Since the whole point of a fight scene is visceral impact, I won’t waste time mucking about with a thumbnail history of onscreen battery, much less try to parse the difference between justified and gratiuitous violence. I’ll only lay down a couple of ground rules up front.
First, for purposes of this list, I define a fight scene as a violent confrontation in which one (or preferably both) combatants go into the showdown unarmed; in other words, barroom brawls, martial arts showdowns, boxing matches and schoolyard dust-ups, yes; swordfights, knife fights, gunfights, lightsaber duels, no. It’s OK if one or both combatants acquire weapons at some point during the fight (a knife, a chair, a beer bottle, etc.) as long as specific weaponry doesn’t define the character of the fight. For example, two TV fights that almost made the cut were the showdown beween Dan and Captain Turner in season three of Deadwood (which concluded with a coup de grace by hickory stick) and the kitchen brawl between Tony Soprano and Ralphie Cifaretto in season four of The Sopranos, which used every object the men could get their bloody hands on. But I would not include the final swordfight from Rob Roy or the various telekinetic faceoffs in Scanners because, Jesus, come on.
Second, this list is not meant to represent the ““best” movie fight scenes of all time—because I wouldn’t presume such encyclopedic recall, because fight scenes are so inherently arresting that even a pedestrian one can jolt you, and because certain directors and actors are so skilled at giving and receiving punishment that you could devote entire 5 for the Days to their work alone. (How does one choose the best John Wayne or Bruce Lee or Jet Li or Buster Keaton fight, much less elevate one above the rest? It’s apples and oranges and mangoes and kiwis.) The following entries, then, are representative samples of certain types of movie fight scenes, distinguished only by their irrefutable excellence.
Yeah, you read that right. I said irrefutable. You got a problem with that, slick? Wanna take it outside?
Okay, then. Roll up your sleeves and let’s do it.
1. Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. (1980)The Gog and Magog of Martin Scorsese’s puglist psychodrama, Robinson and La Motta’s third onscreen match is one of the most savage and strangely beautiful fights in film history, and a snapshot of Scorsese, screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, cinematographer Michael Chapman, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and supervising sound effects editor Frank Warner (who wove dissonant animal sounds into the punch-and-scuffle mix) working at the peak of their artistic powers.
What makes this fight indelible isn’t just the thud of fists against flesh, the carefully mapped camera moves (whip-pans and nosedive tilts; tight closeups; Stanley Kubrick-influenced low-angled, laterally tracking master shots) or the pointedly Roman Catholic invocation of crucifixion imagery (La Motta hanging on the ropes as Robinson pounds him, his blood spattering the audience and misting his knees). The main event here is Scorsese’s stunning merger of objective and subjective consciousness. All the film’s fight scenes are microcosmic representations of the film’s spirit—its mix of biographical and rhetorical devices, documentary and expressionist techniques, and most of all, its mesmerizing, ultimately mysterious ability to be inside and outside La Motta’s consciousness in the same scene, sometimes the same moment.
Throughout Raging Bull, we’re with La Motta—inside his head, seeing through his eyes—even as we scutinize and judge him. That schism is embodied by the movie’s temperament: cold passion. The operatic music and dizzying camerawork are continually at odds with La Motta’s brutish, grubby life and monotonously limited personality (all he can do is fight, so he makes his entire life a fight; he only feels alive when he’s in pain, so he seeks out pain). Scorsese’s approach doesn’t just mirror the viewer’s attraction-repulsion to La Motta and to screen violence generally, it objectifies—meaning visualizes—La Motta’s disconnection from ethics, obligations and emotions, and his near-total alienation from the simple act of living. His punitive superego tries to micromanage or destroy every thought, every feeling; remember the shot of his veiny fist in that pail of ice, a dramatic cousin of the moment where he tries to preserve his pre-fight purity by dousing his hard-on? He’s so macho he’s barely human. The movie is inside and outside of La Motta because La Motta is inside and outside of himself.
