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100 Essential Action Scenes: One on One Fights

Sound on Sight undertook a massive project, compiling ranked lists of the most influential, unforgettable, and exciting action scenes in all of cinema. There were hundreds of nominees spread across ten different categories and a multi-week voting process from 11 of our writers. The results: 100 essential set pieces, sequences, and scenes from blockbusters to cult classics to arthouse obscurities.    
A good fight scene is built into the fabric of an action film such that you can sense it coming like a storm on the horizon. It’s in the details of the opponents: the cracking of knuckles, the puffing of chests, the staredowns that say, “It’s about to go down.” A good fight scene makes you want to cover your eyes yet is impossible to look away from. You get tingly waiting for the violence to erupt, and if it’s done its job, you come away dizzy, invigorated, or even nauseated. It’s the point in the picture where our hero and villain will never be the same. If the filmmakers pull it off, neither will you.

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10. The Way of the Dragon (1972) – Flawless victory

Way of the Dragon was Bruce Lee’s third movie as a star and his first as a writer, director, and producer. The climax, which pits Lee against seven time world karate champion Chuck Norris in the middle of the Roman Coliseum, is without a doubt the most sophisticated fight ever captured on film. It’s a complete work of art, flawlessly choreographed using extended long takes, a touch of slow-motion, and not a single word is exchanged between the two legends. As a director and a fight choreographer, Lee was ahead of his time, and it’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to continue his impressive career. The final gladiatorial duel, which mixes Chuck’s modern karate style and Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, should be essential viewing for anybody interested in learning martial arts. There’s no use of wires or acrobatics because Bruce Lee could produce magic through the sheer majesty of the sport. It’s poetry in motion, and something that can never be duplicated ever again. Thankfully, through the magic of cinema, it can be revisited until the end of time. (Ricky D)

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9. Fist of Legend (1994) – Chen Zhen vs. General Fujita

Directed by Gordon Chan and starring Jet Li as the legendary Chen Zhen, Fist of Legend is best known as the 1994 martial arts film with action choreographed by the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping, who was later hired by the Wachowski siblings to bring the same fighting style to The Matrix series. While the film is essentially a remake of the 1972 film Fist of Fury (which starred Bruce Lee as the lead character), it instead shares the fighting style similar to the one used by Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon –a fighting style which itself was inspired by Muhammad Ali’s “Ali shuffle.” The fighting is notable for the use of small integrated sets, breakaway props, minimal wire-work, and Yuen’s trademark use of power powder and undercranking, which is the act of speeding up the action by slowing down the frame capture rate. The one scene that best demonstrates Yuen’s mastery is Jet Li’s showdown in the grand finale with World Kickboxing champion-turned-actor Billy Chow–a scene that forever stands the test of time and proved Jet Li was the real deal. (Ricky D)

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8. Ong Bak(2003) – Fight club

Ting (Tony Jaa), a villager from a faraway Thai province that had its ceremonial Buddha head stolen by criminals, is gifted in a relatively unknown form of martial arts called muay thai. Thus, to get the Buddha head back, Ting is going to have to kick some serious ass. He may have to fight three men, but fortunately they are all polite enough to take him on one at a time. Despite that trope, Ong-Bak is able to buck a lot of stale modern action trends by eschewing rapid cuts. The director wants you to see that Jaa is doing everything onscreen; no stunt doubles, no CGI to complicate everything before our eyes. It’s all real. As Ting and a rival fighter turn the entire club into a ring—smashing tables, chairs, and bottles over each other’s bodies—hardcore martial art fans fist-pump to their own victory. The story is almost non-existent, but for this nine minute period of intense combat, none of that matters. (Colin Biggs)

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7. Aliens (1986)– “Get away from her, you bitch!”

Aliens is filled with a variety of great action scenes, but it saves one of the best for last. Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) arc throughout the course of the film (if we follow James Cameron’s Director’s Cut) involves her coming to terms with the loss of her child. Once she becomes a surrogate mother to the orphaned Newt (Carrie Henn), she risks everything to rescue the child from the alien Queen. After her eggs are destroyed, the Queen stows away on Ripley’s ship and emerges to attack Newt, prompting one of cinema’s all time great lines from Ripley as she dons a massive exoskeleton to battle the alien for the life of the child. The ensuing fight is visceral and dirty: massive alien versus armor-clad human. It’s a culmination of not only Ripley’s character arc but of all the action throughout the film, as hoards of aliens attacking colonists and space marines all comes down to two mothers in a knockdown, drag out brawl. The fight is iconic not only for the series but for all of sci-fi and action cinema. (Austin Gorton)

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6. The Raid (2011) – “This is what I do.”

