The Part-Time Critic

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Essential Action Scenes Guide: Fights

4:06 PM 1
Essential Action Scenes Guide: Fights
*Last Updated 1/29/2023  

A hypothetical for you: If you were an action scene junkie and could only recommend twenty-five fight sequences to share your passion with others, which ones would you choose? That's the guiding question I used to put together my list. Choosing the principle of "essential" forced me to offer a more diverse list of sequences and experiences than if I were to just list off my top 25 particular favorites. I have a special penchant for classic Hong Kong style fights (you'll see that obviously on the list) and you'd likely see at least two or more more scenes from each Jackie Chan, Tony Jaa, Lau Kar-Leung and Jet Li if I went with what I considered "best" or "favorite". Instead, think of this list more like an education in what I think are best kinds of fight sequences cinema has to offer. It's the fruits of decades of watching action films and two to three years of re-watching/ranking/and writing.

So what counts as a fight scene? Let's get technical for a moment. This list is considering action scenes that have as their primary focus combat between people that is hand to hand or the use of non-projectile weapons. The sequences can be one on one or between larger groups, but once groups become large enough to be organized like armies, it is considered more of a war sequence. Sequences that primarily focus on war, chases, shootouts, comedy, are animated, or other general action motifs are not considered here and will have their own lists. Of the 4,100 action sequences in my database approximately 1,500 of them are fights. Additionally, I've decided to keep boxing fights off the list, since there are scores of them and they often are more about the drama than the kinetic/dynamic action of a boxing match. If I decide, I'll give them their own list in the future. Each of the entries on the list is given an "essential category" label. I recognize that many of these sequences overlap and could be sliced up in any number of ways. If you ever find yourself wondering why I categorized it the way I did, it's because it allowed me to be as diverse as possible while also providing the deepest roster of sequences.

The sequences are lightly ordered in favor of "most essential", but don’t hold me to it. Just making the cut as an “essential” already means it is a top tier “all-time” type sequence in its own way. The ordering just reveals my general preferences at this moment and I reserve the right to come back and update/re-order the list as time goes by. Besides, it’s generally no fun when its not ranked right? Do take advantage of the recommendations at the end of each entry as many of them were close to making the list but had to settle for just an honorary mention. Hope you enjoy, feel free to share and comment.
 


25. THE ESSENTIAL WWE FIGHT
"Finale Fight: Frank Dux vs. Chong Li (Bolo)" -Bloodsport (1988)
Why It's Essential: The rest of this list will be filled largely with bouts of incredibly technical accuracy and overwhelming athletic ability. Action star Jean Claude Van Damme, as good as he was early in his career is had a core limitation, he only had about three really good cinematic fighting moves. He could do the splits, his high kick looks great and goes extremely vertical (like a vertical splits), and then there is his jumping roundhouse where he does the splits. If you think about it, that’s essentially three variations on the splits. So how did he get around that limitation? Look no further than his most definitive fight, the dramatic finale from Bloodsport. In essence, Van Damme gets around his limitations by turning this finale fight into a classic good vs. evil 1980's WWF wrestling matchup. One could argue that this formula had already been successfully established by 1984's The Karate Kid, but I don't think anyone weaponized it like Van Damme did. The villain here is Chong Li, played by action legend Bolo Yeung. Van Damme’s Frank Dux is not just fighting to win the tournament or fighting to keep his life against a strong opponent, but fighting to avenge his friend who was put in the hospital by the remorseless Chong Li (who killed a guy last tournament and “just watched him die”). In the WWE analogy, Van Damme is Hulk Hogan, the pure and good babyface representing America, and Chong Li is the evil villain representing the foreign and remorseless threat. Just like in those WWF matchups, it wasn’t necessarily about skill, it was only about momentum and the eventual dramatic win. Rather than using dynamic back and forth choreography that highlighted a full range of fighting maneuvers and athleticism that would expose Van Damme's limited skillset, this sequence wisely chooses to focus on dramatic spectacle with a very limited moveset. 
The operatic storytelling begins with the villain getting the upper hand and putting our good guy on his back foot – it doesn’t matter that Van Damme isn’t really blocking anything. Eventually our good guy fights back and takes the lead forcing the villain to resort to his most dastardly deed to gain the upper hand, in this case, it’s throwing the chalk in Van Damme’s eyes. Van Damme demonstrates his worthiness by taking the punishment, calming himself, and calling back to his training to help overcome the evil of the villain. We’ve waited long enough and we are now ready and primed for the finishing moves, the most interesting move our fighter has.  We are treated to Van Damme's gorgeous and big spinning split kicks set to wonderful 80’s snyth and the glorious cheesiness of the moment comes to a satisfying (in a true guilty pleasure way) conclusion. Van Damme would repeat this formula to continued success in 1989's Kickboxer and the 1989 Best of the Best would also employ the formula to a rousing conclusion. For more of my commentary on Jean Claude Van Damme Action Scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Final Tournament Fight Against Johnny" -The Karate Kid (1984)
  • "Americans vs. Koreans: Tournament Fight" -Best of the Best (1989)
  • "Finale: Tong Po vs. Van Damme" -The Kickboxer (1989) *Commentary
 

24. THE ESSENTIAL MAN vs. MONSTER FIGHT
"Back to Basics Finale: Dutch vs. the Predator" -Predator (1987)
Why It's Essential: Hollywood films have a long history of pitting monsters against men. From the earliest Universal horror films featuring Dracula, the Invisible Man, or the Mummy to the adventure films of the 1950's that saw characters like Sinbad fighting possessed skeleton's in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. I think the stop-motion advancements brought on by Ray Harryhausen really helped bring this category out from dated slogs to interesting entertainments. Over twenty years later and stop-motion was still being used for entertaining sequences like Perseus taking on Medusa in 1981's Clash of the Titans. With the advancement of technology, like the promise seen in 1993's Jurassic Park, the monsters men faced were able to be more creatively realized. I quite liked the basic standoff between Johnny Cage and Scorpion from 1995's Mortal Kombat and the way an entire army of skeletons were brought to life for Brendan Fraser to sword fight with in 1999's The Mummy (a nice call back to Sinbad). Despite the advancements of CGI, I still think the best monster vs man fight seqeunce was pulled off practically, with the old man in a suit technique. Arnold's back to basics standoff with the alien Predator in 1987's Predator is an essential fight sequence.
The premise of John McTiernan's (director of Die Hard) action film is that an alien Predator has landed in Central American jungles and has hunted down servicemen. A team of macho mercenaries headed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers are brought in to find out what happened, though most of the team is told a different mission is at hand. The Predator, who has camouflage, an heat sensing vision, a powerful shoulder-mounted burst gun, slowly takes out the group one by one. Eventually, the films final act comes down to the Predator facing off against Arnold. Upending expectations, Arnold is stripped of all his big guns - this is not a villain he is just going to be able to blow away with superior fire power. There's some nicely written and shot moments where Arnold begins to understand some of the weaknesses of the Predator and realizes he must get primitive and set traps to beat it. There are some nice tense back and forth moments where plans both work and are subverted. It's a good given and take between the two men who are slowly reverting more and more back to a primitive state. This is my favorite Arnold fight because it's more than just a muscular punch or two - there's an intelligence and genuine game between the two hunters. The beautiful, yet primeval setting helps sell the theme, and one of the greatest creature designs of all-time really makes the Predator feel a true threat, repulsive to look at, and intimidating to have on your tail. If you are looking for one of Arnold's best fights or one of the best "Monster vs Man" showdowns, than look no further than this 1987 masterpiece.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Sword Fight: Sinbad vs. a Possessed Skeleton" -7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
  • "Perseus & Guards Kill Medusa and Her Dog" -Clash of the Titans (1981)
  • "Johnny Cage vs. Scorpion" -Mortal Kombat (1995)
  • "Hamunaptra Finale: Showdown with Imhotep" -The Mummy (1999) *Commentary
  • "Finale: Naru vs. the Predator" -Prey (2022)


23. THE ESSENTIAL HISTORICAL REALISM FIGHT
"Finale: Le Gris vs. Carrouges" -The Last Duel (2021)
Why It's Essential: Alongside of films, one of my other passions is history. It's not a stretch to see that I have a special soft spot in my heart for films that combine my love for films, action, and history. The historical realism is a rare breed, but when its done right, there's a special enduring power to it. They are so rare because most historical action sequences tend to be big war sequences (not fights) and to make sure people are entertained, they are often presented stylized - think classic Chinese Kung Fu or the Swashbuckling films of Errol Flynn. Sometimes I don't want high stylized WWF drama or some kind of heightened cinematic action, I just want to be transported back to a different time and observe how they would fight. Some of the more better historical fights I can recall are a knife fight in a saloon from Walter Hill's 1980 Western called The Long Riders, a stunningly accurate sword fight between Liam Neeson and Tim Roth in 1995's Rob Roy, a beautifully re-created Gladiator matchup from Ridley Scott's Gladiator, and the incredible shootout/one-take fight between DiCaprio's Glass and Hardy's Fitzgerald in the snows of the Old West in The Revenant. All strong sequences, but the final fight between Le Gris and Carrouges in Ridley Scott's medieval times set The Last Duel beats them all. 
It is not often that we get a lengthy medieval duel as the finale of a film, but the entirety of the film's story has been leading to this point – an all-out duel for honor in front of the French nobility. The costuming and art direction is second to none – you legitimately feel like if cameras existed in this time that this is what it would have looked like. Of course, I'm just talking about the "feel" here - I don't know enough to say whether or not that particular banner would be used or if a certain armor piece is of the right decade - I'm just saying it all feels extremely grounded and realistic. The fight begins with your classic jousting match. Two knights on horses charging at each other with lances. The first go is inconclusive and they re-arm and go back at each other. This round is inconclusive as well. They rearm again and go back at another. This time Carrouges, played by Matt Damon, seems to have gotten the worse and his horse slides up against the wall as he yells out for his axe. The way this is all depicted is for maximum impact. The run at each other again, Le Gris beats off the axe with his shield and stabs Carrouges' horse with the lance. They both fall down and Le Gris is trapped under his horse which Carrouges takes advantage of with his axe. Le Gris fights him off and we are now down to hand to hand fighting. Back and forth with, as far as I can tell, is a great mix of genuine weapon usage of the time with cinematic fighting. It’s engaging stuff with each man seeming to give as good as he gets – making you wonder just who will win out. The final phase of the fight winds down to knives and Le Gris scores first with a knife in the thigh. They end up wrestling on the ground – back and forth – until Carrouges gets the killing blow with his knife into Le Gris’s mouth. For my tastes, without feeling too translated for "Hollywood" this is the best “knight vs. knight” sequence in cinema history and the closest to creating an enjoyable knight duel that remains grounded in realism.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Saloon Knife Fight Over a Prostitute" -The Long Riders (1980)
  • "Finale Sword Fight: Rob Roy vs. Cunningham" -Rob Roy (1995)
  • "Maximus vs. Tigris of Gaul" -Gladiator (2000)
  • "Finale: Glass vs. Fitzgerald - Faceoff in the Snow" -The Revenant (2014) *Commentary
  

