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Best fight scenes
Photograph: Time Out

The 30 greatest fight scenes in the movies

The brilliant, the bruising and the plain painful to watch...

Edited by
Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Tom Huddleston
,
Matthew Singer
&
Sean McGeady
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Great movie dust-ups come in all shapes and sizes. Asian action cinema has blessed us with balletic beat downs that deliver high-speed martial artistry from legendary figures like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Gordon Liu; the western has chucked a thousand and one window-smashing saloon-bar rumbles into the mix, leaving Tombstone glaziers overworked and our eyeballs in need of ice packs. Then, of course, there’s the big Hollywood action movies, which send valiant heroes into action against evil baddies and leave a trail of destruction in their wake. The hero usually wins, but they’re defnitely going to take a beating first.

To continue Time Out’s celebration of great action movies, we’ve dug through the medium’s greatest fight scenes to pick the best of the best: the wince-worthy smash-ups that keep us coming back for more. But first, a few criteria: improvised weapons – staffs, clubs, arm cannons, hose pipes, toasters, forks, golf clubs, etc – are all fine, but guns don’t quality here (even if one or two firearms do feature). Also omitted are boxing bouts, a whole list in itself, although the dojo is well-represented. What’s left, though, are the most impactful, visceral and spectacular examples of close combat cinema. Find a sofa, hide behind it and prepare for impact.

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Fist of Fury (1972)

Combatants: Chinese hero Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) vs flimsy Japanese dojo students

This one packs a political punch. In what was the fastest fight choreography the world had ever seen in 1972, Bruce Lee’s Chen Zhen brings an entire Japanese dojo – and by extension, Japanese imperialism – to its knees. It was an enormous moment not just for martial arts cinema but for Hong Kong too. Chen Zhen would later be played by Donnie Yen and Jet Li. The latter’s version of this scene, in the 1994 remake Fist of Legend, is every bit as blistering. 

The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984)

Combatants: Rogue monk Yeung Dak (Gordon Liu) vs Khitan baddies

In this Shaw brothers stunner, Quentin Tarantino favourite Gordon Liu stars as a young monk who breaks his Buddhist vows to lay eight diagrams of pole-based beatdown on the goons that kidnapped his sister. It boasts all the speed, grace and glorious colour you could want from an action movie, but it’s also staggeringly, comically savage. Case in point: all those teeth.

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Bloodsport (1988)

Combatants: US Army captain Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) vs Kumite champ and absolute unit Chong Li (Bolo Yeung).

The pumping synth score, the slow-mo, the tournament setting, the hero overcoming the villain’s underhanded tactics by remembering his master’s training… Bloodsport delivers in a way that only ’80s action cinema can. And nobody brings out the best in babyfaced JCVD like his long-time frenemy Bolo Yeung, who provides one of the era’s most menacing antagonists. Bloodsport spawned a slew of cash-ins and rip-offs, but none would better it. 

They Live (1988)

Combatants: Nada (Roddy Piper) vs Frank Armitage (Keith David).

Ever struggled to get a friend to see the world through your eyes, even if only for a moment? This drawn-out, blue-collar slobberknocker should feel familiar, then. There’s no music, no high-wire artistry, no visual effects or fanfare here. Instead, this back alley brawl is all about big swings, chokeholds and suplexes – and just when you think the slugfest is finished, it all kicks off again… and again. Sometimes you just can’t let it go.

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Wheels on Meals (1984)

Combatants: Barcelona burger-van bandit Thomas (Jackie Chan, in one of his best-ever fits) vs Thug #1 (martial arts badass Benny ‘the Jet’ Urquidez) 

Choreographed and directed by Sammo Hung, this wince-inducing scrap eschews Jackie’s signature slapstick in favour of all-out warfare. Benny ‘the Jet’ Urquidez looks every bit the henchman from hell here as he hammers Jackie and shuts down his offence. As in Bruce Lee’s fight with Chuck Norris in 1972’s Way of the Dragon, the hero has to change tactics in order to overcome the westerner’s onslaught. In short, Jackie’s gotta get loose. The duo’s rematch in 1988’s Dragons Forever is similarly sweet. 

Peking Opera Blues (1986)

Combatants: Cross-dressing revolutionary Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin), musician Sheung Hung (Cherie Chung) and stagehand Bai Niu (Sally Yeh) vs a lot of gun-toting crooks.

The plot of Hong Kong master-director Tsui Hark’s giddy historical masterpiece may be baffling, but no matter: this is a film built on spectacle, fusing the gaudy costumery of Chinese opera with knockabout comedy and sudden violence. Our heroines’ bout with a mob of armed goons leads to one of the most spectacular slo-mo shots in cinema history, as they swing from the rafters and crash through a wall.

