Since the early days of cinema, people have enjoyed watching other people get beat on film. Early on, it was comedic. The likes of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd made careers out of having themselves beat senseless in slapstick antics and funny situations. Eventually theatre fighting became prominent, especially swordplay, and thanks to "men's men" like John Wayne (classics like The Quiet Man) and countless boxing and wresting pictures, movies began to feature the fight first, everything else second. This gave way to countless westerns and the classic saloon brawls, taken to a next level with Japanese Samurai flicks, then ushering in the modern-day fight with the the likes of James Bond and martial arts masters in the 1960s. It's really those last two elements that really brought in the idea of a fight, not as merely a means to an end, but the end itself.
Everybody has their own favorites, and I've hopefully compiled a list that appeals to all fans of classic action movies, Asian cinema legends and Bruce Campbell fans.
A few rules for the list (I would make a Fight Club pun here, but that's been overplayed):
1: Must be live action (no animation, sorry Optimus) and an actor can not appear on the list more than twice.
2: Must either be hand-to-hand or use melee weapons such as swords, spears or axes.
3: Army battles are not allowed (so no Normandy etc..). These are fights, pure and simple. As long as it's not an army and the hero/s and villain/s small in number.
4: Guns are only allowed as long as they are not the focus of the fight. I'll do Top 25 Shootouts some other time.
5: Has to have at least one human being (or a being that's human-like). Number 25 will explain.
So let's kick this brawl off with something utterly ridiculous...
25: Zombi 2
Underwater Action - Zombie versus Shark
I'm not making a list of the greatest fights of all time without putting what is considered the most ridiculous. It's a scene that really comes out of nowhere and is utterly hilarious because it takes itself so damn seriously (as the whole film does, to be honest). It's a shark. It's a zombie. What more could you ask for?
24: Rob Roy
The Duel - Rob Roy versus Archibald Cunningham
To many, this is considered the greatest sword fight ever filmed. I don't know about that, but it is one of the more realistic ones. It's also a showcase of lyrical fighting in that the metaphor of the brutish Scotsman going against the refined Englishman is pretty much the entire plot of the film. He's not as refined, but winning a swordfight, just as winning any battle, has more to do with character and heart than it does anything else. That's why we always route for the underdog. Also noted is how great the scene expresses the difficulty of swordfighting. He's tired, haggered, losing blood and still moves on. Just a great scene.
23: District B-13
Steering Wheel Fight - Damien versus Black French People
If you haven't seen this film, do yourself a favor and do it. The fighting is great, although the running and jumping combined with fantastic camera work is the real show stealer. Still, I have to think this brief fight scene is the best in the movie. While very derivative of Jackie Chan in Rush Hour, it's a very fast and brutal scene that moves incredibly well.
Pommel Horse Fight - Cabot versus A Lot of Villagers
Oh look, there's a pummel horse in the middle of this village of crazy people. How convenient. Despite it's showing of pretty legitimate athleticism, this is so absurd and funny that the insanity of it is why it's here, not the fight itself. Sometimes, you just have to laugh. Say what you want, but there's no other fight like it and originality goes a long way in a fight scene.
21: Grosse Point Blank
High School Hallway Fight - Blank versus La Poubelle.
In what is one of John Cusack's best roles (and possibly his best film), a professional assassin returns to his hometown for his high-school reunion. It's only natural that others show up and want to kill him. I think what makes this one great is the very real-world scenario it takes place at (at a high school reunion) and the rather realistic brutality of the fight itself. For not being an action star, another reason why I think it's so good and can hit the "realistic" level, Cusack pulls of some solid fighting choreography. The 80s tune is a nice touch and really sets the stage.
The Gates of Troy - Achilles versus Hector
Taking a needed departure from the original tale (Achilles chases Hector around the entire city walls first, and I believe this goes on for a while), Troy has the two heroes just running right at each other, spear and shield in hand. Achilles' (Brad Pitt) technique is like watching water flow and Hector (Eric Bana) shows someone who is incredibly gifted but obviously outmatched. It's smooth and always with purpose. It's a unique style combining martial arts and traditional fencing and swordplay and one of the better sword and sandals bouts.
Theatre Sword Fight - Marquis de Maynes versus Moreau
Time to go old school with one of the best sword fights on film. Lasting over six minutes, this fight scene was the selling point of the film back in 1952 and still remains dramatic and engaging to this day. A really great fight scene tells a story within the fight itself, changing and being dramatic as it moves along, and this one is centered entirely on that concept.
18: The Transporter
Party Crasher - Frank versus Gangsters
Hi. I'm Jason Statham and I like to punch people. This is the movie that put Statham on the map as an action star and rightfully so. It has some fantastic action sequences, car chases and, of course, Statham punching people in the face. It's a western film with eastern martial arts movies sensibilities making for a unique blend. This particular fight scene is highlighted by axe wielders in a tight hallway.
