Though some of us are hardcore film buffs who are very conventional in their approach and some just look at it as a source of entertainment, we all agree on one thing. There’s nothing better than watching an action flick on a Saturday night with some popcorn and a few friends. Now, we may again have contrasting views on what quality action is. I believe quality action keeps in mind of these three things : Production design, because come on would you want to watch two drunk men slogging it out in a dimly lit room with plates and glasses? Or two drunk men dancing along the stairs of a bar and then clashing midway through the air with plenty of light focusing on them? Acting, because action involves emotions like pain, fear, excitement or anger and it depends on the actors to convey these emotions primarily through their body language. Importance or originality, as a movie lover who’s got 1000s of films to watch I prefer watching something substantial, something that stands out from the rest and gently splatters its own flair in the process, invoking something unforgettable in our minds.
Now, no matter how good giant robots or flashy cars or heavy weapons look on-screen, you can’t deny the fact that it all comes down to a man on man fight to decide the future of the story. And we all love some gritty one on one combats involving our favorite stars flaunting their special moves or lines during these sequences. So if you do agree with all the things mentioned above, here’s a list of top movie fight scenes ever.
1. ‘Eastern Promises’: Bath house scene
Not many people are familiar with David Cronenberg, and many more who are aren’t familiar with his best work, ‘Eastern Promises’. Though ‘The Fly’, ‘Scanners’ and ‘Videodrome’ are genre classics and are technical milestones in filmmaking, they still fall short in front of the 2007 crime film which stars Viggo Mortensen in a career best performance, Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassel.
Talking about the fight scene. Roger Ebert said “At a time when movie fight scenes are as routine as the dances in musicals, Nikolai engages in a fight in this film that sets the same kind of standard that ‘The French Connection’ set for chases. Years from now, it will be referred to as a benchmark”. Ebert was wrong about one thing, it didn’t really take years. The bath-house scene is the finest fight scene you’ll ever see in a movie. With a serene long shot of Mortensen in a premeditated state, his constant demeanor, the first move is made by the two assailants and he is forced to fight them unarmed, in a physically naked state. Draped in remorseless ink, there’s a certain viciousness about him that traps his assailants in cold red blood against the beautiful offsetting white tiles, his grit getting the better of their knives. The decision to go full frontal is a pretty challenging one and the only expression of grimace on Mortensen’s face is that of his character’s. Flawless!
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2.’They Live’: Roddy Piper vs Keith David
John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors. He is a true auteur in every sense and can be rightfully called the Hitchcock of Horror, because of his vast technical improvements in the genre. From ‘The Thing’s groundbreaking practical effects to ‘Halloween’s impeccable sound design, Carpenter was capable of taking a B grade movie’s budget and making optimum use of resources, stunning the whole industry in the process.
‘They Live’ is one of his lesser known films, because he deviated from conventional horror and opted to convey the dreaded emotion by satirizing the domineering presence of white-collar sections and media in the society, paying an entertaining tribute to Orwell’s 1984 and 50s horror films as well. They Live features one of the most out-of-place fight scenes you’ll ever see, but one cannot deny the fact that no matter how ridiculous this 6 minute scene is, it’s exhilarating. With another badass line by the late Roddy Piper, the brawl starts for the most silliest of reasons and the 200 pounder cats throw each other everywhere, with Piper flaunting some of his pro-wrestling moves. The end result is satisfying though, with Keith David finally able to see the world from a new perspective (I wont be giving away spoilers).
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3. ‘Oldboy’: Hallway fight
‘Oldboy’. This masterpiece from Korean director Park Chan-wook is infamous for its gut-wrenching plot reveal, the grave ambiguous ending, unquenchable thirst for brutality and gore and it’s deconstruction of genre conventions, making it the ‘Chinatown’ of contemporary cinema. However, the most remarkable scene in the movie is the most odd one as well. The hallway sequence is probably the only realistic fragment in a very tipsy-turvy not so lucid story of Oh Dae-su. Right from the suitcase unveiling to octopus swallowing or the end that gives away no explanations, we are always kept in dark of the reality of the events that take place, mainly due to a sense of feeling generated though dialogues or actions that feel too unprecedented to be real.
The hallway fight starts with a grim Dae-su standing in the doorway asking dozens of terrified henchmen about the availability of the blood type AB, and dark comedy like this makes the movie special overall. The view then changes into a long shot along the length of the hallway with Dae-su’s theme giving a heroic feel to the sequence. It’s a one take shot and the viewers are enticed into Dae-su’s saga. Like most Asian slashers, the lead doesn’t slice them all in a go but he takes his time, and beats them black and blue, serving as a reminder of the vengeance he’s going to inflict on the man who stole his life. This sequence has inspired other features like ‘The Raid’ and Marvel’s Daredevil.
