This weekend, while you’re out watching Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (as well you must), you’ll probably find yourself marveling at the simplicity of the concept: Here’s a young man seeking a committed relationship with a young woman, but in order to win her heart so he must first prove himself superior to everyone else she’s ever dated. Bryan Lee O’Malley had a very clever notion when he decided to dramatize that inner conflict through martial arts, and achieved utter brilliance when he married the concept to the storytelling tropes of videogames, which to his protagonists and target audience are as much a way of life as books, comics and films anyway.
Is it any good? Find out in CLR’s official review this weekend. Until then, Julia Rhodes, Dan Fields and I (William Bibbiani!) are devoting this Weekly Listicle to some of our favorite fight sequences ever. As always, the Listicle is in no particular order, nor are these necessarily the “Best” fight sequences ever recorded. But they’re a fine place to start.
What are your favorite fight sequences?
Gordon Liu vs. The Mercenaries, Return To The 36th Chamber (dir. Lau Kar-Leung, 1980)
Everyone knows that The 36th Chamber is one of the best martial arts movies ever made. At least you’re supposed to, at any rate. In the original film, Gordon Liu (best known to American audiences as Pai Mei in Kill Bill, Volume II) starred as San Te, a young idealist forced into exile after he defied a corrupt government. San Te sought asylum the Shaolin Temple where he would go on to spend years training in 35 chambers specially designed to teach kung fu before finally returning to his home town with all the skills necessary to right the wrongs that forced him to leave in the first place. The 36th Chamber exemplifies many of the finer characteristics of a great kung fu film, emphasizing discipline, training and personal improvement in a story that understands the paradox of praising kung fu while preaching pacifism. With all that said, we are not here to discuss The 36th Chamber. We are here to discuss its bizarre and underrated sequel: Return To The 36th Chamber.
Why is this film so bizarre? Look no further than the plot: Gordon Liu returns as a completely different character, this time a con man called Chu Jen-chieh. He’s hired by the employees of a dye factory to impersonate San Te, Gordon Liu’s character from the first film, and frighten off a group of Manchurian mercenaries who have been stealing the factory’s profits. When Gordon Liu fails to protect the dye factory he runs off to the newly minted 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which Gordon Liu built at the end of the first film to teach martial arts outside of the Shaolin Temple. There, Gordon Liu runs into San Te, his character from the first film, now played by a different actor, who refuses to train the Gordon Liu of the second film and instead forces him to build scaffolding around the 36th chamber. So now Chu Jen-chieh spends his time watching the kung fu training and mixes his day job with martial arts, ultimately developing…
Wait for it…
You have to see it to believe it, and under the watchful eye of master martial arts choreographer and director Lau Kar-Leung it’s an unexpected highlight in a most unexpected movie. Flightier than the original, and easily less classy, Return To The 36th Chamber remains a surprisingly weird and successful sequel with a hell of a standout fight sequence as a finale.
Conan Lee vs. Gordon Liu, Tiger On Beat (dir. Lau Kar-Leung, 1988)
Lau Kar-Leung also directed this ill-remembered buddy cop movie which paired gun fu expert Chow Yun-Fat with kung fu expert Conan Lee. I’m not going to dwell on this movie. There’s a reason Tiger On Beat never won the hearts of western audiences the same way The Killer or A Better Tomorrow II did. The tone is all over the place, mixing broad comedy with a hard-hitting criminal underworld story and succeeding at neither, plus there’s an unmistakable air of misogyny to the entire proceedings. In particular, Chow Yun-Fat has a very unpleasant scene in which he mistreats a woman he’s interrogating to an ugly degree.
For these reasons I can’t recommend Tiger On Beat. But I can recommend the explosive finale in which Conan Lee and Gordon Liu, taking a surprisingly small villain role for such a big star, participate in one of the coolest fights ever filmed.
Chainsaw Duel. FIGHT!!!
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper vs. Keith David, They Live (dir. John Carpenter, 1988)
With all the intricate choreography in my other picks this week, the epic fight from They Live seems almost charmingly naïve in comparison. In this no holds barred slugfest, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Keith David beat the living hell from each other in the way most regular American schmoes really would: They fight slow, and they fight dirty. And although this fight sequence is almost comically long (“South Park” famously parodied this scene in the classic episode “Cripple Fight”), it’s not padding the film. It’s a vital component in one of the best movies of John Carpenter’s career. And that’s saying something.
Roddy Piper stars as a drifter known only as “Nada” who is just trying to get by in the middle of an economic crisis. He ends up in a shantytown with Frank (Keith David), where a group of strange political dissidents have holed up. One night, the police storm the shantytown, bulldoze it to the ground and beat the troublemakers to death. The next morning Nada surveys the damage and finds out what the police were after in the first place. It turns out this dangerous underground movement was making… Sunglasses?