22. THE ESSENTIAL SCI-FI / FANTASY FIGHT
"Lightsaber Fight Finale: Duel of the Fates" -Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Why It's Essential: I don't think there's a more imaginative director out there right now applying science fiction premises to action sequences than Christopher Nolan. However, is good as the hallway fight is in Inception and the two-way time fight is in Tenet, those sequences come off entertaining more in an intellectual way then for its actual fighting. To put it another way, they are good, they just never seem to feel fully complete. Surprisingly, it's the old school Star Wars lightsaber fight that has stood the test of time and continued to be the kind of science fiction/fantasy fight that audiences crave and remember. I kinda wanted to go with the "Neo vs. Agent Smith Subway Fight" from the first Matrix here, but with the prevalence of stylized hand to hand fights later on this list - a lightsaber fight is the kind of diverse and unique sequence that needs to be here. In my opinion, there is no better lightsaber fight that the epic "Duel of the Fates" from 1999's The Phantom Menace. In the sequence, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon are escorting Amidala back to the Naboo Palace to take out the Trade Federation Viceroy when a door suddenly opens revealing the black cloaked Sith, "Duel of the Fates" plays on the soundtrack, and the two Jedi's branch off from the group to confront Ray Park's Darth Maul. It's a well earned iconic moment. 
For my money, this sequence finds the best balance between emotion, semi-grounded sword fighting, and a cinematic sword fighting. On one end you can place something like Obi-Wan vs. Vader from A New Hope and the sword fighting there is so entirely un-cinematic but does pack an emotional wallop. On the other side, you place Obi-Wan vs. Anakin from Revenge of the Sith and they go so overboard on the cinematic stuff that it just mars the emotion and loses any sense of being grounded. The fight between Luke and Vader from Empire comes close to the right balance, but Luke is just not athletic enough to pull off the cinematic stuff well (he always looks like those actors playing some kind of athlete but just there running gate and other physical tells reveal they are just pretending).  Here we have actors/stuntmen who are really game to put together an memorable sequence and we get some really iconic choreography, visually stunning backgrounds, while never quite losing the emotion. I love the use of the force fields to keep Obi-Wan separated from Qui-Gon and Darth Maul. When Qui-Gon takes the moment to meditate and Darth Maul paces as they await the force field to move the audience gets to catch their breathe and just imagine what might come next. When the fields part allowing Qui-Gon and Darth to connect, but keep Obi-Wan behind, we get to feel his frustration at being incapable of helping stop Qui-Gon's demise. When the field opens up again, Obi-Wan comes out swinging and we get a beautiful extended take of choreography - my favorite in the entire fight. Unfortunately, and I just gotta be honest fight fans, the ending puts a real damper on the fight for me (certainly puts a ceiling on its rating). I can't stand how Obi-Wan force jumps over Maul, gets the saber, and cuts him in half while Maul just kinda watches it all happen. I can't imagine what the stuntmen thought of this illogical finish on the set, but man does it provide a poor wrap-up to an otherwise incredible fight. Of course, to enjoy the fight you also have to ignore the idiotic crosscutting of other threads in the finale and the fact that Darth Maul is pretty underdeveloped as a villain. I am willing to do that because the quality of the fight demands it. This is iconic stuff. For more of my commentary on Star Wars Action Scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Subway Fight: Agent Smith vs. Neo" -The Matrix (1999) *Commentary
  • "Mind Fight: Nameless vs. Sky in the Mind" -Hero (2004) *Commentary
  • "Shifting Gravity Fight in the Hallway & Room" -Inception (2010)
  • "Freeport Heist: Inverted Fight in Two Parts" -Tenet (2020)


21. THE ESSENTIAL BRUCE LEE FIGHT
"Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris in the Roman Coliseum" -Way of the Dragon (1972)
Why It's Essential: I'm not the biggest fan of Bruce Lee, but I recognize that an essential fight list would not be complete without at least one of his sequences. When Bruce Lee is at his best his charisma remains a feature of his sequences, but it is surrounded by an athletic and intelligent showcase of his skill and the skills of his opponent. Bruce would often fight large groups of people - like the dojo sequence from Fist of Fury. When these sequences were filmed too closely, edited too tightly, and choreographed too simply, you get moments that feel better than they actually are on inspection - like his underground drug group fight scene in Enter the Dragon. When the camera work is done right, we get the iconic gem of a sequence found when Lee takes out an entire dojo in Fist of Fury. If you are looking for a sequence that epitomizes the best qualities of Lee in film and in reality, look no further than this masterpiece fight with Chuck Norris from 1972's Way of the Dragon. Unlike many other fights that lean too heavily on his style and charisma, this one actually delivers on the action substance as well. 
All the best features are present: Lee's iconic silhouette, showing off his lean physique, intense facial expressions (Van Damme would steal this it seems) with a focus that looks like he is quickly breaking down his opponent in his mind mixed with a zeal for winning, and most importantly a rhythm of quiet preparation and expectation followed by a quick attack or sometimes a succession of thrusts, parries, and counters. The fight with Norris stands out because it showcases Lee's intelligence, charisma, and skill while allowing Norris to stand as a competent opponent who acts, reacts, and is ultimately bested - this is pretty rare for Lee's sequences. The only iconic quality missing from the sequence is the use of nunchaku. I love how this fight takes its time, gives the opponents a chance to stretch and prepare, have an initial flush of action, react and adapt, and eventually overcome. This is top notch stuff that deserves to be remembered as one of the great fights of all-time. For more of my commentary on Bruce Lee action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Dojo Redux Finale: Lee vs. Yoshida, Petrov & Suzuki" -Fist of Fury (1972) *Commentary
  • "Finale Fight: Lee vs. Han in a Glass Maze" -Enter the Dragon (1973) *Commentary
  • "Bruce Lee vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar" -Game of Death (1978) *Commentary


20. THE ESSENTIAL WUXIA STYLE FIGHT
"Ladder Fight Finale: Wong Fei-Hung vs. Iron Robe Yim" -Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
Why It's Essential: Long before superhero films became commonplace in cinema, Chinese films were incorporating more and more Wuxia in their martial arts films. Wuxia is a kind of Chinese story typically about itinerant martial arts heroes who often have superhuman-like abilities. 1971's A Touch of Zen was a big break through for the genre and would begin to become commonplace in the mid to late 1970's. The Master of the Flying Guillotine from 1976 is a perfect example of how Wuxia influenced Chinese Kung Fu movies, giving some characters a bit of power over gravity or in the case of the film, unique weapons that defy the laws of motion. To my mind, there's no action star who paired better with this genre than Jet Li. His precise wushu kung fu background, small and athletic frame (perfect for wire work), and charisma saw him go on a run of incredible Wuxia inspired films, largely choreographed by Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo-Ping (a name you'll hear often on this list) throughout the early 1990's. His breakout role as Wong Fei-Hung in Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China from 1991 produced my favorite Wuxia styled fight scene of all-time.
The Once Upon a Time in China series saw Jet Li and director Tsui Hark bring high level production budgets to historical martial arts films and the finale sequence of the first film ends up in a factory/warehouse with products stacked three and four stories high fighting against a new martial arts club leader named Iron Vest (together they had incredible chemistry). To get to all of these products, large ladders are required, and these ladders become the source of many gravity defying fight beats and stunts. Li and Iron Robe Yim do pull off some really memorable stunts with those large ladders. This isn’t just a gimmick fights centered around tall ladders though, we get Li and full butt kicking mode with several extended wide shots (fish eye camera used) where he and Yim give us some flashy kung fu exchanges. I like how there exchanges start out with big moves: sweeping and jumping kicks mostly. By the end of the lengthy fight their exchanges get more intimate as Li has begun to close out the fight: mostly precisely placed punches and strikes. This biggest problem with the fight is that it loses a bit of steam thanks to some intercutting of other events, but if you just take this one on one - it's hard to deny that it might just be Li's best. If you enjoy wire work and enhanced powers in martial arts films, then you absolutely need to check this fight out. For more of my commentary on Jet Li action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Bamboo Forest Fight" -A Touch of Zen (1971)
  • "Finale Fight: One-Armed Boxer vs. The Flying Guillotine" -The Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976)
  • "Finale: Rescuing His Father - Fong Sai Yuk vs. Vincent Zhao Pt. 2" -The Legend (1993) *Commentary
  • "Former Brothers Platform Fight Over Michelle Yeoh" -Tai Chi Master (1993) *Commentary


19. THE ESSENTIAL WEAPON SHOWDOWN FIGHT
"Donnie Yen vs. Wu Jing: Baton and Knife Fight" -Kill Zone (2005)
Why It's Essential: A classic premise of the fighting genre is the one vs. one weapon showdown fight. Early Hollywood was obsessed with swashbuckling weapon fights (those get their own category on here) and moved on to shootouts when Westerns came into popularity. Hong Kong cinema, on the other hand, with its focus on traditional kung fu fights had a thriving interest in weapons showdowns. I think the absolute best of the bunch is director/choreographer Lau Kar-Leung's pole match between Gordon Liu and the Head Abbot. It's a 3-4 minute sequence that I think is about as good as a one on one pole fight could ever get. Hollywood eventually came around (largely through choreographers who grew up on Hong Kong style action) and gave us memorable weapon showdowns like Hector vs. Achilles in 2004's Troy or John Wick's best fight in the comical but brutal fight in the antique gun and knife shop. None of those fights however, compare to the sheer impact that Chinese action star Donnie Yen achieved in his weapon fight with Wu Jing in the 2005 film Kill Zone
This iconic fight takes place between an established butt kicker assassin wielding a large knife (Wu Jing) and a vengeful Donnie Yen sporting a police baton. The fight is fast and furious, often feeling like they are just randomly waving their hands. However, if you watch closely enough, each move is purposeful and understandable - the stars are just that quick and fast at what they are doing. This is a confident fight with a clear vision - an alleyway weapon fight to the death. The camerawork here is simple but unified with that vision, moving back and forth up the alleyway and giving us only a few important close-ups to emphasize a major hit or swing in momentum. The camera seems largely on a dolly that goes back and forth and cuts away only for dramatic impacts and momentum shifts. Donnie Yen comes off looking fantastic as he has great answers to everything the knife assassin wants to attempt here. Beautiful choreography over a couple minute span here, with the back and forth moments punctuated by violent impacts. There's longer weapons showdowns out there, but there's few that pack intensity and intelligence together like this one. This is one of the best knife fights in all of cinema. For more of my commentary on Donnie Yen action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Epic Pole Match: Gordon Liu vs. Head Abbot" -The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (1984) *Commentary
  • "Hector vs. Achilles" -Troy (2004)
  • "Antique Gun & Knife Fight" -John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019) *Commentary


