo Love and Hate on his knuckles and show people….In Cape Fear (only approx. 33,000 times better than the remake), after Cady beats up the thugs you mention, there’s one guy left, who realizes he’s made a massive mistake. The guy’s got his dukes up and then Mitchum gives him a look….and the dude turns and runs with palpable and believable terror. Mitchum goes after him and…fade to black. Possibly the most brutal fight scene in cinema history then takes place in our mind, because you know Mitchum caught that guy….and you know he did way worse things just than punch him.)
32. Slap Shot
The Hanson Brothers are a silly, satirical and also fairly accurate representation of what hockey at its worst (or best) degenerated into during the era of the Broad Street Bullies. Dutifully over-the-top, they can’t even wait until the game begins to initiate their first of many conflagrations. (Bonus points for patriotism: “I’m listening to the fucking song!”)
31. Days of Heaven
Man vs. Insect. Make that thousands upon thousands of insects. You never feel more human than watching Nature ruin your farm, and your livelihood. It’s an marathon battle in miniature, an entire war that is over before it starts, and the carnage is total and lasting. It’s also disturbingly beautiful (and that’s just Sam Shepard), with extreme close-ups on the bugs, the fields and the faces of the folks as they make their futile stand against the inevitable. Unlike much of Terrence Malick’s work, it’s easy to understand exactly what’s going on here; like virtually all of Terrence Malick’s work, it’s full of arresting and splendid images.
30. The Princess Bride
Props to Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin for actually learning to fence (with both hands!) for this incredible duel, one that would have made Mr. Flynn proud, if not a tad envious. It’s a master class not only in swordplay, but storytelling: to get two characters we’ll come to love to outdo each other, but remain lovable and, importantly, not kill one another, is more than slightly impressive.
29. The Pink Panther
Question: What’s the best Closeau vs. Cato face-off? Answer: All of them. But the first one, which kicked off one of the more enjoyable ongoing gags in any movie series, warrants special affection. The phone call, mid-fight, which Cato answers “Inspector Closeau’s residence”, is a delightful touch. And, of course, Peter Sellers is God.
28. Let It Be
No blood shed. No punches thrown. No voices raised. And yet, this ten second clip reveals the tensions (many of which were understood and appreciated only in hindsight) simmering in the Fab Four camp by the time they met to piece together the Get Back project (later realized as Let It Be). Macca, as has widely been reported, had become more than a bit bossy (even bitchy), and, in his defense, somebody had to keep the machine moving. But his micro-managing led the ever-gentle Harrison to deliver the most gentlemanly rebuke you’ll ever see. They likely regretted letting the cameras roll as they imploded in real time, but all of these moments are essential historical documents.
27. The Bounty
Many will point to Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter as his best performance (not even close) or, at least, a case study of true evil (only if you prefer comically implausible with a super-sized serving of camp). No, it’s his turn as the self-loathing Captain Bligh in the remake of The Bounty that properly showcases his chops, and uses acting as opposed to clowning to reveal the depravity of a broken (actually, breaking) human being. Having already bullied, then alienated the crew, his monomaniacal quest to round Cape Horn pushes the mates past all endurance. Here, Mel Gibson (a moment of silence for a young Mel Gibson who could—and did—actually act back in the day) as the soon-to-be-mutinous Fletcher Christian, makes a futile attempt to talk sense into his superior. What follows is a discussion that makes clear the obsession, bordering on insanity, that drives Bligh. The demonic glee in his eyes when he mockingly asks Christian “Are you a coward too, sir?” is infinitely more satisfying—and frightening—than anything he did with that stupid mask over his face.
26. The Empire Strikes Back
As gut-crushing as it was to watch Vader vanquish Obi-Wan, it was all worth it for this moment. Now, finally, revenge! Luke is going to avenge his mentor, and triumph over darkness. Or not. Justly celebrated as an unforgettable clash, this also endures as a scene that is about as much of a mind-fuck as any pre-adolescent is capable of handling: I am your father!