This third La Motta-Robinson fight is perhaps the best example of the film’s aesthetic complexity. Scorsese is Mr. Inside-Out; he’s somehow able to put this boxing match not just in the context of La Motta’s career and life, but locate it within the American capitalist system, and identify the various components of that system with a stake in the fight’s outcome. They include, but are not limited to, the media (represented by the sportswriters at ringside and the motormouthed announcer dispassionately narrating the whole thing); the masses and the ruling class (the howling, largely unseen mob in the arena’s outer reaches and the well-fed aristocrats who can afford to sit close) and the TV networks and their advertisers (acknowledged in cutaways to televised images of La Motta in the corner, his slumped body at one point obscured by a Pabst Blue Ribbon logo). But Scorsese’s anthropological detachment never overwhelms our sense that this fight is both a physical and spiritual reckoning for La Motta—the point where he finally relinquishes some measure control when faced with a force more powerful than himself, because he’s so exhausted he has no other choice. Pounded into bloody meat, La Motta uses what little energy he has left to brace himself against the ropes in anticipation of Robinson’s decisive barrage, which is signaled by a disorienting zoom in/dolly out manuever (first showcased in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo) that removes all external stimuli (including crowd noise, which fades out) and literalizes the idea of a fight as a primal conflict between two life forces, only one of which can emerge victorious. Boxing historians have complained that the movie’s fight scenes are unrealistic (every other punch is a brain-rattling head shot) and unrepresentative of what really happened, and that Robinson (played by Johnny Barnes) is never really characterized, just treated as an abstract menace. But that’s the point. This isn’t history, it’s allegory. When a smoke-wreathed Robinson raises his right fist like a hammer (in a shot that resembles the flash cut to the demon god Pazuzu in The Exorcist), he’s not a boxer preparing to smash his opponent, he’s an emblem of the beast within La Motta—the id monster he tries to channel for personal gain, but which ultimately ruins him.
2. Reggie Hammond vs. Jack Cates in 48 Hrs. (1982) Nasty, brutish, violent and short, the alleway fight between boozing fuckup detective Cates (Nick Nolte) and convict-on-a-weekend-pass Hammond (Eddie Murphy) is one of the most realistic brawls ever filmed—a perfect representation of the physical truth of streetfighting (there no rules, and you get tired really fast) and a textbook illustration of how characterization can be conveyed through action. The tall, paunchy, middle-aged cop wants to teach the pint-sized, skinny young convict who’s boss, so he challenges him to a fight “right here, right now,” sets his gun aside (dumb move, considering he’s already lost one gun already), then warns Hammond that “I fight dirty” a split-second before he coldcocks him. The ensuing dustup—an early highlight of director Walter Hill’s career—showcases two very different styles of fighting. Hammond is a boxer, Cates is a brawler. Their respective strategies illustrate the cliche about how youth and skill can be defeated—or at least answered—by age and treachery. Hammond dominates the first half of the fight, dancing circles around his much larger opponent, hitting him so fast that Cates can barely stay on his feet. (Murphy’s stunt double handles the graceful combinations; freeze-frame the medium shots, and you’ll see that the role of Hammond is suddenly played by a guy who looks like Gregory Hines’ kid brother.) Unfortunately for Hammond, he fights like he talks; his confidence rests on the presumption that nobody else can get a word (or a hit) in edgewise. When he stops battering Cates for a moment, Cates launches himself off an alley wall, tackles Hammond, takes him down into a heap of garbage, rolls around with him, chucks a trash can at him, grapples with him some more, then evens the punishment scales with a couple of lucky blocks and some John Wayne-style roundhouses. The fight only lasts a couple of minutes, but that’s all the time it takes for somebody to call the cops; when they pull up, Cates and Hammond are still swapping blows, but more out of pride than urgency, because they’re so exhausted they can hardly stand up.
3. Wong Fei Hung vs. Thunderfoot in Drunken Master. (1978) Yes, I know, it’s difficult—maybe impossible—to single out one Jackie Chan fight scene as his best. But since Chan absolutely must be represented on this list, I’m picking the climactic showdown from the original Drunken Master because it marks the moment when Chan came into his own as a movie star, a fight choreographer, a clown and an icon; which is to say it’s the moment when Jackie Chan became Jackie Chan. In this film by director and fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, Chan’s character, a wastrel screwup, flees town to escape his the wrath of his father, the owner of a martial arts gym, and ends up studying with the title character, Sun Hua Chi (Yuen Siu Tien). Sun teaches Wong the building blocks of movie chopsocky—including Tiger, Crane and Monkey style—as well as a demanding, multifaceted fighting technique called “The Eight Drunken Immortals”—one of which, The Drunken Miss Ho, is rejected by Wong on the grounds that it’s too sissified. Over time, Wong becomes a skilled fighter, but still gets his ass whipped by the nomadic assassin Thunderfoot (Hwang Jang-Lee). At the master’s urging, Wong returns home to reconcile with his dad, who’s been hurt in a fight with Thunderfoot, and challenges the assassin to a duel (what else can he do, sue him?).