18. THE ESSENTIAL SWASHBUCKLING ADVENTURE FIGHT
"Island Mayhem: Fighting for the Chest and the Key" -Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)
Why It's Essential: Early Hollywood LOVED producing swashbuckling adventure films that promised daring sword fights and battles between seagoing ships. Some of the best sequences ever produced from that era starred the athletic and charismatic Errol Flynn. I think his best work can be found in 1935's Captain Blood or 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood. The genre went dormant for a long while, had a blip of life in 1998's The Mask of Zorro revival, but it wasn't until 2003's The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl that we'd get another swashbuckling sequence to rival Old Hollywood's heyday. The sequel came out three years later and gave us one of the absolute best "adventure" action sequences ever made. In fact, I think the island fight for the key and chest exists an entire tier up from anything else found in the entire franchise and category. Our group of heroes arrive at an absolutely gorgeous Caribbean island featuring a large sandbar with several lagoon like shallow areas. The colors of blue against the white sand are just incredible here. After finding the chest of Davey Jones, we get a quick layout of the conflicting ambitions of each of the major players: Norrington, Turner, and Sparrow. Each man has their own reason for wanting the heart and each man is willing to swindle the other for it. Once the sword fighting begins the sequence grows more and more complicated with the addition of the Dutchman crew and Sparrow’s crew that see their own angle. The sword fighting set against the white sand and turquoise water is stunning and direector Gore Verbinski does a great job using it to highlight the human action. The sword fighting itself is quite good, though there's no particularly iconic moves - it's more about the setting and how the three different men make use of it. They eventually fight their way from the lagoon inland to a bell tower and water wheel.

Additionally, this is probably the greatest “adventure” moment for the entire franchise when it comes to the full score. What was nice in the first film finds its full bombastic and definitive nature here during this sequence. The biggest feature is the camera work – the visual presentation of the warring parties and how cleverly and dynamically their three-way struggle can play out in this beautiful setting behind the score at full blast. The biggest highlight for me is the playful camera work in presenting the three main players fighting inside a detached water wheel. In the end, this sequence is the best execution of what the entire franchise seemed to have been shooting for (to always less success than here): a fun, quirky, and comedic adventure where multiple parties with their own agendas are fighting over treasured objects in a beautiful Caribbean setting. This sequence absolutely nailed it and will be an enjoyable watch for many years to come. For more of my commentary on Pirates of the Caribbean action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Capt. Blood Duels with Capt. Levasseur" -Captain Blood (1935)
  • "Robin Hood Swords Fights Guy of Gisbourne and Saves Marion" -The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
  • "Sword Fight: Zorro vs. Capt. Love & Don Montero Ends in Escape" -The Mask of Zorro (1998)
  • "Sword Fight: Turner vs. Sparrow" -Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) *Commentary


17. THE ESSENTIAL SAMURAI / NINJA FIGHT
"Finale: Samurai vs. Lord Naritsugu in Ochiai" -13 Assassins (2010)
Why It's Essential: It was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that first sparked my love for martial arts and fired my imagination for kicking the butt of bad guys. As a kid growing up in the 80's and 90's, there were no shortage of cheesy ninja and samurai films taking advantage of the niche action craze. It wasn't until my college years and beyond that I finally got exposed to some of the more sophisticated ninja/samurai sequences ever produced. Unsurprisingly, Lau Kar-Leung has a pretty definitive take in his film Heroes of the East that climaxes with an epic fight (showcase more like it) between Gordon Liu demonstrating China's ninja traditions and Yasuaki Kurata demonstrating Japan's ninja traditions. Kurata also starred in the stellar Cory Yuen directed Ninja in the Dragon's Den. Hollwyood put together a decent sequence in Tom Cruise's Samura war film The Last Samurai. It wasn't until 2010 with the legendary Japanese director Takashi Mike's take on the classic The Seven Samurai (overrated as an action film) that we'd get the essential Samurai/ninja sequence. 

Takashi Mike gave us a fight finale masterpiece that takes up about forty minutes of the film and still never manages to never feel too long. The psychopathic Lord Naritsugu is traveling with an entourage of 200 soldiers to protect him as they enter the city of Ochiai. Unfortunately for them, the most disciplined Samurai in Japan, Shinzaemon Shimada and 11 other Samurai assassins he has collected, has prepared the city to be a killing zone. Director Takashi Mike gets so much right here – taking his time to setup the tension, suspense, and pacing the fight. Getting the art direction correct and making this village feel real, lived in, and dirty. As the action structure unfolds you genuinely believe such a small force of men could take on such a larger one. Once the explosions, traps, and arrows run out – the name of the game turns into sword fights. There’s plenty to love in the fights, especially when certain main characters get incredible one take shots. This is easily my favorite sequence featuring samurai swords. This sequence, though lengthy, is paced well – giving each character strong moments and dramatic endings. As the grime piles up, the deaths pile up, and characters begin to reflect on what has taken place. Everything comes down to the final dramatic showdown between Shinzaemon and Lord Naritsugu and his bodyguard Hanbei. If you prefer more one on one fights – then Shinzaemon vs. Naritsugu is a nice grounded but cinematic sword fight. For me, this is the masterpiece of Samurai cinema – it’s the gold standard. 

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Finale: Liu vs. Kurata - Three Stage Fight Ends in Crab vs. Crane" -Heroes of the East (1978) *Commentary
  • "Sanchiro & Goons vs. Shadow Ninja Genbu" -Ninja in the Dragon's Den (1982)
  • "Village Attack: Nighttime Ninja Ambush" -The Last Samurai (2003)
  • "Three Stage Fight: Blind Swordsman vs. Quing Officials, Gunman, & Ninjas" -The Swordsman (2021)


16. THE ESSENTIAL HYPER-STYLIZED FIGHT
"Kentucky Church Mayhem" -Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
Why It's Essential: Hong Kong fight cinema cast a long shadow on Hollywood action. It wasn't until the mid to late 90's that Hollywood began moving away from the very tired formula of big muscle man matchups made popular by stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone and begin embracing an influx of influences. Jackie Chan and Jet Li imports made an impact, but it was the successful one-two punch of 1999's The Matrix and 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (both choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping) that through open the doors to more imaginative fights. Quentin Tarantino was one of the first to incorporate his love of old school kung fu with his particular stylizations of hyper-violence and dialogue heavy action. Tarantino called upon Yuen Woo-Ping and put together a classic hyper-stylized fight that was unique in American cinema. It would be several years later under the visions of directors Zach Snyder, Guy Ritchie, and Matthew Vaughn that a particular kind of hyper-stylized fight featuring heavy blood and violence with extreme ramping up and down of the fight footage mixed with cuts/pans/zooms found genuine success. The peak of this style, sorry Quentin, wasn't found in a Kill Bill film, but in Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a contemporary James Bond ever was ever sent into a primal rage right in the middle of a Kentucky church occupied by a hundred or so people in a hate group? Believe it or not, this action sequence exists to fill that niche! Colin Firth’s secret agent is tricked into attending a meeting at this church hate group by Samuel L. Jackson’s villain who turns on a frequency that sends everyone into a killing rampage. The resultant sequence is perhaps the greatest all-time stylized action scene ever made. It's kicked off by Firth's shocking head shot of a woman parishioner and many of the shots that follow feature dozens of gruesome background fights between congregants. Firth becomes a one-man wrecking crew here, making use of his gun, knife, and any other props (Bibles, pews, burning incense, an axe) he can find to maim, impale, and stop the crazed congregation. The scene only lasts a couple of minutes, it is shot to look like a single take (it’s digitally stitched together with many takes, but looks great), features plenty of speed ramping up and down, and has an insane intensity. The one-take style punctuated by extreme violence is played out with that fast instrumental breakdown from the southern rock song “Freebird” over the top of it and it’s a perfect accompaniment. This is a crazy hybrid fight sequence that plays both as a genuine fight sequence with expert choreography but is so uber violent and takes place in such strange circumstances that it can counts as a guilty pleasure for me. It’s likely the biggest guilty pleasure fight sequence ever made. This one is not for the faint of heart.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "House of Blue Leaves: Bride vs. Crazy 88's/Gogo/O-Ren Ishi" -Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
  • "Barstow Trailer Fight: Bride vs. Elle Driver" -Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)
  • "Opening: Killing the Comedian" -Watchmen (2009)
  • "Sherlock's Methodical Underground Boxing Fight" -Sherlock Holmes (2009)
  • "Opening: London Cab Fight and Chase" -Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)
  • "Finale: Eggsy & Galahad vs. Whiskey" -Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)


15. THE ESSENTIAL ONE VS. MANY FIGHT
"Ip Man Unleashed: One vs. Ten" -Ip Man (2009)
Why It's Essential: I'm not sure there is a more iconic fight in Donnie Yen's catalog than this one. It's not my favorite or what I think is his technical best, but there is perhaps no better shot and choreographed "One vs. Many" fight between regular human beings that gets across the simple message "This guy is one bad dude" than this one. It packs more memorable and visceral punch in its couple minute runtime than even most of the best fights do in extended runtimes. Every major action star seems to have their own version of this fight. Steven Seagal would make this the template for pretty much every major fight he choreographed - none better than 1991's Out for Justice bar fight. It's been a staple of action cinema since its inception, but this particular "One man formally fights multiple at once" seems to have taken on the shape it has today from Bruce Lee's iconic dojo fight in 1972's Fist of Fury where he takes out karate students and masters with ease, one after another. This sequence was paid homage and updated and made better in Jet Li's Fist of Legend which became the absolute standard for such a fight (and might still be in many eyes). It was such an influential fight you can see parts of it directly copied in The Matrix Reloaded's "Burley Brawl" sequence with all the Mr. Andersons (both the Li and Matrix versions were choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping). Donnie Yen even did a rendition of it in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen which scored just a 'B' grade with me. His version with the character Ip Man however, with the choreography help of Sammo Hung, has become the new standard.