17: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
'Tis But a Scratch - King Arthur versus The Black Knight
A bit of a two-fer here, because half of what makes this fight great is the buildup showing the Black Knight fighting the green knight and Arthur watching. We see his invincibility first, then...well...you'll see. Nothing fancy here, but a lot of fun and I'm betting a fight that many people might have forgotten about. Too classic to leave off.
The Championship - Rocky Balboa versus Apollo Creed
15: Wheels on Meals
Classic Showdown - Jackie Lung (aka Jackie Chan) versus Henchman (aka Benny the Jet)
Awful movie name, awesome movie fight. This one is considered Chan's best by many, if not at least one of the best of all time. The fight has gone down as one of those mythological encounters, rivaled by Lee versus Norris, and really is the showcase of the friendly rivalry Chan and Urquidez had (they would fight again in Dragon's Forever, another worthy addition to such a list).
14: They Live
Wear My Sunglasses! - Nada versus Frank
The cult classic from John Carpenter is legendary. Whether or not it's because it's so good or so bad is unclear, but it's entertaining either way because we have Rowdy Roddy Piper versus Keith David in a fight that, for the most part, was completely spontaneous. Carpenter was so impressed with what Piper and David were doing for the fight, he just rolled with it.
Letting of Steam - Matrix versus Bennet
Unintentionally funny but intentionally sweaty, out of all of Schwarzenegger's showdowns, the climatic fight with a sweat-covered, chain-mail laden Vernon Wells (also known as Rasik from Power Rangers) was probably his greatest one on one battle. Sure there was the T-1000, the Predator, that thing at the end of Conan the Destroyer and a half-dozen Mad Max rejects in The Running Man, but what makes this great was that it encompasses everything about Arnold. His muscles, his glazy-ness, his strength, his one-liners, his accent and his bad acting that we forgive because of his total coolness.
12: Evil Dead 2
Who's Laughing Now? - Ash versus Ash's Hand
I said at least one human or human-like character...well, this one is just one person, Bruce Campbell in probably his most iconic scene. Campbell really gives it all and beats himself to a pulp here, but even when his hand is gone, the fight is far from over. Raimi takes the simplest of situations and, combined with Campbell's willingness to hurt himself, makes something that would make Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplan proud (should they enjoy playing with severed limbs). A personal favorite and a classic piece of B-Movie craziness.
11: The Protector
Non-stop Fight - Kham versus Everyone in the Building
Sure, the entire story and reason for the fight is utterly stupid, and Jaa not the best of actors, but this is one hell of a scene all done on one shot. The setting up, the stuntwork, the camera all are top-notch. Like a real fight, you can see and sense the utter exhaustion (probably because Jaa really was exhausted). I think it's just the timing of how everything occurs that makes it so great.
10: The Princess Bride
Complimentary Swordfight - Inigo Montoya versus Westley
Quotable, humorous, and just all-around fun, where would The Princess Bride be without this scene? "I am not left handed!" "Do you have six fingers?" "My name is Inigo Montoya...you killed my father...prepare to die." The first major scene in the film as Westley scales the cliffs after his beloved Buttercup, and it really sets the bar and lays the groundwork for the rest of the movie in terms of its style, its character, its off-beat tone and its charm. I can't imagine the movie without it.
Ending Friendships - Yu Shin Len versus Jen Yu
Zhang and Yeoh use every ounce of their ability in this scene, one I'm thinking many were expecting to appear somewhere. I love the music in this scene and Ang Lee never compromises his camerawork for a "money shot." In fact, the directing and cinematography are relatively simple, concentrating solely on the technicality of the fight which, I should note, has very little "wire-fu" action and is pretty much a straight weapon-based fight.
8: The Matrix
Subway Fight - Neo versus Agent Smith
The Matrix series is full of great fights, the trilogy was inspired by classic martial arts and anime films so its no surprise. The best, though, is the dramatic turn of Neo facing Agent Smith. Nobody fights an agent head-on, that's what we're told repeatedly. Most people die. Yet here is Neo doing exactly what he's not supposed to do and we can't help but route and be compelled by it. It's intense, full of drama and, truth be told, I don't think anyone will forget the first time they saw it.
Battle of Carthage - Maximus's Group versus Those Other Guys in Chariots
There have been dozens of gladiator movies (I hear Captain Oveur is a fan) but none really depicted the brutality of ancient Rome quite as well as the modern classic, Gladiator. I'll say I'm not the biggest fan of the film, but its highlights of the fights are some of the best in cinema. None better than this Battle of Carthage. Actually it's a shoddy recreation for public spectacle where the "barbarians"are supposed to lose, but a fight none the less. Maximus has other plans and shows his leadership ability and also some awesome fighting on top of that. There are two other noteworthy fights in the film (the first brutal and bloody small Colosseum and the other the one one one fight with Tigris of Gaul) but the sheer spectacle and introduction of the Colosseum is unmatched. It's awe-inspiring and beautiful, then you have an awesome fight on top of it. No other film has recreated the Roman Colosseum so inspirationally.