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The Princess Bride (1987)


Combatants
: World’s greatest swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) vs humble farmhand Westley (Cary Elwes) 

Incorrigble show-off Inigo Montoya and Westley, incognito as the Man in Black, trade lunges and feints, as well as some crisply delivered chitchat, atop the Cliffs of Insanity in Rob Reiner’s great fairy tale adventure. Props to the two actors – and British stuntmen Peter Diamond and Bob Anderson who trained them – for making the incredibly difficult look effortless in one of the jolliest outbreaks of cinematic swashbuckling since Errol Flynn. En garde

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

Combatants: Traumatised amnesiac John (Scott Adkins) vs jacked-up super-soldier Magnus (Andrei Arlovski).

Imagine Apocalypse Now remade as a bargain-bin beat-’em-up by a visionary surrealist on heavy tranquilisers and you’ve got Day of Reckoning, the dreamiest action movie of recent times. And with Sutton Coldfield’s finest martial arts export Scott Adkins in the lead, it’s only a matter of time before the dream becomes a nightmare and violence explodes in a jaw dropping knock-down-drag-out in a sporting goods store.

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The World’s End (2013)



Combatants
: Lifelong loser Gary (Simon Pegg) and his half-pissed pals vs. an army of hoodie-clad alien androids.

Pub crawls don’t come much messier than the one embarked upon by the heroes of Edgar Wright’s berserk body-snatcher comedy, as a night on the tiles ends up as a fight for survival. It all kicks off in the bathroom of The Cross Hands pub, where Gary accidentally decapitates an alien Blank only for its teen-bot mates to come back spoiling. It’s up to Paddy Considine, Nick Frost and the rest of the gang to see them off.  

A Touch of Zen (1971)



Combatants: Painter Gu (Shih Chun), fugitive mercenary Yang (Hsu Feng) and Buddhist master Abbott Hui (Roy Chiao) vs. the evil Commander Hsu (Ying-Chieh Han).

There will be (golden) blood. If you enjoyed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, go back to the source with this gorgeous martial arts epic set in 14th century China, which climaxes with the single most beautiful fight scene ever conceived as two mismatched heroes, their Godlike saviour Abbott Hui and his band of robed monks bound through a sunlit bamboo forest in pursuit of the villainous Commander Hsu.

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The knife-off in ‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ (2019)

Combatants: John Wick (Keanu Reeves) vs a lot of assassins

Taking that old Lock, Stock... maxim – ‘Guns for show, knives for a pro’ – to its logical conclusion, Keanu’s veteran hitman ‘professionals’ his way around an antique weaponry shop in quite staggering visceral style as he slices and dices a cadre of assassins. The star’s painstaking lessons in knife throwing pay off in an exhibition of gory blade-fu that gets progressively more gnarly as it goes. The final hatchet lob down the corridor is a chef’s kiss moment in an all-timer of a fight scene.

The Tangier tear-up in ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ (2007)

Combatants: Amnesiac killing machine Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) vs US black ops asset Desh Bouksani (Joey Ansah)

With due respect to the apartment scrap in Identity and the suburban Munich tussle in Supremacy, Jason Bourne’s battle with Blackbriar sleeper agent Bouksani in Ultimatum is the franchise’s best exhibition of mano a mano shitkicking. A rip-roaring chase across the rooftops of Tangier is only the palette cleanser for an indoor duke out in which punches are exchanges, books and candles are used as improvised weapons and eventually someone gets strangled with a towel. Someone’s Airbnb rating just took a beating.  

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The pub brawl in ‘Avengement’ (2019)

Combatants: Britain’s hardest nutcase Cain Burgess (Scott Adkins) vs Britain’s least hospitable pub patrons (including Craig Fairbrass and Thomas Turgoose)

In most of his movies, Scott Adkins gets to remain A-list handsome even as he’s taking a beating. But in his sixth collaboration with director Jesse V Johnson, the British martial artist really puts the ‘rough’ in rough and tumble. Straight outta Belmarsh, scarred-up Cain Burgess is after revenge on his no-good brother. But first he must reduce an East End pub to splinters. The intensity is off the charts.

Tom-Yum-Goong (Warrior King/The Protector) (2005)



Combatants:
Keeper of the king’s elephants Kham (Tony Jaa) vs a small army of henchmen 

Tony Jaa exploded onto the international stage with 2003’s Ong-Bak, which buried muay Thai into the minds of martial arts fans like a strike to the cranium. Two years on, he and director Prachya Pinkaew topped that film’s already dizzying heights with this outrageous oner. Jaa destroys everything (including the kitchen sink) as he knees his way up a multi-level restaurant, forcing poor stuntmen to take some jaw-dropping bumps in the process. Lesson: leave Tony Jaa’s elephants alone.