Nada grabs a pair (hey, free sunglasses, right?), puts them on, and suddenly sees the whole world in black and white. It turns out everything around us is filled with secret messages designed to placate the working class and benefit the rich. Now, with the glasses, Nada is able to look past the artifice and see the truth behind every image. A billboard with an attractive woman on it is really just telling us “MARRY AND REPRODUCE,” while our money actually says “THIS IS YOUR GOD.” Worst of all, Nada can see that Earth has been infiltrated by an alien race hiding out amongst us. His initial reaction to this utter betrayal of everything he once believed to be true is drastic: He starts killing every alien he can find. To quote Nada: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.” (You’d think someone would have offered him so Big League Chew or something. Crisis averted, right?)
With the world out to get him, Nada finds himself in an alley with Frank, who wants nothing to do with Nada’s crusade. In fact, he won’t even put on the glasses and see for himself. And so Nada starts a fight to end all fights, all in a quest to enlighten a man who doesn’t even understand that he’s living a lie. Why does this fight take five minutes and twenty seconds? Because it’s really hard to make people see things differently. Seriously, who hasn’t been in the middle of a long political, religious or philosophical debate and wondered if it wouldn’t be easier to just smack the other guy with a two-by-four?
Tony Jaa vs. A Really Good Steadi-Cam Operator, The Protector (dir. Prachya Pinkaew, 2005)
Tony Jaa is one hell of a fighter, as any of his movies will show. Ong-Bak is still probably his best film, uncluttered by ambitious plotting or extraneous supporting characters, and filled with some of the most memorable fights in the last decade. But we’re here to talk about a lesser film: The Protector, also called Tom Yung Goong. In this heavily padded bit of martial arts madness, Tony Jaa finds himself travelling to Australia in order to retrieve his stolen elephant. You remember that episode of “The Simpsons” where Bart Simpson kept yelling “Where’s my elephant?!” This is the same thing, but with martial arts.
Practically every plot point in The Protector feels unnecessary after a while, particularly the political intrigue subplots and any scene with Petchtai Wongkamlao, who appears to be playing the world’s most annoying human (and admittedly does a great job of it). No, this entire movie is an excuse for some ridiculous(ly awesome) action sequences, including a pretty classic throwdown in a flooded temple (a temple that’s also on fire, so double-trouble) and an eccentric sequence in which Jaa has to take down a group of skater kids attacking him with fluorescent lights. But the best bit by far has to be this incredible one-take wonder which follows Jaa as he climbs floor after floor of a tall building, beating up everyone in his path and throwing them down to the first floor when it pleases him… which is a lot. It’s ambitious from the start, and mind-boggling by the end.
Wow. There must have been a lot of pressure on this set. Can you imagine screwing up this virtuoso shot near the end of the take? Tony Jaa would probably have to kick the crap out of you and throw you off the top floor. Oh wait… He was going to do that anyway.
The Chigusa-Nîda fight in Battle Royale (2000, dir. Kinji Fukasaku)
In a fictional near-future, the Japanese government is desperate to quell a society poised on the brink of anarchy. How to wrest the power back from the rebellious youth? Why, plop a misbehaved ninth grade class on an island in the middle of the ocean and force them to kill each other off. Battle Royale is tonally uneven, eye-poppingly violent satire. Heathers is a brutally honest depiction of the way high school makes us feel; Mean Girls lightened Heathers’s tone and managed to stay relevant and true to high school’s travails. Battle Royale, on the other hand, takes a far more cynical stance on teenagerhood.
Once the students of Class B are drugged, dropped on a tropical Japanese island, and outfitted with explosive necklaces and weapons, their true colors shine. These kids murder each other horribly for the stupidest reasons—gossip, sleeping with each other’s boyfriends, name-calling, unrequited attraction. You know: all those things that made high school a cesspool of misery. Despite its flaws, I need to watch it every so often because I adore its cynicism, its melodramatic score, and its strangely comedic tone.
One of the movie’s best fights is between sporty Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama, perhaps better recognized as Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill) and whiny sexual bully Nîda (Hirohito Honda). After Nîda catches up to Chigusa, he pesters her about her virginity, threatens to rape her, and accidentally grazes her with an arrow from his crossbow. After this, Chigusa goes after him with her switchblade, chopping, slicing, and stabbing until he and his insistent penis are put to bloody, horrible death. Nîda is really just a scared little boy—what fifteen year old boy do you know that wouldn’t want to get laid once before dying? Chigusa, it seems, is simply tired of dealing with men, their hormones, and the feeling that her body is their business.
