Getting a movie to fire adrenaline through your system and rattle your bones is a difficult proposition. One window into that experience is a brilliantly executed fight scene, and that's a topic that started a conversation I had with a friend over a bottle that seemed to empty itself over the course of an evening. There were rules (there always have to be rules) and there were arguments about which sequences fit within those rules. In the end we agreed on a short list of what might best be called parameters that we could almost agree upon.
First up, it's important to understand exactly what is meant by a fight sequence. The few rules that were laid down gave the conversation and the list some structure.
Here they are:
1.) No guns: there needs to be primarily hand-to-hand combat.
2.) No wire work or CGI.
3.) Edged weapons are acceptable.
4.) Clean editing that allows the action to be followed and deconstructed (this is a difficult and questionable rule that was never clearly defined).
5.) Threat of death must be imminent.
NOTE: These scenes discussed are fight sequences, most of the links are violent, some have language and are not safe for work (NSFW).
Hall of Fame: Bruce Lee
Seriously, where to start? There are too many amazing, jaw dropping moments of brilliance to name just one. It's easier to just say that he is recognized as and continues to be The Man. From Fist of Fury to Game of Death, his accomplishments are great. It's not just his fighting style but the power of his presence and the force he carried with him to the screen.
The New Old School: The Bourne Identity
In a film riddled with action sequences, there is a standout that was never surpassed by the two sequels. The assassin that arrives via a window (NSFW) and in the end, exits via the window: in between there is nothing but brutality. The fighting style works, the editing is so clean you could recreate every move, and there's none of the shaky cam that plagued the sequels. The quick sharp blows literally sound painful and Bourne's instinctive use of everyday items as weapons was thrilling to see. One image that is a standout is when the assassin stands up and pulls the pen his hand that Bourne had used as a weapon. Everything about this scene was painful - in all the right ways.
Geek Fight: Star Wars, Ep. V: Empire Strikes Back
The first light saber fight between Darth Vader and Luke was the second real light saber fight ever filmed. The first fight between Vader and Kenobi felt more like a stage production than a real duel. The second light saber battle, in Cloud City, is the epic Star Wars battle. The lack of a score by John Williams sets it apart from all the other scenes and films, lending an air of hushed drama to the duel: the sweeping camera work, the color scheme, the silhouetted sequences and the finale, Luke's lost hand, and the shocking reveal that is the lynchpin for the entire series.
Hard Core: Eastern Promises
When Viggo Mortensen's character is set up and ambushed in a steam room, he has only his ferocity and wits to combat his attackers. While a tad overly dramatic (a carpet knife to bare skin would be much more brutal than depicted), it's still unnerving and exhilarating to watch Viggo scramble to survive what is essentially supposed to be a quick, brutal, and easy hit.
Remake Special: Best Seller
Two hit men (one played by James Woods) face off in a fight that lasts barely seconds but indicates the skill of the combatants. When the intruding hit man pulls his blade, Woods gracefully takes it away from him in one quick move. It's a mistake the intruder quickly pays for with his life. The film never received the attention it deserved even though the finale falls flat. It's a film primed for a remake.
Cover Your Eyes: Saving Private Ryan
The infamous Knife Fight (NSFW) in SPR is harrowing and sad. In a film riddled with death by grenades, bombs, the hand-to-hand combat between Mellish and the German soldier is the one death that pins the viewers to their seat in fright. The medic's slow death is a solid runner-up but didn't stick with me in the same way that Mellish's does to this day. This one feels different. It feels somehow important in a way that other filmic struggles for survival do not. If there is ever a moment when the audience wants to climb through the screen, this is it.
Special Award - TV: Deadwood: Season 3, Episode 5
Dan versus The Captain (NSFW) (here's a longer version (NSFW), but the sound is out of sync) is as shocking as any you will find on the big screen and matches the tone of the show perfectly. This is a fight between two bulls who have been in the mud before and always walked away victorious. It's filled with grappling and clawing and thrashing that has a ring of authenticity to it... as if you looked down the wrong alley some dark night this could be what you see. No way would anyone in their right minds step between them to break it up or to lend a hand. After this episode aired I received no fewer than three phone calls from guys stunned at the violence of it all.
There you have it. Agree, disagree? Let's hear it. Which films (and I know there are many) were left out? The films listed are by no means a Top Ten list nor do they (thankfully) end the conversation.