 The basic premise is that China has been occupied by the Japanese in WWII and a General Muira, who happens to be an avid martial artist, oversees the province Ip Man lives in. Muira is trying to locate Chinese martial artists for himself and his students to take on - giving the challengers extra food to take home to their family. Ip Man, after witnessing the death of a Chinese master, demands to fight at least ten fighters at once. The resulting fight is an absolute beat down that only lasts a bit longer than a minute. What we get though is an economy of action beat here where each shot features an iconic move/strike from Ip Man. He is blocking, striking, stepping on faces, breaking bones, and in the most memorable two moments - using his quick strike rabbit punch on the face of an opponent and in the chest, literally beating a man to the ground. This is one of those scenes that crosses over into the mainstream because of how accessible and powerful it is. For my money, I like a sequence to be a bit longer, but if we are just talk talking popular level fight scenes that impact and stick with an audience - this could have a legit claim to being #1 on the list. It launched 'Ip Man' as a serious brand with multiple sequels and tons of spinoffs. For more of my commentary on Donnie Yen action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Dojo Icon: Bruce Lee vs. Students & their Master Yoshida" -Fist of Fury (1972) *Commentary
  • "Clearing Out a Billiards Bar with a Pool Ball" -Out for Justice (1991) *Commentary
  • "Dojo Disaster: Chen Zhen Rampages on Students & their Master" -Fist of Legend (1994) *Commentary
  • "The Burly Brawl: Neo vs. Dozens of Agent Smiths" -The Matrix Reloaded (2003) *Commentary
  • "Hallway Slaughter with a Hammer" -Oldboy (2003)


14. THE ESSENTIAL WEAPONS SHOWCASE FIGHT
"Weapon Fight Extravaganza: Yu Lien vs. Jen" -Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Why It's Essential: Beyond the traditional fight premise of the one vs. one weapon showdown is the setup where the fighters start with one weapon but end up exhausting an entire collection of weapons in a kind of weapon showcase for the audience. Gordon Liu struck gold as Master Killer in 1978's The 36th Chamber of Shaolin not just because of the training sequences, but also due to the series of weapons fights he has with fight legend Lee Hoi-Song culminating in the creation of the three-sectioned staff. Lau Kar-Leung choreographed that fight along with perhaps the most technical and mind-blowing weapons showcase, the over 10 minute fight between him and his brother as they go through every major weapon of Chinese fight culture in the 1983 film The Legendary Weapons of China. On a technical level, that fight may never be topped. However, it's a bit long and misses the powerful subtext of my pick for most "essential", the Yuen Woo-Ping (surprise!) choreographed weapon fight from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

This is a film owned by its women characters – the title of the film largely refers to them and how their culture has largely held women back from expressing their true strength, potential, and dreams. Each woman fights that oppression in different ways and it was inevitable for them to have the most important clash of the film and it happens at Yu Lien’s home, in her dojo lined with all the traditional weapons. The fight begins as sword vs. sword; Jen wielding the green destiny and Yu Lien with a traditional Chinese sword. First, let’s talk choreography and cinematography. The skill level here is about as high as it gets. The basic premise is that they are quite nearly matched, but as long as Jen has the green destiny sword she will always have the slight upper hand in destroying Yu Lien’s weapons. Yu Lien goes through two different kinds of swords, a spear, grappling like swords, and a heavy stick – each one ultimately getting destroyed by the Green Destiny sowed. The back and forth beats are quite spectacular. Director Ang Lee will often shoot wide and long shots allowing for some us to witness some really complicated back and forth choreography. Other times we get a long overhead shot that highlights the counters and geography of the fight. All this while not forgetting to give us proper inserts and close-ups to make this a genuine action/drama scene and not just a martial arts demonstration. It’s a real balance – but the interpersonal drama is never left behind during this incredible display of skill. I also appreciate that choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping isn’t just throwing these different weapons out there, but has incorporated the traditional style of how these weapons were typically used. Ultimately, Yu Lien is able to win the matchup because she intelligently subverts Jen’s Green Destiny sword advantage by swinging her sword in a way in which it would be cut, but would still be retained as a small dagger aimed at Jen’s throat. Jen takes advantage of Yu Lien’s pause and mercy at her win to selfishly not give up. This weapons showcase bring together athleticism, skill, grace, technique, power, and dynamic action spectacle, but it always feels powerfully connected to the characters and the story beat it’s part of. A special shoutout to the Alleyway weapon showcase scene from 2015's The Final Master that takes a well worn premise and is able to make it feel fresh and exciting.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Master the Final Chamber: Series of Weapons Fights to Beat Master" -The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) *Commentary
  • "Finale: Weapons Fight Extravaganza" -The Legendary Weapons of China (1983) *Commentary
  • "French Chateau Fight: Neo vs. Merovingian's Goons" -The Matrix Reloaded (2003) *Commentary
  • "Finale: Master Chen Takes on All the Masters in the Alley" -The Final Master (2015)


13. THE ESSENTIAL WING CHUN FIGHT
"Wing Chun Grandmaster Finale: Ip Man vs. Max Zhang" -Ip Man 3 (2016)
Why It's Essential: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li made their indelible mark on popular fight culture early in their careers. Donnie Yen, who is almost every bit as capable a cinematic fighter, was well known in the fight community for his roles in Once Upon a Time in China II and Iron Monkey as well as his genre re-defining fights in 2005's Kill Zone and 2007's Flash Point, but it wasn't until the breakout success of 2009's Ip Man that Donnie would garner the crossover fame he always deserved. The franchise became so popular that it spawned three official sequels, and many other crossover Ip Man films. It was like an entire industry to itself. This wasn't the first time that Ip Man's Wing Chun fight style had been brought to the screen, but perhaps it just took the combination of Donnie Yen and choreographer Sammo Hung to bring this particular type of cinematic Wing Chun to such popular levels of success. Ironically, of all the great fights in the Ip Man canon, it's not a Sammo choreographed fight (he worked on the first two films) that has me calling it "essential"; it is a Yuen Woo-Ping choreographed version (he did the final two films). I had no idea I needed a Wing Chun matchup between Donnie Yen and Max Zhang until I got it. Their grandmaster showdown in the third film is easily the best overall fight of the Ip Man franchise and has a real argument (at least for me) for being the best fight of Donnie Yen's career as well. This six minute fight doesn't have an ounce of fat on it - everything works and works well. Zhang plays a Wing Chun expert trying to establish his own presence and school and sees challenging Ip Man to a public fight as the fastest and best way to do it. At this point in his life, Ip Man believes he has nothing to prove and doesn't want to fight - eventually his wife pushes him to just get it over with. The fight takes place at Zhang's dojo and in three stages. The first stage is pole fight, then a short swords fight, and finally a hand to hand fight. The key theme here is that Zhang is really good, nearly Ip Man's equal, but loses each stage just by a hair's breadth - Ip Man is just always a little bit better than him. The pole fight is pretty good stuff but nothing I'd wax eloquently about. The fight really ramps (into all-time status) up once they fight using the butterfly swords. The quickness of each fighter, number of moves in each take, and complicated choreography are really impressive here. It's about as good as anything we got in that amazing Wu Jing knife fight we got in Kill Zone

The director finds the perfect balance of sitting back and letting us see these two professionals show off, while still looking to emphasize certain beats and strikes cinematically. I can't say enough about the butterfly sword sequence, I think it's just mind-blowing. Surprisingly, the hand to hand sequence that follows isn't a comedown at all. The back and forth here is, in my humble opinion, the single best demonstration of cinematic Wing Chun recorded. Zhang is every bit as good as Yen in conveying the short, quick movements of Wing Chun and the chemistry between the two is palpable. There are a few highlighted elbow strikes here and a sequence going up and down some stairs that stand out until you get to the ending beat. That beat is a nice embodiment of the the theme here as Zhang gets a nice hit on Ip Man's eye (similar to a move Ip Man did to Mike Tyson earlier in the film) making it tough to see and following it up with rabbit punches (Ip Man's iconic move) that are just so close to hitting but don't land. Ip Man blocks the last one and finishes the fight off with a perfectly executed one-inch punch. It's a nice ode to Bruce Lee (Ip Man was his real life mentor) and a perfect cherry on the top of this perfect little 6 minute fight. For more of my commentary on Donnie Yen action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Finale: Multiple Fights with Weapons, a Cripple, and Boss Mo's Praying Mantis" -Warriors Two (1978)
  • "Ip Man vs. the Local Masters and Sammo Hung" -Ip Man 2 (2010) *Commentary
  • "Ip Man vs. Mike Tyson" -Ip Man 3 (2016) *Commentary
  • "Elevator Fight: Ip Man vs. Thai Fighter" -Ip Man 3 (2016) *Commentary


12. THE ESSENTIAL PROP FIGHT
"Tables, Ladders, and Chairs Oh My!" -First Strike (1996)
Why It's Essential: Bruce Lee set the template for "one vs. many" fights as a test of the skill and nerve of the fighter. Lee would wade into the sea of people and take them out one by one based on pure skill. That's what people had come to know and love. It took the action genius of Jackie Chan to be willing to take that formula and turn it completely upside down. Instead of confidently wading into the sea of bad guys, Chan had his characters desperately trying to run away and not fight. When the bad guys chased him anyways, he would resort to desperately using whatever props in his environment he could to use as a weapon. His characters were not macho fight first heroes, but peace first, fight cleverly if you must, action heroes. It was a monumental change and amounted to Jackie creating an entirely new category of fight - the prop fight. Sure, people had been using the environment to fight for a long time. Old school Kung Fu flicks often used normal items in their fights, like the calligraphy fight in 1979's The Magnificent Butcher or the unintentionally funny/cheesy prop fight in a gym from Lau Kar-Leung's The Lady is the Boss (1983). It was Jackie however who trail-blazed and perfected the creative use of any and every prop in his environment to take down his foes. Jet Li and Jason Statham would use this template to some success in some of their movies, but no one compared to Jackie. Outside of his Drunken Master films, the "Tables, Ladders, and Chairs Oh My!" prop fight from 1996's First Strike might be the most popular fight in Jackie's filmography and there's good reason for it. 
As Jackie became more of a global star, his fighting style took on a more universal appeal: gone was the emphasis on longer stylistic fighting sequences punctuated by bruising stunt falls - in was efficient, creative, and humorous prop driven fight beats. It makes sense as the shift plays to all of Jackie's strengths, differentiates him from other action stars, and has universal appeal across languages. You don't have to speak Chinese to catch that Chan's outfit is a nod to Bruce Lee's iconic yellow jumpsuit, or be a fan of Hong Kong humor to enjoy a physical fight like this. Of all the prop heavy sequences he has done (and there are a ton of great ones to choose from) I think this is Chan's most intricate, efficient, hard hitting, and entertaining prop fight ever. The setup for the fight is that Jackie is a wanted man and needs to clear his name. He heads to an old building under repair to try and find the man who can help him, but they decide to beat him up instead and a fight ensures. The sequence is relatively short, registering in at no more than four minutes, but it is packed with greatness. It's a bit like an all-time classic vinyl album - it may have had a limit to the number of songs it could hold, but the best albums were all killer and no filler. That's this fight. It's short, but each action beat engages the viewer and leads organically to the next, ramping up to a supremely satisfying climax. In so many great fights there are still a lot of filler moves to get to the next big moment, not this one. The pacing, the angles, and the editing perfectly cohere to make each shot a perfect complement to the one before and the one after. Despite it's relative shortness, it tends to feel longer due to a three act structure.  The fight covers the use of tables, chairs, a scaffold, drywall, a parade lion head, brooms, and ladders and each is a memorable moment that doesn't outstay its welcome. Of course, it culminates in the prop that everyone remembers best: the ladder. Chan accomplishes moves and feats with a ladder that would make even WWE Money in the Bank ladder match contestants think twice. I never get tired of watching it. This has to be, second for second, Chan's most packed masterpiece and it comes in a category of fight he practically pioneered. For more of my commentary on Jackie Chan action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Calligraphy Fight" -The Magnificent Butcher (1979)
  • "Finale: Athletic Gym Battle" -The Lady is the Boss (1983) *Commentary
  • "The Playground Fight" -Police Story II (1988) *Commentary
  • "Construction Site Mayhem" -Mr. Nice Guy (1997) *Commentary
  • "Escape from the Hotel: Down the Laundry Chute" -Kiss of the Dragon (2001) *Commentary
  • "Cleaning Out the Villain's Compound: Hoses, Axes, Poles, and Swords" -The Transporter 2 (2005)