“He’s a Mad Dog.” That is what we’re told about Yaya Ruhian’s character in The Raid, the breakout Indonesian martial arts movie by Gareth Edwards. And yet when we finally meet the eponymous “Mad Dog,” he seems less mad dog and more prosaic puppy. He stands idly in the background while his boss dispatches at least one screaming victim, as aloof and serene as a sea cow on Quaaludes. Is this guy really the savage psycho he was made out to be? And then, after finally being dispatched to clean up the remaining members of the S.W.A.T team that serve as the protagonists of the film, Mad Dog corners Captain Jaka in an apartment, and we learn that the answer to that previous question is a painful, bloody “yes.” Though Jaka puts up a fight, Mad Dog quickly dispatches him, living up to his name with a flurry of brutal moves. The fight scene itself is excellently choreographed and filmed, but it’s the lead-up that makes it special, the anticipation built up around Mad Dog as the one real physical threat put before protagonists Rama (Iko Uwais) and Andi (Donny Alamsyah). Up until this point, the audience could almost believe that the odds might just be in their favor. But after we really see how Mad Dog got his name, the odds don’t look quite so good. (Thomas O’Connor)

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5. Wheels on Meals(1984) – Kung-fu castle

Starring three of the most famous alumni of Peking Opera School, 1984’s Wheels on Meals is the third film starring Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao, and the second film in Hung’s Lucky Stars trilogy. In the film, the trio of heroes–Thomas (Chan), Moby (Hung), and David (Biao)–tries to protect Silvia (Lola Forner) from Mondale (José Sancho) and his group of thugs, who want to seize her sizable inheritance. This classic fight takes place towards the end of the film, as the three go into Mondale’s castle to rescue Silvia and her mother, and marks the first time Chan and American kickboxing champion Benny Urquidez square-off onscreen. Considered one of the best kung-fu scenes ever, the battle is relentless in strikes and maneuvers, and both the pace and physicality between the two actors are astonishing, ranging from Urquidez performing a spin-kick so fast that it extinguishes a row of candles to Chan pushing back a banquet-size dining table several feet while effectively blocking each blow from his opponent. While Urquidez is merciless in his offense, Chan is the more innovative and strategic in his combat skills, which ultimately wins him the match. While the two actors face off again in 1988’s Dragons Forever, this scene is highlighted as not only one of the best fights in Chan and Urquidez’s film careers, but also in Hong Kong cinema, which has not been bettered since. (Katie Wong)

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4. They Live(1988) – “Put these glasses on!”

This is one of the greatest one-on-one fight scenes because it completely makes the film. John Carpenter’s 1988 satire goes out of its way for a few minutes just to have Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David beat the absolute shit out of each other for way longer than feels necessary–all just to get Keith David to put on some glasses. It’s for good reason too; the glasses allow its wearer to see the world for what it really is—controlled by aliens. Normally watching two homeless guys beat the shit out of each other makes you feel like a bad person, but in this case it is captivating. Piper and David pull every possible move on each other: punches, kicks, nutjabs, and bodyslams to name a few. Carpenter films most of it in extended takes, letting the duration and ridiculous brutality of these two sink in. At one point Keith David knees Roddy Piper in the nuts repeatedly like five straight times, and Roddy gets right back up and continues fighting. Any man who has had to call in sick for work because he sat down wrong and pinched his nuts knows that this is one of the toughest things any movie character has had to pull through. This is a fight scene that’s the embodiment of violence for violence’s sake, and I’m totally okay with that. (Dylan Griffin)

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3. Rocky (1976)Rocky vs. Apollo

