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The 100 Greatest Action Movie Fight Scenes

March 4, 2024168 Mins Read

It’s time to fight about fights.
Illustration: Kyle Hilton

There’s no one element necessary for a great movie fight — but there are many elements that can make a movie fight great. It could be a performer’s physical mastery: Consider Donnie Yen punching a foe into the ground in Ip Man, his furious, rapid-fire blows evoking the pitter-patter of rain. Perhaps it’s the sheer relentlessness on display, as with John Wick procedurally mowing down wave after wave of bad guys in his ceaseless pursuit of revenge and redemption. Or a moment may simply look cool as hell. Remember Patrick Swayze ripping out a guy’s throat in Road House? Of course you do. Such brawls elicit a primal pleasure, as if the rhythmic crunching of bones emits a frequency that tickles an ancient part of the brain. A good movie fight is a feast for the eyes, but a great one feeds the soul.

Behind every such symphony of onscreen savagery is a village of craftspeople responsible for bringing its brutality to life: the stunt performers and choreographers who design action, the cinematographers and editors who frame it, the Foley artists and sound specialists who add gales of body-on-body thunder — all united by a vivid understanding of the body as instrument, elegant and destructive. The first fights committed to screen, long before stunts were professionalized and sound caught up with image, were enchanting for the suggestion of what you couldn’t hear: the boom of a boxing glove hitting a shoulder (or a cat), the yowl after a blow, the chuckle after a Buster Keaton–esque whiff. As action cinema evolved beyond the silent era, swashbuckling epics and westerns introduced a heightened reality through clanging swords and gunfire. By the time They Live’s six-minute opus arrived in 1988, the exaggerated punches, kicks, and reactions of early Hollywood were barely detectable in the sweaty naturalism that governs the modern fight aesthetic.

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To celebrate that ever-changing history of onscreen violence, we engaged in our own sort of tussle: trying to identify the 100 movie fights that have had the greatest impact on the genre of action cinema. Beginning with a scene from the 1890s that depicts an unconventional boxing match, the list we assembled illustrates the evolution of the fight scene over time. Entries were selected based on how they shaped filmmaking techniques, realized a new trope, marked a step forward in the professionalization of stuntwork, and/or simply served as a grand achievement in using physical violence as a creative and narrative tool. Some of the fights may not be the originating source of a given breakthrough but have instead become regarded as the most noteworthy embodiment of it.

We focused on brawls, duels, assaults, and other similarly sized physical altercations as our area of study. (That approach meant opting against a more expansive definition that would include, say, verbal arguments. Sorry, Marriage Story heads.) A “fight” is distinct from a “battle,” insofar as the former occurs between individuals or small groups (humans or otherwise) and the latter involves armies — though specific fights within a battle were eligible. Traditional shoot-outs were ineligible since they lack the intimate proximity of a real fight; put simply, opponents needed to be able to sweat on one another. But firearms do show up, particularly as new styles of close-quarters combat such as gun fu and gun kata emerged. You will find some vehicular violence here, but a car or motorcycle chase alone doesn’t qualify without an element of jousting. Several entries involve animation or CGI, since those modes of filmmaking have always had that capacity to influence, and be influenced by, live action. And crucially, influential fight scenes aren’t limited to conventional action movies — if you haven’t already Ctrl+F’d, yes, Anchorman and Bridget Jones’s Diary made the cut.

To keep things manageable, we only considered fights occurring in films that were officially distributed in the U.S. at some point. While that gives the list a decidedly Hollywood lean, we made a distinct effort to reflect the many global contributions to fight scenes over the decades — taking into account how American cinema has adopted and appropriated combat styles from around the world. You’ll find an unsurprising gender disparity across these entries, a function of the historically male-dominated nature of this particular corner of cinema. Still, the latter end of the list provides a glimmer of hope that progress is being made.

In the interest of including the widest array of films, we permitted only one fight per franchise, which is why you won’t see movies such as The Matrix or series such as The Raid taking up multiple slots. However, many key individuals (Bruce Lee, fight choreographer William Hobbs) recur, reminders of a glorious time when stars outshined IP. The list slows down around the late 2010s owing to the nature of basic historiography: It’s hard to know how influential a work is going to be without time passing. There are just two selections from the 2020s, the inclusion of which should be viewed as a bet on their long-term significance. You may well disagree with some of the list’s selections and omissions; it seems unavoidable, in fact. But if that’s the case, we have good news: We’re on the internet. What better place for a fight? —Nicholas Quah

The early days of the moving picture gave us so many of our basic cinematic genres and subgenres that it can be hard to tease out the specific threads of influence; everything, after all, flowed from these initial experiments and demonstrations. In 1894, Henry Welton’s touring cat circus visited Thomas Edison’s Black Maria studios in New Jersey, where two of his cats, Sullivan and Corbett, were filmed “fighting” by director William K.L. Dickson and cameraman William Heise while Welton held them up on their hind legs. They were wearing little boxing gloves in a little ring, the whole thing.

Some have called this 22-second film the original cat video, which, sure. But it’s also generally regarded as the first time an animal fought another animal in a movie, whether it be in an action or humor context. These early films weren’t watched on theatrical movie screens but rather using Kinetoscopes — peep-show machines that an individual customer would pay to look through. Nevertheless, they were quite popular; Welton’s cat circus reportedly saw a rise in admissions after the movie’s cinematic debut. And while there’s arguably a bit of cruelty involved here (at least one of the cats looks like it wants to walk away), it was nothing compared to the other insane stuff they did to animals in the early days of cinema. —Bilge Ebiri

Filmmakers were using Kinetoscopes to capture men fighting men, too. But this six-round exhibition fight between Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing isn’t listed here because it’s a mere documentary record of a thing that would have happened anyway. It was an event created in order to be filmed (also at Black Maria studios) and viewed through a Kinetographic peephole, the boxing ring built in front of a black wall to better background the fighters’ pale skin and make them visually legible on film. Five months later, it was followed by Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph (also known as Edison Kinetoscopic Record of Boxers and The Corbett-Courtney Fight), another fight that people had to pay to view by the round (or reel), rather than experience in person. Both were commercial successes, setting the stage for the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight three years later.

Corbett fought Bob Fitzsimmons on St. Patrick’s Day in Carson City, Nevada, this time in a more documentary-like scenario, although the filmmaker ordered the ring built two feet smaller than regulation to get a better composition and was caught by boxing officials and ordered to rebuild it correctly. The fight ran for 71 to 100 minutes, depending on who exhibited it. It was the first athletic event shot in “widescreen” format (a more rectangular ratio of 1:65 to 1) and is believed by some film scholars to constitute the first feature-length motion picture, the first pay-per-view sporting event (it was shown at full length in theaters in 12 cities), and the first sporting event to earn more money after the event than from tickets to the fight itself. The Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight led British Film Institute scholar Luke McKernan to declare in his book Cinema: The Beginnings and the Future that “it was boxing that created the cinema.” But it would never have been committed to film had Leonard and Cushing not slugged it out first. —Matt Zoller Seitz

Buster Keaton was a pioneer as a stunt performer in addition to being a pioneer in everything else, but he wasn’t typically a fighter onscreen. The climactic scene in College was a notable exception with its stellar display of physical comedy helping to create a template for a certain kind of anything-goes scrum. Keaton played the bookish Ronald, who spends the film trying to win back ex-girlfriend Mary (Anne Cornwall) by attempting to prove himself at various collegiate athletic pursuits, failing spectacularly each time. Naturally, after Mary is taken hostage by Ronald’s detestable rival Jeff, the physical prowess that had eluded him all movie emerges in his time of need.

Ronald’s fight with Jeff comes at the end of a bravura sequence in which he sprints across campus, hurdles over hedges, and uses a pole that was propping up a clothesline to vault through the window. Then, rather than battle Jeff with his fists, he uses items from around the room as projectiles, hurling them at his cowering foe until the guy flees — at which point Ronald tosses a lamp at his back, javelin style. Keaton’s deadpan, combined with the extreme silliness of the fracas, made the scene a deeply satisfying reversal of everything audiences were accustomed to seeing. That approach to fighting, in which combatants throw any objects they can get their hands on (books! Pans! Chairs!) would become much more common — though rarely as funny. —Alison Willmore

A quick truth about human nature: When someone gets bonked on the head, and that someone isn’t us, it is, more often than not, funny. Few entertainers understood the high art of injury quite like Charlie Chaplin, whose lovable Tramp character could sometimes be surprisingly vicious. In City Lights, a set of wild circumstances has him colluding with a boxer to fake a fight: They agree to keep the blows soft and afterward they’ll split the purse. But when his partner in crime splits, he ends up in the ring with a real boxer. What follows is a highly choreographed tableau of cowardice transforming into bravery then collapsing into what can only be considered modern dance.

The sequence was revolutionary for taking something familiar and structured — a boxing match, once again — and isolating its component parts (the referee, the corners, the bell) to ensure each was exploited for maximum comedy, even if that involved breaking with reality. (One gag, in which Chaplin leaps from the canvas, defying gravity on a visible wire, plays like proto-wuxia.) Viewed as a whole, there’s a straightforwardness to the scene that belies its complexity; in actuality, it took four days of rehearsal and six days of shooting to get the choreography of it all just right. It’s little surprise that the film, with its mix of humor and athleticism, was listed by Jackie Chan as one of his ten favorite movies of all time. —Jordan Hoffman

Many films and filmmakers have claimed to push the boundaries of special effects, but few have taken a greater actual leap than the original King Kong. Released in 1933 by RKO Radio Pictures, directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s picture is a searing critique of consumerism, exploitation, and human depravity with unsettling racial subtext; it also contains an all-time classic creature fight. When fictional filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) ventures to the mythical Skull Island with actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and a film crew, he hopes to capture the Eighth Wonder of the World: Kong. But on this prehistoric atoll, it’s Ann who becomes the focus of attention — the island’s native inhabitants kidnap her as a gift for the towering primate. Kong soon learns that keeping Ann safe in a jungle full of giant predators is no small feat, particularly when it’s a Tyrannosaurus rex that’s keen to snack on her. And so, while Ann watches from the branches of a tree, the King of the Beasts and the King of the Dinosaurs throw down.

It took seven weeks to shoot the scene: The intricate special effects relied on the stop-motion expertise of legendary animator Willis H. O’Brien to move the two 18-inch wired puppets in combat, a moment enlivened by the magic of rear-screen projection to place Wray in the fracas. Framed by trees and hanging vines, the creatures’ movements are viciously animalistic and lifelike as Kong swings haymakers, jumps on the carnivore’s back, and then cracks the T. rex’s jaw open; the proceedings are heightened by a devastating soundscape composed of the T. rex’s jaguarlike screech, Kong’s lionesque roar, and Wray’s iconic scream as the fight builds toward a final, gruesome bone crunch. King Kong’s influence on stop-motion — and fight cinema in general — has been felt since the second that T. rex’s limp body hit the ground. —Robert Daniels

These days, 16 minutes of animation might not sound like much material, but back in 1936, it was a hand-drawn ocean voyage — two reels of footage, three times longer than any other Popeye cartoon that had come before. That run time gave director Dave Fleischer, who with his brother Max would go on to release the influential Fleischer Superman cartoons, plenty of room to showcase the animated richness and idiosyncratic charm that would become the duo’s calling card. The bulk of the short’s action is a gauntlet: After Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oyl, is kidnapped from their boat, the sailor swims ashore and squares up against a pair of lions, a giant vulture, a two-headed giant, and then, ultimately, the evil pirate Sinbad.

Popeye makes short work of all of them using a series of noodly “twister punches,” fortitude, and, naturally, a well-timed can of spinach. At one point, the vulture carries him off to a volcano and Popeye returns in a tornado (a riff on the already-popular “Big Ball of Violence” trope) serving up the bird, cooked, on a heaping platter. The fight was remarkable not just for its scale but also for the innovations that helped enhance it: This was the first Popeye special created in color, and the island setting of the brawl was created with a unique set of 3-D backgrounds: miniature sets arranged along a 12-foot circular turntable, rigged to be rotated incrementally and photographed one by one. The animation historian Jerry Beck, in his book The 50 Greatest Cartoons, called it “the best Popeye ever,” and Ray Harryhausen — of Jason and the Argonauts fame — later said that it influenced his own take, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. —Eric Vilas-Boas

Though he inhabited the role just once, the standard Errol Flynn set as Robin Hood nearly a century ago has yet to be surpassed. (Granted, fans of Disney’s fox may quibble with this claim.) Anchoring that legacy is the climactic duel to the death that Flynn’s Sir Robin of Locksley has against the nefarious Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). While it’s neither the best, nor the first, sword fight captured on film (the latter distinction is difficult to pinpoint, though images of men fencing date back to Eadwearad Muybridge’s sequential photography in the late 1800s), the two-minute clash is nevertheless the one to which all subsequent swordplay has been compared.

Starting on a staircase (you’ll find a number of those on this list), Robin and Guy descend into the bowels of the castle, their rapiers and wits hard at work. The fighting was largely performed by the actors themselves, two movie stars doing their own stunts long before that was something we celebrated; when doubles were used, directors Michael Curtiz and William Keighley employed clever tricks to hide them, most notably when the fighters’ shadows are projected onto a pillar. The combatants’ repartee deliciously cuts into the action, with Rathbone in particular chewing his dialogue to perfection as a candelabra pins Robin in a precarious position. As the fight crescendos, the two embrace before Robin delivers the killing blow—and the intimacy in that moment is arguably the most significant facet of the scene’s legacy. What is fighting if not one of the most intimate experiences two people can have? —Brandon Streussnig

The barroom brawl was a staple of the western genre for years, and the central fight scene in Michael Curtiz’s Dodge City is an astonishing example, one that was never quite topped. (Even the famous saloon fight in Shane, which maybe does more with actual character development, takes a back seat to it.) Armed with a studio budget, Curtiz let the scene gather force as an entire saloon got demolished and an army of stuntmen bounced around. (The star of the film, Errol Flynn, wasn’t actually present.) Roulette wheels and poker tables go flying. Men are lassoed and dragged. The entire bar is ripped out of the wall, while enough chairs to seat the population of Arkansas are cracked over people’s heads. One dude collapses through several stories’ worth of stairs. It’s a minor miracle that nobody died in the making of the scene, which was so expansive and delightfully destructive that snippets were reused in many subsequent westerns, particularly on TV.

But there’s also this: The skirmish is set in motion after two groups of cowboys have a testy confrontation over music. On one side are the ostensible good guys, a group of roving herdsmen who had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. (Dodge City, like many other westerns, embraced the trope of heroic, wandering, defeated southern soldiers.) The other faction is a bunch of former Union soldiers, allied with the film’s gangsterlike villain, Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot). The former Confederates object to the singing of the Yankee anthem “Marching Through Georgia” (written in the 1860s to commemorate General William T. Sherman’s taking of Georgia), and they respond by singing “Dixie.” The groups trade tunes before finally trading fists. Just three years later, Curtiz would direct Casablanca, which has an immortal scene featuring two groups in a bar facing off with opposing songs: The French refugees in Morocco joyfully sing “La Marseillaise” while their German occupiers bellow out “Die Wacht am Rhein.” (The bar remained intact in that instance.) —B.E.

This Merrie Melodies short from animation maverick Chuck Jones tells the story of the Dover Boys, a trio of college gentlemen who must rescue Dora Standpipe, a presumed damsel in distress, from her kidnapper, the villainous Dan Backslide. The protagonists were a parody of the Rover Boys, characters from a popular series of books aimed at young readers in the early 20th century. In Jones’s spin, the Dover bros arrive to find that Dora has already defeated Backslide — then they inadvertently knock each other out while trying to get their own licks in on the villain.

Beyond the tongue-very-much-in-cheek humor, the cartoon remains highly regarded for its early application of limited animation — a technique that uses fewer frames per second than what is known as full animation (how most hand-drawn Disney films were made), which makes character movement appear less smooth. That decision was an aesthetic choice by Jones and one that would become increasingly popular in the decades that followed. Of particular note was the use of smear frames to simulate motion, such as in the scene where one of the Dovers punches Backslide and causes his head to rattle from side to side. At the time of the short’s release during World War II, the spoof of the Rover Boys resonated with audiences; now, more than 80 years later, its slapstick humor and remarkable artistry have proved timeless in their appeal. —Carlos Aguilar

An entire mode of action choreography was born here in a fight between Wong Fei-Hung (Kwan Tak-hing) — a wise teacher and champion of the oppressed (and a character based on a real historical figure) — and the villain Tai Nan Nung (Tang Tak-wah), who has beaten up the manager of a ginseng shop and taken his wife hostage. The clash wasn’t the first martial-arts fight recorded on film (the movie was conceived as an alternative to the soaring fantasy acrobatics of wuxia, a genre built around superhuman martial-arts feats), but it is thought to have introduced a style of fighting that was more realistic.

By modern standards, the scrap was stripped down, unassuming: men with long sticks and swords parrying and thrusting and leaping in wide shots that showcased their athleticism and eliminated any possibility of visual trickery. The sound was faithful to the depicted combat — there were no exaggerated “whoosh” sound effects of the type that would later become common — and the build-up saw Wong attempting diplomacy before resorting to violence. “Hold my stick and wait at the door for me,” he tells Ah-Chut, his right-hand man, before going inside and conversing with his adversary, the sort of sneering, preening bad guy who has powered eight decades of martial-arts movies. —M.Z.S.

Of course Alfred Hitchock can turn an amusement-park carousel into a harrowing death trap. The climactic scene of Strangers on a Train, based on Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel, features tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) facing off against devious psychopath Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), who has already murdered Guy’s wife and plans to incriminate him by planting evidence at the scene. Before Bruno is able to do so, Guy chases him onto a carousel that begins to spin out of control after a cop carelessly shoots the operator. As the two duke it out amid plaster horses and screaming children, a distraught mother realizes her young boy is caught in the middle of the fracas and a brave carnival worker crawls underneath the machine to reach the fail-safe.

The face-off sequence didn’t actually originate with Highsmith but was instead the climax of Edmund Crispin’s novel The Moving Toyshop, from which Alfred Hitchcock cribbed it. Nevertheless, the on-screen sequence is all Hitchcock, who successfully keeps those various balls in the air while rendering the scene delirious and surreal. The fight itself between Guy and Bruno on top of a spinning platform is plenty thrilling, culminating in a unrepentant Bruno trying to kick Guy off the carousel — but add in the child and the real-life carousel operator who actually crawled underneath the spinning ride and you have a fight scene for the ages. Many directors owe debts to Hitchcock for an assortment of reasons, but any scene that juggles multiple layers of suspense can be traced back to Strangers — especially if a rickety machine is involved. —Vikram Murthi

While golden-age noirs were generally more concerned with shootings than up-close-and-personal violence, director Richard Fleischer opted for a stunning burst of claustrophobic nastiness in his 1952 RKO B-movie The Narrow Margin. The film takes place almost entirely on a train that’s transporting a mob boss’s widow from Chicago to Los Angeles to testify in front of a grand jury. Detective Sergeant Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) is assigned to protect her from people who want her dead, an assignment that costs him his partner in the opening sequence — and the situation grows increasingly tense from there as the gangsters onboard close in.