11. THE ESSENTIAL CONTEMPORARY SPY/ASSASSIN FIGHT
"Lorraine vs. Russians: Fight & Shootout for Spyglass" -Atomic Blonde (2017)
Why It's Essential: The early 2000's were an interesting time for American action cinema as Hong Kong influences were becoming more and more popular and the appeal of the macho muscle bound stars of the 80's and 90's were greatly waning. A path forward seemed to open up with the short, but technical, and impressive sequences from a little 2002 spy film called The Bourne Identity. The sequences for the film (and the rest of the franchise) would be choreographed by Jeff Imada. The standout fight of the film is a fight between Matt Damon's Bourne and an assassin. Rather than beating the assassin through sheer strength, Damon uses technical strikes (a meld of styles like Silat, Krav Maga, and Wing Chun) along with the clever use of a pen to deadly ends. It's short, but impactful and memorable. Similar memorable fights would take place in sequels with a rolled up magazine and a book. The tactical style would develop over the next several years through different major choreographers (David Leitch, Sam Hargrave, Chad Stahelski) and influence almost every major action franchise: James Bond, Taken, John Wick, and Mission: Impossible to name some of the better renditions. For my money, it was David Leitch who directed and choreographed the most essential version of this kind of fight in 2017's Atomic Blonde

This near ten minute action sequence, shot to look like a single take, was an instant classic from the moment I saw it. It's the cold war and Charlize Theron is in Berlin as secret agent. Trying to protect a key source, Charlize Theron fights off multiple Russian henchmen with gunplay and gritty, hard-hitting hand to hand combat. The decision here to make this feel like a realistic fight really pays off and helps it stand out from similar sequences that might throw in several high spots to help Theron look like a superhero. Instead, Theron fights tough but she gets beat down and thrown around in the process as well. She feels like a serious threat, but she also feels seriously threatened at the same time. She strikes, runs, takes corners, grabs for whatever props she can, and it all feels like a desperate scrum she might not survive. By the time the fight is over, Charlize is covered in blood and bruises and she sells her injuries perfectly. The fight covers multiple floors, a brutal staircase sequence, a final grappling ending and even a bit of a gripping car chase sequence to top it all off. It's a riveting sequence that deserves to be placed alongside some of the best grounded fight sequences on film. I don't think we'll see this contemporary fight spy/assassin fight style ever topped.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • Jason Bourne Version: "Pen vs. Knife Fight" -The Bourne Identity (2002) *Commentary
  • Jason Bourne Version #2: "Munich Magazine Fight" -The Bourne Supremacy (2004) *Commentary
  • Liam Neeson Version: "Finale: Boat Shootout & Fight on the Seine River" -Taken (2009)
  • James Bond Version: "Train Fight: Bond vs. Hinx" -Spectre (2015) *Commentary
  • John Wick Version: "John Wick vs. Common Ends at the Continental" -John Wick: Chapter Two (2017) *Commentary
  • Mission: Impossible Version: "Bathroom Carnage: Fistfight with Lark" -Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018) *Commentary


10. THE ESSENTIAL MONSTER MASH
"King of the Jungle: King Kong vs. T-Rex Trio" -King Kong (2005)
Why It's Essential: The early King Kong and Godzilla films may have broken visual effects boundaries for their time and inspired some of the filmmakers of today, but they didn't really lead to action sequences that have help up over time. As I mentioned in the "Man vs. Monster" category, it wasn't until Ray Harryhausen films that the technology was able to produce something that still feels essential. The advancements made in 1993's Jurassic Park paved the way for some of the more memorable creature fights, like the Spinosaurus and T-Rex fight in Jurassic Park III or the raptor, Indominus Rex & T-Rex smackdown in the 2015 soft reboot of Jurassic World. Since the CGI revolution the technology has brought to life fights between giant transforming robots, Kong and helicopters, a giant Jaeger & Kaiju, and even a somewhat satisfying Kong vs. Godzilla set in Hong Kong. Personally, none of those really do much for me. It took Peter Jackson's use of CGI to bring Skull Island and King Kong to life that makes it way into the ranks of an essential "Monster Mash".

Jackson's King Kong vs. three T-Rex's just might be the best fantasy showdown between giant creatures ever put to film. There’s a cinematic grandiosity, intelligence, and emotion here that nearly every other CGI or miniature spectacle just can’t match. We are on the fantastical and dangerous Skull Island and Kong has taken Ann into the jungle. The two had a fallout when Ann tells Kong “no” and he pouts like a teenage boy whose toy isn’t doing what he wants. Ann goes on the run to get away and comes across a giant lizard like creature eating the carcass of another animal. Ann slowly walks away but snaps a twig and the chase is on. Ann runs away but gets caught inside a log, but the giant lizard is picked up and eaten by another bigger animal. It’s revealed that the bigger animal is a T-Rex. Thus begins a classic “out of the pan and into the fire” escalation sequence. Ann runs from the T-Rex only to encounter another T-Rex. She let’s out a scream and Kong comes to the rescue. The resultant fight ends up being Kong taking on three T-Rexes while trying to keep Ann safe the entire time. This is the first phase of their fight and it’s a great smackdown between four giant creatures. I love how the group wrestles all over the ground and the chomping T-Rex’s cause Kong to maneuver Ann to safety by switching hands and even feet at times. Kong takes out one T-Rex in this phase, but then they spill over into a canyon that is crisscrossed with jungle vines and they all get caught up into it. There is some really neat choreography here as Kong and a Rex battle it out as Ann tries to swing away from a Rex get ever closer. They move around, break through vines, tumble, and Kong takes out another Rex. Eventually they land on the ground and we get a final showdown between Kong and a Rex. It’s essentially a show-off beatdown as Kong bites out the Rex’s tongue and breaks his jaw then pounds his chest like an alpha. It’s an incredible sequence and its easy to tell that Peter Jackson put a ton of time and effort into this. The special effects, though not perfect, are adequate and integrated well enough that they continue to be impressive and just might stand the test of time (unlike the embarrassing brontosaurus stampede scene earlier in the same film). The jungle, whether CGI or miniature or partial sets, looks both real and fantastical and the fight remains intense while still giving a clear view of the spatial geography. The little details abound here as well, like small insects fluttering out of the mouths of the T-Rex or the lighting getting subtle changes depending on the mood of the moment. My favorite detail is the time taken to give Kong’s expressions in the fight. It’s clear that Kong is willing to risk his life for Ann, but the sequence makes him earn it, giving us multiple shots where Kong reels in pain from a bite. The animation here shines as Kong’s eyes and the physical scars say so much. Even Naomi Watts gets to shine in this sequence. Yes, she’s technically a damsel in distress and mostly dependent on Kong, but she’s allowed to show an intelligence and make decisions that is vital to her survival. Additionally, the role asks her to be so physical with the running, swinging, and being tossed around that she comes out looking like a champ as well. This sequence is basically the best King Kong film of all time – just as a short story. Seriously, you get a tour of Skull Island’s jungles and canyons, insects, lizards, and Rex’s and you get the essential relationship between Kong and Ann. You get it all in just around ten minutes. I’m not sure there is a way to ever top this one. This is the best Kong sequence of all-time, my favorite “big fantasy creatures fight” sequence, and one of the better action sequences of all-time.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "First Encounter: Xenomorph Beats a Predator" -Alien vs. Predator (2004)
  • "Isla Sorna Landing: Spinosaurus Welcome & T-Rex Fight" -Jurassic Park III (2001) *Commentary
  • "Forest Battle: Optimus Prime vs. Three Decepticons" -Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) *Commentary
  • "Resort Center Finale: Raptors, Indominus & T-Rex Showdown" -Jurassic World (2015) *Commentary
  • "Kong Takes Out All Incoming Helicopters to Skull Island" -Kong: Skull Island (2017)
  • "Finale: Group of Jaegers Take Out Three Kaiju in Tokyo" -Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)
  • "Hong Kong Showdown: Godzilla vs. Kong" -Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)


