This List Goes to 11: The Greatest Movie Fight Scenes of All Time
This piece was born out of my response to a posed question, "What is the greatest movie fight scene of all time?" Opinions will vary and that is part of the magic of movies. They touch us so personally and birth many varying and opposing interpretations. In truth, how could any of list be definitive?
Fresh out of graduate school, in my twenties, I arrived in Los Angeles eager to work in Hollywood. My first real, professional job (I had nine temporary ones in my first six months) was at the American Film Institute (AFI). During my tenure at AFI, our team released, AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies List, the first of a series of top 100 lists. These lists, concocted by the marketing department, became so popular they elevated AFIs brand to a global level and spawned a series of TV specials highlighting them. This campaign was, effectively, the grandmother of digital Top 10 lists. So in actuality, I am partly to blame.
At their best, Top 10/50/10 lists spark conversation. If I learned anything from working on AFIs 100 Years, 100 Movies campaign, it is that human beings have a never-ending thirst for movie lore. More than any other art form movies give fodder to more discussions, debates, emoting and yes, lists.
So in the spirit of starting conversations, and because I hate conformity, here are 11 not 10, offerings for Greatest Movie Fight Scenes, not by rank, by reason. Please discuss.
Kill Bill Vol 1. - The Bride vs The Crazy 88s vs O Ren
Tarantino recruited legendary martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping and sword fight choreographer Tetsuro Shimaguchi for his 2003 film, Kill Bill Vol. 1. This scene embodies everything I love about Tarantino. He uses fight scenes to push character development while simultaneously, with no apologies, pays homage to his favorite 70s martial arts films with all their gore and cheese. The music direction, as always in his films, aids in crafting the atmosphere. Some may argue that the following scene, in which Beatrice Kiddo finally fights O Ren is perhaps more masterful in terms sword choreography. In truth I had a hard time picking between them. I love the cinematography in the O Ren fight scene. The serenity of the snow setting in juxtaposition with the brutality of sword fighting is stunning. It is also in stark contrast to the frantic scene prior, with the frantic music and chaotic group fight scene to suddenly silence. In a break from fighting O Ren the two woman are at a standstill catching their breath and all you hear is the sound of the water fountain. It is such a powerful manipulation. Each scene, the crazy 88s and the final O Ren fight, delivers now-legendary moments.
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy - Newsroom Brawl
“Uh oh, here comes trouble". How could I not out put this on the list? It makes me laugh every time I see it and has taken its place as one of the most mimicked and iconic movie scenes, similarly to the Matrix, Mission Impossible 1 (Cruise suspended in Langley scene), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon treeptop scenes. You get the picture. It took 110 set ups to pull off this scene, written by Adam McCay and Will Ferrell, egged on by Judd Apatow who convinced them to take their Warriors-esque scene moment and turn it into an entire brawl with all the different news stations. It was shot in a parking lot in downtown LA. The rest is history.
Shaun of the Dead - Fight at the Winchester
What adds the extra punch to this scene from the movie that launched Writer/Director Edgar Wright and Writer/Actor Simon Pegg's successful run of mad cap British comedies (Hot Fuzz, The World's End), is the strategic insertion of the Queen song, "Don't Stop Me" Now. That's literally why I love it. It's also really hilarious and always entertaining to see a zombie fight, particularly a tongue in cheek one (see what I did there, sorry). Shaun of the Dead was released in 2004, years before the pilot of Walking Dead. Zombies were having a bit of a resurgence with Zack Snyder's awesome reboot of Dawn of the Dead, but this British-humour spin on the genre was incredibly refreshing and stands the test of time as one of the post-Romero (hey day) greatest zombie films.