Walter knows that fellow passenger Joseph Kemp (David Clarke) is a would-be assassin and, at an opportune moment, shoves him into the men’s room for a scene that’s shockingly physical after all the cat-and-mouse intrigue leading up to it. The two men grapple on the ground, slamming heads against walls, wrapping hands around throats, and wrestling over a gun. In a particularly inspired touch, Walter, knocked over, aims a kick at Joseph that goes right at the lens, as though the camera itself were a participant in the skirmish. The tightness of the space adds to the sense of sweaty desperation, leaving nowhere to retreat — at one point, a porter opens the door, surveys the mayhem, and wisely exits. A decade later, Sean Connery and Robert Shaw would slug it out in a cramped compartment on the Orient Express in the James Bond film From Russia With Love, a scene that owes a lot to The Narrow Margin — as do so many of the other tight-quarters mêlées that followed. —A.W.

John Wayne just knew how to throw a punch. Paired with his tall frame, that talent — which imbued his fights with a sense of realism — had always been a way for Wayne to burnish his rugged persona. In that sense, the Duke leveled up in director John Ford’s The Quiet Man, a film set in a sleepy Irish village that was an unlikely site for an eight-minute mêlée. Wayne played retired Pittsburgh boxer Sean Thornton, who comes to the verdant countryside town of Innisfree intent on purchasing his family’s former farm before Squire (Victor McLaglen) lays claim to the property. His plans are complicated when he falls for Squire’s sister Mary (Maureen O’Hara) — and despite Sean’s vow to never fight again, his rivalry with Squire eventually escalates into an elaborately staged confrontation.

In films prior to The Quiet Man, Wayne’s fistfights were generally grave affairs. The fight against Squire, by contrast, has a lively, comedic feel that’s reinforced by a musical score featuring bubbly fiddles. After Sean and Squire’s scrap begins on a knoll, they brawl their way through haylofts and a creek before crashing into the town’s bar. Each wild swing by Wayne and McLaglen is played for escalating laughs as their fight gains onlookers, from a priest leaving someone’s deathbed to gossiping women. There’s even a guy managing the betting line. That lighthearted tone carried over into future Wayne films such as The Undefeated, Big Jake, Donovan’s Reef, and another pairing with Maureen O’Hara, McLintock!, and the roving nature of the fight set the stage for the sorts of large-scale, multilocation mêlées that are common in action movies today. —R.D.

Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump. That’s the sound the chin of Communist agent Joey (Richard Kiley) makes when serial pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) drags him by the feet down a set of stairs. Director Samuel Fuller films Pickup’s climactic subway brawl with docu-like realism, following Skip as he fights the unarmed Joey all the way from inside a bathroom out into the station and eventually down onto the tracks. Fuller mixes close-ups with long and overhead shots to capture a constrained environment taken over by a fight between a foreign spy and a professional thief trying to avenge his dead friend and battered paramour.

While plenty of films before and after Pickup feature fights on trains, Fuller’s pulp instincts and budget-conscious approach kept the intimate, intense action within the station, largely in full view of a terrified crowd. That’s why Skip’s vicious glee in dragging Joey down those stairs, and the cartoonish manner in which his head bounces off every single step, has achieved iconic status. Fuller didn’t invent the gag, but his execution is a big reason it endures in everything from Merrie Melodies to John Wick. —V.M.

Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic is a sort of cinematic primordial soup: The 70-year-old film has been so influential for so long that its narrative devices have basically become forms of storytelling law. You can parse out several elemental tropes from the 207-minute epic, from the climactic battle’s siege structure to the motley crew of protagonists, to, certainly, the duel between Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi) and a boastful challenger, which codified a dynamic that has become all but ubiquitous in action contexts.

After first clashing in front of a village crowd with bamboo sticks, the haughty adversary demands a rematch with real blades. “Don’t throw your life away,” Kyūzō responds. The guy insists, so the two square up again. A visual contrast forms: Kyūzō keeps his body lowered, hand on hilt. His opponent adopts a higher stance, katana overhead. They rush at each other, both delivering a single strike. There’s a brief pause for tension … and then the challenger falls to the ground in slow motion, dead. If you watch enough anime, you can probably hear the sound effect in your head: schwing! But here, the action plays out silently. The scene subtly establishes Kyūzō’s tremendous skill as a swordsman through a form of subtraction. He doesn’t need bluster or brute strength, just the right position and fluid motion. Versions of this sequence have been restaged, updated, and modified over the decades while never straying far from the fundamental stylishiness of the concept. —N.Q.

The full title of the book on which this 1959 classic is based is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, and accordingly, director William Wyler’s religious epic is a showcase of beefy men and death-defying stunts in the sand. Ben-Hur’s climactic chariot race is the final beatdown between the righteous and unjustly framed Judah (Charlton Heston) and his former friend, the quisling Messala (Stephen Boyd). Wyler handed the reins to his second-unit chiefs and stunt coordinators, Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt, who were able to devote months exclusively to the sequence.

The result is a 15-minute heart-stopper during which the men are tossed around like rag dolls and whip one another at high speeds while a bloodthirsty crowd roars as other contestants get trampled. (Canutt’s son Joe, also in the family trade, found himself flying through the air during one take, landing with a minor injury; part of that mishap was incorporated into a surviving shot.) The Circus Maximus set was the largest ever built for a Hollywood production at the time, and Heston and Boyd trained intensively for the race. Heston was even fitted with special contact lenses to shield his eyes from kicked-up sand. The sequence quickly became legendary: The tactic of a villain affixing blades to his wheels during a race reappeared 19 years later in Grease, and The Phantom Menace’s pod race owes so much to Wyler’s film that George Lucas later appeared as an interview subject in a documentary about Ben-Hur’s influence. —J.H.

While most movie fights are choreographed, the climactic West Side Story knife battle that leads to the stabbing deaths of Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and Bernardo (George Chikiris), the respective leaders of the Jets and the Sharks, is choreographed. The style of Jerome Robbins — who directed the stage version of West Side Story and co-directed the film, a credit he retained even though his meticulous, dictatorial style got him fired midway through production — infuses this face-off with a theatricality that reminds us that, while this may be a movie musical, we’re also watching an adaptation of Shakespeare. Bodies heave in and out of the mêlée with a blend of chaos and elegance. As fists and switchblades fly, the combatants take turns invading each other’s dance spaces, leaping and jabbing with grace and athleticism. When Bernardo plunges a knife into Riff’s torso and Riff’s best friend, Tony (Richard Beymer), reflexively does the same to Bernardo, the impact of their deaths is immediate precisely because of all that movement. Suddenly, two young bodies in constant motion just stop.

It’s near impossible to estimate the impact of that fight, traces of which can be seen in everything from the music videos for Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and “Bad,” to the horrifying stabbing that occurs when two dancers fight in Black Swan, to even the beach-off between rival Kens in Barbie. In truth, any scene that prioritizes beauty as much as brawling owes a debt to Riff and Bernardo. —Jen Chaney

King Kong and Godzilla weren’t the first monsters to have a crossover fight—Frankenstein’s monster had clashed with the Wolf Man back in 1943 — but the Eighth Wonder of the World and the King of the Monsters’ bout was a bigger deal and not just because the two kaiju towered over Atami Castle as they traded blows in the shadow of Mt. Fuji. Godzilla, making his third film appearance and first in color, had never looked better. He’d already drifted from his roots as a walking metaphor for nuclear horror and become a heavyweight lining up fights. King Kong, meanwhile, had a goofy smirk and vacant, glossy eyes, underscoring the shortcomings of using suitmation — a technique involving actors in large costumes — to animate the creatures rather than the more expensive and labor-intensive stop-motion that first brought the epic gorilla to life nearly 30 years prior.

Their appearances hardly mattered when the cameras were rolling: The actors inside the monsters’ suits threw themselves against one another with gusto, and Kong, the underdog, got an inexplicable lightning power-up as a handicap against Godzilla’s atomic breath. When the dust settled, the match was essentially a tie: The pair grappled and fell into the ocean together. Only Kong emerged, walking away in either victory or retreat. Despite persistent rumors that there were two different endings in the Japanese and U.S. releases, there’s only one — and the way it was handled foreshadowed the careful storytelling considerations that arise when you’re putting two big names with big expectations against each other. Just as the MCU’s continued existence relies on its characters rarely getting too hurt, the many future Godzilla movies with “vs.” in the title were dependent on the titan living to fight another day. —James Grebey

The popularity of over-the-top, cartoonish blood splatter in contemporary fights is the legacy of a single faulty special effect. Sanjuro was a sequel of sorts to Kurosawa’s 1961 hit Yojimobo, and it again followed the exploits of the titular ronin played by Toshiro Mifune. Near the end of the film, Sanjuro faces off against a villain named Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai), whom he’s been humiliating throughout the story. Having been disgraced by Sanjuro, Muroto demands a duel. Sanjuro tries to refuse, but Muroto will not relent. The two men stare into one another’s eyes, silent and still, for 30 seconds before each goes for their swords. The fight plays more like a quick-draw shootout than a sword fight; before Muroto can bring his blade down, Sanjuro has already split open his foe’s belly.

And then: the blood geyser.

Kurosawa hadn’t intended for an insane explosion of blood to spout from Muroto’s torso, especially not at the end of what had been a largely bloodless drunken-master-style farce in which a rascally, irascible ronin helps a litter of samurai puppies get their act together. Then part of the blood-pack apparatus that Nakadai wore under his costume broke, expressing the entire supply of chocolate syrup and sparkling water to spray out of Nakadai’s abdomen in one burst. Kurosawa loved the outcome, so he kept it in the movie — even if it was a bit at odds with the somber rumination on the morality of violence that followed. Films less concerned with such messages would go on to employ the effect with aplomb. —Jordan Crucchiola

When stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen got a long-overdue honorary Oscar in 1992, Tom Hanks quipped that Jason and the Argonauts, not Casablanca or Citizen Kane, was “the greatest film ever made.” Harryhausen, who got his start under Willis H. O’Brien before eventually surpassing the King Kong animator, is the clear reason why the monster-filled take on the classic Greek myth is so beloved. And yet you’ve got to give credit to the actors who played Jason and his fellow sailors — they were the ones who needed to convincingly battle absolutely nothing, trusting that Harryhausen would reward their careful choreography by adding a horde of skeleton warriors to the action after the fact.

The technique wasn’t new for Harryhausen, who had already brought a single saber-wielding skeleton to life in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad five years prior. But the scale was: This time around it was seven skeletal swordsmen who were summoned to take vengeance on the men who had stolen King Aeëtes’ prized golden fleece. Jason and two of his Argonauts clamber over rocks and recoil as their blades bounce off the skeleton’s shields, the undead enemies moving with a clattering menace. In reality, the actors were just shadow fighting; Harryhausen then spent four and a half months animating 35 points of articulation across seven skeletons and matching them to the live-action footage. Nowadays, it’s hard to name an actor who hasn’t spent time covered in ping-pong balls, filming scenes that will be entirely created in CGI. Jason’s skeleton duel helped usher in that era.

The end of the scene, incidentally, used a far less labor-intensive approach: to shoot the sequence where the reanimated soldiers follow Jason, who dove off a cliff, and fall to their doom, the crew just chucked seven plaster skeletons over the edge. —J.G.

Alfred Hitchcock had been pushing the boundaries of permissible brutality in commercial cinema throughout the 1960s, first with Psycho and then The Birds — but the farmhouse confrontation in Torn Curtain was exceptionally violent even by those standards. Its participants were the rocket scientist and double agent Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) battling his chaperone behind the Iron Curtain, East German security officer Hermann Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), with the farmer’s wife (Carolyn Conwell) offering Armstrong an assist. In real time, with no music to render the violence abstract, we watched two attempts at strangulation, a butcher knife stabbed into a man’s collarbone and broken off, and shins cracked with the blade of a shovel. The coup de grâce is an asphyxiation by gas oven.

It was the most horrifyingly realistic fight in a Hollywood film up to that point, and you can feel its echoes in the struggles of later films — including the brawl between John McClane and Karl in Die Hard, the beatdown of Billy Batts in GoodFellas, and the opening fight in the restroom in Casino Royale — where the takeaway is that it’s much harder to kill a person than the movies generally make it seem. It occupied a queasy middle space between the thriller and the snuff film and gave rise to the kind of audience-punishing ultraviolence showcased in later auteur films by Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino. —M.Z.S.

The 17th installment in the Zatoichi series of films, which follows the adventures of a blind swordsman in late Edo Japan, isn’t generally discussed among the best entries in the franchise — but it does have a significant, and significantly beautiful, climactic duel. The protagonist, Ichi, played by Shintaro Katsu, gets enlisted by a dying woman to reunite her child with his artist father, Shokichi (Takao Ito). Throughout the film, Ichi has repeated run-ins with a mysterious samurai named Akazuka (Jushiro Konoe), who’s eventually revealed to be a government agent tasked with wiping out corruption. Akazuka doesn’t care that Shokichi was an unwilling participant in the criminal operation Akazuka has been tasked with eliminating —and so at the end of the movie, Ichi finds himself having to defend Shokichi from the rival samurai.

As they battle, the fighters’ approaches reflect their ideological divide. Akazuka’s technique is by the book, while Ichi, using his signature reverse sword grip, swings wildly, eventually impaling his opponent. What makes the fight so memorable is that it takes place in the falling snow — a striking aesthetic choice but one that’s key to the resolution of the battle. When circumstances during the fight leave Ichi without his sword, Akazuka’s honor prevents him from killing his unarmed foe. Instead, the wounded Akazuka declares Ichi the winner and walks away. At that point, the legendary director Kenji Misumi has the camera pan down to show the trail of blood in the snow — enough to suggest the wound Akazuka received is a mortal one. The implied off-screen demise serves as a counterpoint to the fight in Seven Samurai, in which death comes for someone before he seems to realize it. Zatoichi Challenged was remade in the U.S. in 1989 as Blind Fury with Rutger Hauer, but the chilly poetry of the final duel echoes through the finale of 1973’s Lady Snowblood as well as the Kill Bill: Volume 1 scene it inspired. —A.W.

“I’ll make this flick with you only on one condition,” star Lee Marvin told director John Boorman. He then took the original Point Blank script he’d been given and tossed it out a window. (Years later, after Mel Gibson produced and starred in Payback, a more literal adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s Richard Stark novel The Hunter, Boorman playfully speculated that a young Gibson must have been passing by outside and caught the script.) Marvin and Boorman stayed true to their goal of throwing out the pulpy clichés of yet another hard-boiled thriller, producing instead a terse and hyperaestheticized existential action drama about Walker (Marvin), a crook who’s been cuckolded and betrayed by his partner, rampaging through Los Angeles killing his way to the top of the organization that betrayed him.

But that’s just the (very thin) plot. The real movie unfolds in the visuals, with Point Blank’s color-coded scenes, striking compositions, and canted angles contributing to an atmosphere of pop dread. There is no Miami Vice without Point Blank. There is no To Live and Die in L.A. without Point Blank. There is no Kill Bill without Point Blank. There is no John Wick without Point Blank. And the many, many films that feature a killer nightclub fight — the Collaterals and Terminators and Dark Knights — probably don’t happen without Point Blank’s nightclub fight, during which Walker visits the Movie House, a bar owned by the man who betrayed him, and is set upon by a couple of goons, all while Stu Gardner and his band sing a funky track called “Mighty Good Times” onstage.

The fight is certainly a dirty one with hair-pulling, face-clawing, and an all-time classic nut-punch; Marvin was one of the screen’s great fighters, and he’d already thrown down memorably in movies like Donovan’s Reef and The Dirty Dozen and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. What makes this scene so unforgettable is the intoxicating, swirling imagery: the images being projected on the screens around Walker, the pop-jazz score filled with yelps and screams (which stand in for the cries of our hero’s victims), the shining bikini-clad dancers, even the rhythmic editing, which turns the fight itself into something of a dance. —B.E.

If Point Blank’s crotch shot was part of an ensemble, the one unleashed by Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman, still violent) was the star. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was influential not just for its sexy lead actors, hippie irreverence, and lyrical montage scored to Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” but also for the scene where Butch thwarted a challenge to his authority as leader of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang by booting his adversary, the much larger Harvey Logan (Ted Cassidy, a.k.a. Lurch on the original The Addams Family), right in the ’nads.

The text of William Goldman’s screenplay asks the reader to imagine “the most aesthetically exquisite kick in the balls in the history of the modern American cinema,” and that’s what director George Roy Hill delivered, right down to the puff of dust as Butch’s foot connects. The sheer surprise of it guaranteed laughs and led to a normalization of groin punishment in mainstream cinema that accelerated through the 1970s and ’80s; it hit what seemed like a slapstick zenith in the Home Alone series, only to be outdone by the masochistic stunt performers of Jackass. While that alone would have secured the Butch Cassidy nut-kick’s place in history, it enjoys a secondary legacy as an early example of a move that ends a fight as soon as it starts: A line can be traced directly from Newman’s foot to Harrison Ford’s pistol as his Indiana Jones wearily shoots a scimitar-wielding foe in Raiders of the Lost Ark. —M.Z.S.

King Hu’s ethereal wuxia films, drawn from Chinese literature and pulsing with the mysteries of the natural world, were made before wirework acrobatics became a key feature of Hong Kong action cinema. In his chef d’oeuvre, A Touch of Zen, Hu stages a transcendent sword fight in a foggy bamboo forest — this iconic face-off between fugitive noblewoman Yang Hui-zhen (Hsu Feng) and her swordsmen and the bodyguards of the evil eunuch Mun Ta would be paid homage by a number of contemporary martial-arts movies like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Thanks to choreographer Han Yingjie, a former Beijing opera actor, A Touch of Zen’s ancient warriors look more like wondrous floating ballerinas than gritty scrappers with the actors gracefully leaping through the foliage using hidden mini-trampolines. Hu employed long tracking shots and dynamic jump cuts to create a dramatic, almost spiritual sense of rhythm, while the pitter-patter of racing feet, the bright clang of weapons, and the swish of bodies rushing through the foliage imparts a musical effect not unlike the pleasures of ASMR. The fight, contrary to expectation, draws its power from its sustained tension as much as its sudden attacks — think of the exquisite serenity of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin or the anticlimax of Kill Bill: Volume II. These movies absorbed the lessons offered by Zen’s heavenly fighters: There is magic in stillness. —Beatrice Loayza

The blaxploitation era began before 1972’s Super Fly, but the term wasn’t really used before Super Fly, which outraged and delighted millions with its story about a drug dealer (and, notably, drug user) looking to make one big score before bowing out of the life. The genre made history by presenting Black characters who could be the protagonists of their own stories without being relegated to comic-relief, victim, or sidekick parts. Plus they got to win in the end. And one of the elements that makes Gordon Parks Jr.’s bracingly amoral thriller special is that we don’t really know if Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal) will make it. O’Neal’s melancholy performance suggests a doomed man. The fact that the cops — who are also the drug suppliers — seem to be closing in on him over the course of the film would suggest that he’s in for a tragic comeuppance.

But what’s this? In the very final scene, Priest is confronted by Deputy Commissioner Reardon (Sig Shore), who also happens to be the local drug supplier, and his men. And he then proceeds to kung fu–kick the henchmen’s asses in an extended slow-motion sequence that gains in grace what it lacks in budget. (It also echoes the film’s earlier, very memorable bathtub-lovemaking scene.) Priest tells the commissioner that he’s taken out a mob contract on him and that the man and his whole family will be killed if anything happens to him. (“Nothing — nothing — better happen to one hair on my gorgeous head. Can you dig it?”) Then he walks away, gets in a car, and drives off. The end! Super Fly gets away! Even in the revolutionary, table-turning world of blaxploitation, this was something new. —B.E.

