Few things cheer me up quite like people punching each other in the face. Well, maybe people kicking each other in the face. And with Jackie Chan’s announcement 2 weeks back that he’ll be retiring from action movies, there will now be a whole lot less face punching and kicking going on in the world of movies.
So in honour of all the busted faces and bruised knuckles that Chan and his action movie cohorts have given us over the years, I give you my 15 Greatest Movie Fight Scenes!
This is the first Jackie Chan entry on here, and it’s one of the finest examples of his trademark combination of innovative fight choreography and impressive use of the environment where the fight is staged. Shop glass windows have never looked this violent. It’s an epic, lengthy battle that sees Jackie Chan turning virtually everything in a mall into a weapon, and culminating in one of the most famous and dangerous stunts in modern action movie history.
Who would ever have thought that Will Hunting would become an action star? But that’s exactly what happened with the Bourne films, as Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne showcased some incredibly realistic looking and very creative fighting skills. And never was that on display better than this fight in the final film, which starts with a tense chase and then culminates in the best use of a book outside of a library.
There were so many different scenes to choose from in Ang Lee’s Wuxia masterpiece, but this one has always held a special place for me. Besides for the amazing fight choreography between Michele Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi, it’s the chase that takes place between, on top of and even on the side of buildings that really clinches this one.
Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle is probably the closest we’ve ever come to a live-action anime film. Boasting a blatant disregard for the laws of physics, it combines over the top absurdity, hilarious antics and crazy kung-fu skills to provide one of the most visually memorable fight scenes of the last few decades.
Even more shocking than bookish Matt Damon in Bourne Identity, professional airhead Keanu Reeves showing off kung fu skills was truly a sight to behold. Combining ground breaking visual FX (that an entire generation of filmmakers then copied) with the masterful choreography of the legendary Yuen Woo-ping, this fight between Neo and Agent Smith goes down as one the greatest homages from modern Western cinema to the greats of the East. Also, Neo’s “blocked punch to throat poke” is easily one of the best things ever caught on camera.
Tony Jaa is not the most versatile actor ever, but what he does, he does really well. And what that is is kick/knee/elbow you in the face/chest/groin really freaking hard. Combining that particular set of skills with a highly ambitious 8 minute long, single-take shot up a spiraling restaurant staircase, director Prachya Pinkaew gives us a fight that is almost tiring to watch. And all this for an elephant? Imagine what he’d do if you took his girl.
While the futurist plot for Equilibrium may unravel the moment you think about it, chances are that you never found the time to do thinking as you were too busy gawking at the gun-kata. A fictional fighting style invented by writer/director Kurt Wimmer in his backyard, it’s an insane combination of real world South-East Asian martial arts and well, guns. And it was never on better display than in the film’s super tense final showdown between Batman and that guy from Braveheart.
Easily the shortest (and probably most contentious) entry on this list, this is such an instant classic fight precisely because it’s not. Whereas some lesser directors may have dragged this out, Steven Spielberg gives us the best example ever put on screen for why you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.
Set during the Sino-Japanese War of the 1930’s, Donnie Yen’s film about Bruce Lee’s real life master, Ip Man, is stacked with incredible pugilistic feats of Wing Chung insanity. But it’s in this scene, after Ip’s anger about the mistreatment of his starving Chinese countrymen finally boils over, that we see a darker and definitely more vicious side of the Kung Fu master. It’s pure unbridled rage channeled into fist and feet with devastating effect.
While most memorable fight scenes in films are frenetic explosions of speed and power, sometimes you just need to slow it down. Displaying a grace and elegance that borders on poetic, this scene puts the “art” back in martial arts.
Did you enjoy that earlier mentioned Bourne Ultimatum fight? How about the other gritty fights in other modern films, like the two in Casino Royale? Well, here’s the grandaddy of them all. Found in James Bond’s second cinematic adventure, this fight had an unsophisticated and unchoreographed brutality to it, that even shocked some cinemagoers into walking out of the cinema when it was first released. Unlike most other brawls captured on film up until then, this was no honourable fist fight where the hero decks the villain with a single well-placed left hook, but a confined, down and dirty, anything goes, plain and simple scrap for your life.
Unfortunately, it would appear that it’s impossible to find an embeddable version of this fight, so you’ll have to view it OVER HERE.
Besides for boasting two of the most well known martial arts practitioners of all time, this is another fight that bears mention because of it’s eschewing of so-called movie fight standards. Instead of the typical “hero gets beat up for 80% of the fight before discovering some heretofore unknown strength and staging a dramatic comeback” approach, Bruce Lee realized something: “I am motherf@#$ing Bruce Lee, and if I go into a fight – with ANYBODY – chances are that I am just going to give them the biggest ass-whipping of their lives for the next 10 mins.” And that is precisely what happened.
A remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, Fist of Legend was the film that really made most Western audiences first take notice of Jet Li. The Wachowski Bros famously brought in Yuen Woo-ping for the fight choreography on the Matrix films, after seeing his work on this film.
Also set during the Sino-Japanese war, it boast a number of memorable confrontations, but none more so than the final fight between Jet Li and at the time World Kickboxing Champion, Billy Chow. It’s not only amazingly choreographed and shot, with a surprising lack of the wire-work that was so prevalent in Asian cinema at the time, but staged in such a way that you can actually see the two fighters learning and adapting to their opponent’s techniques as the fight goes on.
Sometimes it’s not about flashy techniques or amazing visual effects. Sometimes it’s just about a self-taught fighter facing impossible odds in a fight for survival. Needing seventeen takes and three days to get right, director Park Chan-wook created something magical. The camera slowly tracks along the length of a corridor in one, nearly 4 minute long, unbroken single-take, the melancholic soundtrack peaks and dips appropriately, all while Oh Dae-su fights for his life against a horde of pipe-wielding thugs with every fibre of his being.
Drunken Master 2 is considered by many (including me) to be the finest work of Jackie Chan’s entire career, and it culminates in one of the greatest spectacles I have ever seen. Roger Ebert describes this fight as “one of the most remarkably sustained examples of martial arts choreography ever filmed,” and I simply could not agree more.
Ken Lo, Chan’s personal bodyguard, had to step into the role of the villainous John, after the previous actor got injured and nobody else could pull off the crazy Tae Kwon Do – which is easily the most impressive example of the fighting style ever recorded in a film – that Chan wanted. The climactic 10 minute fight reportedly took a whopping FOUR MONTHS to film, just because of the complexity and speed of the action on display. But it was well worth it, as it has stamped it’s place in cinema history, and is my personal all-time favourite movie fight scene.
Last Updated: May 31, 2012