Action cinema has gone through some great changes over the past few decades. What entertained and thrilled audiences in the past may not work today. Fans want action scenes that are more violent, kinetic, intense and exciting. Everyone has their favourite aspect of action cinema. Some love gun fights, others love car chases, but for many, fight scenes are truly a test in action cinema craftsmanship.
Unfortunately, in recent years, Hollywood’s reliance on an overuse of shaky cinematography, fast edits and special effects has led to an oversaturated market of mediocre fight scenes. However, there are some filmmakers who are willing to push themselves and their art to create something original.
Hong Kong helped trigger the first wave of martial arts cinema, starting with the likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Biao Yuen and Jet Li, before Hollywood followed suit with Jean Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris and Brandon Lee.
However, this list does not confine itself simply to martial arts, they can be fight scenes of any nature, even ones with a lack of style. Regardless of its Eastern or Western origins, or even if comes from mainstream cinema or VOD pictures, fight scenes come in all forms.
25. Warrior (2011) – Brendan vs. Koba
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a fairly new phenomenon in the Western world. Martial artists from multiple backgrounds entering the ring (or octagon) to prove which style and fighter are the best. By mixing elements of striking (Boxing, Muay Thai), grappling (Wrestling) and ground fighting (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) size and weight advantages are no guarantee of a victory.
This theme could not be clearer in Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, the story of two brothers entering a MMA tournament. One of the brothers, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) a former UFC fighter turned physics teacher, is returning to the ring due to financial difficulties. Brendan is a clear underdog; selected last minute after another fighter was injured days before and was compared to a goldfish being dropped into a shark tank.
However, after defeating his first two opponents, he is paired against Koba (Kurt Angle) an undefeated Russian fighter. Size does have its uses, with Koba delivering some brutal strikes and throws on the much smaller Brendan, but after patiently waiting for a mistake, he exposes a weakness.
While the film has several strong fight scenes, including the Tommy vs. Mad Dog gym fight and the final fight between the two brothers, Brendan’s bout against Koba displays how size does not matter, especially when utilising Jiu-Jitsu. Apart from technical proficiency, it is hard not to be emotionally attached to Brendan’s plight just before the final round with his trainer’s final words.
24. Eastern Promises (2007) – Nikolai vs. Henchmen
David Cronenberg had already stepped into unknown territory with A History of Violence back in 2005. The Canadian auteur was best known for his work in Body/Cosmic horror, a far jump from crime. However, Cronenberg and star Viggo Mortenson defied expectations and crafted a pair of solid crime dramas, the latter of which earned Mortenson an Academy Award nomination.
Eastern Promises stood out with its brutal depictions of violence, its grim look at crime in London and its depressing look at immigrant life (something writer Steven Knight explored in Dirty Pretty Things). But the scene that stood out the most was the vicious knife fight in the Turkish bathhouse.
Targeted for assassination, Nikolai (Mortenson), a foot soldier in the Russian mob, is attacked by a pair of knife wielding killers, forcing him to fight back stark naked. This is a brutal scene. Knife fights are visceral and bloody enough but without clothing, the damage done to Nikolai’s body makes this a difficult watch.
Eastern Promises’ fight scene does not stand out for skill or technical efficiency but because it is not afraid to show the damage done to the human body. The idea of having your hero fight two knife-wielding killers naked is a hard sell but both Cronenberg and Mortenson carry it off perfectly.
23. The Man from Nowhere (2010) – Cha vs. Henchmen
When it comes to revenge dramas, audiences have to hate the antagonists. After all, they have to do something so evil and reprehensible that we can support the hero’s journey to exact bloody revenge. Cannot do much worse than a gang of human traffickers planning on selling a little girl’s organs on the black market.
South Korea cinema has recently gone through a golden age, especially within revenge cinema, and The Man from Nowhere is a prime example. The strongest point of the film is the climax where Cha Tae-sik, a former South Korean Army Intelligence officer, engages the gang, using an illegally acquired gun and some brutal hand-to-hand combat.
The fights are not eloquent or dance like, instead the hits are fierce, the falls are brutal and the screaming blood chilling. Cha struggles to fight the gang, even though they are untrained and inexperienced. This builds to the final showdown between Cha and the gang’s main henchman, Ramrowan. Both men utilise Kali and Silat, this time seen without shaky cam or fast edits. The Man from Nowhere not only produces a fight that is intense and brutal but also original and clever.
22. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) – Indiana Jones vs. German Mechanic
Take away the bullwhip and his trusty six-shooter; cinema’s baddest college professor still has a solid right hook, taking on Nazis, Communists and Hindu extremists. Many of Indiana Jones’ fights are known for their high stakes and even higher concepts. Jones has fought across moving vehicles, down a mineshaft, surrounded by killer ants and even on top of a tank, but in terms of sheer imagination, you cannot go past Jones’ fight against the German mechanic on the airfield in Egypt.