In action cinema, there is Before Pam Grier and After Pam Grier. And although Coffy was not Grier’s debut — it wasn’t even her first film with noted B-movie maestro Jack Hill — it was the picture that cemented her star status and persona. In Hill’s 1973 hit, Grier plays the titular ER nurse–slash–angel of vengeance looking to take revenge on the dealers and crooks and pimps who destroyed her younger sister’s life. To do so, she goes undercover with local pimp King George, pretending to be an aspiring Jamaican sex worker. She’s so alluring that the other girls in King George’s employ immediately hate her. After the other prostitutes humiliate Coffy during a party, she returns the favor by dumping a bowl of salad on one of them and then initiating a massive mêlée among the girls, all while the men in the room watch in astonishment and delight.

Women beating the crap out of each other was not novel in movies by this point; catfights had become popular in the world of porn and exploitation flicks over the previous several decades, and there was even one in the Bond flick From Russia With Love. But this particular catfight is not only spectacular, it’s also a genuine action scene that points the way toward the future, as the film basically stops to treat us to some thundering wrestling moves and dresses flying open to reveal bare breasts everywhere. It has the trappings of titillation, but like much of Coffy, it turns the tables on the viewer: This stuff looks like it hurts. Especially with the final, bloody coup de grâce: As her nemesis reaches for Coffy’s head, the girl discovers, much to her screaming chagrin, that our hero hid razor blades in her hair. —B.E.

Lots of modern action movies are ultimately defeated by their stars’ egos. When the Rock contractually can’t lose a fight, there’s not much at stake — sooner or later, he just shrugs off his enemy’s feeble blows. So why is it that, despite easily defeating every goon he trades blows with, watching Bruce Lee fight in Enter the Dragon is so transfixing?

Lee plays a Hong Kong martial artist (also named Lee) whom British Intelligence has recruited to go undercover to help take down Han (Kien Shih), a secretive crime lord who is hosting a tournament on his island lair. Lee accepts, partially because Han’s right-hand man, O’Hara (Robert Wall), is responsible for his sister’s death. So when Lee and O’Hara face off in the competition, you’d be forgiven for expecting a close match. Instead, O’Hara doesn’t land a single blow on Lee, who deftly dodges and counters with punch after punch, kick after kick. When an embarrassed O’Hara breaks a bottle in an underhanded attempt to kill his opponent, Lee effortlessly disarms his hateful foe, knocking him on his back. Then, in a moment that’s as cathartic as it is ugly, he leaps onto O’Hara for a killing blow. We don’t see O’Hara’s body break, but we hear pained horror in Lee’s furious scream. It’s not an issue, dramatically, that O’Hara never stood a chance; the real fight was always with the dragon inside Lee.

Tragically, Lee, the martial-arts prodigy who created his own fighting style and helped kung fu movies break through in the West, died unexpectedly six days before Enter the Dragon’s premiere. A subgenre of “Bruceploitation” movies attempted to fill the void he left behind with knockoff Hong Kong action flicks that tried to mimic his unique talents and appeal. Nothing could match Lee, of course, and that’s still the case today. —J.G.

“What’s a mook?” The pool-hall fight scene in Martin Scorsese’s third feature, Mean Streets, is the lodestar of his entire cinematic language. First, you got your Noo Yawk tough guys being inadvertently funny as they puff out their chests during an ill-fated mob collection. Second, you got your shocking, almost unmotivated explosion of violence. Sure, these guys don’t like each other, but what really is it that sets them off? Not knowing what the word mook means? Finally, the kiss of genius is the revolutionary use of pop music that doesn’t quite fit and therefore fits perfectly. In this case, it’s because the girls in the back of the bar — or as Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy calls them, “the skanks” — put the Marvelettes’ version of “Please Mr. Postman” on the jukebox. (Later Scorsese needle-drops won’t bother with in-world rationales.)

Wild acts of violence set to a peppy tune had no precedent in movies and is now so commonplace we hardly chuckle when a whiff of a picture like Argylle offers the gag up several times. Scorsese’s decision to go handheld during the mayhem, still something of a rarity in narrative films, adds even more electricity. With Harvey Keitel and George Memmoli’s crews going at each other, as De Niro climbs atop a pool table with quick cuts to show the madness in his eyes, it all seems unrehearsed, but that’s part of the magic. The best are the additional guys sprinkled throughout the joint, holding onto their cues, not takin’ no sides in any of dis. —J.H.

“’Tis but a scratch!” For 50 years, nerds have had a rallying cry for every time they injure themselves, thanks to the preposterous (and surprisingly profitable) string of loosely connected, mostly medieval sketches that make up Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In this memorable sequence, King Arthur (Graham Chapman) witnesses the Black Knight (John Cleese) “fight with the strength of many men” at a pas d’armes, then invites him to “join me in my court at Camelot.” (Yes, yes, I’ve got most of the dialogue in this nerd Rosetta Stone committed to memory.) The Black Knight not only refuses the invitation but prevents him from crossing his bridge: “None shall pass!” It leads to a battle in which high chivalry (“Good sir Knight”) turns to name-calling (“You’re a loony”) as we realize that the Black Knight isn’t exactly holding the sharpest sword.

With a thud, Arthur lops off an arm as some cheapo red paint squirts through a not-very-state-of-the-art tube. The sequence devolves into absurdity as the Black Knight denies reality, unwilling to accept that he keeps losing his limbs. By the end of the bit, he’s just a torso on the ground, still threatening Arthur with his doom. (“What are you gonna do, bleed on me?” Chapman zings back.) The never-say-die-but-clearly-defeated Black Knight has become shorthand for clueless politicians or anyone out of touch. And the copious amounts of gore met with nonchalance has a long-standing comedy legacy — heck, it’s a full third of Rick & Morty’s gags. But the bit actually has its roots in history. John Cleese has said the idea came from a professor’s lecture about a Greek wrestler who technically never lost his match because he died before the challenger could win. “I always thought this was a very dodgy conclusion, but it stuck in my mind for years,” he mused. —J.H.

Considered a “curry western,” i.e., a Hindi take on the western genre, Sholay borrows from masters of the form. It invokes Sergio Leone’s penchant for gore, Anthony Mann’s morality mechanics, and the character building of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Seven Samurai. Its release marked the first time screenwriters were ever listed on a movie poster; Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar became rock stars overnight, partly thanks to the zingy one-liners peppered throughout the fight scenes, an approach that eventually became industry standard. And though its co-lead Amitabh Bachchan was known pre-Sholay for his fighting chops, the film — and the way Bachchan used his lanky body to swiftly slice through space — cemented his legend as one of the deftest action heroes of all time.

The opening fight scene is tightly structured, lasting under nine minutes. Inspector Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar) is transporting two handcuffed thieves to a police station when their train gets attacked by bandits on horseback. The thieves, Jai (Bachchan) and Veeru (Dharmendra), offer to help, so Singh frees them and they spring into action. The ensuing battle sees Jai running across the top of a moving train, sniping bandits, then fighting them hand-to-hand when they make it onto the caboose. Bachchan and Dharmendra complement each other perfectly: Jai’s fighting style is calm, collected, nimble, while Veeru is more of a whizbang-smash type, dealing savage punches and strangling bad guys.

The violence of Sholay, loudly and proudly announced in this first fight scene, indicated a shift in Hindi cinema. While films of the 1950s and ’60s considered violence an unnecessary tool, Sholay — released amid the political crises of the 1970s, when rampant corruption, poverty, and unemployment awakened a generation to the notion that their government was never set up to support everyone — embraced feudal tribalism and retributive justice. The Hindi film industry soon saw a rise in films about violence and gangsters, and Bachchan would go on to star in many films that rejected gentility. —Nandini Balial

Six years before a little-known Hollywood day player named Sylvester Stallone became a bona fide action star in Rambo, he made the sports movie to end all sports movies: Rocky. Inspired by the story of retired pugilist Chuck Wepner, Stallone wrote the script as a star vehicle for himself about an underworld enforcer and boxing chump from Philadelphia given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed (the late, great Carl Weathers). As the haughty showman Creed puts it, the opportunity is a metaphor for the American Dream: Work hard and someday your desires will be recognized too.

The film’s uplifting Creed-vs.-Rocky showdown relies on sturdy, well-tested visual principles: Take how the giant poster of Apollo looms deep in the compositions of the scene, projecting the immense odds Rocky faces. Americana iconography like the flag, the blue and starry boxing mat, and the ringside women costumed as silver Statues of Liberty further heighten the symbolism. For the first half of the scene, director John G. Avildsen withholds any music — allowing the ambience of the announcers, the crowd, and the punches to build — until halfway through, a foreboding bell speeds us into the final, decisive round. Avildsen shoots mostly from outside the ring, from the vantage point of a spectator, relying on the ropes to frame the action. The charm of Rocky is how superfluous the final round is: Rocky simply surviving is a win, and his love Adrian (Talia Shire) jumping into his arms is his title belt.

Rocky immediately inspired other working-class underdog films, from Flashdance and Footloose all the way to King Richard. And its visual storytelling, like the iconic training montage, along with its interest in social themes like poverty, alcoholism, and mental health, provided a template for inspirational sports movies to become progressively grittier and more heartbreaking, as seen with The Fighter and Warrior. —R.D.

First, the suit. Bruce Lee’s yellow-black jumpsuit is one of the more recognizable symbols associated with his legend, which Quentin Tarantino would memorialize even further via homage as Beatrix Kiddo’s battle fit of choice in Kill Bill: Volume I. You’ve definitely seen it before, and it never fails to look incredible.

But that legacy runs parallel to the most memorable fight in Lee’s last film, released posthumously, where he faces off with NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. At the time well on his way to crossover stardom, Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t the first professional athlete to rumble in an action flick, but there’s an unimpeachable cool to his appearance that continues to loom over the rich tradition of stunt cameos. The signature idea of the matchup revolves around the stark height disparity, with the seven-foot-two Abdul-Jabbar towering over the five-foot-eight Lee, but what’s interesting here is how Abdul-Jabbar only marginally uses his size. This is not Boban Marjanović fully palming Keanu Reeves’s head in John Wick 3. Rather, Abdul-Jabbar, who as a UCLA student had trained with Lee, squares off against his martial-arts teacher as a stylistic equal. He moves with alacrity, throwing quick punches and even deploying a succession of high kicks against Lee.

The fight is technical and long, and it ends with Lee getting the upper hand after an exhausting struggle when he traps his adversary in a headlock. It’s an iconic fade-out for Abdul-Jabbar, whose demise is visually communicated by his hand letting go of velvet bedsheets after violently clinging on for life. You’ve likely seen iterations of that choke-out hundreds of times, and the next time you see Daniel Craig headlock that baddie in Casino Royale, think of those sweet velvet sheets. —N.Q.

Moonraker might not be the greatest James Bond film, but it does have what was one of the most dazzling stunt sequences ever achieved up to that time, a scene that inspired many, many imitators. Right at the start, Roger Moore’s Bond is pushed out of a small airplane by Richard Kiel’s Jaws, one of the chief baddies in the previous film, The Spy Who Loved Me. Plummeting through the air, Bond propels himself over to the pilot of the plane, who’s already jumped out with a parachute, and wrestles the chute from the man. But then, the behemoth Jaws appears again, this time zooming through the air, determined to kill 007 once and for all. The two struggle in the sky until Bond emerges victorious and Jaws lands onto a circus tent and becomes animated collateral for the picture’s opening Shirley Bassey–scored credit sequence.

In the years to come, we’d get similar scenes in Point Break, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and assorted Fast and Furious movies, but up until Moonraker, nobody had ever seen a fight quite like this one. Indeed, when executive producer Michael Wilson suggested the idea to his father-in-law and longtime Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli, he was told it was impossible. But Wilson sought out aerial stunt coordinator Don Caltvedt and cameraman Rande DeLuca to see how it might be achieved.

It took some doing. They had to modify existing equipment because the lightweight helmet cams required to film something like this would not shoot 35-mm. or take the Panavision lenses required for a Bond movie. The filmmakers also had to create thin parachutes that could be hidden under clothing to make it look like Bond was plummeting through the air without a chute. And then they had to practice actual fight choreography in the skies so that what was onscreen wouldn’t look soft or fake. What’s most impressive (and inspiring) about the scene is that very little of it is done with special effects. Yes, there are a couple of janky close-ups of Kiel and Moore (which really do stick out), but for much of the scene, we’re looking into the faces of stunt doubles Jake Lombard (playing Bond) and Ron Luginbill (playing Jaws) — which tells us that we are watching actual humans doing all this. —B.E.

If the name Hayao Miyazaki only means “Ghibli tears” and weird little guys to you, surprise: He’s a gifted action director, too. Animators at American schools like CalArts and even staff at studios like Disney and DreamWorks study the action and editing of his movies for good reason: They’re precisely timed to capture the weight, movement, and forms of his characters. Try freeze-framing on one of his action scenes, and you’ll likely find a still that conveys motion all on its own. And the action in Miyazaki’s films always serves the story, as Genndy Tartakovsky, the director of animated action titles like Samurai Jack and Primal, points out. “There’s that scene in Princess Mononoke where you follow the arrow …” and the arrow chops off a samurai’s arms, pinning them to a tree before the shot quickly cuts away. “He doesn’t linger on it,” Tartakovsky says.

You can see Miyazaki’s knack for action as far back as his first feature, The Castle of Cagliostro. Its climax pits gentleman thief Arsène Lupin III against the dastardly Count Lazare de Cagliostro, with their rivalry culminating in a sweeping duel — the Count with a rapier, Lupin with a giant wrench — inside of the titular castle’s clock tower. The scene is a master class of animation timing: In addition to striking, parrying, and dodging each other’s swings, the two combatants also dangle, spin, run backward then forward, and avoid getting crushed or falling to their deaths. Miyazaki pays diligent attention to how the physics work (and the castle itself remains a feat of animated architecture), but chooses to ignore them in favor of action comedy — it’s like Buster Keaton crossed with Tex Avery.

Tartakovsky says both The Castle of Cagliostro and Miyazaki’s work on the Lupin III television series influenced his own acclaimed action animation, and notes the clarity of Miyazaki’s storyboarding. The clock-tower scene also helped shape Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective, which ended with a similar showdown (assisted by computerized animation techniques). That film in turn served as a forerunner to Disney’s ambitiously action-packed ’90s films like The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules. Rumor has it that Steven Spielberg once called The Castle of Cagliostro “one of the greatest adventure movies of all time.” While that quote has never been verified (despite being put on the Cagliostro DVD cover), one of the filmmaker’s own swashbuckling adventures also ends with a duel and a clock tower crumbling on the villain. —E.V.B.

Some scenes are influential simply because they look really cool. Among the various gangs in Walter Hill’s The Warriors, the Baseball Furies are easy standouts: Their painted faces and matching pinstripe uniforms make them seem eerie and familiar, like if the Yankees decided to quit pro ball in order to properly raise hell on the streets. (The Furies also make a perennially great Halloween costume that will appeal to cult-film fans everywhere.) But when the Furies chase the Warriors into Riverside Park, it’s time for them to take their licks. Swan (Michael Beck), Ajax (James Remar), Snow (Brian Tyler), and Cowboy (Tom McKitterick) might be outnumbered by the baseball hooligans, but the pure-of-heart Warriors prove that fists and mettle can overcome any crack of the bat.

Hill shoots the fight scene(s) between the Warriors and the Furies like an ungainly dance, a realistic maneuver considering the participants are all young, self-taught fighters with excess bravado and aggression. Swan utilizes a nifty two-handed punch to knock out the first Fury, but mostly the Warriors evade their swing, wait to get the drop on them, and then use their own bats against them. (At one point, Swan and a Fury use their bats like swords, with knocks of wood standing in for clashes of metal.) It’s a relatively simple scene elevated by the real-life location and Barry de Vorzon heavy-synth score, but in one fell swoop, Hill subverted the West Side Story playbook and rewrote it for a grittier age. —V.M.

Other lightsaber duels in the Star Wars films are more acrobatic (sometimes absurdly so; see Yoda versus Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones), but none is as dramatically powerful as the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. Their face-off fuses the time-honored swashbuckling combo of fighting and repartee with science-fiction elements, including energy swords, telekinesis, a labyrinth of steam-shrouded metal corridors, and a carbon-freezing pit that had previously trapped Luke’s pal Han Solo. Screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan masterfully set up the climatic moment where Vader lops off Luke’s hand, urges him to switch sides so that they can “end this destructive conflict” between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, and drops the often-imitated, never equaled bombshell, “I am your father.”

It’s the buildup that makes the line hit so hard. Though fragmented by crosscutting to other scenes of action, it’s the most elegant and impactful of all lightsaber battles. Creator-producer George Lucas, director Irvin Kershner, and their collaborators aren’t going pedal-to-the-metal. They let Vader dominate while giving Luke several table-turning moments of improvisation and alternate loud and soft stretches (there’s even a jump scare with Vader lunging at Luke from somewhere out of frame). The revelation itself has been parodied in everything from Spaceballs to Rugrats. And the overall structure of the scene — a long, gradually escalating confrontation that climaxes with a mind-blowing new piece of information — has been mimicked in films as varied as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Matrix, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. —M.Z.S.

“You never got me down, Ray,” Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) says menacingly at the end of his fifth and final bout with Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes). Though Jake initially throws a few good punches, the majority of the fight is one-sided with Jake acting like a masochistic punching bag. Before his walloping, however, Ray pauses for a brief second only for Jake to shake his head like it weighs 1,000 pounds and beg Ray for more punishment. They square off against each other — Jake goading him on, Ray holding back to catch his breath — as the roar of the crowd softens in the mix; for a brief moment, the two stare at each other with mutual understanding if not subtle respect. But then Ray takes a step forward, the crowd noise comes back with full force, and Jake takes the kind of beating he’ll be fielding again and again for the rest of his life.

Boxing pictures were a staple of classical Hollywood cinema, mirroring the rise of the sport itself in the 20th century. While there have been notable boxing films after Raging Bull (Ali, The Fighter, Creed), and with all respect to Sylvester Stallone and Apollo vs. Rocky, the final battle between Jake and Sugar Ray possibly reflects the apotheosis of the genre. Director Martin Scorsese shoots the fight like a murder; he even takes explicit cues from the shower scene in Psycho. (His longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker similarly emphasizes the violent aftermath of each punch instead of the hit itself.) Crucially, every shot outside the ring carries the horror of spectatorship, indicting the audience within and outside the film, made literal by blood splashing on the judges. Cinematographer Michael Chapman’s use of slow motion reaches its peak when he frames Ray’s devastating overhand punch like it’s a judgment from God. Only Jake doesn’t see it that way. All he can say, with his battered face and twisted smile, is that he didn’t go down. The blood on the ropes, however, tells a different story. —V.M.

