The 30 Best Action Scenes in Movie History



10. Oldboy: the hallway

oldboy pic

The most integral element of a fight scene is meant to be invisible: visual coherence. The scene needs to make sense to our eyes. This is a partnership between the director of photography and the editor, as guided by the director. If it is overly handheld, or cuts too often, or breaks the 180 line for no reason, no matter how well choreographed it is, it risks being inscrutable.

That is what makes Chan-wook Park’s hallway fight, in which the protagonist needs to take out over a dozen men in the length of a slim hallway with only a hammer and his fists, so great. It is famous for its long take, which lasts nearly 3 minutes and depicts the entire confrontation. It is a feat of choreography and a functional (yet difficult to pull of) choice to do it in one shot.


9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Elevator Attack

Captain America The Winter Soldier Elevator Attack

By and large, the Marvel films that have taken over the multiplex have been well liked among both fans and critics. There is something to be said that, of all the robots and aliens and urban destruction, the most impressive action scene in any of them takes place in a one small, cramped box.

At this point in the story, the eponymous hero knows too much, and secret forces inside the government want him taken out. The problem is, he’s Captain America. The solution? A sneak attack by 9 armed soldiers in an elevator. They enter a few at a time, at different floors so as to not arouse his suspicion.

The Russo brothers spend half the length of the 3 minute sequence studying the superhero as he slowly realizes what’s about to happen. He is outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and cornered. The directing here is key, and understands one great secret of a killer fight scene: make the audience beg for it. And when the claustrophobic brawl does come, it delivers.


8. Raiders of the Lost Ark: fist fight on the runway

Raiders of the Lost Ark

This here is pure cinema. Indiana Jones is a staple of so many childhoods, himself a throwback to movie serials dating back to the Depression era. Indy thinks he’s won the fight before it even begins – he takes out one bad guy, and is about to take out the pilot (unaware of his presence due to the loud whir of the engine), when Spielberg pushes in behind a massive, shirtless antagonist.

The man wants a fistfight, but Indy will do anything to win, like every scrappy underdog worth their weight. One of the great virtues of the best action heroes is a sense that they are vulnerable, and Indy is almost always outsized and out of luck. Spielberg details the scenes with over-the-top sound effects and that classic, rousing John Williams score. Of course Indy wins, but it’s a hard fight with an ugly, but satisfying, conclusion involving the plane’s propeller and one surprised bad guy.


7. Ip Man: Ten on One

Ip Man Ten on One

Ip Man takes the (highly fictionalized) life story of Grandmaster Yip Man, best known for being Bruce Lee’s teacher. It is easy to forgive the embellishments when spellbound by the incredibly visceral fight choreography, showcasing Wing Chun, Yip Man’s martial art.

In the film’s most riveting fight scene, the grandmaster, standing up to the invading army, volunteers to fight 10 martial artists at once. The star of the scene is the choreography by Sammy Hung and Tony Leung Siu-hung, and Donnie Yen’s committed performance as the title character. Ip Man steps into the ring, exchanges bows, and from there the punishment he extols is astonishing.

The camera stays loose on its feet, matching Ip Man’s stance and only choosing certain moments to cut to a wide for a more objective frame. Each blow is depicted so that you can understand not just that he winning, but how.


6. Drunken Master: The Final Fight

Drunken Master The Final Fight

While not the only comic fight scene listed here, this is far and away the silliest, and yet as impressive as any other for its physicality. A youthful Jackie Chan has to use the 8 Drunken Gods to defeat his rival in the film’s final fight, which asserts itself as a farce from the outset.

His teacher, Beggar Su, chastises him mid-fight for not practicing enough, and he only wins the fight when he is able to summon the skill to combine all 8 gods, including the flamboyant Miss Howe — the one style he never mastered because he thought it too feminine.

The actual martial arts on display are an amalgam of various styles of kung fu and taekwondo, but the fictitious style at the center (which requires one to literally be drunk) is based largely on the Hung Ga system. A scene of pure joy, mining for jokes more than creating tension, the gymnastics on display are elegant in their simplicity and electrifying in the precision.

Also, very funny.


5. Kill Bill: Volume 1: The House of the Blue Leaves

Kill Bill

There is little to be said about the sequence that hasn’t been said before. It manages to be incredibly artful and hugely entertaining at once, its use of color breathtaking — from the yellows inside to the luminous blues in the snowy showdown between The Bride (Thurman) and O-Ren (Liu).