One of the last analog epics (filmed with real people, in real time), Excalibur is replete with worthy battles. The extended bout between Arthur and Lancelot is very legit, as is the final showdown where Arthur dispatches of Mordred. But the scene where Arthur, who has just pulled the sword from the stone, rallies his faithful army against the upstarts, qualifies as a first-rate fight scene, but also a truly magical moment, when young Arthur and Uryens understand they are both in the grip of something grander and more mysterious than they can comprehend.
24. Robin and Marion
So analog it (almost) hurts. Sean Connery vs. Robert Shaw is a clash of the titans on literal and figurative—and other—levels. You know it’s coming throughout the film, yet if a fight to the death can be anticlimactic (for the right reasons) this one is. There is a certain sadness and resignation; and the way it’s filmed: two men in the middle of a field, no special effects, no close-ups, no dramatic music, it feels less like Hollywood and more like a documentary that captured this fictional event as it actually happened.
If Scorsese is good at anything (and he’s great at many things, thank you), it’s building tension. This masterful scene, which ends in Billy Batts getting one of the most fearsome beat-downs in movie history, is built slowly with more than a little humor (De Niro’s Conway, impish and menacing “Ah ah, you insulted him a little bit…”). We know Tommy is about to blow (and the way Batts winds him up is spectacular. Two words: “Shine box”), but we also think: There’s no way he will go after a made man, right? Wrong. A few dozen punches and kicks later, Batts is just about done and, we know, so is Tommy. It’s just a matter of time.
22. An Officer and a Gentleman
Watching it years later, as an adult, this scene is obviously forced and more than a tad manipulative, but, well, who cares? When Zach Mayo (“Mayo-naise!”) inevitably squares off against Foley, we’re longing for the underdog to avenge countless anonymous officer candidates who have been abused by the men who train them, after breaking them. The scene does not necessarily deliver the expected or desired result until, years later, you understand the good guy wins.
21. My Bodyguard
How scary was the bald dude that beat up Adam Baldwin? It was, therefore, indescribably satisfying when Linderman exacts his revenge. But we get two for the price of one when little Clifford Peache squares off with Melvin Moody (Matt Dillon before he became Matt Dillon). When Moody whines, both in pain and disbelief, “You broke my nose!”, underdogs and bullied undergrads around the world rejoiced.
20. The Outsiders
19. The War of the Roses
Dark comedy? How about black hole comedy. That last, and final, altercation between Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner is, like the ones that preceded it, at times amusing, macabre and over-the-top. But that last, final gesture? Ouch.
18. Enter the Dragon
Wherein Bruce Lee makes himself a legend. For all time.
17. The Godfather
In addition to being quite gratifying (the bullying wifebeater Carlo getting slapped around by someone his own size), it’s also a nice bit of art imitating life—which is not typical for fight scenes. When Sonny, out of breath from the beating he’s just dished out, says “You touch my sister again I’ll kill ya”, it’s not merely a statement of fact, it’s masterful acting from James Caan. A lesser thespian would have shouted the lines, unable to resist this golden opportunity to grandstand. It’s likely that Caan’s restraint is partially or entirely due to the fact that he’d witnessed—and probably delivered—ass-kickings like this in his own life and didn’t need to talk the actorly talk because everyone knew he could walk the bare-knuckled walk.
16. Old Boy
Wherein Dae Su (the great Choi Min-Sik) drops the hammer, pun intended, on a bunch of hoods. Improbable, over-the-top, essential.
15. Eastern Promises
Because you’re never more vulnerable than when you’re naked. In public. In a steam bath. Being attacked by gangsters wielding curved knives.
14. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indy fighting the big bald Nazi? Indy fighting a Nazi inside, on top of and underneath a moving vehicle? Yes, to both. But we all know which scene takes top billing. It is perfection, period, but knowing the story behind it makes it a million times better. Struggling with a case of dysentery, Harrison Ford squashed weeks of rehearsed sword play (the original scene was intended to be a sword vs. whip showcase) and allegedly said “Let’s just shoot the sucker.” It’s a shot still heard ‘round the world.
