Having grown up on the mean streets of Launceston Tasmania, I’ve witnessed plenty of fights in my time – though they’ve all occurred on the television. My first real introduction to fighting actually came from professional wrestling. As a kid I loved the WWF(e) – and still do – and as I began to explore the wealth of action and martial arts movies I came to relish a great fight scene, both in the ring and on film.
So in what has been one of my favourite articles to ‘research’, I’ve compiled a list of fight scenes from the modern era that I consider a ‘must watch’ for one reason or another. I’ve arbitrarily set the limit to movies released from 2000. Why? Mostly because even people who have never watched a martial arts movie will know to check out Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, and also because it’s a nice even number. You could even call this the best fights of the century if you wished!
While they’re not in any real order, I’ve tried to pick scenes that highlight an aspect or two of a quality scene, and provide a mix of styles and setups. Some of these are technical masterpieces, some stand out because of the visual direction or even the sheer brutality of the moment. Some of these are between two people with a score to settle, some are outright wars where one has to survive against all. But all of them are enthralling. Now is this a definitive list? By no means, there are some great scenes that aren’t on this list (and I’d love to hear which ones you think should be on here). So without further ado…
Iwo Uwais & Donny Alamsyah vs Yayan Ruhian – The Raid
Anyone who has followed 1Up Culture will know of my love for director Gareth Evan’s vision in the two Raid movies, and the choreography and direction present in these two duels are simply incredible. It’s intense, remorselessly brutal and utterly captivating from start to finish. And while I’m more partial to the sequel as a whole (there are a handful of scenes from both movies that could easily make this list), nothing presents the essence of a masterful fight scene like the final battle in the first Raid.
It’s rare to see the antagonist presented in such a strong manner, creating a nice change of pace from most fights where the villain is the one outnumbering the heroes. But Mad Dog is more than capable of holding his own. There’s nothing fancy about this fight – no crazy setting and no weapons except for one bit of improvisation. It’s just three guys throwing down, with the combination of clever moves and brilliant direction (the highlight is the top down shot as the light fixture is knocked astray from a judo throw) that demonstrates in the simplest terms what has endeared this series to its fanbase.
Zhang Ziyi vs Maggie Cheung – Hero
This isn’t the most technical or brutal fight on this list. And especially considering the two involved it’s actually fairly light on the action. But unlike a lot of the examples on this list, the fight itself takes a back seat to the visual direction. This duel is by far the most beautiful on the list (and I’m not saying that because of the two ladies involved). Director Zhang Yimou’s use of colour is astounding from start to finish throughout ‘Hero’, and here the autumn colours are in full bloom against the sharp reds of their costumes. Between this, the slow motion wire fu and apparent control of the wind brings a dreamlike quality to the performance. Add the wonderful soundtrack and you’ve created a haunting few minutes of beauty that shows a fight scene can be incredible without focusing on the fighting itself.
Zhang Ziyi vs Michelle Yeoh – Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
Yep Zhang gets two in a row, this time it’s her face off with Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger deserves more than just a passing mention but a full blown spot on the list. While there’s still elements of wire-fu present in this fight, it’s dialed back in order to let the skill of these two women take centre stage. The weapons work here is phenomenal, with Yeoh jumping between various weapons as she tries to gain the upper hand against Zhang’s legendary sword Green Destiny.
What’s particularly impressive on multiple rewatches is Zhang’s acting. She’s always been a great actress but her facial expressions throughout the scene, even when the shot is fixated on the action, tells the story in full as the tide of the battle goes back and forth. It’s fast paced, tense and just a little bit of humour thrown in for good measure. These two are true standouts in the genre and the two equally fantastic yet contrasting fights prove why.
Tony Jaa and a One Shot – The Protector (Tom Yum Goong)
One of the most impressive parts of the Oscar winning movie Birdman was how director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu made use of long drawn out one shots to bring the viewer into the film. This kind of film-making asks a lot of everyone involved, because everything has to be executed just right. So imagine how hard it’d be to do what is achieved in this Tony Jaa scene where he makes his way up to a restaurant on the fourth floor, taking on and taking out about forty guys in the process. It took five takes (over the course of a month due to its complexity) to nail the four plus minute scene, but the hard work definitely paid off.
Most of the action here is kept to a short exchange, establishing the sheer dominance and ability of Tony Jaa’s character Kham as he muay thai’s his way through anyone in his path. But that’s not to say the choreography doesn’t get adventurous, especially considering the challenge of the one shot. People get thrown off of the balcony on multiple occasions while tables and walls get destroyed with the force of human bodies. And at the end of the climb? We get another great fight, albeit it more traditional. Tony Jaa’s style always has an added feeling of oomph, and seeing such a long and unedited display of it is simply glorious.
Keanu Reaves in the Chateau – The Matrix Reloaded
The first Matrix movie (1999) will go down as a film that would define the next period of film-making. And while the the two sequels would never reach the mark of the first, The Matrix Reloaded was good for a few things, and the action scenes is at the top of that list. While the Neo v Hundred Smiths is probably the most famous showdown in the movie, Neo’s fight in the Chateau stands the test of time far better. With Morpheus and Trinity off to protect the Keymaker from Albino Ghosts (it makes slightly more sense in context) Neo is left to fend off a bunch of goons in a wildly entertaining scene.