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4. ‘Kill Bill Vol 1’: The Bride vs Crazy 88
Tarantino likes guns. Like most of us, he is a huge fan of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and has admittedly borrowed a lot of elements from the archetypal lead to the smoldering bank, bang, bangs. But he did come up with something refreshing in ‘Kill Bill’, choosing to pick up a traditional weapon, glimpses of which were seen in Pulp Fiction. Though the whole scene is heavily inspired by Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ but I guess it edges out the original in terms of a vivid experience.
This epic showdown takes place in a dojo in Tokyo as The Bride hunts down one of her former partners-in-crime, O Ren ishii (Lucy Liu) and faces Ren’s bodyguard Gogo and the truly Crazy 88, who are shockingly shred apart by The Bride. This very scene gave Thurman a cult status and elevated the movie. From slitting down throats to popping eyeballs to slicing heads clean off, the Crazy 88 are quite honorably massacred at the living altar of the Black Mamba. She raises hell with her legendary Hanzo Hattori katana, showing glimpses of her hatred. Tarantino gives an artistic edge to the colorization of the gore, maybe appearing as a cheap prop at times, but that is neutralized by covering it with a sheet of black and white. Elements in the movie like the flashy katanas, the setting and the shift in tint with wide stretched camera angles give it a manga-esque feel, which is highlighted earlier in Ren’s backstory, making optimum use of a Japanese centred story arc.
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5. ‘Enter The Dragon’: Final fight
If Bruce Lee is the King of Martial Arts, then ‘Enter The Dragon’ is the king of martial arts movies. The movie that kick-started the ‘Kung Fu Kraze’ in the 70s, mixing Westerns with perfectly executed Asian karate chops and roundhouse kicks, with Lee being at the helm of this developing cult. What was special about these movies was their seriousness towards the scenes involving the display of their skills, with the performers ardent on proving the elegance of martial arts.
The final fight scene in ‘Enter The Dragon’ is visually striking, using a mirror maze with multiple reflections to convey a sense of entrapment in your own panic, with incoming attacks that increase the already growing sense of anticipation, is simply phenomenal. The contrast is beautiful, because the lead deprives himself of this paranoia and is completely calm despite the enemy having an upper hand (pun intended) and it is the audience who are lured into a multi-faceted anxious state. The fight does end with Lee defeating the enemy, by implementing the famous quote “Destroy the image and you will break the enemy” thus shattering fear from his own self.
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6. ‘Empire Strikes Back’: Darth Vader vs Luke
Trumpeting orchestral music accompanied by a majestic yellow text crawling away into the depths of a galaxy far, far away. It barely lasts for 2 minutes but is capable of shooting 200,000 signals throughout your body. You know what I’m talking about. STAR WARS! ‘Star Wars’ is the most iconic franchise ever made and was probably the most breathtaking galactic experiences of the 20th century with stunning battleships, light-sabers, laserbeams and alien planets. After 40 years, the one thing that still stands out is the production design assembled for the lightsaber duels, which were more than just two illuminating rods striking each other. They represented the fight between the good and the evil.
Talking about lightsaber duels, there is none as unforgettable as the one between Darth Vader and Luke. With Luke unknowingly battling his father, which is unveiled in the dying moments of the altercation (that has since become a benchmark for plot twists), he comes face-to-face with his fear for the second time in the movie after the incident at Dagobah. The Sith Lord defeats Luke single-handedly, exposing the lead’s flaws and indirectly hinting at the possibilities of Luke being devoured by the Dark Side, a thought voiced earlier by Yoda as well. Luke does get his arm slayed and escapes from the clutches of Vader, thus abiding by the Light Side but also setting up a nail-biting buildup to the disappointing events of ‘Return of the Jedi’.
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7. ‘Kill Zone- S.P.L’: Alley fight
This fight sequence is probably the least known of all the ones on the list but mark my words, the execution is miles ahead of the others. Its speciality being, it was shot in one take. The ‘Oldboy’ sequence was a one-shot wonder too, but as I have already mentioned its dramatized and unfolds at a slower pace like a scroll being unveiled. Kill Zone on the other hand is quick, very quick, it gives you a hard time keeping track of the attacks it throws or blocks.