With Scanners, his movie about psychics being recruited by or going to war against a private military company, David Cronenberg demonstrated that a fight could be intensely physical even when the opponents aren’t in direct contact. Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) exploding the head of a corporate “scanner” (a psychic, played by Louis Del Grande) may be the movie’s most indelible image, but that’s less an altercation than an act of terror. The showdown between Darryl and Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) at the end of the movie, though? That’s an honest-to-God duel to the death between two siblings who were mutated by experimental drugs as children, and it’s rendered in such visceral detail that it’s more disturbing than any direct carnage. For Scanners, the psychic is the physical to the point where the conflict kicks off with Cameron whacking Darryl on the head with a statuette before the real battle begins. Veins bulge and bleed along Lack’s arms and then do the same on the side of Ironside’s head as his face contorts with effort. Fluids erupt, boiling, from beneath their skin. Flesh warps and splits. And in the final stages of the fight, Cameron bursts into flames, his eyeballs exploding, while Darryl’s go entirely white. The movie’s influence is everywhere, but no more directly than in Stranger Things, in which Eleven’s powers have a far less gruesome, but still bloody, bodily effect. —A.W.

You can’t overstate the importance of the Shaw Brothers — Runje, Runme, Runde, and, later, Run Run — in developing East and Southeast Asian film culture, let alone kung fu flicks. Their influence largely arose from the sheer tonnage of product they pumped into those regions beginning in the 1920s, and though they were already facing heavy competition in the ’70s from rival Golden Harvest, the production company that was instrumental in exporting Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan beyond Asia, you can still see the Shaw Brothers’ fingerprints all over the kung fu genre.

Martial Club isn’t necessarily thought to be the best of the Shaw Brothers’ works, but it is among the most representative of what their productions typically look like. Directed by Lau Kar-leung, a staple talent of the studio, there’s barely a plot supporting the movie’s premise, which sees rival martial-arts schools converging on a small town to boogie down. But it’s not like you need much of a story anyway to showcase an array of incredible fights, including this standout alleyway battle between Gordon Liu, Lau’s half-brother and frequent collaborator who reprises the role of the totemic Wong Fei-hung, and Wang Lung-wei, who in this film bucks against his usual casting as a villain. The duel’s conceit lies in the alley being barely three feet wide. That constraint forces both men to fluidly move between quick strikes and effective positioning. The tight space even offers them a sense of verticality, as they’re able to wedge themselves upward to gain a height advantage. And, of course, because we’re talking about guys whose punches are like cannonballs, they end up blasting a ton of holes through walls (hilariously revealed to be made out of softer material, if you squint hard enough). It’s a funny, furious, and ferociously technical affair. In other words, it’s trademark Shaw Brothers stuff. —N.Q.

The final confrontation between King Arthur (Nigel Terry) and his evil illegitimate son Mordred (Robert Addie) in John Boorman’s Excalibur — the best cinematic adaptation of the Arthurian myth — breaks all the rules of what makes a great action sequence. Usually, fight scenes are about clarity with clean compositions graduating into sharp cuts as bodies move in combat. Boorman sets his great battle between two armies in a fog-ridden forest, where the combatants are barely visible, even in their polished suits of armor. Arthur and Mordred’s forces are in this death trap because Mordred, the result of an incestuous affair between Arthur and his shape-shifting sister Morgana Le Fay, wants his father’s crown. Arthur, meanwhile, knows he must murder Mordred if he is to free his kingdom of the plague that Mordred’s birth unleashed.

The forest scene is a chaotic mesh of blurred bodies, broken limbs, and gnarly screams, marked by the clanking of swords and the strains of “O Fortuna.” These vicious silhouettes in the fog are not balletic; they are rugged and forceful. When Arthur and Mordred, the latter bedecked in gold armor, do meet at the center of the carnage, it is short: “Come father, let us embrace at last,” says Mordred. He plunges a spear into Arthur, and Arthur’s sword pierces Mordred in return. It’s a mutual death whose tragic, self-sacrificing quality was retooled in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which Superman stabs and kills a monster genetically engineered from his own DNA and dies from the wound the monster inflicts on him in return. —R.D.

Before Blade Runner, Harrison Ford usually won his fights. In Star Wars, Han Solo shot first; in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones proved that all the fancy sword-swinging in the world can’t stop a bullet. In Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic, though, Ford’s Deckard gets his ass kicked all over Los Angeles by the Nexus-6 replicants he’s tasked with hunting down. The film’s finale, in which the exhausted Deckard is terrorized and then saved by Rutger Hauer’s replicant leader Roy Batty, is the film’s most moving fight with Batty’s savagery and humanity in perfect equilibrium. But it’s Deckard’s earlier showdown with Daryl Hannah’s Pris in genetic designer J.F. Sebastian’s apartment that had the greater impact on action specifically. The fight is only a minute or so long, but extremes amplify the scene’s brutality. Wide shots of Pris leaping, cartwheeling, and twisting around the room like an Olympian gymnast show off the alienness of her physicality, while tight frames on her and Deckard’s faces as she crushes his head between her thighs communicate her femininity as a means of attack. There’s no score here, so all we hear are Pris’s bansheelike screams, the slap of her and Deckard’s limbs hitting each other, and then the booming, inorganic sound of his gunshot ripping through her.

There’s an irony to how Ford’s previous characters rely on guns to get the better of their opponents — those moments are meant to convey Ford’s cool-guy qualities. But in Blade Runner, Deckard shooting to kill the replicants is treated with a little bit of shame, a sign of his inability to hold his own against the “more human than human.” Pris’s seizurelike death scene is an agonizing, drawn-out affair, but her unnerving athleticism and disarming sexuality have birthed cinematic daughters like the horny-for-death Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye and slinky badass Mystique in the first X-Men films; she helped make the thigh-crush the staple finishing move it is now for female action stars. —Roxana Hadadi

Jackie Chan, breathing heavily, bruised and bloodied, at the end of his rope. It’s an image we’ve seen countless times now, though it had never been captured on film before 1984’s Meals on Wheels, a slapstick riot directed by Sammo Hung that eventually descends into a violent, bone-crunching affair. By then, Chan was already an established superstar in Hong Kong. But his meeting with kickboxer Benny “the Jet” Urquidez feels like a turning point in Chan’s ascent from domestic fame to international megastardom.

During the film’s climactic raid on the villains’ castle, Chan and his two “brothers,” played by Hung and Yuen Biao, split off to each take on a henchman. Sammo and Yuen hold their own in their fights, but there’s something immediately striking about Urquidez. His kicks land like freight trains, and his punches seem to flash faster than light. It’s the first time you ever catch yourself whispering, “I don’t think Jackie can win this one.” They fly around the dining room, flipping atop furniture. In one spellbinding moment, Jackie ducks a kick so powerful and quick it blows out the candles on the table. What makes this fight truly remarkable, though, is watching Jackie turn from goofball to coldblooded badass with each strike to the nose. Urquidez hits him once, and Chan mocks him. He hits him again, and Chan’s rattled but keeps his sense of humor. It’s only when his face is on the precipice of being smashed in that our hero finally realizes the danger here: He’s met his match, and it’s time to stop having a laugh. Jackie on the brink became the star’s bread and butter, and it’s here, in one of the best fights of his career, that we see pain unlock a man possessed. He’d perfect this routine in Drunken Master II, but never forget it was the Jet who first wiped that megawatt smile off his face. —B.S.

Watch enough action movies and you start to recognize the rhythms of a fight. Sure, a cowboy brawl in a dusty saloon can be a hoot and a holler, but it can also be mere cliché. Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker (collectively known as ZAZ, the comedy team behind Airplane) leaned into this familiarity for the climax of Top Secret!, a movie filled with gags so sublimely stupid that they loop back around to pure brilliance.

By the main characters’ own admission, the plot of Top Secret! “sounds like some bad movie.” A young Val Kilmer plays Nick Rivers, an Elvis stand-in who travels to East Germany on an espionage mission seemingly borrowed from a cheesy WWII flick. When attempting to best the resistance leader turned traitor Nigel and save his gal, Nick falls from a moving car into a river, taking Nigel with him. Their fight continues underwater, where their slowed aquatic punches instantly give way to outright absurdity. Nigel inexplicably grabs a stool and breaks it over Nick. Nick retaliates by throwing Nigel against a fully stocked bar that’s appeared out of nowhere, and a bubbly bartender pops up to break a bottle over Nigel’s head. A chandelier falls from the ceiling (?), a quartet of cowboys playing poker hit the aquatic deck, and Nick ends the fight by punching Nigel through a window and making a heroic exit through swinging saloon doors. The whole fight — which was actually filmed underwater, each shot lasting 10 to 15 seconds while the actors held their breath — makes an utter mockery of western tropes. Lots of films since have done the same, but perhaps none more joyously than this one. —J.G.

Teen movies in the 1980s often included a scene in which an unpopular outcast triumphs over popular normies. But few had as much lasting impact as the All Valley Karate Championship–deciding fight between skinny outsider Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and obnoxious bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). When John Kreese (Martin Kove), Johnny’s brutish sensei whose mantra is “No mercy,” advises Johnny to “sweep the leg,” it seems inevitable that an already injured Daniel is about to go down. But Daniel-san, only capable of putting weight on one foot at this point, is determined to win, something he miraculously does after successfully deploying the crane-kick maneuver his much more peaceful sensei, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), taught him.

Director John G. Avildsen, who previously directed the first Rocky, also on this list, understood exactly how to calibrate the emotional journey of a scrappy Northeast underdog training for a big match. Pat E. Johnson, The Karate Kid’s fight coordinator, was not only a gifted martial artist himself; he had previously appeared in the influential Enter the Dragon alongside Bruce Lee, whose own skill with a high kick no doubt influenced Daniel LaRusso’s. (Fun fact: Johnson also referees the final fight between Daniel and Johnny.) This sequence captures the kind of contradictory moralizing that was typical of the era — be peaceful, unless and until you need to kick a preppy jerk in the head. But it sincerely makes us cheer for Daniel and every tormented kid who’s ever dreamed of fighting back. That’s why it resonated then and still resonates so much that there have been multiple Karate Kid sequels, a remake, and a TV reboot called Cobra Kai, starring Macchio and Zabka as adult versions of the same characters, not to mention numerous homages to the move in other media (Teen Titans Go!, Kung Fu Panda, the Street Fighter video-game franchise). None would be the same if Daniel hadn’t mustered the strength to deliver one swift crane kick to Johnny’s skull. —Chaney

Consider the staff, a common instrument in Chinese martial arts: You can use it to strike an assailant, control crowds with wide sweeps, and even get yourself out of trouble by vaulting your body into higher areas. In The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, another Shaw Brothers entry, studio mainstay Gordon Liu plays a warrior who breaks from monastic pacifism to rescue his sister and avenge his family, most of which was killed early in the movie owing to the machinations of an evil general. Because he once sought refuge in a Buddhist monastery, his means for revenge is the titular pole wedded with a holistic combat philosophy. What he does with it echoes throughout action cinema, whether it’s Jackie Chan with the bamboo stick in Drunken Master II or even Darth Maul’s space-clearing with the double-sided lightsaber.

Prominent for its emphasis on weapons, The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is a prototypical revenge flick that adheres to the usual arc of the subgenre: betrayal, training, climax. And boy, what a fun climax it offers. The sequence starts out with an outnumbered Liu tasked with both protecting his sister (Kara Hui), who spends a good chunk of the battle tied to his back, and fending off waves of assailants. True to the Shaw Brothers, the fight bounces between chaos, choreography, and comedy. (There’s also a shocking amount of dental violence.) Liu gets to illustrate the full potential of the pole against enemies armed with all sorts of weapons: swords, spears, even a kind of staff that can curl around limbs. That last tool leads to a splendid moment when several assailants use them to tie up Liu, who constantly repositions his body to shield his sister from blows. Here, we get to see a classic shift in fight rhythm: As Liu is held in place, all seems lost … until his fellow monks charge into the building, turning the asymmetric fight into a brawl. Nothing is cooler than warrior monks. —N.Q.

A tale of two legends began in Yes, Madam. The Corey Yuen–directed cult classic was the first film to feature Michelle Yeoh in a starring role and launched American home-video action legend Cynthia Rothrock. Yeoh plays the titular Madam, a fearsome cop named Inspector Ng who is beating the brakes off bad guys left and right, showcasing the elegance and unfuckwithability that has come to define the Oscar winner’s career in martial-arts films. Along the way, she teams up with Scotland Yard cop Carrie Morris (Rothrock), and the two of them dispatch henchmen and show off the kind of combat excellence that action fans dream of.

The movie culminates in a battle of epic proportions with Yeoh and Rothrock on one side and countless adversaries on the other. Our stars weave up and down and in and out of a multilevel room replete with stairs and banisters and handrails and furniture for jumping on (and throwing villains off) and over and through. Yes, Madam is the movie that let the world know Yeoh was as much a movie star as she was an incredible screen-fighting athlete. She makes combat choreography look like she’s dancing through water. And Rothrock’s got the goods, too — the American multi-degree black belt should have had a career in the States like Jean-Claude Van Damme’s. She had to take her skills all the way to the Pacific Rim’s eastern edge to find respect for her talents. But her A-force team-up with Yeoh in this movie gave her the spotlight she deserved. —Jordan C.

In her first encounter with a terrifying Xenomorph aboard a commercial space vessel in Ridley Scott’s Alien, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) frequently opts for the second option between “fight or flight.” That tends to be how it goes in horror movies. James Cameron’s sequel Aliens, though, is a near-perfect action movie, meaning that Ripley gets to fight like hell, outlasting all the seasoned Space Marines who accompany her back to the monster-infested moon LV-426. Eventually, she’s the only one left standing to protect a young girl from not just an average H.R. Giger grunt but the Alien Queen herself.

In Predator, which came out the year after Aliens, Arnold Schwarzenegger beats his unstoppable ’80s alien monster by going primal. With all due respect to Weaver, Ripley is not an Austrian slab of muscle, so she employs some tech to even the odds. The image of Ripley in a yellow-and-black-striped Power Loader suit is now iconic. But a sometimes-forgotten key element of her mech suit is that it’s not a weapon of war. It’s an industrial tool that she repurposes to throw herself at this towering extraterrestrial matriarch. Even with hydraulics and tons of metal giving her punches the force they need to knock back the queen, Ripley is extremely exposed, narrowly avoiding razor claws and that creepy little second mouth. Weaver was pretty exposed in real life, too, strapped into a massive and complex prop suit controlled by a hidden puppeteer. Cameron decided against using animatronics for the fight because it would have been too dangerous, though you can’t tell that the Alien Queen is anything but the meanest mother in space when watching the scene. Because of Aliens, the Xenomorphs would shift from horror spooks to formidable combatants, eventually facing off with Predators in crossover movies and even Batman in some comic books. Ripley, meanwhile, established herself as the new gold standard for what a badass female action protagonist could be. It’s a thrill to watch her transform from victim to protector while keeping her humanity. And her cry of “Get away from her, you bitch” might just be Aliens’s most savage blow. —J.G.

No matter how many times you’ve seen The Princess Bride — which, let’s be honest, is probably a lot of times — it still possesses the capacity to surprise, particularly in this scene where Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Westley (Cary Elwes), then known to Inigo solely as a mysterious man in black, clash swords despite the fact that they really have no beef with each other. “You are wonderful!” says Inigo as his blade clangs and clangs against Westley’s. “Thank you,” Westley responds in a chipper tone. “I’ve worked hard to become so.”

This is not a typical fight scene, yet it’s steeped in tradition. The aesthetics and rhythms of the sequence, directed by Rob Reiner, evoke the classic back-and-forth sword-clanging of classic swashbuckler fare like The Adventures of Robin Hood, mentioned earlier on this list, while the dialogue and twists in the action— “I am not left-handed”; “I am not left-handed either” — are sprinkled with enough irreverence to match any moment from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But the gentleness that underscores the whole thing — Westley ends the fight by telling Inigo, “Please understand I hold you in the highest respect” — felt like something new, and it was. The Princess Bride invented a subgenre of on screen combat: the family-fantasy movie fight. It’s something you’ve seen since in films like Ella Enchanted, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, or Tangled, and it contains the same elements as this bit of Princess Bride swordplay. It’s funny if not cartoonish. It moves the plot forward with tension and without putting any of the major characters in serious peril. Its appeal crosses generations; parents and children can enjoy family-fantasy movie fights together with no fear that things will get grisly. The Princess Bride checks all those boxes better than any film before or since, which is why, nearly four decades later, we still hold it in the highest regard. —Jen C.

Conceptually, horror and action smoothly overlap: The existence of a monster necessitates an attempt to vanquish it, and the resulting efforts often involve memorable fights. (See the fights in Scanners and Aliens.) With The Evil Dead franchise, director and writer Sam Raimi gambled on the idea that horror, action, and a third genre — comedy — could coexist, and he hit big with his first sequel, a marvel of practical effects, prosthetics, and stop-motion animation. In the preceding film, Bruce Campbell’s Ash and his friends unwittingly summon a demon that possesses everything it can and murders most of what it comes in contact with in an outright bloody gorefest. Evil Dead II lightens things up a little. When Ash is bitten by an undead victim of a demonic possession and his hand is possessed in turn, he swiftly cuts it off, only for his appendage to becomes both his foe and the film’s greatest running bit — a consistent way for Raimi to inject farce into a film stacked with genuine nightmares.

The first fight between Ash and his hand is a wonderfully grotesque bit of slapstick and sight gags, from Ash trapping his hand under a bucket weighed down with a stack of books (the topmost of which is A Farewell to Arms) to the hand tapping its fingers in a gesture of sarcastic irritation when Ash struggles with reloading the rifle he’s using to shoot his former limb. “It’s not really a fair match — Ash still has one hand, and he eventually replaces the other with a chainsaw — but there’s so much life to his evil hand’s hoarse screams, cackling laugh, and dexterous scuttling. As it effectively hides from and taunts Ash, the hand doesn’t just test your sympathies (it was once part of a he!) but persuades you of its ability to indefinitely survive and wreak havoc. The hand does have one advantage: It can anticipate Ash’s movements, a kind of phantom-limb logic that is applied to future horror-comedies like Idle Hands, Annihilation, and Us. How the scene incorporates corporal mirroring into the humor and grotesquerie already on display with that reanimated appendage make it a genre triple threat that, nearly 40 years later, still strikes the right balance of action, comedy, and horror. Not too gory or too broad and enlivened by production-design details like the fluttering pages of the books the hand tossed off itself and the elasticity of Campbell’s shocked, irritated, and vengeful reactions, this Evil Dead II fight skitteringly blazed a trail. —R.H.

Known as “the Muscle From Brussels,” Jean-Claude Van Damme had worked as a bouncer, stuntman, and extra before American producers caught wind of the young martial artist’s rugged good looks and combat skills. In Bloodsport, Van Damme’s breakout movie, the star flaunts all the qualities that would become his claims to fame: his sculpted derrière, spinning jump-kicks, a special way with the ladies. At the time, JCVD was a breath of fresh air in a landscape of self-serious macho action heroes like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Van Damme had no qualms about coming off as sensitive and sexy; even his signature stunt — the spread-eagle splits — was less intimidating than it was enticingly erotic.

Bloodsport, based on the true(ish) stories U.S. Army Captain Frank Dux told about himself, arrived to middling reviews. Yet some critics couldn’t help but admire the film’s displays of athleticism: “Through the jungle of cliché and reservoir of bad acting in Bloodsport are some pretty exciting matches,” wrote the L.A. Times’ Leonard Klady. In the final match of the film, in which Van Damme plays Dux competing in a lawless martial-arts tournament, he’s up against the merciless Chong Li, the reigning champ. Chong cheats to get the upper hand: When he’s on the verge of being knocked out, he whips around and throws salt into JCVD’s eyes, blinding him for the remainder of the fight. In operatic slow motion, we see Van Damme, waving his hands around in panic, his eyes shot through with fear. Then, because of course, his blindfold training kicks in. Having found his qi, Van Damme launches a leggy offensive of quadruple roundhouse kicks that get some serious air. The blind showdown wasn’t a total novelty at the time (Jackie Chan in Master With Cracked Fingers predates it by almost a decade, and Jet Li would do it again in Legend 2 a few years later), yet Van Damme injects the performance with a rare quality for action stars — an unguarded spirit amid a scene that requires so much staged movement. Bloodsport’s matches are indeed great, and the movie would upgrade to cult status eventually, but its lasting impact would be unleashing Van Damme’s helicopter legs into the mainstream. —B.L.