Attempting to steal a plane after rescuing Marion, Jones is confronted by the muscular mechanic clearly eager for a fight. However, when Marion knocks out the pilot of the plane, locking herself inside, Jones not only must deal with the physically superior Nazi, but several close calls with the planes two propellers.
The role of the mechanic was played Pat Roach, a British wrestler turned actor who played several of Jones’ adversaries including the Sherpa in Nepal, the head guard in the Temple of Doom and a Gestapo officer in The Last Crusade. Roach passed away in 2004 but he remains one of Jones greatest adversaries, each one dispatched through Jones’ ingenuity rather than brute strength. Still, Jones can throw and take a punch, elevating this fight scene through its use of stakes and brutality.
21. Undisputed III: Redemption (2005) – Boyka vs. Dolor
Straight to DVD cinema is made up of lots of hits and misses. Most action scenes are poorly edited, lazily shot and usually do not elicit the best performances out of their stars. But, every now and again, someone gets it right. In director Isaac Florentine’s case, he has gotten it right multiple times, none so more than Undisputed III.
There are many fight scenes that stand out, however, the highlight of the film is the climatic bout between Russian Yuri Boyka and Colombian Dolor. With his own sponsors turning their backs on him, Boyka must battle the Colombian with a speed, height and reach advantage. Despite his skills, Boyka is quickly overwhelmed, especially when Dolor takes advantage of a knee injury on the anti-hero.
Both Scott Adkins and Marko Zaror are talented martial artists and Florentine has no hesitation putting their moves on full display. A welcome change, especially in a market, which at the time was saturated with over edited fights.
However, it is the changing arc of Boyka that makes this fight truly phenomenal. Originally the villain in Undisputed II, Boyka has transformed into an anti-hero searching for redemption. When he is injured, he quickly transforms his weakness into a strength and finds the drive to finish the fight.
20. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) – Bourne vs. Desh
Director Paul Greengrass and the Bourne films have been largely credited (or blamed) for starting the now unpopular trend of utilising shaky cam and fast edits to hide the fact that most contemporary Hollywood stars cannot fight. However, despite its overuse today, the style was appropriate for a character like Bourne and the films he was in.
Trained by Dan Inosanto’s protégée Jeff Imada, Matt Damon utilises a mix of Kali and Jeet Kune Do against a well-trained adversary. While Desh, his opponent, is armed with various deadly weapons including a pistol, club and knife, Bourne manages to fight him off with a book and a towel, all to deadly affect.
The main purpose of shaky cam was to originally try and hide Damon’s lack of proficiency in hand-to-hand combat, yet behind the scenes footage reveals Damon’s competency. He can actually perform the choreography, illustrating that both Damon’s skills and Greengrass’ keen eye for action make this one of the few solid shaky cam fights in cinema.
19. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – Yu Shu Lien vs. Jen Yu
Ang Lee was no stranger to Hollywood prior to 2000, having directed Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, but it was upon returning to his native Taiwan that he grabbed Western audience’s attention with his interpretation of Wuxia cinema which, to this day, is still praised as one of the most influential foreign language films ever made.
But it is not just the boys occupying this list with the film’s primary fight scene between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi displaying grace, beauty and even some humour. Having stolen the Green Destiny, an unbreakable sword, Ziyi’s Jen Yu confronts Yeoh’s bodyguard Yu Shu Lien. Both are skilled warriors but Yu Shu constantly finds her weapons wearing down quickly, prompting frequent swaps to larger and more awkward weapons.
Yeoh and Ziyi are both trained dancers and the film’s wire-fu is a perfect fit for the pair. Balancing beauty, thrills and humour is a tricky mixture for any filmmaker, but for one like Ang Lee, it pays off.
18. Kill Bill: Vol 1 – The Bride vs. O-Ren Ishi/Crazy 88
When the name Tarantino is mentioned in the by-line, you know there is going to be some blood. Add in his love for Kung Fu and Samurai cinema, and you have the makings for the perfect homage for the two genres.
Dressed in a yellow jumpsuit (inspired by Bruce Lee from Game of Death), The Bride infiltrates the House of Blue Leaves to track down O-Ren Ishi. Tarantino gives us the layout, weaving through the various rooms while the Japanese punk band The 18.104.22.168’s plays. Music, colour and dialogue blend before blood comes into the picture.
As brutal and violent as the House of Blue Leaves fight is, there is a clear sense of fun. Tarantino is a self-confessed film buff and his films all pay homage to his favourite genres in the only way he knows how: excessive violence. Limbs fly off, eyeballs plucked and a schoolgirl assassin is struck in the head with a mace.
However, while the Bride’s fight against the Crazy 88 is memorable, it is her final duel against former assassin turned Yakuza boss, O-Ren Ishi that is pure art. Less of a chaotic massacre and more of a beautiful dance, Tarantino shoots the final fight amongst a gentle snowfall within a garden, a stark contrast to the blood that will soon flow.