How to choose a single selection from the embarrassment of riches that is the James Bond filmography? Not possible, but 007’s dance of death with Odd Job is as agreeable an example of the violence cut with humor and quirky cleverness that these films specialized in. Also, too: Sean Connery.
A delicious palette cleanser, we can forever appreciate the sine qua non of campy superhero fight scenes, and what better arena than Adam West’s Batman, the ultimate in caped-crusading camp. This is the all-in Battle Royale (with cheese), a brawl that involves all the assorted players, because duh. And the capper, when our hero saves the cat from drowning with the winking send-off “Bon voyage pussy!”. Holy blissful extravagance, Batman!
Speaking of camp, does it get any better (e.g., worse) than Patrick Swayze? The movie is at once sui generis and meta, deeply aware—and proud—of its shamelessness. But most folks would agree, the final fight scene is a tour de force of semi-farce; it has so much homoerotic energy it almost services itself. Where in the earlier scuffles you can fear the mullets while simultaneously contemplating who is gayer: Swayze (RIP), the great Ben Gazzara (RIP!) or the dude with the pool cue. You know, the one who used to fuck guys like Dalton in prison (!!).
10. True Romance
Yes, Clarence vs. Drexl could easily make the list. But even Oldman’s genius has to take second place to the scene. And you know which scene we’re referring to. This scene, notorious for its, shall we say, frank discussion of racial relations, and hilarious for its rather unorthodox delineation of history, is one of the most-quoted from all contemporary films. For good reason, and all praise to Tarantino (who wrote it), Tony Scott (who directed it) and the bravura performances of Hopper and the genuinely incomparable Christopher Walken. It also includes the hulking presence of the then-unknown James Gandolfini.
The scene is certainly problematic (and no politically correct critic would want to touch it with a ten foot soap box), but more than the adults-imitating-schoolchildren one upmanship it sardonically presents, there is serious acting going on here. It is to the considerable credit of all involved that this scene never degenerates into (self) parody and is able to be hilarious and horrifying, often at the same time. There probably aren’t too many examples of scenes in semi-recent cinema that so successfully skirt the switchblade’s edge of tension and release. Hopper goes from scared to crafty, then understands he’s screwed and decides to go out with a bang (literally). The moment he realizes he is a dead man, you can almost feel him resignedly saying “fuck it” as he decides to have a cigarette, after all. And when he lets out the mirthful little laugh (a very Hopperesque touch), you get the chance to savor him saying “fuck you” to the men who are about to murder him.
9. The Terminator
Like I said, forget T2. The first installment was superior in every way, and—like many of the old-school films celebrated here—is better precisely because it’s so human. Sure, special effects are swell for the unimaginative, but they are for people who prefer lap dances to actual intercourse. Aesthetically, the final confrontation between The Terminator and Kyle is raw and goosebump-inducing (sorry young readers, nothing will ever match seeing this, for the first time, on the big screen), but emotionally, the good guy who, not for nothing, is only trying to save the world, feels pain, actually bleeds and finally dies. He fulfills his purpose, takes one for the team and becomes one of the more convicing martyrs in movie history. (Also: for my money, Michael Biehn does not get nearly enough love for his superlative performance. I cringe to think how terrible this role would be if played by many of the A-List clowns who likely read for it.)
8. The Karate Kid
Because it still feels good, after all these years. The crane kick that keeps on kicking (ass). Banzai, Daniel-san!
7. Monty Python and Holy Grail
It’s just a flesh wound! At once a send-up of over-the-top movie fights, and an impressive bit of violent showmanship, this is arguably the most memorable (and quotable) scene in the movie. The idea and execution are impeccable, but the inimitable John Cleese (“I’ve had worse.”) elevates this scene from extraordinary to all-time status.