A fight brings out the best in our hero, especially when face-to-face with their arch rival. Whether it’s a bride avenging her baby’s life (Kill Bill), or a dual with an alien queen (Aliens), the fight is usually the most suspenseful part of the film leading up to its climax. Nothing more is true for the Rocky versus Apollo fight scene in Rocky, the father of all one-to-one fights. Up to this point in the film, Rocky is purely seen as the underdog. He barely has a shot for the title against champion Apollo Creed, he barely has a shot at a relationship with Adrian, and he barely has a shot at making something better of his life. In a way Rocky’s life is one big championship fight, and having the film end in a boxing ring is not only poetic but quite metaphoric to Balboa’s struggle. The flashy lights and glamour of the scene is a stark difference from the streets and dirty floors of Mickey’s gym that we see throughout the film. Yet the bitter struggle is still hitting Balboa in the face as Creed taunts and insults the young boxer. Rocky is desperate, weak at times, but most of all quiet. His silence is a symbol of the ongoing pain that he has endured up to this point in his life. When will the silence break? Right as soon as Rocky knocks out the champion for the first time in his career. Rocky is here to stay. Cameras close in on our hero as he hugs his opponent from fatigue or waits to get his blood-filled eye cut open so that he can see again. This intimacy allows the audience to fight with Rocky, endure his pain, and breathe as Rocky breathes. As one-to-one fights are concerned, Rocky doesn’t compare to any other sports film when it comes down to empathizing with our hero. On or off the ring, we are fighting with our protagonist. Endurance is the name of the game, and through the announcer’s questions—“What is keeping him up?” or “What was going through your head when you heard the buzzer?”—we get the answers from the camera: Adrian. Adrian suddenly appears in the ring, and that’s Rocky’s ultimate prize. Defeating the champion doesn’t matter nor does the success that follows. What matters is proving himself to the love of his life, and he does so with cinematic magic. What we get is one of the most prolific endings known in cinema history, and the chance to see Rocky fight Apollo again in the rematch of Rocky II. (Christopher Clemente)

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2. The Matrix (1999)– “My name is Neo.”

Fight scenes require build up to pay off. Throughout The Matrix, Neo (Keanu Reeves) has been taunted by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the malevolent program representing his biggest obstacle to fulfilling his destiny. On a grungy subway platform, Neo comes face to face with his enemy and chooses fight over flight. “He’s beginning to believe,” Morpheus says back in the real world. Directors The Wachowski’s have great fun with setting the stage like a classic Western standoff, complete with a floating newspaper substituting a floating tumbleweed (not to mention a cheeky Western style death rattle on the soundtrack). But this is no classic Western. Instead of quick drawing their pistols once, Neo and Smith open fire on each other in a gravity defying duel. Both miss, and the fight is on. Yuen Woo-Ping’s fight choreography is slick yet balletic with Reeves and Weaving giving as many majestic comic-book poses as they do wire-enhanced blows. The scene embodies classical fight mechanics: hero endures, is knocked down, and finds the inner strength to prevail. Neo’s kung-fu training may give him endurance, but it doesn’t equip him against Smith’s superhuman blows. It’s his human spirit, and one last ounce of strength, that allows him the finishing move. “My name is Neo,” he growls. That’s one more thing a fight scene requires: a pronouncement from the hero. It’s not enough to win, a lesson has to be learned or a statement has to be made. When that statement gives the audience chills, it’s just icing on the “pound” cake. (Shane Ramirez)

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1. Enter the Dragon (1973) – Lee vs. O’Hara

Bruce Lee’s fights are predicated on two tenants: elegance and efficiency. Lee’s characters are never going to expend more time or energy than necessary to accomplish his goals, even if he did like to occasionally show off with his nunchucks. Lee also understood that for his moves to look good on film, his punches and kicks and shouts had to be crisp and quick. In Enter the Dragon, when Lee the character finally gets the opportunity to fight O’Hara, the man responsible for his sister’s death, Lee the performer demonstrates the simple elegance that made him an international star. Lee’s punches are lighting quick and knock O’Hara on his ass with such consistency that it quickly devolves into a comedy bit; even a flashy backflip-kick is played off as a move of necessity rather than arrogance in ability. But it’s Lee’s final combination that makes the fight a classic: Armed with broken bottles, O’Hara charges Lee, who proceeds to disarm and kill O’Hara in only four moves. Slowed down for extra brutality, we see Lee distilled to his best, not a flamboyant fighter but a pure, kinetic martial artist who was simply better than everyone else. (JJ Perkins)

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Top Choices from our Writers

Colin Biggs – Enter the Dragon

Christopher Clemente – Rocky

Ricky D – They Live

Austin Gorton – Road House

Dylan Griffin – The Raid 2

Thomas O’Connor – They Live

JJ Perkins – Wheels on Meals

Shane Ramirez – The Matrix

Christopher Saunders – Batman

Brian Welk – Rocky

Katie Wong – Wheels of Meals

(Check out the rest of the list by clicking below)

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