By Drew Turney
In real life they’re messy, scary and much more dangerous than the cinema screen depicts them. If you’ve ever been in a fight it probably amounted to a huge surge of adrenalin and fear and two or three hits before it was all over, and for good reason – biologically just one or two well-aimed blows can result in broken jaws, noses, teeth or brain damage.
But that’s why fights are so cool in movies, the one place we can depict ourselves with the abilities and attributes we wish we had. Whether it’s the human ballet of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan or the bloodthirsty, nasty scrapes in Bitchslap, the silver screen renders hand-to-hand combatants near-indestructible, and we love every minute of it.
Is it a way of exorcising our real-world frustrations in relative safety, or is a well-timed haymaker just a satisfying way to see the bad guy get his comeuppance? While you’re paging Dr Freud, knock yourself out with the best fights ever committed to celluloid…
1. Pit fight
Tony Jaa’s good but flashy. Jet Li is Bruce Lee’s natural successor (even if he has all the thesping chops of a wooden plank when the action stops), and he’s never showcased better than the pit fight in Louis Leterrier’s gangland martial arts extravaganza.
Thrown into the ring by his brutal boss/owner Bart (Bob Hoksins), Danny (Li) proceeds to get the crap kicked out of him by his opponent. The venue manager decides to amp up the action and throws three more challengers into the ring, the crowd obliging by chucking in axes, clubs, sledgehammers and spears.
Leterrier’s camera wheels around some of the most scalp-tingling fight choreography you’ve ever seen as tiny Danny decides to repel the brutal thumping – dodging, ducking and striking like a coiled cobra, dispatching his opponents with gusto.
2. Night at the Compound
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Where does it say ancient martial artist swordsmen can’t skip across the rooves of buildings or the tops of trees in a verdant forest? Watch any fight movie with Eastern influences from the noughties and Crouching Tiger will cast a long shadow after revitalising the genre.
Just when we thought the soft-spoken Taoist philosophy was going to crowd the narrative out, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) sees the thief sent by Jade Fox sneak through the compound in pursuit of the mystical sword. She gives chase across the yards and rooftops, Wushu style, stepping on her quarry’s foot to stop her flying away, and the neat whiplash of kung fu that follows sent a generation scrambling for the martial arts section of the video store.
3. Crazy 88
Kill Bill 1 (2003)
Eastern influences again, Tarantino name-checking the Shaw brothers-esque, censor-bothering action bloodbaths of 70s and 80s Hong Kong action films.
The Bride’s (Uma Thurman) quest for O Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) has led her to the Crazy 88 club, where an army of black-suited swordsmen await her. She watches them close menacingly in and then hacks, slashes, swings, spins, swan dives and climbs her way through all of them, lopping heads, arms and legs that result in furiously and comically spraying showers of blood.
Physics? Pfft. Tarantino’s always been a comic book director – sometimes unwittingly – and if you were in doubt the Crazy 88 fight is a geek’s paradise, just listen for the Wilhelm Scream.
4. Qui Gon and Obi Wan vs Darth Maul, Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999)
The second and last time Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker fought they tottered around a Death Star hallway in A New Hope looking like they couldn’t wait to get back to their easy chairs for a cup of Bovril. When George Lucas was talking up their first fight in the fires of Mustafar on the Episode III commentary, he explained that that latter dust up was between two tired old men, and that when those two were in their prime, the battle at the end of Revenge of the Sith would melt our eyeballs.
But for the best example of those trained in the Jedi arts, look no further than Qui Gon and Obi Wan taking on Darth Maul in the Naboo hangar. Where Obi Wan and Anakin just seemed to hack at each other indiscriminately on Mustafar, here the young padewan feigns, blocks and parries with the moves of a master fencer with his own master by his side. And the horn-headed Sith holds them both off with his double-ended lightsabre, still the coolest weapon of the series.
Yoda and Dooku’s Episode II biff almost upstages it, but ended too quickly. And yes, it may be we’d just suffered through so much by that point (Jar Jar Binks, Jake Lloyd’s ‘acting’) anything would seem exciting.