6. Rocky III
Of course the fight vs. Apollo Creed is the best thing Rocky (or Stallone) ever did in or outside a ring, but for the purposes of this list, Rocky III is the gift that keeps giving. Nevermind the paint-by-numbers fight and rematch with Clubber Lang (Mr. T. for you youngsters), how about the beyond-over-the-top invocation of boxing and wrestling? Enter a relatively young Hulk Hogan as Thunderlips, the ultimate male (“Move around the ring”, “He is the ring”). It’s a shameless cash-in on a popular “sport”, camp that gives Adam West a wedgie, and a laugh-out-loud scene that I enjoy more as an adult than I did when I first saw it (in the theater, naturally). Bonus points for the beach sprint competition with former foe Apollo on the beach in L.A., which culminates in a short scene that, for homoerotic mileage, gives even Top Gun a run for its money.
5. Mean Streets
An antidote of sorts, it’s instructive to appreciate Martin Scorsese’s integrity. His dedication to authenticity depicts a ridiculous pool hall fight scene that actually plays out the way fights usually look in real life: sloppy, uncoordinated, mostly embarrassing. It’s a steadicam clinic, made indelible by Robert De Niro, who initiates the mayhem (while “Please Mr. Postman” plays on the jukebox) and then, after police-assisted peace is restored, almost starts it up again. So many exceptional images from this still somehow underrated masterpiece, and the incorrigible Johnny Boy (De Niro) standing on top of a pool table, brandishing a cue and doling out very ineffective karate kicks is among the best. Bonus points for this exchange: “You can’t call me a mook!” “I’ll give you mook!”
4. They Live
And here we have the scene, where so many of these elements (camp, over-the-top pyrotechnics, implausibility, bad (and good!) acting, and, of course, wrestling) come together. A six minute fight scene. S.I.X. M.I.N.U.T.E.S. And this isn’t just a gratuitous scrap; the end of the world as we know it as at stake (“Put on the glasses!”), with hero Roddy Piper (formerly “Rowdy” Roddy Piper of World Wrestling Federation fame) and not-yet convinced good guy Keith David sorting things out in an alley. The sequence allegedly took over three weeks to rehearse, and it endures as the Alpha and Omega of what we talk about when we talk about movie fight scenes.
3. Tom Yum Goong
Words can’t do it justice, so just trust your eyes. Instant clasic, already immortal one take (!!!) scene, which took Tony Jaa and company over a month to prepare and rehearse. The result is unedited (!!!) perfection, using the fifth take. Only one word will suffice: Respect!
2. On The Waterfront
Have we ever rooted for anyone like we do for Terry? “You take them heaters away from you and you’re nuthin’! Your guts is all in your wallet and your trigger finger!”
Terry is fighting mad, fighting for himself, for his livelihood, for everything. He’s fighting Johnny Friendly, the man who murdered his brother; the man who has systematically choked the soul out of an entire neighborhood. He is trying to become, finally, a Good Guy, and he has to defeat the Bad Guy (and his crew) to do it. If he loses, it’s all over not only for him, but hundreds of other working men who’ve never kidded themselves about becoming contenders. He fights the good fight and nothing is ever the same, for anyone, after it’s over.
1. Blade Runner
The extended, indelible final sequence of Blade Runner has all the elements of every archetypal fight scene listed above (violence, blood, danger, desperation, even humor), but it obliges the invocation of that most dreaded word in criticism: it transcends. To be certain, it easily enters the discussion of greatest fight scenes, ever. More, it is one of the great movie scenes, ever.
“More human than human”: that is the infamous motto of The Tyrell Corporation. Between implanted memories and superhuman attributes, we focus on the literal implications (“We’re not computers Sebastian, we’re physical.”). Only near the end–of the movie, of Roy Batty’s life–do we understand the irony: by dying, and letting his opponent (who is trained and paid to hunt him) “win”, Roy becomes more human than the humanity we’ve seen on display throughout the story. By acknowledging he’s not built to last (“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”), he proves himself to have more empathy, more soul, more purpose than the human machines who’ve built, persecuted and profited from him.
By losing (the fight, his life) with grace and compassion, Batty proves that his existence was not in vain, and solves the greatest mystery of being: so long as someone survives, his life–and memories–will not, in fact, be lost like tears in rain.
In the end, this confrontation is a matter of life and death and, unlike almost all the fight scenes in movie history, it manages to matter and mean something.