The final showdown between Tetsuo and Kaneda might not be the first fight that comes to mind when you think of Akira (it’s probably the bike race, a masterful clinic of light, color, and skull-bashing violence), but the clash between a cyberpunk and his best friend on the verge of ascending to godhood is by far the most emotionally resonant confrontation of Katsuhiro Otomo’s film.

It plays out in two parts — first when Kaneda unloads on Tetsuo with a handheld laser cannon until he runs out of ammo, and second when Kaneda returns on his iconic red bike to finish the job. By this point, Tetsuo is the film’s tragic villain, having survived an accident that left him with enough psychic energy to telekinetically level buildings, and he’s already killed hundreds of people. The military has waged an orbital attack against Tetsuo, and the ground around him and Kaneda is exploding. But at the end of the day, they’re still just pissy teens. When Kaneda’s gun runs dry and Tetsuo gains the upper hand, he’s not ruthless enough to kill Kaneda; he just wants to get another taunt in.

In the second act of their fight, Kaneda wields a freshly charged laser against Tetsuo’s deteriorating body, his form expanded into a pus-ridden, kaiju-size blob of horror. This is when the fight morphs into an attempted rescue with Kaneda trying to save his friend despite their differences. Cue a series of flashbacks that for the first time illustrate their relationship — images that run alongside the destruction of Tokyo. The slide may be Akira’s most imitated image, but it wouldn’t persist so powerfully if the film didn’t stick its emotional landing. This final fight manages to localize nuclear conflict as a spat between boys who are themselves products of postwar conflict. Plenty of live-action and anime directors alike, from the Stranger Things guys to Hype Williams, have cited the film as an influence, but the way it links mass destruction to masculinity reverberates most obviously in titles as varied as Attack on Titan and Oppenheimer. —E.V.B.

Six minutes. That’s how long the iconic, frequently parodied fight scene between “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Keith David lasts in They Live, John Carpenter’s sci-fi satire of Reaganomics and ’80s commercialism. It starts off slow enough — a couple hard punches to the face, a believable threat about eating a trash can — before the two just start knocking each other to the ground and communicating in grunts and screams. The sequence quickly takes on a comedic rhythm: both badasses take turns helping the other up in order to provide another devastating body blow, and that’s before they’re biting each other and delivering scrotum-popping knees to the groin. Piper and David both pick up makeshift weapons but quickly discard them in favor of old-fashioned knocks, kicks, and, befitting Piper’s wrestling background, slams. And all over a pair of glasses.

Inspired by the lengthy fight between Wayne and McLaglen in The Quiet Man, They Live’s alleyway brawl endures not only because of its brutal choreography but because of how Piper and David wallow in the pain and exhaustion that sinks in between hits. Every subsequent action movie with a brutal extended fight scene (Oldboy, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, any number of scenes from the John Wick films) owes a clear debt to Carpenter, but a lesson some of them forget is the physical cost of cuts and bruises. Carpenter’s genre films always embrace the fantastic, but he never overlooks the human toll. After all, the reason why They Live’s fight takes so long is because Piper’s unnamed drifter needs his reluctant ally to wake up to the truth about the aliens that walk among them. He’ll do anything it takes to get him to see the ruling class for who they really are. —V.M.

Every great fight needs a little bit of foreplay — the dance before the dance — and so, of course, Patrick Swayze, two years after his romance-genre-defining work as Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing, was the guy to deliver the sensuality Road House’s ferocity needed. There are other fights in Rowdy Herrington’s film about James Dalton, a professional bouncer whose philosophical perspective on violence means he uses it only as a last resort. But once the film establishes that this coolheaded guy played by Swayze once ripped out a man’s throat, the move becomes Road House’s Chekhov’s gun — the grotesquerie we know is possible, that we’re now anticipating, even looking forward to.

When it finally arrives, it’s at the end of a bone-crunching three minutes of combat between Dalton and rival Jimmy Reno (Marshall Teague) in which the former (shirtless, lean, golden) makes the latter look slow and clumsy. When Dalton warns, “Prepare to die,” you almost believe Reno needs to hear it. He bombards Dalton with kicks, who fluidly ducks and dips to evade them; Reno tries to restrain Dalton and break his arm, but he’s too slippery and sinewy to be controlled. In between wide shots that show Swayze linking all these moves together, Herrington keeps cutting back to his face to show him smiling at how easy this feels and how right. (Reno is perpetually grimacing, which is probably the only thing to do after delivering the line “I used to fuck guys like you in prison.”) But the specter of his infamous move lingers, adding a layer of tension to the fight that finally, finally releases when Reno pulls a gun and Dalton, as he did the last time he tore out a man’s throat, acts in self-defense.

Part of the allure here is what Road House doesn’t do. Dalton’s move is shot initially from behind, so we see the arc of his arm moving toward Reno’s neck and then blood running down Reno’s chest but no immediate close-ups of Reno’s ravaged throat or ripped flesh in Dalton’s hand. The focus instead is on Dalton’s shock at his own actions, the split-second it takes for Swayze to go from relief at vanquishing an enemy to turning away from Reno’s body in despair and burying his head in his hands. Dalton killing Reno wins him the fight, but he loses himself in doing so — and while that trade-off wasn’t new to the action genre at the time (Karate Kids “Sweep the leg!” had come just five years before), it had yet to be rendered quite this violent. Road House used the most primal maneuver committed to screen to make clear the internal burden of brawlers, a complication that countless subsequent fight-heavy movies (Fight Club, A History of Violence, Drive, Only God Forgives) would interrogate on their own terms. Swayze was the “Wanna fight?” blueprint. —R.H.

Starring a fresh-faced Jet Li and directed by Tsui Hark (who has been called the Asian Steven Spielberg), Once Upon a Time in China kicked off what would later become one of the most popular martial-arts franchises to emerge from Hong Kong. Steeped in the aesthetics and traditions of the 19th-century Qing Dynasty, the film follows Li playing a version of the aforementioned Cantonese folk hero, Wong Fei-hung. Tsui’s period crowd-pleaser spawned five subsequent films and a TV series that also boasted inventive set pieces and dizzyingly complex choreography, but Li’s warehouse tussle against Iron Vest Yim (Yen Shi-kwan) in the first installment stands out.

Tsui captures the action using disorienting angles that accentuate the scene’s chaotic energy — most of the fight takes place on bamboo ladders that are constantly shifted around, creating new surfaces and planes of elevation with each breath. We see legs busting through the rungs of a ladder; ladders split vertically and horizontally to spontaneously redirect the flow of action — Li’s angular stances and sky-high kicks add to this geometrical frenzy. Li was actually injured on set, his left foot placed in a cast, when this scene was shot — thus the emphasis on close-ups of his steely visage and majestic poses above the waist, which contrast with his opponent’s red-faced comicality. The scene is a Renaissance-era fresco in motion; a masterclass in contained chaos, precisely plotted to the T. Tsui revitalized the kung fu epic by staging the fights in concrete settings — a departure from the floaty mysticism that defined the historical martial-arts films of yore. The ladder fight exemplifies this turn to physical realism. It’s the crown jewel in a film that would establish a seductive formula with which Chinese filmmakers would infiltrate the American market (see Hero and Fearless). —B.L.

Plenty of films on this list have expertly deployed practical and creature effects in their fight scenes (including a certain other James Cameron–directed sequel), but Terminator 2: Judgment Day illustrated just how awe-inspiring computer-generated imagery can be in a robot mano-a-mano context. T2 was famously “bigger” than its predecessor in almost every respect — more violence, more explosions, two Terminators — but Cameron pushed the film’s visual effects to a whole other level. The shape-shifting, liquid-metal T-1000, played by Robert Patrick, remains a feat of CGI that, 30 years later, has barely aged a minute. It almost goes without saying that Patrick’s chilling performance combined with the seamlessness of the advanced effects work makes the character one of the great villains in cinema history.

Though it doesn’t hurt that he goes up against Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, the less sophisticated, more analog cyborg whom audiences last saw terrorizing Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton in 1984. But in Cameron’s sequel, he’s on the side of good as he protects Sarah and John Connor from T-1000’s murderous determination, culminating in a violent confrontation framed by the flames and machinery of a steel mill that signals the last embers of a dying industrial world. As the two Terminators go head-to-head, they slightly mirror each other’s actions in a way that recalls a famous routine from Charlie Chaplin’s The Floorwalker, but it’s here that the line between man and machine, the physical and the digital, become blurred beyond recognition. Schwarzenegger’s hand getting enmeshed in the T-1000’s liquid skull emphasizes unreality, yet every time a Terminator throws the other against another machine, it’s done with the strength of human force.

The future of humanity has always been the stakes of the Terminator films, but they have never been communicated better than in the sight of Schwarzenegger’s T-800 destroying his entire body in order to save a species he can’t understand. It’s plainly heartbreaking when Schwarzenegger, despite not playing a human being, violently mangles his arm after wrenching it free from underneath a metal wheel because we’ve grown to root for him. But at the end of the day, it’s the holy-shit effect of the T-100 effortlessly flipping his entire body around that proudly points to a future where people will respect computers as much as their fellow man. —V.M.

Michelle Pfeiffer’s leather-bound portrayal of Catwoman in Tim Burton’s Bat-sequel is as playful as it is unhinged — a character who weaponizes her sexiness to defeat those who make the mistake of underestimating her and makes great use of her claws and body in one-on-one combat. Catwoman’s first tussle with Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight occurs right after she chops heads off a few mannequins with a bullwhip, scares two horny cops away, and blows up Shreck’s department store. “She is doing things with the whip that would make Indiana Jones green,” the movie’s whip trainer and choreographer Anthony DeLongis said in behind-the-scenes interviews. Pfeiffer practiced for three months and became so proficient that no doubles were required, not even for the most difficult scene involving the sleek weapon.

Vigilante and foe have an intimate clash on an empty Gotham rooftop, a rare sight in the overblown CGI-heavy narratives of more recent superhero flicks. After he lands a punch, she deploys vulnerability as a decoy only to turn around and demonstrate that she is as worthy an adversary as any of his male enemies. At one point, her whip stops him from falling over; later he returns the favor and shows his own mercy. The sexual tension of the encounter reaches its peak when Catwoman seductively runs her hand over Batman’s muscular chest, then his abs, and as the camera pans up, we can only assume she drifts lower. They are not so different from each other, she explains in dialogue, both hiding their hurt selves under animal-inspired alter egos, before jamming her nails into the space between his armor. He then punches her off the roof, landing her into what is basically a litter box on wheels. There’s an aftertaste of mischief and eroticism to this scene that’s largely absent in woman-vs.-man superhero fights today, which tend to lean far away from the direction of subsequent Batman Return interactions (who could forget the lick?) and into more sterile territory. —C.A.

Comedic fights date back to the silent era, but none of the early examples on this list had access to the movie wizardry Robert Zemeckis used so inventively in his satirical fantasy. Death Becomes Her’s visual effects, which beat Batman Returns and Alien 3 at the Oscars, pioneered the CGI that Jurassic Park further popularized a year later. Meryl Streep walked with her head on backward so Steven Spielberg’s velociraptors could run.

To think so much technical innovation can be attributed to one of cinema’s great diva-offs. Streep, playing a vainglorious actress named Madeline Ashton who steals a punch-drunk man (Bruce Willis) from her mousy frenemy Helen (Goldie Hawn), has downed an expensive potion that offers eternal beauty when she overhears Helen plotting her murder. Naturally, Madeline blasts a hole through Helen’s torso, only to learn that she, too, has imbibed the supernatural elixir. Rising from the not-so-dead, Helen grabs a shovel and dislocates Madeline’s entire noggin, requiring her to snap it back into place (“Damn, I just fixed this!”). They zigzag through Madeline’s mansion, hurling insults and clumsily nailing each other before realizing there’s no point: Neither of them can die or even experience pain anymore.

Beyond its VFX marvels, Death Becomes Her raised the bar that The Holy Grail had set for biology-agnostic fight humor. Forget severed limbs. When Madeleine chucks a broken shovel handle, Helen barely notices it soaring through her hollow abdomen. The sequence unfolds without ever feeling too slapsticky, partly because the skirmish doesn’t overstay its welcome — it’s really a device employed to foster Madeline and Helen’s reconciliation, kicking the plot into another gear. The surreal, anything-goes rumble soon became a fixture of mainstream comedies like Austin Powers, Anchorman, and last year’s Bottoms. —Matt Jacobs

Before Michelle Yeoh took her talents to Hollywood, becoming the first Asian Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies, and Maggie Cheung kicked off her Paris years with Irma Vep, the Hong Kong stars played caped crusaders in Johnnie To’s The Heroic Trio. Together with Anita Mui — a Cantopop legend whose sultry vocals make up the film’s exuberant score — Cheung and Yeoh brought a refreshing dose of girl power to the wireworks action-spectacle that had become one of the trademarks of Hong Kong cinema’s golden age. Yet The Heroic Trio, set in a future dystopia and riffing off wacky comic-book joints like Tim Burton’s Batman, also exemplified the influence of Hollywood-style blockbusters on film industries around the world.

This dynamic is best embodied by the trio’s final showdown against the Evil Master, a babynapping baddie styled like an ancient Chinese emperor. After Cheung blows up the Evil Master’s underground lair with sticks of dynamite, he emerges for a final round as a flaming corpse, his flesh raw and juicy. His stilted, uncanny movements recall the stop-motion cadavers of Ray Harryhausen. Yet the scene stands most powerfully as an homage to the finale of Terminator with the gross-out factor turned up several notches as the villain wraps his bloody frame around Yeoh’s heroine, nearly suffocating her. Hong Kong audiences didn’t completely vibe with the film’s loony superhero shtick upon its release. Nevertheless, it stands as a precursor to the slapstick thrills and hyperstylized girl-gang romps like Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Birds of Prey as well as a vision of an alternate universe (I’m looking at you, Everything Everywhere All at Once) in which superhero movies are genuinely unhinged. —B.L.

If any one director exemplifies the back-of-the-video-store intrigue that fueled anime’s ’90s surge in the western popularity, it’s Yoshiaki Kawajiri. And if there is one film that exalts in his theatrically illustrated gore and sumptuously timed ultraviolence, it’s the demonic samurai period piece Ninja Scroll. By the time ninja badass Jubei Kibagami fights the rock-skinned Tessai in earnest, we’ve already seen Tessai rip warriors apart with his bare hands and attempt a sexual assault. What more could shock us? Kawajiri’s answer is a mid-fight turn: When Tessai appears to have disarmed Jubei, the ninja tugs on an invisible line, gets his sword back in hand, and quickly carves Tessai’s fingers open. And when Tessai’s giant boomeranglike sword comes back in his direction, Jubei escapes, letting it embed itself between Tessai’s two cerebral hemispheres in a slow smear of blood.

But the fight really ends with a cut to a tired and broken Jubei, who looks as surprised and grossed out as he does relieved, which is key to Kawajiri’s alchemy: “He spaces the action scenes with just enough exposition to guide the wisecracking Jubei and his sidekicks to the next set piece, and to give the audience time to catch its breath,” wrote anime scholar Helen McCarthy in 500 Essential Anime Movies. The fight itself is messy and disgusting, a display of violence that borrows from the aesthetics of live-action samurai cinema, but it never looks cartoony. It’s later revealed that Tessai’s rocklike skin was chipped (and Jubei’s life was saved) because he was poisoned by the female ninja he attempted to rape earlier. Even in fully clothed fight scenes, Kawajiri’s hyperviolence is inextricably linked to sexual violence.

Ninja Scroll may be a feature-length film, but it’s also a triumph of anime’s “original video animation” format — shorter films with a higher budget than a typical TV show but not as high as a full theatrical release. Kawajiri’s concept started as two 45-minute OVA episodes that were eventually combined into one feature-length film, which is another reason it’s stuffed with so much action. Ninja Scroll didn’t take off in Japan nearly as much as it did in U.S. video stores, where it had to be sold with warning labels, but the Wachowskis cited it as among the anime that inspired them to make The Matrix, another film that remixes its influences in the service of powerful fight scenes (at one point, in an ancient, if virtual, Japanese dojo). It also influenced the Jennifer Garner film Elektra, a movie with plenty of demonic martial arts, hordes of ninjas, and even a rock-skinned man. Kawajiri went on to direct anime segments for both The Animatrix and the Batman franchise, while the animation studio he co-founded, Madhouse, has produced dozens of action anime titles in the years since. —E.V.B.

It’s an old animation maxim that, compared with humans, animals can be a pain to draw and animate consistently, especially if they’re quadrupeds. Animators often use themselves as models to simulate their characters’ expressions, which isn’t possible if you want to create realistic wildlife. The Lion King’s animators and directors observed actual lions to capture their behavior, but for the climactic alpha-male fight between Scar and Simba, they needed to develop new techniques to achieve the look and “stunts” of the film — particularly the avunculicide, one of the longest sequences the animators worked on and one they were still tweaking in the weeks before the movie’s release.

In addition to hand-painted backgrounds, the moody, hellishly red environment of the fight was realized digitally, as directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff and producer Don Hahn explain on the film’s commentary track. Elements like the embers that Scar whips into Simba’s face and the wafting smoke and haze were achieved in part by accident, discovered through lots of experimentation with the digital tools. For the character animation, the animators used typical live-action techniques, like a 360-degree pan around Simba to build tension before the fight and a simulation of slow motion during the fight. “This sequence went through more changes than any other sequence,” said Minkoff.

The results of that effort are Hollywood history. The payoff of The Lion King’s drama led to spinoffs, merch, and a Blue Planet–looking remake and also set a new standard for premium-feature animation. It’s a scene that the movie rides on thematically, full of parallels to Mufasa’s death compositionally, and stylistically it’s a fitting counterpoint to the red, life-giving sun that opens the movie. You certainly wouldn’t get subsequent, incredibly animated, CG-assisted Disney fights — like the Hydra battle in Disney’s Hercules — without it, but more than anything, it served as proof that Disney’s ’90s animators could dramatize a Shakespearean, even violent conflict between animals in an animated film. —E.V.B.

The 1978 film Drunken Master helped catapult Jackie Chan to superstar status in Hong Kong cinema, and in the time between that first movie and II (released in the U.S. as The Legend of Drunken Master), he became a gargantuan figure in martial-arts movies, started directing, and launched two other franchises, Police Story and Armour of God. Already known for doing his own death-defying stunts and for starring in pioneering action films like Meals on Wheels, Chan executed what is possibly the greatest showdown of his career in Drunken Master II (which won Best Action Choreography at the Hong Kong Film Awards).