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The fight to the death in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)

Combatants: Private Stanley ‘Fish’ Mellish, out of ammo (Adam Goldberg) vs Waffen SS soldier (Mac Steinmeier)

There is nothing enjoyable about this. No beautiful choreography. No impressive moves. No iconic quips. Just one agonising, ugly, messy, sloppy, sweaty, calamitous scrum of crying, clawing, screaming, screeching, begging, biting, bleeding, thudding, thumping and rolling around until one man finally drives the breath from the other’s lungs with his own bayonet. It’s an indictment of war presented with frightening, intimate realism. 

RRR (2022)

Combatants: Police mole Raju (Ram Charan) vs tribal leader Bheem (NT Rama Rao Jr)

The over-the-top elemental battle between Bheem and Ram is the perfect microcosm of this rip-roaring three-hour epic. In a scene that’s simultaneously heartbreaking and sensationally silly, our two heroes – each fighting for the same cause but on opposing paths – come to blows in the midst of an animal-assisted assault on the Delhi HQ of the British Raj. Somehow it’s both genuinely emotional and features a man punching a tiger with a flaming arm cannon. Now that’s cinema.

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The corridor hammer fight in ‘Oldboy’ (2003)

Combatants: Angry everyman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-Sik) vs a corridor full of tooled-up psychos.

Hammer time! This astonishing man-vs-mob sequence sees former captive Oh and his trusty head-thwacking mallet take on an entire criminal gang armed with lead pipes. Filmed in a single shot with none of yer fancy digital trickery, the scene took three days and 17 gruelling takes to get right. 

Sauna smackdown in ‘Eastern Promises‘ (2007)

Combatants: Russian mafia strongman Viggo Mortensen vs a pair of Chechen goons.

You’ve heard the expression ‘balls to the wall’. Well, this scene takes it literally. When two leather-clad thugs are ordered to take out criminal turncoat Viggo Mortensen, they assume an ambush at the bath-house will catch him off guard. They’re wrong, as our hero proves in startling, stark-bollock-naked fashion.

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The sword fight in ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000)

Combatants: Inexperienced Jen Yu, armed with a 400-year-old legendary sword (Zhang Ziyi) vs crafty veteran Yu Shu Lien with an armoury at her disposal (Michelle Yeoh)

This is combat as cinematic language. Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning wuxia film furthers its rich story with each swing of the Green Destiny sword, which slices through every weapon put in front of it. Eventually, the legendary blade’s strength becomes its wielder’s weakness in a moment that’s as poetic as it is cathartic. It’s gorgeous, nail-biting stuff – but what would you expect from choreographer Yuen Woo-ping?

Mad Dog mayhem in ‘The Raid’ (2011)

Combatants: Rookie special forces member Rama (Iko Uwais) and his estranged gangster brother (Donny Alamsyah) vs the seemingly indestructible Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian)

Following 2009’s Merantau, The Raid ushered in a decade of Indonesian dominance in martial arts cinema. The directness of the film’s plot is matched only by the breathtaking intensity of its action. When a special forces raid on a criminal-infested tower block goes violently wrong, our heroic trapped rats eventually find themselves in the maw of the rabid Mad Dog. What follows is an unbelievably brutal two-on-one and an outstanding showcase for pencak silat – and fluorescent light tubes.

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Table-top martial artistry in ‘Ip Man 2’ (2010)


Combatants:
Real-life wing chun grandmaster Ip Man (Donnie Yen) vs asthmatic shaolin master Hung Chun-nam (Sammo Hung)

With Ip Man having relocated to Hong Kong following the events of the first film, he must impress the local martial arts houses if he’s to earn a seat at the table. The best way to do that? By fighting on it. The novel conditions and giddy use of environmental threats make this tabletop gauntlet a terribly exciting showcase for Sammo Hung’s creative wire fu choreography. The tables have never turned faster than in this bout. 

Kirk vs Kirk in ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’ (1991)

Combatants: Intergalactic icon Captain James T Kirk (William Shatner) vs body-morphing alien trickster Martia (Iman and, um, William Shatner again).

Marooned on the penitentiary planet of Rura Penthe, Captain Kirk accepts an offer of help from friendly alien Martia, played by David Bowie’s sultry wife-to-be, Iman. But gasp! The shape-shifter betrays him, transforming into Kirk’s mirror image and giving audiences the spectacular image of William Shatner going mano-a-mano against himself. And no, neither Bill can act…

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The plane-side pummelling in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981)

Combatants: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) vs a prize-fighting Nazi mechanic (Pat Roach)

German plane guy (RIP) is an object lesson in remaining aware of your surroundings, even when you’re trying to belt 19 shades of Wehrmacht shit out of some snotty American archeologist. Played by real-life wrestler Pat Roach, who returned to play baddies in both Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade, he fails to notice the propeller approaching from behind and consequently ends up redecorating that flying wing a lurid shade of Nazi.

