Posted on May 17, 2020
I had this idea once to take all my favorite fight scenes and edit them together into one sizzle reel I could watch when I wasn’t in the mood for a whole story, but still wanted to enjoy some quality violence. I never did it, because, why would I? But I was thinking about it today and decided to come up with the list of scenes that would go on it.
Picking the scenes, I realized that what really makes a fight scene great is adding something new to the conversation. The Matrix introduced gravity defying wire work to Western audiences, but afterward every fight scene looked like it had been copied from that film.
So what I was really looking for was game changers. I’ve listed the ones important to me here in quasi-chronological order, oldest to most recent.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Growing up in the 60s, I caught the tail end of the very long run of the Western. But the movies I grew up with were bloodless affairs where the good guys only got winged in the shoulder, if they were hit at all. Needless to say, The Wild Bunch blew my tiny little mind all the way up.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Diamonds Are Forever is not a well regarded Bond Film, but the saying is true that your favorite Bond film is the first one you saw. This was mine and it was also the first hand-to-hand fight in close quarters I saw that exposed the true brutality of physical violence (and just how hard it is to kill a man).
Enter The Dragon (1973)
Before wire fights there was Bruce Lee, a man who had to slow himself down so the camera could see what he was doing. He was a one man ad campaign for the martial arts and after seeing him in Fists of Fury I promptly when out and signed up at my local dojo.
I wanted to have a movie from the 1980s on this list, but that was a time of cartoon violence in live action films. Think about the ridiculous fights in Total Recall and Lethal Weapon, if you doubt that. But Raging Bull, even more than Rocky before it, made you feel like you knew what it was like to be in the ring.
The Matrix (1999)
I know now that wire fights like the ones choreographed by Wo Ping for The Matrix were already quite common outside of America by the time I saw The Matrix on its maiden run.
But for me, personally, the moment when a fight scene became a critical selling point for an action movie (the way a car chase had been) was when Trinity leapt into the air and just… stopped.
More than any other American movie, The Matrix upgraded the fight scene to art.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
The real tragedy of the Bourne movies for me is that control passed from Doug Liman in the first one to the vastly inferior (to me) Paul Greengrass in the sequels. Liman’s innovation was to get in very close with the camera during the fight scenes which gave them a chaotic feel but also made everything seem to happen faster.
Greengrass’s innovation was to go back to the 1990s and use jigglevision so badly I literally couldn’t watch his movies.
But the original not only has several of the best fistfights ever shot, it also has some incredible gunfights. Liman’s loss ruined the franchise for me and then, to compound the tragedy, he was saddled with one of the worst actors in Hollywood for what should have been a great movie, Jumper.
I was going to put this as an honorable mention because the movie isn’t very good no matter how much I love it, but then I remembered this is my list and I can do what I want.
What most people remember from this movie, if they’ve seen it at all, is the Gun Kata which is striking and new, but Equilibrium also has some of the best hand-to-hand fights.
Oldboy is a seminal film for a lot of reasons, most of which I won’t go into here, but its fight scenes are grueling to the point of exhaustion. A beautiful and violent mystery with a truly disturbing secret, this movie opened me up to Korean cinema.
Casino Royale (2006)
They had to say a lot with the cold open of the first Bond Movie since Brosnan wore the tux. There had been a lot of pushback from the fan base about casting Daniel Craig and, more importantly, the Brosnan years felt like a lost decade of movies that had never figured out how Bond should exist in a rapidly changing world.
Parkour had been around for a long time, but incorporating into a long fight scene was new. This fight showed us that Bond was going to be Connery tough again and that he would break the rules with fascist fervor the way he does in the books.
Kick-Ass was a revelation. There were so many excellent fight scenes that broke new ground in this one movie it was hard to pick one. Bid Daddy cleaning out the warehouse, Hit Girl cleaning out the party (and saving Dave’s life), Hit Girl making her way to Damico’s office, Hit Girl vs Damico, Kick-Ass vs Red Mist. Pick one. This entire movie is a gift to action lovers.
Kingsmen: The Secret Service (2014)
As he did with Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn innovated the hell out of this movie, but my favorite game changer was: manners. Who says you have to yell the F-word and spit on people during a proper dust-up? Also, would it hurt you to put on a fine tailored suit before you start handing out Glasgow kisses?
Remember, “Manners. Maketh. The Man.”
John Wick (2014)
Other movies had used jujitsu in their fight scenes, most prominently Mission Impossible III, but John Wick combined it with real, very serious close quarter combat skills right down to keeping your gun close to your body so no one can take it from you.
The movie is one long fight scene broken up by great car chases. It has the frenetic, exhausting energy of Oldboy, the CQC of Kick-Ass, and the gunplay of Equilibrium. Action movies haven’t been the same since.
ADDENDUM: John Wick III
Adding this because I’m literally just seeing John Wick III right now and what’s more brilliant than a very long knife fight in a knife store? This is a brutal mixture of hand-to-hand and edged weapon combat that went on so long I was out of breath when it ended.
Extra points for the coup-de-gras axe toss.