For the final fight, Chan’s Wong Fei-hung squares off against the villain played by Ken Lo, a real-life tae kwon do champion and Chan’s former actual bodyguard. There is no schlocky “wire fu” in Drunken Master II, and Chan vs. Lo is the exhausting, elegant, and dangerous conclusion that one of Chan’s best films of all time deserves to have. The kick work by Lo is borderline impossible to believe, and watching Chan parry the blows is like witnessing a video game on ultrahard mode. Drunken Master II was directed by martial-arts movie titan Lau Kar-leung, who also did the fight choreography, and the finale battle was so complex it ended up clocking in at nearly ten minutes onscreen and reportedly required four months to film. (That’s just about four times longer than the epic opening fight in RRR featuring Ram Charan against thousands of men.)

In very Chan fashion, he put his health on the line for the fight against Lo. Near the beginning, the star gets kicked in the chest, sending him backward into a pit of real burning coals. After scrambling out, he promptly gets tossed down a flight of stairs before filling his mouth with alcohol to blow fire from it and set a man ablaze. That’s all before the marathon of drunken boxing even gets started. Chan was already so highly regarded as a martial-arts megastar that Drunken Master II — with arguably the greatest fight of his entire mythic film career — couldn’t possibly have made him a bigger deal. But Chan vs. Lo showed off a movie-fight skill he possessed in spades and was harder to teach than technique: charisma. Chan could act, and he spent decades imbuing his stuntwork with so much life in addition to physical skill. That is how you graduate from fight king to franchise-carrying movie star.  —Crucchiola

Forget about the “video-game curse” that’s been frustratingly attributed to films adapted from them; in fact, banish that phrase from your mind. Whether they’re good or not is beside the point of the three decades since Paul W.S. Anderson’s adaptation of Mortal Kombat. From giant set pieces in the recent Jumanji reboot to the fights in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, cinema has unequivocally adopted the aesthetics of video games and vice versa since Johnny Cage fought Scorpion on the big screen.

The scene begins in a forest. You’re temporarily at ease, finally, after an onslaught of countless wuxia fights. As the two begin to go at it, though, Scorpion pulls Cage down into Hell, his realm. We’re in uncharted waters, which in fighting games is nothing new. They have a deep history of players hitting their opponents so hard that they transcend the plane they’re fighting on. Whereas game adaptations of the recent past, like Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter, seemed reluctant to fully embrace the mechanics of where they came from, Mortal Kombat suggested that it was better to stop worrying and love all 16 bits of madness. By the time Scorpion’s mask comes off, revealing a fire-breathing skull, you (and Cage) are forced to be all in on this brave new world. Arguments persist to this day whether cinema has fully cracked the code on games-to-screen, but with full-blooded silliness like this, perhaps the greater question is, “Who cares?” Now “Get over here!!!” and have some fun. —B.S.

A henchman’s body contorts in pain and then flies through the air without a discernible impetus. Behind that beating is Kusanagi, an androgynous cyborg, part of a law-enforcement agency in a futuristic Japanese city, who has among the many tools at her disposal the ability to engage thermo-optic camouflage that turns her into a ghostly entity. It is this concluding fight in Mamoru Oshii’s masterwork of cyberpunk storytelling that stands out most, when Kusanagi’s invisibility and the effects of her hits are put in gorgeous, exaggerated relief. Everything takes place in an empty area covered in a foot of water, a liminal space between the past and present of a tech-dominated alternative reality. At the beginning of the scene, we see rusted signs and dilapidated buildings, remnants of a once-thriving area. But when the henchman hears water splashing and turns around to discharge his machine gun, a futuristic skyline of modern high-rise buildings is revealed.

The sequence features impressive kinetic action — achieved by blending hand-drawn animation with cutting-edge computer graphics, sending his body into a series of twists and twirls — but it’s these intricate backgrounds that enhance the desperation of the fight. The infamous 2017 remake starring Scarlet Johansson attempted to re-create this memorable mêlée, but the shot-by-shot redo lacks the vibrancy of the original in terms of pure color as well as fluidity of the mechanical movement. If nothing else, the existence of the lesser-quality replica underscores how, when it comes to the action genre, animation can drive at the fantastical beauty of violence in ways live-action cannot. The Wachowskis have said that to pitch their vision of The Matrix to producers, they showed them Oshii’s anime saga, and the final film would go on to take undeniable inspiration from Ghost in the Shell, specifically how its characters use incisions in the back of their necks to plug themselves into the cyberspace. But there are less obvious connections to that movie and this fight, too, in both how Trinity attacks with her legs, how the agents’ pounded bodies defy physics, and how neglected environment could increase the stakes of a showdown. —C.A.

Steven Spielberg conceptualized Saving Private Ryan as a contrast to the World War II movies of yore, where violence and death were defanged into heroic fairy tales. “There was no glory in war,” he said, reflecting on his father’s experiences on the front lines. “It was ugly. It was cruel.” Evidence of this intent can be found both on an epic scale, like the Omaha Beach invasion, and on a more intimate level, as in the agonizing death of Private Stanley Mellish (Adam Goldberg).

In the film’s climactic battle, Mellish finds himself exposed, out of ammo, and left with nothing but a bayonet when a larger German soldier (Mac Steinmeier) engages him in close-quarters combat. What ensues is a nightmare: Mellish is quickly overpowered, and we see them struggle over a blade that’s gradually lowered toward his body as he pleads for the German to stop. Slowly, as if in a whisper, the bayonet sinks into chest, and you watch as life leaves Mellish’s eyes. The struggle is made all the more horrifying by the presence of Colonel Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies), who cowers nearby, afraid and unwilling to save his comrade’s life.

Knife fights are a well-worn trope in the movies (see West Side Story above, among others), as is the subtrope of two combatants trying to best each other using the same blade. But this sequence is distinct for its matter-of-factness. There’s no swell of sad music, no fanfare as Mellish gets killed. When the German soldier is finished, he shuffles past petrified Upham down the stairs, like some dude awkwardly bolting from a work meeting — or an inglorious punchline to an ugly, cruel joke. —N.Q.

In The Matrix, our first taste of what would become known as “bullet time” comes not in the form of a bullet. When the film opens, we meet Carrie-Anne Moss’s Trinity, hunched over a laptop as police descend upon her. She raises her hands in mock-surrender, blocks an attempt to put her in cuffs, and leaps into the air — and then freezes there while the camera encircles her — before delivering a kick to a cop’s chest that sends him sailing across the room. The effect was the perfect visual expression of The Matrix’s reality-challenging themes, although not even Baudrillard could’ve predicted the impact it would have inside the simulation where movies are green-lit.

The kick itself was directly parodied in everything from Shrek to Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. But it also taught fight coordinators that Newton’s laws were less mandatory than they’d realized, a lesson that came in handy when Hollywood became a full-time superhero factory for much of the next quarter-century. Best of all, when Trinity kicked that policeman, she was also kicking down the barricades for a new kind of action star, one that was smarter, less brawny, and more female than the over-muscled lunkheads who punched and quipped their way through the blockbusters of the ’80s and most of the ’90s. By the time her feet hit the ground, nothing was ever the same again. —Lane Brown

Both Ridley Scott and Emperor Commodus understood the importance of putting on a good show. Joaquin Phoenix’s sniveling Caesar wanted to eliminate Maximus (Russell Crowe), the general turned slave turned gladiator who posed a serious threat to Commodus’s ill-gotten reign. A simple assassination wouldn’t cut it, though. Commodus needed Maximus to go out in a public, glorious defeat at the hands of ​​Tigris of Gaul, the only undefeated gladiator in the Colosseum’s history. Of course, it wouldn’t be a totally fair fight: The tigers were only going to be let loose on Maximus.

Scott didn’t have any murderous motivations (as far as we know). He just wanted to wow audiences with a duel — the highlight of a historical epic that would hearken back to the sword-and-sandal subgenre and surpass it. All of Gladiator’s matches are thrilling, but the tiger fight is the most spectacular, fully taking advantage of what was then cutting-edge technology to re-create an arena full of spectators cheering for blood. CGI trickery helped integrate the tigers into the action, but Crowe did have a close brush with one of the real big cats. The entire sequence feels utterly real even as it’s an arranged exhibition match, both in fiction and in reality. It’s hard not to get carried away with those ancient Roman spectators while watching Gladiator, and the film ushered in a wave of epics with similar ambitions, including Kingdom of Heaven, Troy, and even The Lord of the Rings films. Maximus, for his part, doesn’t just win the fight against Tigris; he wins the narrative, too, sparing his defeated foe in defiance of Commodus’s downturned thumb and gaining the moniker “Maximus the Merciful.” That’s how you get the crowd to love you — both in the Colosseum and in the multiplex. —J.G.

What happens in this showdown between Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien and Ziyi’s Jen is, technically, not new. The wirework and defiance of gravity, the whirligig of clashing swords and poles, harks back to the films produced by the Shaw Brothers. At the time of its release, this scene and others like it in Crouching Tiger registered as an expansion of the mind-blowing “bullet time” style of combat seen in The Matrix, itself influenced by classic martial-arts films, only the year before. In fact, action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping, a veteran of Hong Kong cinema, worked on both.

Despite all of that, this sequence was fresh to American eyes, which were not as familiar with the tropes and techniques of Asian cinema. In what was something of a novelty for Hollywood at the time, this was a clash between two women, each formidable (both can defy gravity) but also human enough to have limitations (at one point, Yeoh picks up a weapon and prepares to run at Ziyi with it until she realizes it’s too heavy for her to lift). Yeoh and Ziyi are like a pair of tornados waltzing, literally twisting through the air and somersaulting to avoid getting hit by their respective unrelenting attempts to strike the other with whatever weapon they can find. Hook swords, machetes, spears, and straight swords: All are fair game. It is, simply, breathtaking to watch, not only because of the gymnastics but owing to the fierce determination that goes from simmer to boil in the eyes of both women, each determined to best the other.

Crouching Tiger sequences like this one helped pave the way for more wuxia films to reach American audiences, particularly the works of Zhang Yimou. Well-known American directors with a deep love of martial-arts movies — Quentin Tarantino being the most obvious and influential — would also pay homage to it and the acrobatic, propulsive Asian cinema that paved the way for Crouching Tiger’s existence. Look closely at the climactic fight scene in Dune: Part Two, when Timothée Chalamet’s Paul faces off against Austin Butler’s Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. When Chalamet spirals through the air to avoid getting struck, there’s a bit of this sequence in there, too. —Chaney

And now, a brawl between two people who are completely unqualified. In one corner, there’s Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), caddish boss to our lovelorn heroine (Renée Zellweger). In the other, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), an Austen-worthy alternative determined to win Bridget’s heart after initially describing her as a “verbally incontinent spinster who smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, and dresses like her mother.” It’s the ultimate “Let’s take this outside.” Mark starts by punching Daniel square in the face (twice) on a London street, after which they thrash and jump and slam trash-can lids to the sounds of Geri Halliwell covering “It’s Raining Men.” Tumbling into a nearby Greek restaurant, where they pause for an ill-timed “Happy Birthday” sing-along, Daniel hurls himself at Mark and both men go flying through a window.

In all its frivolity, this Bridget Jones’s Diary showcase has a rich precedent. Director Sharon Maguire says the scene riffs on the comically long fights seen in some John Wayne movies, specifically 1942’s The Spoilers and 1952’s The Quiet Man. The idea, which came from screenwriter Richard Curtis, was to have two upper-middle-class urban sophisticates subbing in for the rural Wayne archetype. The actors came up with many of the moves themselves, according to Maguire. “We were going along the lines of an old-fashioned fistfight, and then in rehearsal, we asked the stuntperson to teach Colin and Hugh haymaker-style punches,” she explains. “But Hugh balked at the idea and said he didn’t think his character would be in any way heroic. He’d be dirty and bite and — forgive this phrase — bitch-slap. We decided to descend into wrestling and kicking and weird involuntary noises. We kept it mainly in a wide shot because it’s funnier.”

Even as studios’ franchise mania left the romantic-comedy genre on life support within a decade of Bridget Jones’s success, choreographed fights between non-fighters popped up in other hits, like Bride Wars, where Anne Hathaway tackles Kate Hudson in a fit of rage, both of them wearing upscale wedding dresses. And in Crazy, Stupid, Love, a motley parade of men — Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, John Carroll Lynch, and Kevin Bacon — grab at one another’s necks and tumble to the ground in an awkward four-way scuffle concerning overlapping romantic entanglements. “Is this some kind of a skit?” a horrified Julianne Moore yells from the sidelines. —M.J.

Jason Statham had gone toe-to-toe with Jet Li in the sci-fi romp The One (2001), but it wasn’t until the following year, with The Transporter, that Statham truly became the toughie with a buzzcut we know and love. Co-written by Luc Besson and directed by the legendary fight choreographer Corey Yeun, The Transporter is one of Hollywood’s best attempts at capturing the spirit of the Hong Kong action movie. There are manic car chases scored to techno-pop songs; gun fu acrobatics that burst with goofy artifice. None of this would really work without the hyperbolically masculine powers of Statham — the three-part bus-depot fight being the action star’s crowning achievement.

Up against dozens of henchman, Statham’s Frank knocks out goon after goon between parked vehicles, sliding off his shirt and using it to strangle two of his foes; then he’s in one of the buses, masterfully maneuvering around its cramped confines — at one point achieving something like a lethal form of pole dancing. The camera keeps pace with Statham’s pops, shifting sharply from overheard to undertow; hard-cutting to a shot of the action as it plays out in a rearview mirror; then to a close-up of Statham, his pout almost comically stern as he slides a knife up to the edge of a croney’s throat. Recent movies like Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Nobody have gotten good mileage out of similar public-transport-set clashes, but Statham’s crisp fight style and stocky frame is particularly suited to the setting’s cramped confines. And — God bless him — does it with his shirt off, and eventually slathered in oil. —B.L.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice So Close isn’t our first or even our second fight from Corey Yuen. One of the most prolific fight coordinators and directors, Yuen had done it all in Hong Kong by 2002. After branching out to the West a few different times, he finally struck gold with The Transporter. Back in his home country, in the same year as So Close, he melded his earlier, more grounded stylings seen in Yes, Madam or Righting Wrongs with a slicker, often CGI-heavy aesthetic he’d go on to perfect in the criminally underrated Dead or Alive.

So Close cast newly christened art-house megastar (thanks to Millennium Mambo) Shu Qi as an ass-kicking assassin, an inversion of Yes, Madam’s Michelle Yeoh and her arc as ass-kicker to art-house star. In a standout fight, Shu Qi takes on Karen Mok, and Yuen tells us exactly what his predictions are for the immediate future of action. Gone are the hard-hitting, genderless fights from Yes, Madam — he’s fully embraced the “sexy fight.” It’s a great bit of business, never leering but appreciative of the wild athleticism of two beautiful women – one contract killer, the other a police inspector — beating the absolute hell out of one another.

The glossy, Maxim-magazine-esque kineticism of this fight, in particular, threads an impossible needle of over-the-top appeal with blunt-force trauma, kicks as brutal as outfits are stunning. You can see a through-line here from Xenia Onatopp and her thighs of steel in GoldenEye to So Close to Rebecca Ferguson’s deadly graceful killer in the Mission: Impossible series. As the clothes tear and the women put each other through further hell (involving handcuffs and hair flips and knowing smirks), the sequence threatens to become unbearably silly. (There are enough close-ups of Shu Qi’s skirt to make you think you’ve caught something trashy on Spike TV in 2006.) But therein lies the magic with Yuen: an unwavering sincerity to even his silliest of moments. There’s no question the Ilsa Fausts and Black Widows of today have a direct lineage to Shu Qi, Karen Mok, and this fight’s elevation of the all-female cat-and-mouse chase. —B.S.

John Woo put gun fu on the map with A Better Tomorrow in 1986 and cemented it as an entire subgenre through his Chow Yun-fat collaborations during that decade and the next. This tilled the ground for Keanu Reeves and Chad Stahelski to Wickify the entire action landscape with its balletic gun combat more than two decades later, but tucked in between the Woo heyday and the rise of Baba Yaga is a Christian Bale movie called Equilibrium that bombed in 2002 — perhaps because the world wasn’t ready for this ultraslick 21st-century update to gunkata.

In the final boss fight of the movie, Bale’s rogue cop (sorry, Gammaton Cleric) has to take down an Orwellian overlord named Father (Angus Macfayden). Cleric John Preston first storms through the halls of the totalitarian Tetragrammaton Council (whew!) laying waste to dozens of henchmen, and then even if you loved the Woo classics, what happens in that big showdown between Bale and Macfayden felt like something brand new. Bale brandishing his automatic handguns bearing high-capacity magazines and doing hand-to-hand/gun-to-gun fighting with the big bad in a seamless display of close-quarters shootout and martial arts is dizzying and dazzling.

Father vs. Cleric was Hong Kong cinema innovation combined with the supreme aesthetic coolness of a landscape reimagined by ­Blade and The Matrix. You want a bullet ballet? Macfayden and Bale look like they’re dancing with one another, and at one point they go into a swirling turn where they literally are. The entire showdown emphasizes how absolutely insane it would be to swing your hands around so you can punch and shoot someone at the same time. Equilibrium slipped into obscurity for the most part, but the action junkies who watched it knew when John Wick debuted in 2014 that its elegant, bullet-riddled brutality felt familiar, a secret known among those who caught this Kurt Wimmer–directed cast-off of the early aughts. —J.C.

Has anyone ever looked as cool as Wesley Snipes dodging blows from ninja vampires? When Vampire Nation honcho Eli Damaskinos sends a pair of his top assassins, Asad and Nyssa, to test human-vampire hybrid Blade’s power in the sequel to Stephen Norrington’s 1998 film (this one directed by horror champion Guillermo del Toro), what ensues is the most technically impressive fight sequence in a trilogy with lots of other good ones. (See the blood rave.) At first, Blade expends about half as much energy as his faceless opponents (who silently swing into the warehouse scene like trapeze artists from the rafters and express themselves solely through the zooming in and out of the red-eyed goggles built into their masks), ducking and deflecting with the slightest flicks of his wrist or foot.

Then suddenly Blade is backflipping. He’s taking full advantage of the sprawling space as he leaps off platforms and equipment, finally gaining on Nyssa, whom he comes close to beheading before Asad calls a truce. This scene — full of wide shots and sped-up movement, soundtracked by a spray of swords slitting and clinging, bodies whooshing — rules, and it may have been the exact moment when the superhero genre broke with the more rigidly choreographed, closely shot fight scenes of the silicone-nippled recent past and entered the modern era. It was also among the first scenes to feature actually somewhat-convincing digital doubles (for the time, at least), paving the way for actors to collect action-movie paychecks without the karate lessons. —L.B.

In a sense, you can see Jackass everywhere today. As refracted through TikTok and YouTube, the streets are crawling with young people doing dumb, sometimes painful pranks for shits, giggles, and celebrity. But back in the early 2000s, when social media was a distant dream and reality-television supremacy lurked around the corner, Jackass blew minds with its buffet of stunts on tape. Pick your adjective. Jackass stunts were horrifying, grotesque, idiotic, and occasionally despicable, yes — I think about the turd in the furniture-store toilet bowl all the time — but they were also brilliant, bombastic, creative, and often very funny. Taken as a gestalt, they function as a bizarro meditation on the fragility and resilience of the human body. Nowhere is this theme more underlined than when Johnny Knoxville gets punched out by the mountainous pro boxer Eric Ernst, a.k.a. Butterbean.