Bob Barker baiting in ‘Happy Gilmore’ (1996)

Combatants: golf hooligan Happy Gilmore (Adam Sandler) vs Bob Barker

No less an authority than the MTV Movie Awards deemed this May-December brawl as the Best Fight of 1996, in which a relaxed celebrity pro-am golf game devolves into on-the-links fisticuffs between Sandler’s rageful man-child and the beloved American game show host. Indeed, it lives somewhere in the heart and mind of every ‘90s kid, mostly for Sandler’s immortal taunt, ‘The price is wrong, bitch!’ But it’s Barker – playing a (presumably) more crotchety version of himself – who gets the last laugh, popping up like the Undertaker and grabbing Sandler by the throat, then knocking him out with a wingtip to the face.

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The bathroom fight in ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ (2018)

Combatants: CIA man August Walker (Henry Cavill) and IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) vs a mysterious badass (Liang Yang)

There may not be a cooler action beat than the moment when Henry Cavill reloads his arm in Fallout’s full-throttle bathroom break. It’s one of about six ‘holy shit’ moments in this cavalcade of ass-kicking that swings first one way and then the other, interrupted briefly by four drunk Frenchmen, before hostilites resume with Chinese stuntman Liang Yang getting lobbed through a mirror. Tom Cruise brings the humour, Cavill’s hulking CIA guy goes full Roadhouse – but only Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) saves the pair from their indestructible foe.

Basement puglism in ‘Fight Club’ (1999)

Combatants: The pretty-boy known only as Angel Face (Jared Leto) vs Edward Norton’s unnamed narrator

Some of us have probably fantasised about beating the crud out of Jared Leto at some point, most likely while sitting through Morbius. But even compared to our most violent dreams, Ed Norton’s anonymous desk jockey takes things just a wee bit too far. It’s not much of a ‘fight’, per se: Leto sneaks one good opening punch in before getting flattened with a single blow, then proceeds to have his gorgeous mug pounded into goulash with one sickening bare-knuckle shot after another. ‘I felt like destroying something beautiful’, he says afterward. Mission accomplished.

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Duel of the Fates in ‘Star Wars: Episode I –The Phantom Menace’ (1999)

Combatants: Jedis Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) vs stripey Sith apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park). 

It’s become known as ‘the Duel of the Fates’: the operatic lightsaber battle that closes George Lucas’s first Star Wars prequel and – let’s face it – the best scene in the movie by about a million parsecs. Scottish martial artist Park is the MVP, twirling and bounding like a ballet dancer, but despite some cumbersome clothing McGregor and Neeson more than hold their own.

The trailer fight in ‘Kill Bill: Volume 2’ (2004)

Combatants: Vengeful bride Beatrix Kiddo, the Black Mamba (Uma Thurman) vs one-eyed assassin Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah)

The camp mayhem of Volume 1’s Crazy 88 fight meets its match in this cramped, desert dust-up from Volume 2. Where the 88 slaughter is all fireworks, this small-scale skirmish is a marvel of environmental storytelling. The trailer setting is so tight that Elle Driver doesn’t have room to draw her sword. Meanwhile, stripped of her own, the Bride uses everything from a TV aerial to a guitar to maintain her attack.

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The Matrix (1999)

Combatants: Kung fu newbie Neo (Keanu Reeves) vs wizened resistance leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne)

Hong Kong’s influence on Hollywood peaked with The Matrix, choreographed by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping. The training sequence between Morpheus and Neo sets the scene for the outstanding fights that follow and echoes the six-month regime that Woo-ping insisted the actors go through before shooting. Packed with iconic moments and soundtracked by Lunatic Calm’s ‘Leave You Far Behind’, it’s the epitome of Y2K cool. ‘Stop trying to hit me and hit me!’

The Legend of the Drunken Master (1994)



Combatants: Boozy folk hero Wong Fei-hung (Jackie Chan) vs human kicking machine John (Taekwondo champ Ken Lo)

Hic! Featuring literal punchlines, laugh-out-loud prop work and one of his most scorching stunts, Jackie Chan’s masterpiece is the apex of his trademark brand of action-comedy. Directed and choreographed by the man himself, the climactic fight – which comes after ten minutes spent laying out every extra in the Hong Kong film industry – pits his loose and lubricated drunken boxing style against Ken Lo’s rigid Taekwondo. If you take a drink every time Jackie does something cool, you will die. Do not do this. 

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