Total Recall

Total Recall: The 20 Greatest Fights Scenes Ever

RT picks the 20 greatest fist fights of all time.

by | April 17, 2008 | Comments

This week, The Forbidden Kingdom, the long-awaited pairing of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, hits theaters. These two action legends have participated in many a fight over the years, so we figured it was a good time to count down some of the greatest movie brawls of all time.

With so many noteworthy celluloid scuffles to choose from, we felt we had to lay down some ground rules: no weapons allowed, and we’re looking for relatively even matches; we’ll cover the greatest beatdowns another time. These clips are often not for the squeamish, and some contain a good deal of profanity, so we’ve tagged those as NSFW (or not safe for work, for those of you not up on the latest techno-speak). Without further ado, here are 20 of the greatest fight scenes of all time!

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20. Road House

Patrick Swayze vs. Ben Gazzara’s thugs

One of the most surreal entertainments ever cast out for mainstream consumption, Road House stars Patrick Swayze plays an NYU philosophy grad (!) who becomes a nationally-recognized bouncer (!!).This delirious camp classic features several over-the-top fight scenes; in this one, Swayze is joined by Sam Elliot (who’s sort of a Scottie Pippen to Swayze’s Michael Jordan in the bouncer game), and together, they tangle with the goons of the town’s evil plutocrat (Ben Gazzara) while the late, great Jeff Healy rocks out.

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19. From Russia with Love

Sean Connery vs. Robert Shaw

The James Bond movies have no shortage of memorable throwdowns (like this visceral battle on a stairwell in Casino Royale). One of the finest examples of 007’s superior hand skills is on display in this gritty, down-and-dirty fight from From Russia with Love. After setting off a smokescreen, Bond lays a hurting on SPECTRE assassin Red Grant in the closed quarters of a train cabin; the result is as vicious as anything in the Connery Bond films.

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18. Bridget Jones’ Diary

Colin Firth vs. Hugh Grant

Though it’s one of the quintessential chick flicks of the last decade, Bridget Jones’ Diary takes time out from its titular character’s battles with her own self-esteem to feature a pretty brutal fight between two of her suitors. Colin Firth and Hugh Grant each land some devastating blows and kicks to the gut before soaring through a pane of glass. In addition, it’s almost certainly the greatest fight scene to feature “It’s Raining Men” on the soundtrack

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17. 2 Days in the Valley

Charlize Theron vs. Teri Hatcher

Once Pulp Fiction hit, dozens of moderately budgeted, labyrinthine-plotted thrillers filled multiplexes, doing what they could to stand out. 2 Days in the Valley sets itself apart in a number of ways, not least of which is a hotel room-destroying donnybrook between Teri Hatcher and Charlize Theron. After trading some serious disses, our heroines trade punches and kicks, breaking a lot of glass in the process.

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16. The Karate Kid

Daniel-san vs. Johnny

Repeat after me: “You’re the best/around/ nothin’s ever gonna keep you dowwwwnn!” The climactic fight in The Karate Kid may not feature the hyperkinetic athleticism of others on this list, but it’s one of the most iconic battles of 1980s cinema, as Daniel LaRusso finally overcomes those leg-sweeping Kobra Kai baddies who’ve been tormenting him. It also features some of the best dialogue ever, most notably, “Put him in a bodybag! YEEAAAHHH!”

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15. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn

Bruce Campbell vs. his own right hand

We’re not sure if Bruce Campbell is religious, but his character should have heeded these words from the Gospel of Matthew: “If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee.” In a scene that brings new meaning to the term mano a mano, Campbell receives a thorough thrashing from his own possessed hand; his solution to this bizarre problem results in the kind of perverse hilarity fans of the Evil Dead series have come to treasure.

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14. Night and the City

Gregorius the Great vs. The Strangler

When Jules Dassin‘s classic noir Night and the City was first released, venerable New York Times scribe Bosley Crowther described it thusly: “If any more cruel, repulsive picture of human brutishness than this is ever screened, this writer has no desire to see it.” He was referring to this, a savage wrestling match between an aging Greco-Roman master and a thuggish upstart. Two-bit hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) hopes to make a killing in the wrestling business, but his dreams slip away when two of the fighters duke it out behind closed doors out of mutual animosity. It’s coldly, heartlessly rendered scene, so tense and bone-rattling that subsequent decades haven’t dulled its impact.

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13. Happy Gilmore

Adam Sandler vs. Bob Barker

Adam Sandler has spent his career playing characters consumed by volcanic rage. In Happy Gilmore, Sandler is in rare form as an ex-hockey-enforcer-turned-pro-golfer, dispensing towering drives and brutal beatdowns with equal enthusiasm. In one of the most gloriously stoopid fights in recent cinema, The Price is Right host Bob Barker goads our hero into a brawl at a celebrity pro/am tournament by talking smack about his golf game — and proceeds to lay the smack down on the hapless Happy.

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12. Game of Death

Bruce Lee vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

In Bruce Lee‘s ill-fated final film, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar demonstrated his abilities extended far beyond the sky hook. “Extend” is the operative word here; as the sunlight-averse Hakim, Abdul-Jabbar has a distinct reach advantage on the diminutive action legend. Fortunately for Lee, he’s got an arsenal of moves at his disposal. It’s an eerie, hypnotic duel, and one of the quieter entries on this noisy list.

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11. Charlie’s Angels

The Angels vs. Crispin Glover

As George McFly in Back to the Future, Crispin Glover proved he could go toe-to-toe with almost anyone when he felled Biff with some well-placed blows to the jaw. But he’s no match for Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu, and Drew Barrymore, who, after dodging swords and bullets, use some innovative teamwork to merge into one mean crime-fighting machine. This hyper-stylized brawl has a kicky (pun intended), gravity-defying energy courtesy of legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping.