After this, Chigusa herself dies (a projectile weapon is involved, so I won’t go into it), but not before uttering “You look really cool” to her crush, to which he responds, “You’re the coolest girl ever.” Granted, some of this could’ve been lost in translation, but I tend to believe this is exactly what would come out of a fifteen year old’s mouth on the verge of death. That’s what makes this movie so much fun. Look beneath the surface and you’ll find truths about youth that you may not want to see.
The first battle for the Five Points in Gangs of New York (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2002)
Scorsese’s films are rarely misses, and the director always manages to extract fantastic performances from his stellar casts. Gangs of New York is what film snobs would refer to as “lesser Scorsese,” but I love it anyway. Scorsese and writer Jay Cocks did their research on New York City in the mid-1800s, and unearthed tales of street brawls, gangs, and political corruption that aren’t surprising, but a lot of fun to watch. The Irish were arriving in droves to NYC; the civil war was raging outside the city while within, New Yorkers battled each other for territory and respect.
The opening scene of Gangs of New York depicts a young Amsterdam Vallon (played later in the film by Leonardo DiCaprio) watching his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) prepare for battle with the so-called Natives in New York’s Five Points. The cadence of snare drum and off-key flute follows boy and man as they weave through dimly lit caverns, picking up ragtag fighters along the way.
Part of what makes this scene entrancing is the weapons. Priest carries an enormous metal cross–all the better for bludgeoning with (Scorsese uses Neeson’s formidable height to emphasize his power as a leader and a fighter). John C. Reilly joins the fray; for the guy who plays lovable and bumbling so well, the man does incredibly well in a dramatic role—this is one of the only times in film you’ve seen him looking badass. Various bit fighters cover their faces in mud and sharpen the toe-spurs on their shoes. Hell-cat Maggie (Cara Seymour) has teeth filed to sharp points and dons clawed gloves. Monk (Brendan Gleeson) carves notches into his club for every head he bashes; he agrees to join Priest’s side of the battle if the price is right. Every hand-to-hand weapon is on display here. On the way out of the cave, the band of mostly Irish marchers takes communion.
Outside, in the snowy streets of dingy nineteenth century New York, Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis in his first incredible role back from his stint as cobbler) and his gangs await the fight. This battle isn’t just about territory; it’s Christianity vs. Catholicism, “Natives” vs. “invading hoards.” It’s strangely ceremonial and respectful, following the “laws of ancient combat.” Still, when the two gangs clash, the camera sweeps down and about, the snare drum picks back up, and a thrumming underscores the brutality of what we’re seeing. Bill the Butcher’s weapon of choice, a butcher knife (what else?) slices, dices, and chops, while Hell-cat Maggie bites off someone’s ear, then fishhooks him. Monk bashes heads with his club, and the fight barely lasts two minutes before Priest goes down under Bill’s knife.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this battle is that for the rest of the (three hour long) film, Bill reveres Priest. He keeps a portrait of Priest on the mantle and murders anyone who speaks ill of him. The Five Points as ruled by Bill is a scary place, but ordered in a barbaric way. Much like Battle Royale, Gangs of New York features humans stripped bare of their repression, letting go all their rage and frustration on one another. The opening battle is perhaps the best in the movie—though elephants running through the streets at the end is a fun and strange touch.
The Narrator vs. Tyler Durden in Fight Club (dir. David Fincher, 1999)
Fight Club, based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name, became an insane cultural phenomenon. The movie’s about anarchy, masculinity, dissociation from reality, and striving to be something we’re not. Fincher has the ability to take the grittiest of material and make it infinitely watchable—Fight Club is violent, strange, black comedy that’ll make anyone who’s worked a mundane, joyless job, or stifled the urge to punch a friend in the face, feel vindicated.
Beware, here there be spoilers (though I’m pretty sure there’s not a single person in America who hasn’t seen Fight Club). The entire film is a flashback. The Narrator (Edward Norton) starts the film with a gun in his mouth, and we learn how he got there. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) appeared in the Narrator’s life to help him exorcise his demons—to show him how to fight, to create anarchy, to get the girl, to be someone. Of course, by the end of the movie we realize Tyler Durden and the Narrator are the same someone.