Equally stunning is when Tarantino drops color entirely, moving into black and white for a sequence the MPAA said was too violent. It helped get around the issue and gifted the already visually loaded scene another aesthetic to roll through.

It is one of Tarantino’s most visually memorable sequences, and the choreography of the seemingly infinite henchmen and henchwomen – with swords, with hands, and even a spiked ball on a chain – is equally awe-inspiring. A modern classic, to be sure.


4. Night and the City: Wrestling Match

Night and the City Wrestling Match

Jules Dassin’s classic film noir is far from an action film. Truly, the only action scene in the film is this one, a Greco-Roman wrestling match between an old pro and a younger brute. It is a brutal scene, Richard Widmark’s self-serving loser even has a change of heart watching the savage beating turn tragic.

The older wrestler, Gregorius the Great, is forced into the fight due to his old-world pride, and his son, also a wrestler, is stuck watching the clearly stronger man slowly work over his father’s aging physique. It is an unpleasant, quiet match, hyper-realistic in its depiction of the violence imposed by and on the men. It may be an unconventional choice for this list, but this is, simply, one of the most upsetting fight scenes of all time.


3. Police Story 4: First Strike: The Ladder Fight

Police Story 4 First Strike The Ladder Fight

Jackie Chan is one of cinema’s great physical comedians, natural charisma lends itself well to comedy. This would not be the first time he has been compared to the likes of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, except he could beat you up.

That Chan does his own stunts makes it all the more thrilling, and a lot of that comes from the light touch he gives many of his action scenes. He is always vulnerable and fragile, despite being a real-life martial arts master. His character, Chan Ka-Kui, spends the entire fight trying to de-escalate and avoid hurting anybody.

This is escapist fun, at odds with the more modern trend of dark, grim action films. This scene is all Chan; twisting his way through scaffolding, deflecting hits with a large-fold out table. He leaps and climbs over each obstacle thrown his way, and the excitement comes from his clever use of those obstacles to avoid real violence (as much as possible, that is).

The scene culminates in a virtuosic martial arts ballet involving several attackers and a ladder. There is no moment that singularly captures the wonder that is Jackie Chan better than this.


2. The Raid: Putting Down a Mad Dog


In the same way Fury Road was one, long chase scene, The Raid is one, long, bone-crushing, mind-melting fight scene. Its plot is threadbare as the film builds one action scene on top of the next, culminating in the greatest fight scene in recent memory.

Mad Dog isn’t the final “big bad” of the film, but he is the most dangerous, a highly skilled fighter with a ferocity and sheer power that seems almost supernatural. He invites the fight when Rama, our hero cop, arrives to save Andi, originally an antagonist who has a secret connection to Rama. Mad Dog lets Andi go, allows the two men to prepare, walks slowly between them… and all hell breaks loose.

Even two on one, Mad Dog is nearly unbeatable. Gareth Evans keeps the camera mostly between a medium and wide, framing the entire scene so that everything is seen. Rarely has a fight scene felt this real, the audience moving an inch closer to the edge of their seats with each impact of bone on flesh. It goes on forever, and it takes extreme measures on the part of the good guys to finally put this dog down.


1. Raging Bull: Jake vs. Sugar Ray

Raging Bull

Martin Scorsese’s work here ranks among the most beautiful in his career, if not his absolute crowning achievement, a brutal dance of flying fists and sweat. The fight is intense and violent, and every punch brings with it a palpable impact that makes the audience flinch.

Director of Photography Michael Chapman was already well known for having shot The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and Jaws. He gets to attempt another dolly/counter-zoom (the effect innovated by Hitchcock with Vertigo, wherein the camera moves physically forward or backward while the lens is zoomed in the opposite direction). Right before Sugar Ray lands the last barrage of punches that will finally take down our anti-hero, the effect is jarring in its beauty.

It is a highly stylized sequence, not only for its use of frame rates and black and white stock, but with its stark flirtation with expressionism: smoke rises up behind La Motta, on the ropes, and the incessant flash of cameras seem to imply hellfire. The compositions become more and more angled, dutched and last less time on screen, the violence implied by the cuts in a way reminiscent of Hitchcock yet again (the shower scene in Psycho). This is filmmaking at its highest order.

Author Bio: Ryan Jeffrey is an independent filmmaker in Queens, New York. He’s been a film buff since he was a kid, and enjoys being able to talk about the films he loves and explore what makes them great.