5. Rumble in the Jungle
King Kong (2005)
Critics fawned over the Toy Story movies for making the unreal seem so real, and watching Kong fight three hungry Tyrannosaurs off while protecting Ann (Naomi Watts), it’s easy to forget we’re watching similarly shifting pixels based on Andy Serkis’ motion capture work. But in a movie where director Peter Jackson uses every inch of the big screen to show size and scope of Kong’s world, the central battle of the beasts is a showstopper.
It employs every cheesy B movie shock Jackson can think of (Ann dangling over the open jaws of one hungry lizard from the mouth of another, a third monster bursting from the jungle right when the stakes seem impossibly high), but it’s all played dead serious. Weta Digital’s awesome CGI work plunges us right into the action along with Ann amid hairy flying fists and swishing scales and the snapping of enormous jaws echoes throughout the theatre like cannon fire.
Not content with just a jungle floor brawl though, Jackson constantly one-ups himself. After toppling into a nearby canyon the bout continues amid the tangled vines all the way to the ground below.
6. Market put-down
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Aborted suddenly and hysterically before it began, you can hardly call Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) taking care of the ninja-like Middle Eastern swordsman a fight.
After racing through the market searching desperately for Marion (Karen Allen), Indy gets more attention than he wants. The crowd parts to reveal the swarthy villain swinging his weapon skilfully and promising to bring the pain. With an exhausted slump of the shoulders and hardly a backward glance, Indy gets the biggest laugh of the movie when he simply shoots his opponent from 20 feet away.
Carefully scripted social comment on the technology of the West overpowering the old ways of the Islamic world? Not quite – along with most of the crew, Ford had diarrhoea from the catering truck food and couldn’t face the elaborate fight Spielberg had planned for the day’s filming.
7. The Hallway
After following a delivery boy back to the hovel where he was imprisoned for 15 years, Dae-Su Oh (Min-sik Choi) finds himself in a dingy, slender hallway facing down a gang of guards. Having just pulled the ringleader’s teeth out with a claw hammer, he has nothing to fight back with but his hammer and his balls, and we’re not sure which one’s tougher.
A blend of orchestrated direct hits and realistic shoving and kicking, the guards have him on the ground more than once – they even put a knife in his back – but Oh keeps dragging himself back to his feet to attack with the same ferocity until he’s surrounded by pained, groaning, exhausted bodies. When the elevator at the end of the hall opens to reveal even more thugs he just smiles, ready to party on…
8. Rocky Balboa vs Ivan Drago
Rocky IV (1985)
Somehow this story of a determined underdog morphed into a Cold War parable, with Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) the honesty, freedom and down-home values of America and Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) the technologically cold, Godless and sneering Soviet war machine. No wonder when the bell sounded for the final fight we all cheered louder than ever.
Rocky walks right into a storm of the same hammerblows that killed Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), but the plucky champ isn’t going quietly into the night, and before long it’s more like two Bradley tanks than two men in the ring (as Drago says in one of his rare lines, ‘he is not human, he is like a block of iron’). Every swing scored a direct hit and sounded like the nukes the US and USSR wish they could be lobbing instead of just punches.
9. Dragons in LA
D War (2007)
Audiences never forgave Disney for the poster art of 2002’s Reign of Fire, which showed awesome-looking battles between military choppers and dragons that were completely absent from the film.
Hyung-Rae Shim’s take on the Korean legend finally gave us the ultimate inter-dimensional skirmish we wanted. If you can endure the excruciating script and acting throughout the rest of the film you’ll be well rewarded. Armies of orc-like creatures drive huge, battering-ram lizards against tanks in the streets of LA while Blackhawks battle pterodactyl-like dragons in the skies above.
10. The Fight Is On!
Any Which Way You Can (1980)
Bareknuckle boxer Philo Beddoe (Clint Eastwood) and his intended opponent Jack Wilson (William Smith) get so sick of the buzz surrounding their forthcoming bout they’re close to canning the whole idea. In the end they go purist. No pomp or ceremony, just two guys and their fists in an empty barn.
But the most anticipated fight around can’t stay secret for long, and soon the crowds descend from everywhere. They follow Beddoe and Wilson all over Jackson Hole as they beat seven shades of shit out of each other out of the barn, across town, through a restaurant kitchen and into a park. The 10-minute sequence effortlessly captured the immature, silly, dangerous and perennial art of humans hitting each other.