What really stands out here is how the music helps to convey the moment. It maintains the vibe of the movie with its techno backing but still manages to build the tension as the action amps up. Neo at this point in the series is basically in Superman mode so the scene lacks any real concern for his wellbeing, but the flow and pacing of the action, as it transfers from set piece to set piece makes it a very pleasing fight to watch. The rules of the Matrix are well utilised here, adding to the fight without dominating the action, and it all comes together to produce a wonderful fight.
Donnie Yen vs Wu Jing – SPL
The question was never “would Donnie Yen make an appearance on this list” but rather “how many times and for what movies”. As one of the greatest in the genre, any time he makes an appearance is cause for excitement (bring it Rogue One). What makes his fight in SPL with Wu Jing special is how it’s structured. Most memorable fights require extensive choreography that can take weeks to film. This fight took all of a night, and much of it was improvised. Yen and Jing are both very familiar with each other, and essentially went about some high velocity sparring while the camera rolled.
And it shows, the flurries of offence and defence are executed with the kind of speed and ferocity that is almost unseen in most action films, because unlike most films these guys are testing themselves to see who can actually hit the other. Of course eventually the storyline takes hold, but the end product is an incredible watch. Everything here is designed to let the two stars do their thing and do it well.
Uma Thurman vs 88 Japanese Men (and One Schoolgirl)
(note this is the alternate Japanese version, which doesn’t cut to black and white due to MPAA restrictions and has an extra couple of moments)
Quentin Tarrantino is a student of film and a lover of martial arts movies. So it makes sense that his homage to the genre – Kill Bill, would have some top notch fights to pick from. But by far the most iconic fight from both volumes is the incredibly bloody and outrageous battle inside The House of Blue Leaves. I don’t think anybody expected Uma Thurman to pull off the role as well as she did, but she owned it as The Bride, and there are few sights more iconic in the genre than Uma in her yellow jumpsuit (bar perhaps Bruce Lee in his). For all of the mayhem and violence, there is some clever choreography to behold here, and there’s a nice juxtaposition between the methodical and tense showdown with Gogo against the chaos of the battle against the Crazy 88.
Jackie Chan being Jackie Chan – Chinese Zodiac
There might not be a more creative martial artist than Jackie Chan. He’s so adept at weaving incredible action with comedy, utilising anything and everything as a weapon or a shield. And while he’s pushing 60 at the time of the Chinese Zodiac, you’d swear he hadn’t missed a step. It starts with a simple concept – that one man can beat the other without leaving the couch – and leads to an ingenious battle of skill and wit. And that’s just the one on one battle, we’re soon treated to a fantastic and lengthy showcase of Jackie Chan’s style. There’s another part of Jackie Chan’s style that often goes unappreciated, and that’s how he’s willing to show pain. Sometimes in these martial art movies the hero ends up running amok and and barely getting hit even against the big bad (Donnie Yen’s first Ip Man does this a bit). Jackie however understands how showing a vulnerable protagonist can draw viewers in. He’s used this to his advantage throughout his career, and there’s a few moments here – mostly for comedy – that show this off. Jackie is a legend, and for good reason.
Donnie Yen Takes on Ten Black Belts – Ip Man
Speaking of the first Donnie Yen Ip Man movie!
One of Donnie Yen’s greatest attributes as a martial artist is his versatility. Just like how Jackie Chan was able to fight in a multitude of ways, we see Yen take on a wide variety of styles to great effect. His MMA inspired battle in ‘Flashpoint’ was close to making the list, and we’ve seen his proficiency with weapons both in the ‘SPL’ fight above and the fancier wire-fu stylings of ‘Hero’ when he fought Jet Li. But he’s best known around the world in the role of Ip Man, the master of wing-chun and eventual teacher to a little known martial artist called Bruce Lee.
There is something so aesthetically pleasing about watching this form of martial arts in the hands of Donnie Yen. His movements are so fluid and natural that this fairly one sided brutalising of ten karate black belts almost feels like a guilty pleasure. The movie has a healthy dose of Chinese national pride which influences how the fights and the movie itself is portrayed, but it doesn’t make this any less enjoyable. The highlight is the choreography where he holds off four men simultaneously, which while only lasting a few seconds is masterful in its execution. And then there’s the rapid fire punches that wing-chun highlights to great effect. It is systematic destruction at its finest.
Choi Min-Sik Versus a Corridor – Old Boy
Tony Jaa’s not the only person to make this list through a one shot. Though while that was a sprawling journey, Choi Min-sik is forced to survive in a dark corridor in the 2003 South Korean film Old Boy. Resembling an old school beat ’em-up game, this is another one vs all fight, but there’s nothing fancy about the moves being pulled out here. What we get instead is a down and dirty fight.
The decision to one shot this was genius, though it meant it took three days on continuous shooting to get it right. While the one shot in ‘The Protector’ mostly kept to a series of short and sweet throw-downs in order to keep the pace and movement flowing, this is more or less one extended brawl, and as the shot continues you can feel everybody slowing down as they get beat up and knocked down. It starts wild and ferocious, and then allows each individual moment towards the end carry weight. Both the protagonist and his foes look like they could be felled with one solid strike at the end, adding tension and emotional impact to a scene that could have very easily lacked it.
Also, you’ll see a guy go down at 2:15 without getting hit.He actually hurt his ankle there, and you can see him trying to shuffle out of the way so as to not impede the fight. The trials and tribulations of a one shot I guess.