Starring two flawless and equally able martial artists in Donnie Yen and Wu Jing, it offers you 4 minutes of overloaded action enhanced by top notch choreography. The set design is brilliant with focus on lighting, especially blue, encapsulating the charm of Hong Kong’s streets. The buildup is similar to a Western with wide shots followed by close-ups. The sound design filled with resonating clashing of metals brings a raw intensity, plays with the viewers’ minds to shuffle between paying attention to the sound and visuals. The use of slow-mo for successful strikes and blending it with the excellently paced duel scenes never lets you get distracted from the shocking final blow. A work of technical genius from Wilson Yip (‘Ip Man’).
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8. ‘The Matrix’: Agent Smith vs Neo
‘The Matrix’. The first image that pops up in your mind is the bullet time effect. Though earlier films like ‘The Wild Bunch’, ‘Blade’ and ‘Lost in Space’ used slow-motion technology to make fight sequences more appealing, they didn’t focus on half as many details as The Matrix, which coined the term ‘bullet-time’, leading to Warner Brothers registering it as their trademark. This specific sequence is the finest from the trilogy not only because it made use of more practical effects and less of computer generated imagery but also because all this time we were in a fix regarding Neo’s status as The One and his true potential. We had seen him engage in some sparring sessions with Morpheus but it’s a different ball game fending off a villain as powerful as Smith in a real life situation, no holes barred.
With Neo left alone in the subway after Trinity and Morpheus escape the Matrix, he is left with no choice but to fight Smith. After the pair realize each of them’s too capable of fending off bullets which is portrayed in a beautiful dimension rippling effect, they switch to a fistfight that rattled the world during the dusk of the millenium. Neo is no match infront of Smith’s unlimited powers, but his ever-growing consciousness helps him devise a plan to trick Smith. The camerawork is phenomenal under the direction of the Wachowski brothers and the intensity of the sequence was so much, the stunt doubles had to suffer major injuries. Though there are a couple of other fights that are more visually appealing but nothing comes close to the original’s finesse.
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9. ‘Ip Man’: 10 man fight
Another Donnie Yen sequence. Only because it is a testament to the Chinese martial artist cum actor’s legacy. In a world obsessed with superheroes and heavily edited fight sequences filled with stuntmen and green screens, Yen stands out as an artist possessing the expertise and gravitas to bloom, with his roots firmly held by the traditional art of fighting. He is one of the most successful actors from Asia and took the world by storm with his portrayal of the great Wing Chun grandmaster ‘Ip Man’ in the movie of the same name.
The background follows the Japanese’s military infiltration of China during WW2 and how Ip Man stood out as a hero, a messiah for the locals to show resilience against the injustice. The fight sequence takes place as a result of Ip witnessing his fellow locals being murdered for the amusement of Japanese officials. He takes on 10 karatekas (Japanese soldiers) all by himself and proceeds to mercilessly crush each of them with a brutal barrage of his martial art mastery, showing none of the restraint he exhibited in previous engagements. It does suffer from dramatization but that can be neglected, because of the badassery that oozes out from a usually calm, saintly Ip. The agility is remarkable, and the scenes as a whole though not as good as ‘Kill Zone’, is still a delight for mainstream action fanatics!
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10. ‘Raging Bull’: Jake LaMotta vs Sugar Ray
The only sequence on the list that was shot in monochrome. Scorsese’s ‘Raging Bull’ is one of his finest films with a debatable career best performance from DeNiro as Jake LaMotta, a middleweight boxer who has a hearty appetite for self-destructive practices. With a terrific screenplay by collaborator Paul Schrader and both Scorsese and DeNiro chipping in to perfect it, brilliant editing and mixing and a great decision to shoot the movie in black and white, Raging Bull is now one of the most important films in the National Film Registry.
Enter Round 13. Sugar Ray Robinson vs Jake LaMotta. Sugar Ray vs The Bronx Bull. Signalled off by actual footage from the match, we step into Scorsese’s world. LaMotta was known for his ability to never go down no matter how hard you hit him, and was the only boxer to never have been knocked out by Sugar Ray on six different occasions. Though B/W, the detailing is magnificient. You can see every drop of sweat and every lump of blood flying around in a comparatively slower frame rate compared to the incessantly heavy rate capturing Ray’s blows with flickering shots conveying the apt idiom “to beat the living daylights out of someone”. The transitioning is so crisp due to the aforementioned editing and Scorsese doesnt restrain himself here, like he was forced to in ‘Taxi Driver’. The bloodied LaMotta barely clinging onto the ropes and yet gathering up enough guts to taunt Ray later is a striking and unfortunate image of the fallen star.
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