9. THE ESSENTIAL SUPERHERO SMACKDOWN
"Leipzig Airport: Superhero Smackdown" -Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Why It's Essential: Similar to the "Monster Mash" category, the Superhero category would not come into its own until sufficient advancements in CGI were made. As much as people loved the first Superman films, there action scenes have just not held up much over time. Even the Batman franchise, which saw great popular success, struggled to produce memorable action sequences. It was the 1997 and 1998 comic book adaptations of Spawn and Blade that really demonstrated the possibilities CGI was presenting to the genre. 2000's X-Men was successful but still unable to present high level CGI action. 2002's Spider-Man was the runaway smash and success the broke the entire genre open. The 2004 sequel presented a pair of fights between Spider-Man and Dock Ock that are still to this day the best Non-MCU superhero fights ever put to screen. Marvel Studios began their run in the late 2000's with some strong entries, but it wasn't until 2012's Avengers that all the promising threads would come together to deliver a tier of action that no other production could touch. That sequence is more a "war" sequence so it doesn't qualify here, but their amazing Superhero Showdown fight from 2016's Captain America: Civil War does.
This fight sequence is an awesome, finely balanced, fantasy fulfillment, superhero smackdown that works like gangbusters as long as you are willing to go along with its central conceit: the two superhero teams want to stop each other, but aren't willing to bring out the biggest of their guns to do so (think like going to war with tanks and stuff because you aren't willing to use your nukes). If you've ever wondered what it would look like to see earth's finest heroes battle it out with each other then you finally get your wish here. I'm so grateful the creatives made this decision and chose to give it the kind of production values usually reserved for the finale of an Avengers film. The two basic teams are headed by Captain American and Iron Man. Captain America's team consists of the Winter Soldier, Hawkeye, Faclon, Ant-Man, and Scarlet Witch. Iron Man's team consists of Spider-Man, Rhodey, Black Widow, Black Panther, and Vision. It begins when Captain America (Steve Rogers) is confronted by Iron Man and his team as he heads toward a helicopter on the tarmac. They try to persuade Steve to stop his course of action and we get the dramatic stakes here - is Steve willing to go against several of his friends in order to continue to do what he thinks is right. Second dramatic stakes, who will the rest of the Avengers follow - Tony or Steve? When it's clear Steve won't relent, Spider-Man arrives (his first appearance in the MCU) and webs Steve's shield away. It turns out, Ant-Man is on Steve's shield and once the fight begins, he expands, kicks Spider-Man, and returns the shield. I'm not going through the whole plot of the fight but wanted to make it clear this wasn't a "hey let's have em fight" thought by the writers, they really tried to give this fight several layers and have each combatant come out looking like they knew the conceit going in and tried to minimize the actual consequential fighting as much as possible. Let me just overview the rest: the next fifteen minutes or so is just a delight for action and comic book fans. Seeing superheroes work together, team up, and go one on one in unique matchups won't ever stop being a treat. For example: Falcon, Winter Soldier and Spider-Man (with quips!) fighting, Hawkeye trying to compete with a clearly more powered being, Rhodey & Black Panther fighting with Captain America, Spider-Man trying to take out Captain America (with some great interaction in-between), and seeing Ant-Man steal scene after scene - especially in humungous form. I could have included 10-15 gifs of memorable individual shots here. It's all clear, shot well, in full daylight, with a great effects budget, and never ceases to engage or surprise. It's one of those sequences where they do such a good job that you just don't want the possible matchups to end. The ending however, does pack a decent punch as Widow turns on Panther and Vision accidentally shoots down Rhodey leading to an injury. This is a fight that only Marvel could have pulled off - after establishing these characters for nearly a decade and developing stunt and visual effects teams that could make our imaginations possible. For more of my commentary on Marvel action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Bank Brawl: Spider-Man vs. Dock Ock" -Spider-Man 2 (2004)
  • "Train Fight: Spider-Man vs. Dock Ock Pt. 2" -Spider-Man 2 (2004)
  • "Hulk vs. Hulk Buster" -Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) *Commentary
  • "Iron Man vs. Captain America & Bucky" -Captain America: Civil War (2016) *Commentary


8. THE ESSENTIAL MULTI-MAN MELEE
"Finale: Poles & a Pyramid of Coffins" -The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (1984)
Why It's Essential: One on one sequences might be the most fundamental type of fight, but I think most strong action films prefer to feature multi-man melees for their chaos and overall frenzied nature. The amount of great multi-man fights from Hong Kong cinema are too numerous to list here. It wasn't until the low budget 1990 actioner No Retreat, No Surrender 3: Blood Brothers that the superior Hong Kong style began to show up in Western films. It would take another foreign film, the Indonesian action film from 2012 called The Raid for frenzied multi-man melee's to show up in Hollywood films again. Of all the great group battles I could pick from, I think the finale set piece from 1984's 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is the best and most essential to call out. The film is directed/choreographed by Lau Kar-Leung and is willing to show a bit of wuxia flair making it one of the better "superhero" sequences before Iron Man was ever conceived of as a film with Robert Downey Jr. Gordon Liu and his enemies defy gravity to bounce and balance all over the stacked coffins in the room. Lots of awe-inspiring action beats here to manipulate the poles and coffins to each fighters advantage. 
Like the rest of Kar-Leung's best fights, we get his attention to detail in skillful and dynamic choreography that is anchored by traditional Chinese pole styles, but the creativity and “cinema” aspect is cranked up in ways new for him. This fight, and the 1 vs 1 pole match from the same film, demonstrates a genuine evolution in his work. This is the first time that Lau Kar-Lueng increases the levels of violence, stunt, and spectacle. I've no idea why he chose to do it, I like to think it's in response to the growing popularity of the stunt and spectacle driven nature of Jackie Chan films of the same time, but it's clear there’s a willful choice to let spectacle and awe come from the sheer stunt or impact of something rather than just the difficulty/style of the complicated choreography. One scene in particular see’s a lead bad guy stabbed with a broken staff (see picture above) and Gordon Liu smashes it, like one would hit a pop-up gopher in that popular carnival game, and we are treated to the broken staff launching through his midsection into a pole in slow motion. If you watch the sequence, it's a pop of spectacle and violence that you can't look away from, and this would not have happened in his previous work. Additionally, this finale works as a thematic culmination for the movie as well. The thematic tension of the entire film is the question of whether it is right to fight off bad guys "wolves" - to kill them, hurt them, or run from them. The main character seeks his revenge, but struggles with this tension during is monk training. During the finale, the abbot of the monastery arrives on the scene to help the main character de-fang the wolves. This metaphor of de-fanging wolves becomes literal in this fight with lots of creative ways the bad guys lose their teeth. This fight demonstrates not just Lau Kar-Lueng's amazing fight choreography, his commitment to traditional but stylized style, his ability to pull of grander stunts, spectacle, and violence, but a deeper and more mature weaving of subtext into his fights than I'd seen previously. It's my pick for his best work. For more of my commentary on Lau Kar-Leung action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Finale: 3 vs. 2 - Ho and Prince Take on Liang" -Dirty Ho (1979) *Commentary
  • "Finale: 2 vs. 2 Hangar Fight" -No Retreat, No Surrender 3: Blood Brothers (1990)
  • "Drug Lab Warfare" -The Raid: Redemption (2012) *Commentary
  • "2 vs. 1 Invitational: Iko & Brother vs. Mad Dog" -The Raid: Redemption (2012) *Commentary
  • "Prison Yard Mud Melee" -The Raid 2 (2014) *Commentary
  • "Finale: Tony Jaa and Wu Jing Take Out Crime Boss Max Zhang" -Kill Zone 2 (2016) *Commentary
  • "Bathroom to Open Brawling: Prisoners Descend Upon the Police" -Jailbreak (2017)


7. THE ESSENTIAL TONY JAA FIGHT
"Finale Fight: Assassins, Weapons, & Elephants" -Ong Bak 2 (2009)
Why It's Essential: There isn't a single cinematic martial artist that could reach the overall athletic peaks that Tony Jaa did between 2003 and 2005. As a life-long Jackie Chan admirer and fan, it pains me to admit this: Tony Jaa had the greatest athletic ceiling of any cinematic martial artist.  In his two breakthrough productions, 2005's Ong Bak and 2006's The Protector, Jaa set the action world on notice and displayed a combination of skills never seen before (or since) in any fighter captured on film. Unfortunately, as Jaa worked on his follow-up film Ong Bak 2, something broke in him and he would never get back to the level his breakthrough films displayed. Despite the turmoil of the production, Ong Bak 2 produced Jaa's best overall sequence. On a level of pure athleticism, I'd love to put his one take stairway fight here or even the skater/biker fight - but those sequences just can't get to the overall achievement this finale sequence does. The sequence itself lasts about 10-15 minutes and it flies by. This is Tony Jaa's masterpiece. Like all the greats before him, this one comes from the desire to one-up the rest of the martial arts. The sequence begins with Jaa returning to his village after assassinating the general only to find a group of assassins have arrived. What follows is one of the most intense, complicated, varied, and stylish fight sequences ever committed to film. I have to believe that Jaa was looking to top Japanese Samurai fights and most especially, Lau Kar-Leung weapon fights, like in Legendary Weapons of China or anything with Gordon Liu. Some of the shots in this finale sequence feature more than 20 complicated moves between multiple fighters before any edit. This is insanity! Jaa doesn't just use multiple weapons well here, he showcases them all in fantastic and complicated long takes that would be career highlights for any fighter. Phase after phase, Jaa takes on new opponents in new styles and with various weapons. In each phase he acquits himself as a master in execution of the weapon and choreographer of the weapon.
Additionally, the assassins themselves get specific costumes and fight styles that are so cool and diverse, they could populate an entire franchise of films - but we get to see him fight them all in just one 10 minute epic sequence. The final phase of the fight sees the entrance of an elephant - which is a Jaa trademark. I like to think of this as his Jackie Chan prop fight as Jaa finds every possible way to fit on and around the elephant - using it to his advantage. By the end, if you aren't exhausted by Jaa's endless skill and creativity then you are a soulless creature! This sequence shows Jaa had so much more to offer the world than just his Muy-Thai stylings and out of this world athleticism. For more of my commentary on Tony Jaa action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Finale Fight: Taking on Goons & the Steroid Man in the Caves" -Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior (2005) *Commentary
  • "Temple is On Fire: Three Stage Fight" -The Protector (2006) *Commentary 
  • "Finale: Breaking Bones & Slaying Giants" -The Protector (2006) *Commentary
  • "Jaa vs. Collins: From Apartment to Rooftop with a Falling Finale" -SPL 3: Paradox (2017) *Commentary


6. THE ESSENTIAL JET LI FIGHT
"Finale Fight: Chen Zhen vs. General Fugita" -Fist of Legend (1994)
Why It's Essential: Jet Li is a martial arts icon and, in my humble opinion, has produced far more high-quality action set pieces than any of his Expendables cast mates. Yes, Li has more high quality action than Stallone or Statham (combined TBH). Becoming a star in the wake of Jackie Chan, Jet Li separated himself from other kung fu stars by featuring a unique quickness, stylish acrobatics mixed with traditional styles, strong weapons work, and the ability to do acrobatic wuxia wire work all within a compact underdog stature. Li became a true star through his Once Upon a Time in China series that, unique for the genre, featured high production values, traditional martial arts, and lots of wide shots where he can do big quick sweeping moves to large crowds of people. His small stature and quick movement contrasts well against large forces of enemies. Jet's run of martial arts films from 1991 to 1994's kung fu masterpiece Fist of Legend is prolific (13 films in 4 years!) and produced most of his best sequences, including his personal masterpiece - the finale fight of Fist of Legend. Unsurprisingly, this fight was choregraphed by Yuen Woo-Ping (his highest rated on the list) and would go on to become a huge influence on the Wachowski's vision for The Matrix (which Woo-Ping also choreographed). It clocks in at about 8 minutes long and follows a fight template that I think is superior to most - at least it appeals most to my sensibilities. 
First, it's a finale fight against a boss that embodies the challenges our lead character is trying to overcome - in this case he's a Japanese general that believes Chinese are inferior people. Second, the fight is lengthy, with multiple distinct phases that build on each other leading to the climactic finish. Third, detailed fight choreography with punctuated moments of spectacle and impact. The choreography in this fight is not only iconic and cinematic, but manages to tell a story of adaptation and perseverance along the way. The adaptation here isn’t just a motif put onto the fight to make it more meaningful, but it’s tied into the theme of the entire film. To my mind, this is about as perfect as a cinematic finale one on one fight can get. The film knows to stay wide to medium most of the time and showcase the legit martial arts work of both actors. They work fast, with many shots holding for multiple beats, then as a punctuation the editing gets quicker as we destroy the environment and end with a strong attack – sometimes in slow motion to emphasize the impact. In other words, this is a confident fight that knows what it is doing. Even when you think it’s over and you’ve gotten your money’s worth – the fight restarts and kicks up a notch with weapons (the only thing I felt the fight lacking a bit) and the coup de grace move to finish everything doesn’t disappoint. I’d say this is Jet Li’s true masterpiece. Find me on a different day and this sequence can easily find its way into the top three of this list. For more of my commentary on Jet Li action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Blindfolded Teaching: Li vs. Kurata" -Fist of Legend (1994) *Commentary
  • "Finale: Re-Capturing Danny - Li vs. Lambert" -Unleashed: The Director's Cut (2005) *Commentary
  • "Trashing the Restaurant: Master Huo vs. Master Chin" -Fearless: The Director's Cut (2006) *Commentary


