I was looking through some movies a couple of weeks ago, searching for some clips to use in one of my classes, and in the middle of that search I started wondering: what would I pick as the best movie fights I’ve seen?
After some contemplation, I’ve managed to whittle it down to a top five, with a bunch of honourable mentions. And in compiling this list, I’ve discovered the elements that make an on-screen fight “good” to me: outstanding (or at least interesting) fight choreography, good pacing, injections of humour or some sort of emotional gravity to the scene… and preferably, no one dies or is mortally injured.
So here’s what I think are the best five fights on film (in order of appearance):
Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Maul (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, 1999)
The original Star Wars trilogy is better than the prequel trilogy in terms of storytelling and innovation but the fights simply cannot compare. For their time, the lightsaber battles in Episodes IV to VI were good, but the choreography of the prequel fights is rather different and much better – or better, at least, for the contemporary viewer’s eyes. It’s more fluid and more complex, as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan demonstrate here when they take on Darth Maul and his double-bladed lightsaber. (I appreciate how the person who uploaded the video has edited out all the other scenes – because in the movie, the fight was crosscut with Anakin’s scenes and Padme’s, which made it harder to appreciate the fight setup.) There’s no humourous angle to this fight, but there is the shock of Qui-Gon’s death, which adds weight to the fight and makes Obi-Wan’s win at the end bittersweet. I daresay Obi-Wan wouldn’t have beat Darth Maul on his own if he wasn’t propelled by the agony of seeing his master go down like that…
Will Turner vs. Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003)
(This isn’t the complete fight scene. Sadly, I wasn’t able to locate a link with the full fight.)
In a way, this fight scene as much about the verbal sparring as it is about the swordplay. Will returns to the blacksmith’s shop and discovers the pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow, hiding there and is intent on thwarting Jack’s escape. Lowly Will Turner gets to show us his skills and resourcefulness for the first time, and he proves quite a match for wily Jack. Plenty of comedy here in the dialogue amidst the fancy swordfighting, as Jack’s airy, flippant attitude is a good foil for straight-laced Will. I think it’s the comic banter and the swordfighting on the wooden beams that makes this one stand out. The end of the fight was unexpected, and while it does rob Will of any glory involved in capturing Jack, that very unexpectedness works with the humorous feel of the whole thing.
Ip Man vs. The Northerner (Ip Man, 2008)
Of course there has to be at least one martial arts fight in such a list. haha Ip Man’s first fight in this film beats all the subsequent fights in the story. The arrogant Northerner (whose name I can’t recall – did we even learn his name in the movie? Can’t remember… *shrugs* ) shows up at Ip Man’s home and demands a duel to prove which martial art is better – his northern style, or Ip Man’s southern Wing Chun style. The fight itself is practically a dance – pitting the agility of one against the aggressive tactics of the other. There’s comedy, the pacing is good, and no one is mortally injured. Oh, and the bit immediately before the fight begins (that isn’t shown in the Youtube link above) with Ip Man’s wife? I really liked that. He refuses to fight out of respect for her wishes, but she ends up giving him tacit approval to fight after being goaded by the Northern fella. “Don’t break my things.” hehe
Iron Man vs. Thor… vs. Captain America (Avengers, 2012)
I’ve never read the Marvel comics but I can imagine that if I did, this really would be a dream come true: a showdown between superheroes – who would win? It was quite intriguing to see how the sequence had been planned out and executed. Not as balletic or elegant to watch as martial arts fights or even some sword fights, but it definitely had “wow” moments and some witty parts. I thought that the Iron Man suit getting boosted 400% instead of being burnt to a crisp by Thor’s lighting was a particularly clever turnaround. Again, quite a few laughs throughout, from Tony ‘s jibes to Cap’s shield ricocheting off Thor’s head (which must be made of steel, I think). (And as the Steve Rogers fan, I have to say that I like how he approached the crazy fight with total calm. )
Rurouni Kenshin vs. the gang of thugs (Rurouni Kenshin, 2012)
When I saw this movie on the flight to London, all I wanted to do was keep rewatching this fight because it was so enthralling to watch. I’ve never watched the anime, but I’ve read the manga and I think this fight exemplified the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu fighting style as portrayed in the manga. Agility and speed. It’s brilliant to watch Kenshin, the swordsman who’s sworn never to kill again, defeat a whole bunch of thugs with his bare hands and random wooden practice swords. The scene was delightfully edited and – well, I don’t know about others, but I certainly felt the remarkable speed that the character is supposed to possess… (Out of the five, this is the most recent one so I’m more inclined to gush over it. haha)
Now, the Honourable Mentions. These are scenes I considered but eventually dropped from top five list, mainly because upon reflection I realised that I liked these scenes for various other reasons – not necessarily the fight choreography and direction. So in no particular order:
Yoda vs. Count Dooku (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, 2002)
Basically notable because it’s the first time we see Yoda display his amazing Force skills. He can absorb Force lightning!
Arthur vs. the projections (Inception, 2010)
This one almost made the top five. But I dropped it because I realised that if it wasn’t for the whole spinning corridor thing, this wouldn’t be nearly as impressive.
Jack Sparrow vs. Barbossa (Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003)
What’s cool about this? The bit where Barbossa runs Jack through with his sword… then Jack steps back into a pool of moonlight. And behold! He too is accursed, and cannot feel or die. There’s some gorgeous CG work where they dash in and out of moonlit sections of the cavern, highlighting their normal human and cursed skeletal forms.
Yu Shu Lien vs. Jen Yu (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000)
The ladies (Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi) duel over the famous sword belonging to Li Mu Bai. It was an interesting fight, but I didn’t think it quite surpassed the top five.