Kick-Ass - Enter Hit-Girl
If you hadn't read the comic, seeing Hit-Girl fight was a pleasant surprise, albeit at the time, 2010, the film caught some controversy for its violence and Chloe Grace Moretz (hit girl) was only 13 at the time and the character Hit-Girl is 11. So part of this scenes greatness is the sheer, holy f*ck of it all and the awesome fight choreography. The film itself has so many scenes where you just cant believe they go there, but they do. Personally, I love this fight because I love Hit-Girl. Who doesn't want to see a girl save the day? And also, as evident by my last pick, I am a huge fan of great music direction and film scores and I love, love, love the choice of the theme song for The Banana Splits in this fight sequence.
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - Michelle Yeoh vs Zhang Ziyi
Never has the term choreography, for a fight scenes, rung more true in this exquisite scene in a beautiful movie. I can't watch this enough. The film won 4 Oscars including Best Foreign Language (the change to that title came in 2020), Best Score, Art Direction and Cinematography. It was nominated for Best Picture, Gladiator beat it. Yuen Woo-ping, legendary Hong Kong martial arts master did the fight choreography. He is one of the most successful and influential fight choreographers of all time. He also did The Matrix, which is not on this list, kinda like how the some of the greatest actors never win Oscars because everyone takes for granted how they are so great (Alan Rickman). Yuen, whose father Simon was also a martial arts master as are his brothers (together they are known as the Yeun Clan), has a signature trait, one camera. Which is insane, and intense. It means he has to know exactly what he's doing rather than figuring it out by filming and editing. For both Crouching Tiger and The Matrix he used only one camera. He did however up his crew from 10/15 to 40 on Crouching Tiger because of the complexities of the wire sequences.
Eastern Promises - the Russian bath house fight
Seeing Viggo Mortensen fight naked in a sauna was both awesome and really uncomfortable. It is such an incredibly raw and vulnerable scene for the audience and the actors--something David Cronenberg does so well. This film is one of a trio he did with Mortensen along with History of Violence and A Dangerous Method, based on the play Taking the Cure. When it came time to stage the scene, First A.D. Walter Gasparovic, asked Cronenberg what they were gonna do with the towel. Both Cronenberg and Mortensen said they couldn't have the towel. Surprised, Gasparovic said “so we are going balls out?” Answer, yes. The scene would not be the same if Mortensen hadn't made that bold, brave choice. It's why its memorable and also why it works.
Kingsman: The Secret Service - Colin Firth vs the church crowd
I love this scene so much. Whodathought Colin Firth could kick ass like this?? If you truly love fight gore, and balletic fight sequences, this is it. And again, music plays it part. It is so fast, and ridiculously awesome. The movie was a surprise hit for 20th Century Fox grossing over 400m worldwide. Mark Millar, author of comic book "The Secret Service," on which the movie is based said recently that Director Matthew Vaughn had intended the scene to be much longer, and bloodier. They shot a 7-minute version with no cutaways then edited it to add some cuts to Eggsy (Taron Eggerton), Merlin (Mark Strong) and Valentine (Samuel L Jackson). When Vaughn asked Millar if the original scene was too much Millar said, , ‘I’m feeling it’s too much, and I’m the guy whose been playing video games since 11, and I can’t handle this.’”
Those few added cutaways give the audience a chance to take a breath. I, for one, wouldn't mind seeing the original cut.
John Wick 3: Parabellum - Knife fight
First, there are so many other great fights in the franchise including the home invasion and club fight on John Wick, this one is my fight new favorite. Director Chad Stahelski was himself a stuntman and stunt coordinator before creating John Wick. The style used throughout the films, Mozambique Technique, headshots, close-quarter gun-work that most military and law forces use. Guns run out of bullets, we all know that but often movies overlook that fact. Stahelski said, for the first film, they tried to be realistic keeping a very astute count of the bullets. Similarly, if you throw a knife, its gone. Not a lot of endless knives on the fly. Stahelski decided, what if they did a scene in a hallway full of knives, explaining that the idea was born out of remembering childhood snowball fights with his brothers. They never ran out of ammunition.