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10. The Bourne Ultimatum

Bourne vs. Desh

How did Jason Bourne obtain his sick fighting skills? It’s one of the questions that torments our hero throughout the Bourne series. However, one thing’s for sure: however he got them, he sure knows how to employ them. Bourne’s hand-to-hand proclivities are perhaps best showcased in the Bourne Ultimatum, as J.B. jumps off a roof through a window to throw down with the guy sent to kill him; he then proceeds to demonstrate a new meaning for “book smart”, and how a hand towel can be used to disarm an attacker.

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9. The Transporter

Jason Statham vs. everybody in the bus depot

It’s the age-old complaint of action-phobes: “Why do the bad guys just stand around while the hero wrecks shop? Why don’t they all go at him at once?” In the case of The Transporter, a score of goons try just that — and it still doesn’t work! Trapped in a bus depot, the ever-enterprising Jason Statham uses just about everything at his disposal, from barrels of oil to the bad guys themselves. He even displays how a long-sleeve shirt can be used to keep multiple attackers at bay.

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8. Snatch

Brad Pitt vs. Elwin “Chopper” David

Forget Fight ClubSnatch features Brad Pitt‘s onscreen pugilistic pinnacle. Pitt plays the thickly-brogued bare-knuckle brawler Mickey O’Neil, a knockout artist so skilled — and so undisciplined — that he can’t bring himself to throw a fight, even with fortunes and lives on the line. Director Guy Ritchie‘s stylistic trademarks — super slow-mo, gonzo sound effects, a thumping soundtrack — are all on display, as O’Neil absorbs a staggering amount of punishment before landing the final blow.

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7. They Live

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper vs. Keith David

In They Live, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Keith David beat the stuffing out of each other for five minutes. We’re talking suplexes, head-butts, knees to the groin; in other words, the works. Why, you ask? Well, Piper wants David to wear a pair of sunglasses that will help him understand the truth about an alien conspiracy to destroy humanity. You see, these guys are friends. I mean, if the stakes were that high, you’d resort to such extreme measures too, right? What are friends for?

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6. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Indiana Jones vs. the big, bald Nazi

Try as he might, Indiana Jones can’t seem to avoid engaging in fracases on or near moving vehicles. In The Last Crusade, he dispatched multiple villains on a careening tank, and in this imbroglio from Raiders of the Lost Ark, he has to dodge both flying fists and merciless propellers. Indy just wants to fly to safety, but he’s coaxed into battle by a much larger opponent; the result is probably the most memorable fight from the Indiana Jones series. Plus, who doesn’t love seeing some Nazis get their just desserts?

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5. Fist of Legend

Jet Li vs. Billy Chow

Long before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (a project he turned down), wushu master Jet Li was making historical martial arts films that were epic in scope and dazzling in their fight choreography. While Hero and the Once Upon a Time in China series established Li as a global star, aficionados point to Fist of Legend as his finest effort. A loose remake of Bruce Lee‘s legendary Fists of Fury, Legend finds Li embarking on a mission to avenge the death of his master amidst the turbulent times of the second Sino-Japanese War. The final battle in Fist of Legend features some of the most amazing flying kicks, lightning-fast punches, and statue and bench destruction ever committed to film (heck, even Jet’s slaps are potent).

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4. The Legend of Drunken Master

Jackie Chan vs. Ken Lo

Combining unimpeachable martial arts technique with the slapstick comedy and death-defying stuntwork of silent clown Buster Keaton, Jackie Chan changed the face of action cinema. Chan’s filmography is rich with potent fight scenes, but the final battle in The Legend of Drunken Master may be his apex. As a master of “drunken boxing” — so named because inebriation helps loosen the body and lessen pain — Chan attempts to thwart the smuggling of priceless artifacts out of China. It all culminates in a climactic battle royale in a steel factory — a sequence of astonishing dexterity and grace that combines full tilt punches and kicks with maniacal physical comedy.

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3. The Matrix

Neo vs. Agent Smith

Technically influential and viscerally exhilarating, The Matrix‘ subway fight raised the bar for action cinema — and convinced a bunch of people to run out and buy DVD players. With its time-freezing camera effects and Hong Kong-derived fight choreography (courtesy of master Yuen Woo Ping), this duel between Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving brought the movie’s philosophical, what-is-reality musings to a full tilt climax.

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2. The Protector

Tony Jaa vs. everybody

As an attempt to sell Tony Jaa to American audiences, The Protector didn’t quite pan out. But it contains a scene of such crazed genius and technical mastery that it warrants the #2 spot on this list. As Jaa ascends the circular staircase of a hotel, he brings the pain to scores of opponents, twisting arms, breaking glass, and throwing people off balconies. It’s all captured in a stunning five-minute tracking shot (it’s the Russian Ark of action sequences) that seems like it’s getting winded just keeping up.

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1. Rocky

Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed

Here it is — the most influential and iconic bout in the history of Hollywood. Rocky’s battle with Apollo Creed has been reworked in countless ways across numerous genres; it’s evoked in virtually every scrappy-underdog tale. However, none have been quite able to match the original for spine-tingling tension. Even its over-familiarity (it plays on Jumbotrons in sports arenas virtually every night) hasn’t dulled its impact; in addition to being breathlessly exciting and dramatically potent, it doesn’t end quite the way you’d expect.

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Keep going to see what didn’t make the cut…

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Originally, we’d planned on making this article a list of just 10 fights. Then it grew to 20, becuase there are just too many good fights. In fact, we considered making it even longer, but we had to draw the line somewhere. But in case you’re curious, here are a few scenes we almost included, and we’re putting in our “Honorable Mention” list:

And finally, we leave you with this transcendently jaw-dropping duel from Star Trek:


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