In the ensuing fight, Wong, who can’t seem to land a decent blow on his opponent, jettisons the remnants of his childish pride and improves upon his master’s teaching, switching between the all the styles he’s learned (particularly seven of the eight Drunken Gods) with such speed and inventiveness that Thunderfoot is surprised and overwhelmed. The turning point comes when he embraces the previously anathema eighth style, The Drunken Miss Ho, with pop-eyed gusto, cooing, mincing, skipping and flouncing while battering Thunderfoot with his fists, fingers, knuckles and feet. The scene’s graceful mix of head-to-toe long shots and slingshot zooms showcases the most playful slapstick this side of a Buster Keaton two-reeler. These fighters don’t just hover in the air on wires while bloodying each others’ scowling faces; they grapple, flip, wriggle, scoot, crabwalk, dive and roll, and allow themselves a whopping double-take when the other guy executes a surprising but effective move. The scene is delightful not just for its dramatic potency, but its evolutionary significance within Chan’s career. As the onetime student applies his master’s teaching while discovering his own warrior identity, Chan perfects a screen persona that would carry him through the next three decades—a sweet, goofy, machismo-free alternative to the Spartan coolness of China’s kung fu standard-bearer, Bruce Lee, who was physically Chan’s equal, but would never would have agreed to a fight scene that involved batted eyelashes and teasing pelvic thrusts.
4. Tang Lung vs. Colt in Return of the Dragon. (1973) Speaking of Lee, the final fight in this film is the pinnacle of his career as a martial artist, movie star and filmmaker. Lee wrote and directed the film, exercising total artistic control for the first time in his career, and the result amplifies the sense of loss that Lee cultists feel when they contemplate the actor’s untimely death. While no great shakes as a drama—the plot is standard issue, with Lee’s stoic Tang Lung going to Rome to defend his relatives’ Chinese restaurant against gangsters pressuring them to sell the place—it’s a superlative example of how fight choreography can be amplified by elegant compositions, camera moves and cutting. Lee’s climactic showdown in the Coliseum with Chuck Norris’ hired gun, Colt (great name) is the finest setpiece in a movie chock full of keepers—a marvel of slow-building tension. Favoring long shots, sometimes extreme longshots, that frame the combatants as literal gladiators in a crumbling arena, Lee shows us an entire martial arts confrontation, starting with Tang Lung and Colt luxuriously stretching (their cartlidge pops sound like bubble wrap being crushed) while psyching each other out. The fight itself is excruciating because it’s so leisurely. The men take their time sizing each other up, dancing amid the ruins, looking for tactical openings and signs of psychological weakness, then moving in, hitting fast and stepping back to survey the damage. Tang Lung is more observant and meticulous than his adversary (not to mention a hell of a lot less hairy, which might translate into an aerodynamic advantage); he wears Colt down blow by blow, destroying his confidence along with his physique. Throughout, Lee, who often terrorized his onscreen foes with sneers of contempt, treats Norris with a straightforward respect that shifts into empathy when it becomes clear that Colt can’t win but is too proud to concede defeat. The final neck-snap is a mercy killing; in his warrior’s heart, Colt was dead already. Gus Fant, executive editor of Fightingmaster.com, put it best: “If there were a martial arts film museum, this fight would be in it.”
5. Danny Embling vs. Jock Blair in Flirting. (1991) Midway through writer-director John Duigan’s tale of romance between a boy and a girl attending same-sex schools, bookish hero Danny Embling (Noah Taylor) stops beefy classmate Jock Blair (Felix Nobis) from taking surreptitious snapshots of Danny’s girlfriend Thandiwe Adjewa (Thandie Newton) while she’s changing. “Fight, fight, fight!” the other boys crow as Danny and Jock roll around on the floor. They decide to settle things in a boxing ring with a referee; problem is, Jock is taller and heavier than Danny, plus he actually knows how to box. I included this one because, more than any movie fight scene I can recall, it captures exactly what it feels like to give into male pride and climb into a ring with somebody you know for a fact is going to beat the shit out of you. Danny dances around Jock, throwing half-assed combinations like a guy who’s watched a lot of boxing on TV (he’s fascinated by Sonny Liston) but never got within a mile of actual fisticuffs. Jock bides his time, then works Danny over like a heavy bag. Watch this movie back-to-back with Raging Bull and you’ll grin at all the subjective devices Duigan knowingly pilfers from Scorsese (including flash cuts timed to exploding flashbulbs and a woozy first-person move that mimics the sensation of reeling after a knockout punch). Best ringside cameo of all time: Danny’s hallucination of Jean-Paul Sartre, who snaps into focus just long enough to ask, “Cigarette?”