5. THE ESSENTIAL ONE VS. ONE FIGHT
"Finale: Northerner vs. Gordon Liu in a Narrowing Alley" -Martial Club (1981)
Why It's Essential: Does action get anymore fundamental than a one vs. one fight sequence? The two characters are forced to strip away the vehicles, the guns, the allies, and the gimmicks and go at each other with just our hands and feet. This is another category where Hollywood largely lagged behind Asian cinema. Up through the 1970's, the 1964 train fight between Bond and Grant from From Russian With Love would likely still qualify as the best cinematic fight. As good as that fight is, it just doens't hold a candle to the revolutionary sequences being put out by Hong Kong. No wonder Bruce Lee was such a breathe of fresh air to Western audiences! This category is a bit of an odd one on this list since so many of the previous and still to come categories will feature one on one fights as well and I couldn't feature them here. You might think that means the fight I picked would be a bit of a letdown given the circumstances, in no way! While there are a lot of great one on one fights all over this list and I could have easily put Jackie Chan's iconic faceoff with Benny "The Jet" Urquidez in this slot, the fight I choose is an immensely deserving fight that I only grow more and more fond of. 
I think you can consider this my favorite traditional kung fu one on one fight - better than anything else put out in that period, Jackie Chan included. It comes from the 1981 film Martial Club and is directed/choreographed by the legend Lau Kar-Leung. The premise of the finale fight is that two men will be sparring to not just see who is better, but to learn from the different styles each fighter has. This theme of fighting as a way of learning/adapting/growing was also successfully drawn out in 1994's First of Legend. The two fighters are both legends in their own right - the Master Killer himself Gordon Liu and the underrated Lang Wung-Wei who I think steals the scene with his surprising athleticism and quickness. The setting for their fight is an increasingly narrowing alleyway - which is obviously one of those famous sets from the Shaw Brothers studios (sorry, little nostalgic bit there). The two men begin their fight and its every bit as crisp and technical as we come to expect from motivated Lau Kar-Leung fights with superior talents. Their fight beats take them through several major styles of kung fu: Hung Gar, tiger, eagle, snake, mantis, leopard, dragon, wire, crab, to name the ones I can spot, The demonstration of athleticism and traditional kung fu style highlighted in this fight is top notch. Kar-Leung has always wanted to showcase traditional style martial arts and this is his best work because it gets across the different styles without ever feeling like a choregraphed educational advert. The fight feels real and that's in part thanks to the strong sound work here too. To keep the fight interesting, Lar-Leung is wise to also sprinkle the fight with a handful of beautiful and creative choreography beats: like doing the splits along the wall, manipulating bricks, and using the narrowing wall for opportunities to get vertical. Despite its seven minute run time, I’m always surprised at how quickly the runtime goes by - it always finishes with me wanting more. If you are new to traditional style kung fu fights, this is the one to start with. It's the best of the best. For more of my commentary on Lau Kar-Leung action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Train Fight: Bond vs. Grant" -From Russia With Love (1964) *Commentary
  • "Finale Fight: Jackie Chan vs Bennie "The Jet" Urquidez" -Wheels on Meals (1984) *Commentary
  • "Finale: Iko vs. 'Father' Lee" -Headshot (2017) *Commentary


4. THE ESSENTIAL STUNT FIGHT
"Finale: Mall Brawl" -Police Story (1985)
Why It's Essential: Like the "prop" category on this list, Jackie Chan is almost single-handedly responsible for inventing a brand new fight template. Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao all attended the famous China Drama Academy and became friends. The "three brothers" were trained in martial arts and acrobatics at the school. They all three went into the Hong Kong film scene and brought this more athletic, acrobatic, and stunt oriented mindset into their films. Rather than just the power and charisma of a Bruce Lee or the technical/traditional presence of a Shaw Brothers/Kar-Leung film, the "three brothers" would up the ante on the kind of athletic stunts and feats accomplished. Fight beats would be punctuated by risky and athletic fall and chases by parkour and acrobatics, Along with their comedy, it was an easy way to make themselves stand out from the hundreds who just wanted to be the next Bruce Lee. The "three brothers" ruled Hong cinema through the 1980's and it really wasn't until the breakout of Tony Jaa that a fight star was capable enough of putting the template together. Jaa's debut films featured hard hitting fight beats, bone breaking falls, and incredible displays of athleticism. It pained me that I couldn't feature his one-take stairway sequence or the skater fight from his iconic 2006 film The Protector on this list. That's because no one has ever really equaled the pinnacle of Jackie Chan's stunt fight template he reached in the climax sequence of 1985's breakout Police Story. Watching this near ten-minute finale sequence for the first time was just jaw-dropping for me. The whole thing still feels raw to this day. As I said before about Jackie and some of his best sequences, it represents not just someone working at the top of their own game, but the work of someone pushing all boundaries and executing such unique vision that it bypasses mere entertainment and becomes an inspiration. 
This is easily the most brutal fight Jackie has produced and the best display of how he envisioned an all-out cop vs. thugs finale should be. The setup here is that Jackie is trying to protect a female who has important information in a briefcase that could bring down a big crime boss. The boss has henchmen trying to catch her in a mall and Jackie needs to stop them. The chase aspect throughout the multi-level Hong Kong mall allows for some great parkour moments that no other action star would be stupid enough to attempt. Multiple times Jackie makes multi-story jumps and at one point just takes a spine-busting fall a whole story down landing flat on his back. Chan’s stunt team is no slouch here either – they take several brutal falls – including one down several stories off an escalator and onto a table/box waiting below. Once Chan catches up to the henchmen, then we get fight sequences. The fighting is quick and utilitarian (while still being perfectly cinematic), but the choreography here takes a back seat to the stunts. Each fight encounter is punctuated by some kind of stunt – most often into glass panes. The crew workers apparently joked that the film should actually be entitled "Glass Story" because of how much glass they end up breaking in this finale. I could name all my favorite moments, but they are too numerous to share as this sequence is just one highlight after another. The end comes when the important briefcase is thrown down to the lowest floor of the multi-level mall. Chan on the highest floor can’t get to it before the bad guys so he must take the extreme measure of sliding down a pole (like a fireman) several stories high busting through Christmas light strands all along the way. It’s an absolutely mental stunt that looks fantastically brutal on camera. The most impressive part of the stunt for me, isn’t the initial jump, or braving the lights on the way down, it was hitting the landing and then getting back up immediately to stop the bad guy without the camera cutting! He did the stunt and then got up and continued the shot! What a legend. For more of my commentary on Jackie Chan action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Stunt Fight Fest: Yuen Biao & Sammo Hung vs. Lau Kar Wing" -Knockabout (1979)
  • "Drug Factory Finale: Showcase for the 'Three Brothers'" -Dragons Forever (1988) *Commentary
  • "Finale: Rooftop Fight and a Giant Slide" -Jackie Chan's Who Am I? (1998) *Commentary
  • "Cleaning Out the Casino" -District B13 (2006)
  • "One Take Stairway Fight Leads to Johnny" -The Protector (2006) *Commentary
  • "Warehouse: Skater/Biker Fight" -The Protector (2006) *Commentary
  • "Collecting Money in a Warehouse of Boxes" -Chocolate (2009)


3. THE ESSENTIAL DONNIE YEN FIGHT
"Donnie Yen vs. Colin Chou: Abandoned Home Fight" -Flash Point (2007)
Why It's Essential: Donnie Yen is a special action talent that has unfortunately not received as large a reception in the US as other Hong Kong crossovers like Jet Li and Jackie Chan. I first came across Yen in 2003 when I saw him fight Jackie Chan in Shanghai Knights and later discovered he had already fought Jet Li back in the early 1990's in the Once Upon a Time in China series. In fact, he had a distinguished career in Hong Kong cinema all throughout the 90's. Although his role in Shanghai Knights was relatively minor, I could tell Donnie Yen was special - he had a speed and crispness that matched few others on the screen. Yen went on to make several genre-defining Hong Kong hits in the mid to late 2000's with Yip Wilson when both Chan and Li were fading into the background and having little new to offer the action genre. He really struck audiences with 2005's Kill Zone and 2007's Flash Point, but it was 2009's Ip Man that would prove to be his most lasting success and iconic character. Yes, Donnie's Ip Man character is far more iconic, but I believe his finale fight with Colin Chou is his masterpiece. It is probably the best beginning to end sequence he ever took part in. It certainly *feels* like a fight that embodies the spirit of Donnie Yen best. It begins with a shootout gone awry between Yen's cop and Chou's bad guy. They were making one of those hostage trades and it went wrong. As their teams are taken down it comes down to just the two of them, Yen in chase with a rifle and Chou being chased with a pistol. Chou enters an abandoned home plot, heads up to the second floor, and reloads his gun. When Yen approaches, catches him off guard, and Chou realizes he's out of bullets, the two begin to fight. 
It's immediately clear, Yen and Chou mean business - their strikes are not being pulled and seem to be thrown at full speed. The fight upstairs turns into some grappling with Yen getting a couple key holds and knees to the face. This is something that Yen brought to the table that seperated him from Chan and Li, the ability to incorporate MMA style holds and moves in a cinematically pleasing way. It's innovative and still feels fresh watching it now. In one of those MMA holds the two spill over the balcony and down to the floor below. Oof, it's a brutal fall. As they get up, the fight enters a new phase with the extra room this wide open floor gives them. The style here is practical - they are swinging wild fists and mixing in some strong kicks as well, while always looking for a way to grapple. The editing is wonderful - giving us some longer more complicated shots, with close-ups of impacts, and other high-impact moves. Seriously, some of the punches and kicks here are as real looking as any MMA fight. After a while, Yen seems to only pick up speed once he begins bleeding from the nose - bouncing back and forth, throwing kicks and punches with great speed. Chou takes all the hits, but keeps coming. Yen counters with some excellent take downs, including a german suplex and hurricanrana - WWE style. The final beats of the fight sees Yen just deliver brutal punishiment to Chou with some boxing and a powerful kick. It ends with a chokeout. What makes this Donnie Yen fight scene so special? Three things: first is the crisp quickness in his striking form, second is the ability to combine that with both traditional and modern styles, and third is his willingness to let his fights be as brutal as they are supposed to be. Punches seem to really land, kicks seem to really connect, and takedowns have genuine impact. This sequence is a showcase for all three aspects and something generations will be watching as long as fight cinema is still a thing. For more of my commentary on Donnie Yen action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Finale: Wong Fei-Hung vs. Commander Donnie Yen" -Once Upon a Time in China II (1992) *Commentary
  • "Wong Kei-Ying Stops Kidnappers at Night" -Iron Monkey (1993) *Commentary
  • "Fire Finale: Defeating the Royal Minister & His Shaolin Henchmen" -Iron Monkey (1993) *Commentary
  • "Street Showdown Finale: Donnie Yen vs. Wang Baoqiang" -Kung Fu Killer / Jungle (2015) *Commentary