One the Narrator realizes his other personality plans to demolish credit card companies (to erase the debt record, bring us all back to zero, complete anarchy), he tries to stop him. Of course, this means viewers are treated to a brutal, hilarious fight between Norton and Pitt—but seen through the eyes of others and through security cameras, Norton is fighting himself. The Narrator punches himself in the face; he drags himself twenty feet across a parking garage; the throws himself down a set of stairs; he puts a gun in his mouth and fires. It’s the ultimate internal battle transferred to the external. It’s a symbol of modern masculinity, of America’s anxiety, repression, and collective personality crisis. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Paul Newman vs. George Kennedy in Cool Hand Luke (1967, dir. Stuart Rosenberg)
Over a decade before Rocky taught us about getting back up no matter how hard we’re hit, Paul Newman offered a similar lesson as Cool Hand Luke. His tale unfolds on a Southern prison farm where the convicts are kept in line by the harsh rule of the Captain (Strother Martin), a mean little man whose pleasure in life his running a private hell for the criminals in his charge.
Luke stands out instantly as the kind of guy who simply won’t fall into line. His unbroken spirit brings him abundant grief at the hands of the management – which the Captain famously calls “a failure to communicate” – but it also bestows his fellow inmates with a sense of dignity and hope that has long been denied them.
Before Luke can get around to shaking up the boss man, he first has to overcome the rigid pecking order of the prison yard. Enter Dragline (George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning role), the acknowledged top dog, whose authority Luke immediately bucks by refusing to pay it any mind. Dragline challenges the new man to a boxing match, intending to knock a little respect into him. Indeed, the larger and tougher Dragline proceeds to beat the stuffing out of Luke, but Luke absolutely refuses to lie down and quit, even when his fellow inmates beg him to. Glassy-eyed and barely conscious, Luke continues throwing punches at the air as Dragline realizes the futility of knocking him down again and walks away. Thus begins the rise of a hero, who proves his strength by refusing to run from a fight he knows he cannot win.
Tommy Lee Jones vs. “Rude Behavior” in Lonesome Dove (1989, dir. Simon Wincer)
The term “fight” hangs uneasily on this essentially one-sided encounter. It is, in fact, a thorough ass-whipping in the name of decency and proper conduct. However, it keeps to the common theme of the preceding and following entries in this list. A good fight scene should be a spectacle, enjoyable purely for its own sake, but it can also be a useful storytelling device. The sudden onset of a fight may force a character to tap unprecedented strength, expose weakness or cowardice, or reveal any number of surprising convictions and motivations that conversation would never bring to light. Thus we come to Lonesome Dove, the immensely popular miniseries about one of the last great American cattle drives. Hollywood all-stars abound in this production, but this discussion concerns one in particular.
Captain Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones) is gruff, taciturn, and hesitant to give those around him the slightest hint of what’s on his mind, for which he incurs relentless needling by his good-natured fellow trail boss, Gus McCrae (Robert Duvall). Chief among Call’s stumbling blocks is the presence of young trail hand Newt (Rick Schroeder, still a few years away from NYPD Blue), who happens to be his son from a long-lost romance. Everyone seems to accept this except Call, who cannot bring himself to acknowledge the boy as his issue, refusing even to confirm the extent of his feelings for Newt’s mother. Needless to say, conventional displays of fatherly affection are out of the question, but when provoked, Call shows his true depth of feeling in an unexpected way. Provocation arrives in the form of a brash and offensive army scout, who tries to requisition one of their horses. When the encounter turns ugly, and the soldier directs his abuse to Newt, Call comes running and puts things more than right. His final pronouncement to the astonished onlookers is pure genius.
Jonathan Winters vs. Gas Station in It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963, dir. Stanley Kramer)
Stanley Kramer’s madcap comedy epic features nearly every major comedian of its time. All of them are racing to claim a jackpot of stolen money buried somewhere in California. Overcome by the lure of enough money to make their dreams come trued, a dozen ordinary folks are willing to step over, double-cross, and sabotage anyone or anything that gets in the way. In planes, trucks, and taxicabs, the unlikely fortune hunters cut a merry path of destruction all the way down the coast.
Among their number is a hapless trucker named Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters). Initially one of the more level-headed of the group, he is driven to ruthlessness by the pressures of his fellow man. He makes a particular nemesis in a slimy fellow named Otto Meyer (played with hateful, grinning glee by Phil Silvers). Once Pike takes Meyer into his confidence about the money in exchange for a little roadside assistance, Meyer proceeds to strand his trusting new friend and take off on his own after the money. Ditched, insulted, and humiliated, Pike vows revenge. He tracks his quarry to a little auto garage in the middle of nowhere. Meyer manages to slip away once more by turning the two high-strung gas station attendants on his foe. It is only then that Pike unleashes the full power of his fury. He proceeds to tear the entire gas station down, practically with his bare hands, as the timorous employees try in vain to fend him off. It is a largely unsung but truly monumental piece of slapstick.