Shot in a random department store, the “encounter” lasts seconds. It’s one thing to watch a boxing match between two professionals. It’s another thing altogether to watch Knoxville’s body sink to the floor and hear his tongue slide into his throat. The punch has been seared into my brain ever since I saw it as a teenager. It’s seared into his too; Knoxville’s head split open after hitting the concrete floor, one of the many injuries sustained on Jackass that continues to affect his life to this day. The stunt is incredibly dark, but that heaviness is accounted for. Later, bleeding and barely awake while being medically treated, the amateur stuntman still reaches for his circus ringmaster’s showmanship to wrap the scene with a punchline: “Is Butterbean okay?” It’s a moment that captures why Knoxville was considered the unofficial leader of the Jackass crew and went on to inarguably become its most successful export. —N.Q.

Without Tony Jaa, muay Thai may have never been introduced to western cinema. Without him, muay Thai would be an art form that only diehard MMA fans could point out while watching a UFC fight over beers. That’s not to say it’s an unknown martial art — of course not — hell, JCVD performed a misshapen version of it in 1989’s wonderful Kickboxer. But to see it in Ong Bak, performed the way it should be by someone at the highest level, is breathtaking. There’s a patience to it, an artistry in waiting for your opponent to have a miscue just noticeable enough to strike them with the knockout blow.

The Fight Club in Ong Bak scene is an almost perfect distillation of the form itself. Taking its time to introduce you to Tony Jaa’s Ting, Ong Bak builds your anticipation to see just what this guy can do. You get a glimpse of it early on, just a taste to salivate over, knowing a full course is right around the corner. By the time we get to the fight club, you’re itching for Jaa to be let loose. Walking into the center of the pit, his opening found, Jaa unloads a balletic flurry of knee strikes and kicks, the centerpiece being that “clinching” method. Floating through the air, he locks his knees around his opponent’s head and brings his elbows crashing down onto his head. It’s not the knockout, but it’s the moment where you realize that what you’re seeing is something wholly unique to martial-arts cinema. Muay Thai’s crossed over everywhere, including art houses in the terrific A Prayer Before Dawn, but it’s here in this fight club, Tony Jaa laying waste to multiple goons, that a star was born and the form immortalized.

The mid-aughts were a major breakthrough for muay Thai (which translates to “Thai boxing” and is defined as “a combat sport that uses stand-up striking, sweeps, and various clinching techniques”). The popularity of the UFC exploded with many fighters employing the style in their arsenal. Professional wrestlers like CM Punk also incorporated the form in their own way. Guys in “Tapout” T-shirts at bars became convinced they were killers because they watched too many Anderson Silva fights. It was the perfect time to unleash a superstar onto the world. —B.S.

Park Chan-wook has described this signature scene from Oldboy not as a brush between a hero and villains but as “a fight with destiny.” That grandiosity plays out in an electrifying, unbroken three-minute take often cited as one of action cinema’s pinnacles. The camera glides down a dingy green corridor as formerly imprisoned businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) repels a horde of enforcers with only a hammer and his fists, continuing to coldcock his enemies even after one of them thrusts a knife into his back. To find his captor, Dae-su must clear the scrum and make it to the other end of the hallway, a feat so intense it’s hilarious. The pulsing score, composed by frequent Park collaborator Jo Yeong-wook, could be transposed onto a sex scene in an erotic thriller, which, in its own deranged way, Oldboy kind of is. (If nothing else, it’s an action thriller built on erotic revenge.)

The sequence, conjuring side-scrolling video games and the Japanese manga from which the film was adapted, took two days and roughly 15 takes to shoot. What’s most stunning are its careful imperfections — the way Dae-su’s combatants slip and fall, miss their punches, and surrender. Throughout, geography is key: Firearms are largely illegal in South Korea, necessitating wooden sticks and other makeshift weapons. Dae-su rises like a phoenix after every strike he endures, keeping the audience firmly inside his head as he stumbles forward, exhausted but emboldened. Only when he emerges victorious does the camera cut away, his tormentors piled up behind a thrilling close-up of his sweaty, satisfied face.

Oldboy came out the same year as Park’s pal Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder. Together, they expanded Korean cinema’s global footprint. When directors cite Oldboy as an influence, they tend to reference the hallway fight. It directly inspired scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Nobody, Repo Men, and Netflix’s Daredevil series. —M.J.

You thought we’d pick the black-and-white “Crazy 88” scene, right? The Bride (Uma Thurman) requires no more than 14 minutes to slaughter the army her comrade turned enemy O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) has on call, but it’s what comes next that’s more deeply rooted in film history. In full color, the bloodied Bride slides two doors open to reveal the snowy Japanese garden where she’ll confront her opponent. As she steps into the yard, it’s like she’s entering a painting, the blacks and blues of the night sky casting a serene glow across the white powder. Quentin Tarantino is aping the wintry battles seen in certain samurai classics, namely 1967’s Zatoichi Challenged and 1973’s Lady Snowblood, which he references throughout Kill Bill.

“Hope you saved your energy,” O-Ren taunts. “If you haven’t, you might not last five minutes.” That’s almost the exact length of their ensuing sword fight, which begins with customary bows, continues with well-timed repartee, and ends with O-Ren’s scalp sailing through the air — a humorous, hair-raising demise that outstrips any boring beheading. The scene’s relative quiet is stunning after the cartoonish adrenaline of the “Crazy 88” pageantry.

The women’s outfits are indebted to fight cinema, too. Liu’s milky kimono evokes Yuki Kashima (Meiko Kaji), a.k.a. Lady Snowblood, who also collapses in the snow after a duel. (The song that plays as O-Ren takes her last breaths? Kaji’s “The Flower of Carnage.”) The film also marked the first major movie for stunt ace Zoë Bell, who had spent three years doubling Lucy Lawless on Xena: Warrior Princess. Thurman’s famous yellow tracksuit is an homage to Game of Death, Bruce Lee’s final film. Kill Bill, in turn, reenergized Hollywood assassin sagas; it’s hard to imagine the hyperstylization of John Wick or Atomic Blonde without it. Somewhere, SZA was taking notes. —M.J.

The reality of live-action adaptations of comic books is that most of the time, thanks to the limitations of the human body, physics, and gravity, they simply cannot re-create the same sense of unpredictability and creativity as what’s possible on the drawn page or through animation. The frame is too compact, its imagination too small. X2: X-Men United’s opening fight scene is the exception that proves the rule; has any other film of this genre started this thrillingly with this much kinetic energy and bold movement? As Nightcrawler, Alan Cumming is a whirling dervish of inky-black fumes as he flings his body all around the White House on a brainwashed mission to assassinate the president. He sprints through its hallways, leaps into its ceilings, and kicks and confuses its Secret Service guards. The camera stays in constant movement alongside him — tracking him as he flips around, posting up where he’s going to be a split second before he does so we see his sudden appearance, going over and under his body so we get a sense of the physical space he’s in, its dimensions and its layout.

X2 not only taught us about the character’s mutant abilities, athleticism, and even his sense of faith through that introduction but also established Nightcrawler’s distinct fighting style as the scene went on. There’s a dual sense of invention and discovery to the fight — the film unveiling a new kind of action and us absorbing it — that would pop up in the superhero genre’s best subsequent offerings, like Peter Parker versus Doctor Octopus on a subway train in Spider-Man 2 and Killmonger and T’Challa engaging in ritual combat in Black Panther. But the immediate bang of Nightcrawler’s X2 debut has never really been topped, although the film’s ending, with Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike testing each other’s adamantium, came pretty close. (A weird little coincidence: The Matrix Reloaded, with its similarly teleporting twins fighting Trinity and Morpheus, also came out in 2003. We were really into smoky specters back then.) —R.H.

The striking first duel in Zhang Yimou’s Hero, the master director’s first of several entries in the martial-arts canon, is a flashback that reunites Jet Li and Donnie Yen after they had first shared the screen in 1992’s Once Upon a Time in China II. Two of China’s most successful movie stars — each had been established as an action-movie legend over the two prior decades — the pair engages in evenly matched combat displaying both physical prowess and grace. Here, Li fights as Nameless, a righteous prefect recalling how he killed Sky (Yen), a skilled assassin who attempted to murder the emperor.

Their clash, set inside a game house, is scored by the sounds of water dripping from the rooftop onto the ground and the warriors’ clanging blades. The drops create an atmosphere that should evoke tranquillity but in this context imbues tension instead. Early in the scene, Sky easily defeats several adversaries eager to claim his head. The sheer power of his spear, which allows him to strike from a distance, bends their swords without him even having to uncover its blade. It’s only when Nameless appears that Sky finds a worthy opponent. In move after elegant move, Li and Yen mesmerize with their agility, as they block each other’s blows with utmost precision, neither of them willing to give the other an inch. There’s a solemn aura of mutual respect to their confrontation that not only may be true of the characters but also evinces how the two performers feel about each other.

Halfway through, Nameless pays an elderly musician to play a tune on the guqin. The fight changes locations and unfolds inside their minds (depicted in black and white). Defying the laws of gravity, they pirouette through the sky in a dancelike exchange of potentially mortal moves. For the final blow, as the strings on the Old Man’s instrument snap, Li cuts through slow-motion CGI water droplets and we understand he has penetrated not only his enemy’s flesh but his mind. Though the film is perceived as mainland China’s response to Oscar-winning Taiwanese hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Yimou’s sumptuous film only became viable, the director said in a New York Times interview, because of the western response to Ang Lee’s stunner. Given that the U.S. release of Hero was delayed (because of alleged conflicts between the movie’s Chinese distributor and the infamous Harvey Weinstein), Yimou’s follow-up, House of Flying Daggers (starring Andy Lau), which features a similar combination of exhilarating quarrels and exquisitely colorful cinematography, landed in American theaters the same year and it’s just as unmissable. —C.A.

“Boy, that escalated quickly.”

That’s the first thing Ron Burgundy says after the famous battle of the local network news teams in Anchorman. Ron is speaking the truth, but he’s also describing the sensibility of one of modern comedy’s most memorable fight sequences. Everything in this nonsensical gang war comes back to escalation. It’s like West Side Story, if West Side Story was about self-absorbed TV journalists and also really, really stupid.

The types of weapons featured in the scene ratchet up with each reveal, from a knife to an entire bedpost Ron pulls out of his blazer to various medieval torture tools. The number of news organizations involved swells from two to five, eventually including dozens of men and a couple of substantial horses for some reason. The cameo appearances keep on coming, too, starting with Vince Vaughn as Ron’s primary anchor rival, followed by Luke Wilson, Tim Robbins, and Ben Stiller. Even the violence, as silly as it is, amplifies — at one point, a newsman is fully engulfed in flames. Later, Wilson’s arm gets chopped off.

This style of comedic fight scene — with its emphasis on juvenile, mostly male conflict and the “That escalated quickly” ethos — became a regular feature of Judd Apatow–produced movies and their close cousins, including the out-of-control knockdown, drag-out in Step Brothers; the sloppy front-lawn fight in Funny People; the kitchen sequence in Spy; and the genuinely well-executed kidnapping-mêlée in Game Night that’s made hilarious by the fact that no one who observes it believes it is real. All of those movies owe a debt to Ron Burgundy and a bunch of man-baby broadcasters who have no idea how to talk things out like real men. —Jen C.

After worrying that his movie Kung Fu Hustle wouldn’t land with global viewers, filmmaker Stephen Chow accidentally underscored one of the most beautiful lessons of action cinema: Tell a story through physical motion instead of words. Chow says he cut down on the culturally specific vernacular in his Hustle script, preferring to “present my ideas with action, or anything visual, instead of jokes or slang” in order to make it more accessible worldwide. Chow was also clearly having a lot of fun while he mixed up the genre cocktail that is Kung Fu Hustle.

The scene where the Axe Gang gets their asses handed to them by three slum fighters is a great example of Hustle’s superhero-esque maximalism. It is the few vs. the many with three elite martial artists emerging from their street clothes to cow an entire army of bad guys armed with kung fu iron rings, a bamboo bo staff, and pure foot- and fistwork on display. For audiences whose last wide exposure to masterful martial-arts films was Crouching Tiger, Kung Fu Hustle was a raucous alternative that showed off the artistic range of great fight films. Greatest-of-all-time martial artists Sammo Hung and Yeun Woo-ping did the fight choreography, which is characteristically elegant to behold.

In addition to being a send up of and Valentine to the kung fu movies Chow grew up loving, Hustle takes inspiration from wuxia films and cartoons. (The landlady character, played by the famous Yuen Qiu, runs incredibly fast, and Chow wanted her legs to become Roadrunner-style wheels.) But while Chow wanted there to be nods to so many source texts in the film — Drunken Master, The Matrix, the works of Bruce Lee — he also wanted it to feel like something entirely its own. Action, comedy, and absurdity were already familiar bedfellows, but Hustle revitalized that union and incorporated visual effects that could make such hyperbolic action look more seamless than ever. And the director knew he had a delicate balance to maintain blending so many styles of martial arts without making the movie feel confused. It’s a tribute to movies that had come before while feeling like something that had never existed before that moment. —Jordan C.

A good fight sequence understands, in intimate terms, the wonder of the human body pushing or even disregarding its limits. But some of the greatest fight sequences understand how sensual it is, too, when action stars take part in a feverish dance. Angelina Jolie made a career of such dances in the aughts, and they reached their most delicious moment in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. The plot is simple. Each half of a married couple, played by Jolie and Brad Pitt (who then launched the most enrapturing real-life couple of this century), realizes the other is an enemy assassin — a discovery that disrupts their stale marriage into displays of violent desire. Firefights, pointed arguments, and barbed flirting ensue. An hour into the film, after a threatening tango sequence, Jane (Jolie) puts a bomb on her husband John (Pitt), and the warring couple rush back to their suburban home to absolutely wreck each other. Their gun battle and the explosion that follows reaches the height of pleasure when the fight becomes more physical in a scene set to “Express Yourself,” by Charles Wright and the Watts. They are neither gentle nor kind with one another as they tear up their sterile, grand suburban home using the items that once marked their union. Neither holds back. It’s a low-down dirty fight.

Really, it’s Jolie who sells the scene. “Who’s your daddy?” Pitt says when he thinks he’s winning. Then Jolie flips the fight in her favor, knocking Pitt over the head and pushing him into their glass-paneled display. “Who’s your daddy now?” she says triumphantly — hair tousled, forehead bleeding, eyes holding a dare. We’ve seen actors do sexy fights before where the violence is meant to be tantalizing and fun. But Jolie dances along a razor’s edge: Do I want to kill this person or fuck them? (That this fight becomes an actual fuck comes as no surprise given that John and Jane do actually love each other.) No actor in the modern age excels at the fuck-fight better than her, though a number of action franchises aim for this kind of sexy brawling, from Mission: Impossible with its rotating menagerie of women to the Bond films. The thing is few actors can express the heat like she does, bringing the same intensity to eroticism that she does brutality. —Angelica Jade Bastién

At 300’s Berlin International Film Festival debut in 2007, Zack Snyder, with just one zombie-horror remake and a slate of television commercials and music videos under his belt, encountered his first seismic audience reaction. Despite claims that he only wanted to make an apolitical action picture, 300, a cartoonishly violent look at the Battle of Thermopylae, was seen by many as a Halliburton-fueled pep rally to juice America for its next foreign-policy adventure — crossing swords with Iran. Though pro-West jingoism could have inspired comic-book author Frank Miller, upon whose work the film is based, Snyder claimed to be solely focused on style, and it could well have been the truth. The pre-MCU project was among the first to shoot entirely on virtual sets. Why travel to the Maliakos Gulf when an empty room in Montreal will suffice? The harsh contrast and hazy bronze sheen (not to mention Gerard Butler, Dominic West, and Michael Fassbender’s preposterously ripped abs) lend a dreamlike quality to the entire picture, whose parade of battles take on a stream-of-consciousness element.

A handheld sequence in which Fassbender and Tom Wisdom plunge into the fray popularized the “speed-ramping” technique, an expansion of The Matrix’s “bullet time,” better to savor each squishy plunge of the sword and stylized squirt of digital blood as it arced toward the ground. With no thought toward motivation other than to be as “epic” as possible, the camera dives in and retracts out of the Spartans’ circle of slaughter, while Tyler Bates’s vaguely Middle Eastern–meets–metal score crunches away. This kind of coverage of a physical space had heretofore only been possible in animation. A similar scene, in which the music drops out to just echoey whooshes and clangs, evokes a side-scroller video game — a harbinger of Hollywood’s IP wars to come. —J.H.

When it launched in 2002, the Bourne franchise challenged what was then the increasingly stale state of the Bond films, something that became even more clear once Paul Greengrass took over the helm. Greengrass’s signature jittery camerawork combined with the series’ unsparing fight choreography, which included elements of kali and Jeet Kune Do, to create action that felt kinetic and merciless. The clash between Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne and Joey Ansah’s Desh Bouksani is the series’ apex, a brawl that feels like it’s rewriting the language of action in real time. Desh, a fellow government-trained killing machine, is pursuing Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) through the streets of Tangier while Jason hurdles across rooftops and through people’s homes to save her. Just as Desh corners Nicky in an abandoned apartment, Jason crashes through the window, the camera following him during the jump across buildings and right into combat.

Desh and Jason have the same efficient technique: When Ansah breaks out of a hold by doing a somersault, it’s a sick move that nevertheless manages to look entirely pragmatic. The same goes for the way the pair incorporate items around the room with Jason slamming a book into Desh’s throat, Desh slashing with a straight razor off the sink, and Jason ultimately triumphing by strangling Desh with a towel in the corner of the shower as Desh frantically paws at his face. The shaky cam, divisive as it remains, has filtered through things like the MCU as a way of making a fight look grittier and more electric. But the way the sequence insists the viewer be aware of the solidity of the flesh being battered and broken onscreen is also influential, a precursor to works like Atomic Blonde that upped the realistic brutality of studio violence. —A.W.

You can’t write about action anime without writing about Yutaka Nakamura, and you can’t write about Yutaka Nakamura without talking about Sword of the Stranger, which still ends with the best sword fight ever animated. An animator with Studio Bones, Nakamura was responsible for handling numerous fight scenes in Cowboy Bebop, Fullmetal Alchemist, My Hero Academia, Wolf’s Rain, and Escaflowne: The Movie, some of the most notable action anime titles of the past 30 years. His style is characterized by shakily “chaotic” camera movement punctuated by precisely timed pauses — brief windows into the character’s feelings mid-combat. As veteran Bones director Masahiro Ando worked on Sword of the Stranger, he increasingly realized he could deputize Nakamura to handle its action sequences. “More than anything, I wanted to let him do his thing,” Ando has said. “At a specific point of the overall flow of the movie, I tossed out the storyboard and left everything to Nakamura.”

The film’s final duel between the ronin Nanashi and foreign warrior Luo-Lang exemplifies everything Nakamura does well. Shrouded in snow and fog, the two swordsmen battle furiously, Luo-Lang rushing aggressively and mostly putting Nanashi on the defensive. If you slow down the frames of their movements, you’ll notice how infrequently Nakamura animates their bodies on-model: Everything smears, contorts, and twists — from their bodies to their swords — in service of speeding up their swings. Luo-Lang is both heavier and more acrobatic than Nanashi is, practically breakdancing and using gravity to chop at the ronin from above. When the roof that they are fighting on collapses, Nakamura focuses not on Nanashi’s body in escape but a shot of Luo-Lang’s feet racing after him. At one point, when their swords clash in a flurry of sparks and impact frames, we see Nanashi’s breath and teeth fighting for air. The whole scene is an Ur-example of sakuga, a Japanese word used to describe a particularly spectacular or resource-rich moment of animation within a larger context.

