Kicking Butt, Taking Names: Cinema’s Best Fight Scenes

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Kicking Butt, Taking Names: Cinema’s Best Fight Scenes

What constitutes a fight scene? Is it a matter of a lone gunman standing up to evil forces in one defining showdown? Or are we going to be literal about it and demand actual fisticuffs? Where do firearms fit in? Knives? Maces? Light sabers? What makes a fight a fight? I think for the purposes of kicking some cinematic butt, there is but one essential element: attitude. Our hero, undeterred by any level of abuse or injury, spits out that tooth, shakes the blood out of his eyes, cracks his knuckles, brings his fist up (or his rocket launcher or his hammer or his broadsword), and dives back into the fray. Here, in no particular order, is a small collection of some of the best on-screen tussles known to film.

Oldboy (2003): Dae-su Oh vs. a Hallway Full of Thugs
This South Korean film sports the single most heroic, improbable fight scene to ever be seen on celluloid (or DVD, as the case may be). Our hero, Dae-su Oh, recently released from fifteen years of solitary imprisonment, quickly runs into all kinds of trouble, not the least of which is a band of men equipped with pipes and bats and other bludgeoning equipment intent on killing him. Armed with only a hammer and his sense of determination, Dae-su embarks on a violent journey down a long hallway and lays waste to his opponents, not with the practiced moves of Bruce Lee, but rather with the raw, fighting-to-the-death energy of a man unhinged and unvindicated. The kicker of this nearly five-minute-long fight scene? It was all remarkably accomplished in a single take. It must be seen to be believed.

Fight Club (1999): Tyler Durden vs. Narrator (aka Narrator vs. Himself)
Trying to pick the best fight scene from a movie made up almost entirely of fight scenes is like trying to find the prettiest bird in an ostentation of peacocks. There’s the first fight scene in the parking lot, when Tyler Durden says, “I want you to hit me as hard as you can”; there are the many scenes in the bar basement, Brad Pitt shirtless, rippling, shining with sweat and blood, vanquishing a hapless yuppie; there’s the brutal scene in which the narrator beats Angel Face within an inch of his life; and, finally, there’s the climactic fight scene between Tyler and the Narrator (or, as we learn, between the narrator and himself) in the parking garage. All of these fights are gritty, painfully real, and a welcome departure from the gravity-defying battle choreography we see so often in action movies.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): Yu Shu Lien vs. Jen Yu
But gravity-defying battle choreography does have its undeniable appeal, as does a good catfight. This fight scene between two worthy and gorgeous female opponents is like a brutal dance, a pas de deux with pointy, lethal objects. Again, this is a film full of exciting fights—graceful and gallant, as opposed to Fight Club’s grit and blood—but the badass girl–on–badass girl action makes this particular fight rise above the others, to say nothing of the beautiful photography direction, with the overhead shots and the perfect close-ups that make us shrink from Michelle Yeoh’s spear.

The Princess Bride (1987): Inigo Montoya vs. The Man in Black
“Delightful” isn’t usually how you’d describe a fight scene, but when it comes to this duel, that’s the first word that leaps to mind. The gentlemanly banter that accompanies the alacrity of the duelists’ fencing moves and their oft-spoken mutual admiration for each other’s impressive skills makes for a fight scene that is as entertaining to the brain as it is to the eye—which is a rare virtue in this context, but certainly par for the course in The Princess Bride, which is arguably one of the best movies ever.

The Phantom Menace (1999): Obi Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Maul
This travesty of a movie had one good scene: the light-saber duel that reaches its height after Darth Maul has cut down Qui Gon Jinn and the young, imperious Obi Wan goes after him with a fresh sense of vengeance. Accompanied by a nigh-overbearing operatic soundtrack, the dueling and martial arts moves and the long, vertiginous shots—not to mention Darth Maul’s super-cool, double-sided light saber—inject some much-needed excitement into an otherwise unwatchable film. But while we’re in Star Wars territory, let’s remember the iconic light-saber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. Now that was a good movie.

They Live (1988): George Nada vs. Frank Armitage
From John Carpenter, the director who basically invented zombies as we know them today and gave us other great fight scenes like that of Ash vs. his own possessed hand in Evil Dead 2, we have what is credibly the most ridiculous fight scene in all of American cinema. George Nada is a man in possession of some sunglasses that enable him to see the alien conspiracy that’s controlling the human race. He really wants to share this knowledge with his coworker Frank, but Frank’s not having any of it. And thus ensues a long, seemingly pointless fight scene that goes something like this: “Put on these glasses!” [Punch, punch, kick.] “No! I don’t want to!” [Kick, punch, punch.] “No, really, put on these glasses, they’ll save your life!” [Punch, groin kick, groin kick.] “No way am I putting on those glasses!” [Groin punch, gut kick, punch, punch.] Et cetera. The glory of the scene lies in its beautiful, unabashed cheesiness. But it was 1988, after all—we’d expect nothing less.

The Matrix (1999): Neo vs. Agent Smith
I actually prefer this film’s opening scene, in which Trinity kicks some cop butt, then trucks it via rooftop out of the matrix. But that’s more chase scene than fight scene, so I turn to the zenith of this brain-bending movie, the showdown between Neo and the dogged and sadistic Agent Smith. The best thing about this encounter is that we are spared for five minutes from having to witness Keanu Reeves trying to act. The second-best thing about it is the fight’s superhuman quality and the always uplifting triumph of the story’s hero over a hateful foe, plus the discovery and unleashing of the hero’s inner strength, all of which so nicely set up a sequel.

Inception (2010): Arthur vs. That Other Guy in the Hallway
In Inception, director Christopher Nolan took special effects and CGI to whole new, beautiful levels. One of the most affecting and striking moments therein is the weightless fight scene in the hallway of the hotel. Please don’t ask me to explain why they were fighting, the reasons for their weightlessness, or about anything else so pragmatic, simply because it would take a dissertation to do so and I just don’t have the time. But I can tell you that it’s a great, exciting, fabulously disorienting scene, and well worth the Byzantine plotline just to see it.