6: Empire Strikes Back
Cloud City Duel - Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader
Sure, the prequels may have been more fancy and elaborate, but the greatest saber fight of pure epicness is the final fight in The Empire Strikes Back. Its pacing, the way it moves and allows itself to breath, it's intelligence, its scene set up and perfect angles is the cherry on top of this fantasy masterpiece. It was more the payoff of such a great fight than the fight itself, though. It had been building up to this moment and it didn't disappoint ending in a classic action scene and one of the greatest plot twists in movie history.
5: Once Upon a Time in China 2
Pole Dancing - Wong Fei Hung versus Lan
Choosing only two Jet Li fights is like only choosing two Beatles songs for a Beatles CD. In all fairness, Li (and Chan to an extent) are the reason I wanted to limit how many times a person can be on this list, it would be dominated by them, no question, due to their long careers and quality fights. I went with Once Upon a Time in China 2 for various reasons, one being that Li made a career portraying Wong Fei Hung and two being this one also includes another Chinese movie star, Donnie Yen (who arguably upstages Li here, similarly the way Benny the Jet does to Chan in #15) in one of his better fight scenes also.
As there's not nearly enough Donnie Yen on this list, here's a scene of him mercilessly destroying a guy in SPL as well as brutally decimating 10 other fighters in Ip Man. Both of these are pretty recent films, showing that the man's still got it, and probably still doesn't' get the due he's deserved.
4: Way of the Dragon (aka Return of the Dragon)
Classic Showdown 2 - Colt versus Dragon
Note to self: shave the chest hair. Not only is this Chuck Norris versus Bruce Lee, they shot it at the Roman Colosseum. That's practically poetic, I think. I don't know if this quite matches the excitement of the final fight(s) in The Chinese Connection, but it's too legendary to not give it the nod. Lee was known for wanting to show realistic fighting in his films and get away from the exaggerated style that dominated Asian cinema at the time and what better example this this encounter between he and a young Chuck Norris. It's east meets west in another classic showdown of two martial arts legends, and the fight itself doesn't disappoint on top of that going for a more slower pace than what many might be accustomed to.
Alcohol, Please - Wong versus John
Chan might be known for his stunt work, but his ability as a fighter is often not given enough credit as a result. He is a master of various styles and has incredible speed and technical ability (#15 should show some of that). Here he completly adapts the Drunken style to fantastic results, but I need to note that Ken Lo isn't half bad himself showing some incredible footwork.
If I Had a Hammer - Oldboy versus Lots of Thugs
One look at Daesu (Oldboy), the last thing you could think is that he would have anything in him on this scale. But the man is angry and pissed...and he has a hammer. This is not only realistic (Daesu pretty much is running on adrenaline despite being pummeled constantly) but all done in one extended shot. There's nothing fancy or elaborate, it's not even a display of skill and technique, it's just a flat-out brawl.
You can also watch the horrible Indian version of the film, Zinda, for a good laugh.
1: Fist of Legend
Ping is a Master - Zhen versus Fujita
Everything to love about a fight scene can be found right smack in Fist of Legend, a remake to Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury. The difference? This was directed by still-young legend Gordon Chan (Dragon's Forever, First Option, Beast Cops) and choreographed by uber-legend Yuen Woo Ping (Many Li films, many Yen films, many Yeoh films, The Matrix films, Crouching Tiger, Kill Bill so on and so forth you get the idea). This was just a perfect match between Jet Li and Billy Chow and is one of the best martial arts films ever made and this final battle the best fight scene ever filmed. I call it like I see it, but movies are still compared to this one every day.
I always like to do a nice side mention on something, sometimes it's because it deserves to be on the list, other times because it's outside the norm and an oddity. This one is the latter, and so I submit to you: The Human Tornado. Dolemite will destroy you.
Other great fights: Hero of the East, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Gordon Liu FTW) The Bourne film series, House of Flying Daggers, Drunken Master, Once Upon a Time in China (1-3), Rocky II-IV, Fearless, Iron Monkey, Yojimbo, Ong-Bak, Iron Fisted Monk (it may be cheesy and sound effects goofy, as is with all chop-socky, but that final fight is classic), Die Hard, Fist of Fury (nunchaku = instant win) The Adventures of Robin Hood, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, The Quiet Man, Casino Royal, The Twilight Samurai, Best of the Best, Star Trek V, The Musketeer, The Count of Monte Cristo, Any Which Way But Loose, Kickboxer, Rumble in the Bronx, Samurai III, Bloodsport (while no fights made this list, the film as a whole would easily be in a Top 10 movies about fighting), Escape from New York, Predator, The Matrix: Revolutions, The Matrix, The Chinese Connection, Game of Death, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Kung Fu Hustle, Kill Bill Vol 1., Rush Hour, Armour of the Gods, The Master, Kiss of the Dragon, The Last Dragon, Sanjuro, Revenge of the Sith, Hero, Seven Samurai, Project A, Shaolin Master Killer, The Running Man, Born to Defense, The Killing Machine, Unleashed, Gorgeous, 5 Deadly Venoms, Twin Warriors, Various Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub films, Highlander,
A Scene you love not make the list? Leave a comment and even give a link so we can bask in it.