Aliens - Ripley vs the Queen
“Get away from her you bitch!” As a woman, who loves action and fight sequences, there is no way I could skip this one. When I first saw this film, in the theaters when it was released, I was so excited to see a woman outlast all the guys by being smarter but also seriously kick ass. Director James Cameron and FX genius, Stan Winston had to get seriously creative to pull off this scene. Incredibly this scene was largely pulled off with practical FX. They originally tried out the massive Alien Queen puppetry by using garbage bags on a makeshift model hoisted on a crane. When Ripley runs to the airlock they used a miniature puppet three-feet tall, operated by rods with a slot in the floor. They had frame it very carefully not to see the rods because back then there was no tech to take out wires digitally. So the fight was a giant experiment in practical FX, miniature or full scale. And as we know, they pulled it off and it became one of the most iconic movie scenes, fight or other, of all time.
Enter the Dragon - Bruce Lee vs Han
I mean, Bruce Lee. Right? When Han (basically a Bond villain) uses the mirrors to distract and confuse Lee until Lee remembers the words of wisdom from his father and smashes the glass leaving Han no where to hide, it almost doesn't matter what comes next because it is such a cool moment, visually, philosophically. But then, bonus, sidekick from Lee sending Han into a spear to become a human shish kabob. Enter the Dragon was Lee's final screen appearance before his death in July 1973. The film was released posthumously in August the same year. It grossed $90m. Adjusted for inflation, the worldwide gross today would be equivalent to over $500 billion making it one of the highest grossing martial arts films of all time. In 2004 the film was selected for entry in the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress.
This goes to 11
The Raid 2 - Kitchen Fight
As far as hand-to-hand fight scenes go, there's no finer then the kitchen fight in The Raid 2. Written and directed by Welsh filmmaker, Gareth Evans, who also wrote and directed its predecessor, The Raid: Redemption, is set in Jakarta, Indonesian where a special forces operative must battle dirty cops. The fight choreography is some of the best on film. It's like watching a ballet, albeit a bloody one. Yayan Ruhian, who plays Mad Dog in The Raid: Redemption, trained the actors in the Pencak Silat style of fighting. Iko Uwais, who plays lead character, Rama, was also a fight choreographer on the film.
There are so many other martial arts films that have the most incredible fight scenes and I'll be honest, I didn't think this sequel was as good as the original. But this scene is just too incredible not to omit. So in the spirit of, this goes to 11...
For your consideration
Blade Runner Rutger Hauer vs Harrison Ford
The final scene of Blade Runner in which the late great Rutger Hauer as replicant, Roy Batty, is confronted by Blade Runner, Deckard, Harrison Ford, is one of my personal favorite movie scenes. Though more of a chase-confrontatiob than a fight, it has many of the ingredients of a spectacular fight scene; choreography, stunts, raw brutality, blood, smackdowns. Add to those things: Hauer's performance and the incredible monologue after he saves Deckard, realizing how precious life is to him, the art and set decoration (filmed in the historic Bradbury art deco building in downtown Los Angeles), the cinematography by the late great Jordan Cronenweth, who won a BAFTA for his work on the film but oddly wasn't even nominated for an Oscar, Ridley Scott's infallible understanding of how to texture a sci-fi film and how to visually reveal its narrative voice. So much of the brilliance of this scene is its anticipation. When Roy spots Deckard climbing up the building interior and howls at him “I can see you". The wait is terrifying. You can already feel the pain about to befall Deckard. Rutger Hauer's head through the ceramic diamond shaped black and white sink, counting down is chilling. The combined brilliance of the production and performances elevate this scene to one of the greatest in cinema history. And since there are substantial elements of a fight scene, I am including it for your consideration.
There are many other movie fight scenes I coulda, shoulda included including Kung Fu Hustle, The Man with the Iron Fists, Atomic Blonde, The Bourne movies, Gladiator, Diehard !!! And how could I leave out all of Jackie Chan's films? As I eluded to in the beginning, lists are silly but for the conversations they provoke.
So discuss at will and let me know what your favorites are and if you agree with mine.
Sarah Mason is Executive Producer of The HMC Network and a Contributing Writer for The HMC and the Creative COW.