2. THE ESSENTIAL JACKIE CHAN FIGHT
"Drunken Finale: Factory Fight Extravaganza" -The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)
Why It's Essential: Jackie Chan is one of the greatest action stars, directors, and creative minds to ever try their hand at film-making. Some might even say he is the Steven Spielberg of martial arts and action filmmaking - a virtuoso of talent with a natural eye for cinema and a peerless list of accomplishments. He also might be my favorite martial artist of all-time, but the jury is still out for a bit on that one. His first film credit came in 1962 (a bit role) and he made his big break in 1978's Snake in the Eagle's Shadow & Drunken Master.  Over the next six decades he had a key role in over one hundred films, became a global film star, created countless classic action sequences, and became one of the biggest influencers of action cinema. Of the hundreds of great sequences Chan has put together, I think this one is his best. This over fifteen-minute multi-phase finale is not only the perfect introduction to Chan’s genius, it is also one of, if not the greatest, fight sequences ever put onto film. It's said that it took nearly four months to film this sequence alone, and every bit of it shows on the screen. When it comes to fight scenes, this is every bit as epic as it gets. The premise here is that the bad guys in the film are trying to use a steel factory as a front for smuggling out priceless Chinese artifacts. Jackie leads a small group of people to break into the factory and stop the goons before the shipment leaves. The finale has five distinct sections to it – each one giving the audience a different kind of action. Think of it as going to an action buffet but instead of filled with low quality food, each selection is of the highest quality! 
The first section of the finale is the group confronting the factory gates and we get a decent, but brief, multiple person fight while friends of Jackie’s take out the guards. The second section of the fight sees Chan go into the factory and fight a major henchmen swinging a long chain he often puts into the fire to heat up. Jackie looks a lot like Jet Li's Wong Fei Hung here (I wonder if this was his goal?) in his white outfit and more traditional style, fighting with a calm confidence and fan. That’s over toward the end of this fight as the comedic gags start to come out. The next section is a bread and butter of Chan’s – fighting multiple people using the any props he kind find in his environment. Before he takes on the main two villains Jackie fights 4 lower goons with pipes. This is where the finale kicks up in pace and begins to move with some speed. Taking out these four goons features incredible stunt/fight beat after incredible beat. If Jackie isn’t doing some kind of cool attack then he is dodging a dropping steel bucket, blocking a hook swinging at his face, enduring a ton of sand being dumped on him, or a stream of fire shot at him. This section is incredible and I think it’s Jackie at his best as a martial arts choreographer. In the fourth section of the fight, Jackie finally gets to fight the two main villains, one of them being Ken Lo his real life personal bodyguard. This section is more hand to hand and is the classic slapdash punch/kick/funny face style of Chan’s he is famous for. Ken Lo’s kicks here and the presence of a second goon get the better of Chan and he is tempted to use drunken boxing but he ultimately fails and is kicked into a bed of coals (real coals!). Chan is forced to realize that he isn’t getting the job done. The last section of the fight sees Chan resort to using industrial grade alcohol found on the walls to get drunk and maximize his drunken boxing skills. What follows are perhaps the most intense 5 minutes of fighting ever filmed. Fully red faced and going insane, Chan unleashes his full drunken style upon Lo to the amazement of even the most cynical of fight fans. After stringing together 3 or 4 full-on attack combo's the fight comes to a satisfying conclusion more than 15 minutes after it begun. This final section is Jackie as his best as a creative action-comedy performer. This is a fight fan's dream. Although the fight was released in 1994, it contains highlights from his output in the 70's, 80's, 90's and 2000's. What is given to us is not merely a dance of kicks and punches, but a message to its viewer that when one calls upon all the fullness of their faculties, executes with all their abilities, and employs their grandest of visions, they can accomplish something that speaks beyond language barriers and simple entertainment, and can inspire the world over. It's the single best cinematic contribution Jackie Chan has given to the world. For more of my commentary on Jackie Chan action scenes, click HERE.

If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Monastery Finale: Big Woman Brawl" -Armour of God (1987) *Commentary
  • "Finale: Rope Factory Showcase" -Miracles: The Canton Godfather (1989) *Commentary
  • "Axe Gang Attack" -The Legend of Drunken Master (1994) *Commentary
  • "Pachinko Parlor Brawl" -Thunderbolt (1995) *Commentary
  • "Singing in the Rain Marketplace Fight" -Shanghai Knights (2003) *Commentary


1. THE ESSENTIAL "MULTIPLE LEVELS" FIGHT
"Fight Finale: Loading Bay to the Kitchen" -The Raid 2 (2014)
Why It's Essential: By my count, Iko Uwais is the last *new* genuine fighting star to emerge on the scene. That doesn't mean Iko is a huge money drawing global megastar - but it does mean he's the last new action star to bring something unique to the scene that is recognized by and draws money from fans of the genre. Iko Uwais was born in Jakarta, Indonesia and grew up training in the martial arts form known as silat. His story to the big screen turns on a surprising bit of luck as he just so happened to be discovered by a director named Gareth Evans. Now getting "discovered" only matters if you make it to the right people - well it turns out that Gareth Evans would go on to become one of the best action directors of his generation. Gareth took to Uwais and made him the star of his the 2009 film Merantau. From the director, to the star, to the stunt men - they were trying to accomplish something no one had seen before. It wasn't until the next collaboration, The Raid that they would receive both critical acclaim and commercial success. The lean action film is part Die Hard in its setup and part Crank in its continual forward momentum. One way to imagine it is this: what if Jason Bourne was in a Die Hard like situation, but instead of shaky cam you got something closer to the cinematic style of John Wick? Evans and Uwais pulled off shootout and fight sequences that felt organic, intense, and brutal, but were actually highly storyboarded, dynamically filmed, and choreographed to perfection. Iko and Gareth made a sequel, The Raid 2,  that produced the sequence that tops my list of essential action. I love the structure to this over 20 minute finale mirrors that of a Jackie Chan/Hong Kong martial arts/video game finale. The hero, in this case Iko Uwais’ Rama, must go through three distinct phases to complete the finale. Each phase represents a unique physical challenge for Rama. The first begins with Rama ramming his car into a loading bay of the bad guy’s main building. This phase consists of big physical stunts and fights against waves of henchmen -each dispatched with sharp choreography and dynamic camerawork. The fight work here reminds me of the phenomal drug lab fight from the first film. The challenge here is taking on a large group of henchmen by himself. The second phase has Rama entering into the building and coming up against two lower level, but no less fearsome, bosses established earlier in the film – Bat Boy and Hammer Girl. Taking place in a reflective red hallway, the fight is confined and has the best choreography of the entire film so far. The fight showcases the athleticism of each fighter using long complicated takes and the willingness to allow Rama to take some damage. In the end, Rama is able to successfully navigate between them and take them out one by one – each in fairly brutal fashion. 
The third and final major phase takes place in the building’s kitchen against “The Assassin” who has established himself as an expert in knives. This fight sequence alone would earn this finale an ‘A’ because it’s simply one of the finest fights put on film. That it comes as the third phase of two previous great fights makes it even better. The kitchen provides a nice white backdrop and lots of props for this exhausting fight. This final fight goes through several stages itself – a mini-story within the story. It begins as a test of skill – each fighter respecting the other enough to make it a kind of formal sparring bout. The fight goes on, beautiful stuff here, and as it does, it grows more and more intense. The style feels like if the Silat style of the Bourne films was mixed with traditional martial arts and then filmed through the cinematic tastes of the John Wick franchise. Gareth Evans shoots fight sequences like Chad Stahelski shoots gun sequences. Eventually, they start knocking themselves against the kitchen tables/appliances, then begin using bottles and other props, finally it turns into a brawl where the Assassin is pushed and kicked through the glass walls of he wine room. Rather than end here, this is where the Assassin resorts to grabbing his knives and the intensity and stakes ramp up. Great close weapon work and camerawork here as Rama tries desperately to attack without getting himself further cut. Long sequences of intricate fight work back and forth here (each guy gets nice shots in) are sometimes punctuated by moments of waiting. The final push sees both men with knives going back and forth, along the floor, all over the kitchen, just tearing each other apart. Ultimately, Rama proves just too much and the knife wounds too great for his opponent. It ends with a flurry of slices and once truly gruesome throat cut. This is a contemporary fight masterpiece and the best mix of cinematic fight styles yet. The stakes are high, the violence is brutal, the fights are intricate, bruising, and yet awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping. Sure, on any given day my favorite cinematic fight could go to almost anything in my top 10, but I think this one will be the one I pick the majority of the days. For more of my commentary on Iko Uwais action scenes, click HERE.


If You Liked This Sequence Then Check Out:
  • "Finale: Uncles Advance in Three Stages to Rescue Auntie" -My Young Auntie (1981) *Commentary
  • "Finale: Chinese Super Ninjas Defeat All Five Elements & the Master Ninja" -Five Element Ninjas (1982)
  • "Finale: Huo vs. Four Fighters - Boxing, Spears, Fencing, and Tanaka" -Fearless: Directors Cut (2006) *Commentary
  • "Finale: From the Rooftops, to Dojos, and the Side of a Building" -Chocolate (2009)
  • "Finale: Lobby, Garage, Elevator, to the Docks" -Merantau (2009) *Commentary


THE END!

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