Years earlier, while animating Spike Spiegel’s action scenes in Cowboy Bebop, Nakamura was told by director Shinichiro Watanabe to get as close to Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do as possible, helping create the character’s indelible swagger. He wound up working on 12 of the series’ 26 episodes as well as supervising the action animation for the movie Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. But Sword of the Stranger feels like an even more significant triumph, the project where he alchemized his influences into a style of action animation that future anime creators working on titles like Attack on Titan and Demon Slayer can’t help but imitate and learn from. —EV.B.

Om Shanti Om is a musical revenge epic and also a film within a film — a triumphant effort from stars Shah Rukh Khan (a.k.a. “The King of Bollywood”) and Deepika Padukone (India’s top-paid actress). It begins in the 1970s, when nefarious film producer Mukesh Mehra murders superstar actress Shantipriya (Padukone, in her very first role) and day player Om Makhija (Khan), her admirer turned attempted rescuer. When the two are reincarnated 30 years later, Om, now a film star, casts Shanti, now known as Sandy, in his film Om Shanti Om as a ploy to haunt and terrorize Mukesh on the set. In Mukesh and Om’s final showdown, the set catches fire and echoes their 1970s fight — a hand-to-hand flurry of bloody punches, bodies flung into corners, and desperation soaring with the orchestra. After a struggle, Om advances on Mukesh’s writhing body and aims to shoot him, but Sandy stops him. “His death is written,” she says, “but not at your hands.” She looks up, and a chandelier smashes to the ground, killing Mukesh. It’s revealed that Sandy was never in the room and that the vengeful ghost of Shantipriya ensured that he got his revenge.

The fight, and Om Shanti Om as a whole, made an impact in a couple ways. First, plenty of Bollywood blockbusters had used reincarnation, a central tenet of Hinduism, as the crux of their plots, but the reveal was unusual in structural terms: It was rare at the time for a Hindi-language film to lay its cards on the table so close to the end credits. People walked out of theaters stunned, oohing and aahing over the shocking ending. Second, its inversion of gender dynamics was also crucial: Om charges forward to protect Sandy with his gun, something Hindi film heroes have done for decades, only to realize that it was Shanti, from beyond the grave, who has been protecting him, who refuses to sully his hands with Mukesh’s blood. Invoking the supernatural is not uncommon in Hindi cinema, but depictions of female rage are. (Importantly, Shanti was not only married to Mukesh, she was carrying his child.) Director Farah Khan and her team took a risk, and it paid off, instantly cementing the audience’s faith in Padukone’s acting chops. She hasn’t stopped working since, and Om Shanti Om joined the pantheon of great Hindi films. —N.B.

From wrecked cars to animated videotapes, David Cronenberg has always been a master of the erotic. But few scenes in his oeuvre have as much, ahem, on display as the bathhouse scene in Eastern Promises, a film about Russian “cleaner” Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) evading the sex crimes of his underworld bosses and the wrath of some vengeful Chechens.

Considering the previous year, 2006, witnessed Borat comedically fighting in the nude, it could’ve been easy for sexually richer and thematically deeper to fall flat. But no one should ever doubt Cronenberg: When two hired killers arrive at the public baths to snuff out Nikolai, surprisingly, they don’t bring guns. They bring knives. The fully nude Nikolai (Mortensen brazenly showing his wares) lunges to defend himself. This isn’t a fight based in precision; it’s the animal instinct for survival that moves these bodies through the steamy ceramic space. Nikolai’s slender tattooed physique is slashed and thrown, choked and bruised, punctuated by the sounds of his writhing and groaning. The always-sensual Cronenberg shoots Mortensen’s body with the intimacy of a sex scene: The actor’s eyes roll, his back arches, and his every curve becomes a site of pain and fulfillment. While many a B-movie has been inspired by the bathhouse scene — Lion-Girl, a postapocalyptic exploitation flick is a recent example — pop-culture remnants, curiously, can also be found in raunchy comedies like Jennifer Lawrence’s nude beach fight in No Hard Feelings or the naked volcano bout in The Northman. —R.D.

Boiling Donnie Yen down to one film, boiling the Ip Man series down to one film, even, might seem sacrilegious. As the man who became Hong Kong’s biggest action star after Jackie Chan and Jet Li, the entire back quarter of this list could be all Donnie. Donnie’s always sort of felt unsung, even among the action crowd. That’s not to say he’s underrated; of course, he isn’t, but it never feels like we appreciate him enough. It’s for this reason that it’s almost apt to choose his fight with Sammo Hung, another legend who always deserves even more praise than we’ve given him.

Donnie’s fights as the titular Ip Man, the legendary practitioner of Wing Chun, always showcase a fantastic contrast of styles throughout the series. In the first film, he squares off against a karate master. In the third, in addition to a Wing Chun rival, he’s paired against a muay Thai fighter and then Mike Tyson himself, a boxer whose brute force is almost too much for Donnie to handle. The fourth sees him fight Scott Adkins, another karate expert. It’s in Ip Man 2, though, where we see a classic passing of the torch from one legend to another.

Their clash is actually broken up between two fights, the first leaving tension between the two on the table, literally and figuratively. If you’ve never seen Sammo Hung, you’d be forgiven for thinking he wouldn’t be as agile as he is. Perhaps the prototypical deceptively graceful big man, Sammo launches himself on a table, perfectly balanced with Donnie. The patented flurry of strikes that Wing Chun is known for comes fast and furious as the two perform the almost superheroic feat of never leaving the table. It’s an astonishing bit of business, not one particularly out of place in the series; furniture-hopping is an Ip Man staple but one that feels more loaded than any other. As the two come to a stalemate, a grudging respect passes between Sammo and Donnie. A master sees his window close, while a new star’s opens up. The two may have had a better fight in SPL: Sha Po Lang, but it’s here, with the weight of martial-arts and movie history on both men’s shoulders, that Donnie Yen firmly becomes a legend in the eyes of his now equal. —B.S.

Despite his reputation for scientific precision, Christopher Nolan’s work is always built on a foundation of creativity. Inception is a movie about dreams, so where better to explore surrealist ideas that still “feel real”? The hotel hallway fight between Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur and Cillian Murphy’s mind guards is set in a dream-within-a-dream but still two levels above further warped realities. One level above us, Arthur is rattling around a van, so his gravity is constantly shifting. As such, the battle moves all over the place, like if the ship in The Poseidon Adventure just kept on capsizing.

Production-wise, the hallway fight allowed Nolan, a lifelong 2001: A Space Odyssey devotee, to build out a 360-degree rotating set, as Stanley Kubrick did for the spaceship Discovery. The actors rehearsed for weeks to learn how to fight inside a giant dryer while the camera’s movements needed to be perfectly in sync. When it was time to really get nuts, everybody was on wires. A second rotating set was built for the spinning hotel room, which had different dimensions, and all the interior lighting was functional, as there was nowhere to rig anything inside the tubes. All of this builds to an intercutting thrill-ride sequence that, as with the characters from Inception, could have come to Nolan from an outside source. There’s been plenty written on the commonalities between the 2010 blockbuster and Satoshi Kon’s 2006 anime Paprika. Both projects deal with the concept of shared dreaming (and provocateurs using this technology for ill purposes), and both films have a dazzling moment in a beige hallway. Also, several action scenes in Nolan films since can be seen as visual or thematic variations on the hallway fight, like Matthew McConaughey floating through a higher-dimensional set of bookshelves at the end of Interstellar, the layers of time-released action impacting one another at the climax of Dunkirk, and the backward-and-forward tussle between John David Washington and his inverted self at the freeport in Tenet. —J.H.

The rise of mixed martial arts over the past several decades has bled into action cinema, both via ostensibly respectable films and cheapozoid straight-to-video bruisers. (Even David Mamet got in on the action with 2008’s Chiwetel Ejiofor–starring Redbelt.) But Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior has a special place in the MMA canon, both for featuring plenty of convincing beatdowns and for actually being, you know, good. And the final fight in the film is unforgettable, especially because of the way O’Connor sets up his two protagonists as rivals. Tom Hardy (whose insanely jacked physique allowed him to segue seamlessly from Warrior to his turn as Bane in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises) plays Tommy Riordan, a haunted and deeply messed-up former Marine who returns home to Pittsburgh and starts training in the sport he abandoned years ago alongside his estranged alcoholic father (Nick Nolte). Across town, however, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), Tommy’s brother, has also returned to fighting in a desperate attempt to make ends meet for his family.

The two brothers lived different lives after their parents split up, and each resents the other for it. Now, they’ve gone viral for different reasons: Brendan because he’s an unassuming high-school math teacher who came out of nowhere to be a real contender, Tommy because it turns out he saved the lives of some fellow soldiers, earning him a vocal Marine following. That makes the fight, for all its brutality, genuinely unpredictable: Which of these guys do we want to win? Once they start pummeling one another, however, something else emerges that gives their combat a whole new texture: love. In the ring, these two broken and inexpressive men become closer than ever before. How do you show your love for someone while kicking the crap out of them? It’s a deeply uncomfortable and powerful scene that matches emotionally the pulverizing, anything-goes quality of MMA itself and now serves as a shining example of how to incorporate the sport into mainstream cinema. —B.E.

The collaboration between combat virtuoso Iko Uwais and director Gareth Evans is one of the most consequential actor-filmmaker relationships to emerge on the heels of the Asia Extreme wave of cinema in the aughts. Their fight films deliver marathons of punishment that had never before looked so beautiful and brutal. On their first film, 2007’s Merantau, the actor showed off his mastery of the silat fighting discipline in long scenes with few cuts. It put the stunning abilities of the combatants front and center with minimal editing wizardry or stuntman swap-ins. Watching it felt like returning to the Hong Kong films of yore, where showdowns played out at length, and it was a refreshing deviation from the fast-cut editing trend that dominated action in the wake of the Bourne franchise. (Not all the Paul Greengrass rip-offs had it like that.) But as great as Merantau is, it’s not The Raid: Redemption — the film that leveled up the duo’s collaboration even further, in part thanks to a fight scene against a mob of machete-wielding martial artists.

When Uwais’s protagonist, the rookie cop Rama, battles the machete gang, you see where the harrowingly real full-contact practices of earlier HK action movies collide with the increased pace, pain, and gore of 21st-century fight films. The camera moves like the audience is taking its own beating, and the frame holds on bodies being pulverized and sliced up in favor of chopping and screwing the fight sequence beyond comprehension in postproduction. It’s like watching bones break and tendons snap in real time, all centered around a lead actor who is his own best stunt double thanks to his martial-arts prowess. The outcome of the recipe is peak violence, and it lays the road map for the grittiness and style to follow in defining action films like the Wick saga, Atomic Blonde, The Villainess, The Night Comes for Us, and Extraction. —Jordan C.

Every generation deserves its own thigh-crush moment, and when Gina Carano shoved Michael Fassbender’s head into her crotch and squeezed, she was stepping onto a trail blazed by Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner, Famke Janssen in GoldenEye, and all the other literal femme fatales — Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight! Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita! — who used sex in their violence. But Haywire is a step up in savagery, more in line with the mid-battle fight in Saving Private Ryan in its unrelenting length and its messiness and more chameleonic in its martial-arts styles thanks to Carano’s years as a professional fighter before being tapped by Steven Soderbergh to star in the film.

Carano plays a black-ops agent betrayed by her firm, which has sent Fassbender to kill her; this isn’t just a job, it’s life or death. (Carano taking off her high heels before stepping into the hotel room, since she knows they’ll impede her ability to move? A perfect touch.) The fight gets its intensity from both those stakes and how intimate the grappling becomes as Carano and Fassbender come together, break apart, and come together again, and Soderbergh doesn’t move his camera around that often: Its wide-shot immobility lets us track the characters’ rapid responses as they trade gut shots and head shots, kicks and jabs. The hotel room itself becomes a part of the fight, too, as Carano reverses herself off the couch, Fassbender slides her through a display of decorative vases, and the bed houses their ultimate coupling, which ends with Carano on top. This is a fight that demands patience but also — because of Carano’s genuine skill and training — never feels like it’s taking a pause; Haywire is literally about a woman holding her own against a group of men, and this glorious and grisly brawl serves as the microcosm of that concept.

Between Haywire and Warrior, 2011 did a lot to normalize MMA to the masses, and UFC fighters in particular have increasingly popped up in action films: Georges St-Pierre in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cowboy Cerrone in Spenser Confidential, Carano herself and Ronda Rousey in the Fast & Furious franchise, Conor McGregor in Road House. But the legacy of the Carano-Fassbender showdown transcends just MMA representation. Its DNA is all over B-movies like Peppermint and Jolt, Charlize Theron vehicles Atomic Blonde and The Old Guard, assassins-but-ladies flicks Gunpowder Milkshake, Ava, and The Protégé, and Rebecca Ferguson’s characterization of Ilsa Faust in the Mission: Impossible films. Long may the thigh-crush reign. —R.H.

In the cult universe of direct-to-video action — a B-movie subgenre that popped up in the ’90s — action stars still do their own stunts. That’s why the leads in these works tend to be real-life martial artists and wrestlers, performers who carry the torch for the kinds of elaborately choreographed fight scenes that used to be action cinema’s bread and butter. That’s true of British fighter Scott Adkins, the shining star of the subgenre. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is the sixth installment in the Universal Soldier franchise, the (relatively sleepy) first of which kicked off in the ’90s and starred Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. The two veterans are back, this time as baddies against a vengeful widower played by Adkins, yet our hero’s bloodiest, most disturbing brawl is opposite former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski.

Set in an athletic store, the two engage in something like a sword fight but with baseball bats. Director John Hyams captures their movements in relatively long takes — none of that overedited, scrambled back and forth that serves as contemporary action’s smoke and mirrors. You can feel the raw power of their strikes, the electric speed with which Adkins and Arlovski deliver their blows. When Adkins eventually busts Arlovski’s head open, you’re almost convinced those entrails are real. Something of Universal Soldier’s action-horror male soap opera can be found in later action vehicles (Vin Diesel in Bloodshot is a vindictive elite soldier), but the special sauce in Day of the Reckoning is Adkins. He has gone on to headline dozens of DTV spectacles, spearheading the subgenre’s renaissance, but, increasingly, he’s lent his fight-chops to film industries around the world, appearing, for instance, as the formidable heel in both Wolf Warrior and John Wick: Chapter 4. The legend of the Adkins touch only continues to grow. —B.L.

The most famous and imitated shot of the superhero era is the moment in the first The Avengers, written and directed by Joss Whedon, where the team of Marvel heroes assembles during the Battle of New York and the camera circles rapidly around them. It’s rare when a big-budget movie thinks in visual metaphors, much less devises one that sums up the movie you’re watching, the franchise it’s a part of, and the technology brought to bear on the whole enterprise. Many of the characters in The Avengers are meeting each other for the first time; the unbroken, circular camera move visually confirms that they’ve become a collective. The Avengers itself is a nexus point for all of the individual narratives that had been detailed in the MCU films preceding this one.

The “Avengers Assemble!” shot gets expanded and embellished upon in the one-take battle sequence that follows. A series of brief individual fights (pitting one superhero against several adversaries) are merged into a titanic “Earth vs. the aliens” intergalactic brawl, courtesy of stunt performers, virtual doubles, green screens, and digital stitching. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) asks Captain America for a boost so she can grab onto a passing Skull hovercraft and seize control of it; when warriors on a second hovercraft try to shoot her off, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) blasts them, lands on the Park Avenue Viaduct to join Cap in another fight, then rockets upward, picking off warriors who are crawling up the face of a skyscraper to take out the archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) on a ledge, who in turn takes down another Skrull hovercraft, which plunges to earth in front of a snakelike leviathan that Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) are riding like a Dune sandworm while duking it out with more enemies.

As in the “Avengers Assemble!” shot, in which actors were replaced as needed by digital replicas, and two major players (Iron Man and Hulk) never physically existed, nearly everything in the “oner” is data. After this, superhero movies and superhero-adjacent action flicks (including the later Fast & Furious sequels) would attempt their own versions of the Avengers digital oner, sometimes throwing in variants of the “Assemble” shot as well, as if to make the homage official. —M.Z.S.

The first stretch of John Wick feels like the setup for a standard-issue, if slightly melodramatic, revenge picture. A man’s wife dies, and the beagle puppy she gave him is kicked to death by a Russian gangster. But then something wonderful happens. A dozen henchmen invade John Wick’s stucco modernist Long Island house, and he dispatches all of them, one by one, in a series of deliriously well-choreographed gun fu kills, each with more panache than the last. In four minutes, we learn all we need to know about the Art Deco, magical-realist mores and physics of the John Wick universe.

The fight sequences would grow more ambitious in later scenes and sequels, as Wick avenged his way through every nightclub in Europe. There would also be inspired rip-offs like 2017’s Atomic Blonde (from uncredited Wick co-director David Leitch) and 2021’s Nobody, in which Bob Odenkirk, of all people, commits many acts of Wick-like ultraviolence. But nothing would ever match the gleeful surprise one feels watching this scene for the first time. It’s too bad the dog couldn’t be there to see it. —L.B.

Mad Max: Fury Road is, broadly speaking, stunning and vicious beginning with the first violent encounter that the titular hero has with the woman who will prove a more crucial protagonist than him. Mad Max (Tom Hardy) is a “blood bag” at this point in the story (meaning his body is being used to provide blood transfusions to someone else), and he is dragged into a chase with no regard for whether he can defend himself amid the fighting. After a sandstorm collision gives Max the chance to escape (with the sick war boy for whom he’s been blood-bagging still attached to him), he stumbles upon the person being chased, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has run off with the five formerly imprisoned wives of this dystopian world’s leader, Immortan Joe. Their confrontation begins with Max furiously drinking water from a hose on the war rig Furiosa stole, his shotgun drawn on the pregnant wife played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. As he tries to get the wives to sever him from the war boy, and Furiosa sees an opening.

Battered and without her arm-prosthetic, she lives up to her name and attacks Max — a knowing glare plastered on her face, animosity seeping into every kick, tackle, and drag-down maneuver. Max is able to hold her off and momentarily get into the war rig, but Furiosa’s strength and dexterity knows no bounds, driven as she is by her loyalty to the women she’s transporting. Director George Miller’s camera skews the expected perspective and focuses intensely on Furiosa as she screams and clenches her jaw and stares down Hardy. Theron had done action before (Æon Flux came out in 2005, and Hancock was released in 2008), but here she was demonstrating an objective truth: She could take the spotlight from even the most magnetic, Method-obsessed male leads. The part would usher in a new understanding of a star we’ve known for decades, and two years later she wouldn’t have to share the attention in Atomic Blonde. —A.J.B.

The Villainess is not the kind of action film you return to because of investment in the lead’s tragic, convoluted quest for revenge but for the sheer prowess of its action sequences, which can stand entirely on their own, though they are of course thrumming with the intensity of director Jung Byung-gil’s script. The 2017 South Korean action-thriller centers on a highly skilled assassin, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin), whose abilities lead her to be taken in by an intelligence agency, given a new name, and trained — only for her to realize she’s pregnant. The film’s story of vengeance grows more complicated from there, hopping across timelines and memories; people long thought dead are revealed to be alive, and Sook-hee experiences a grave loss.

Eventually, the greatest set piece of the movie arrives, a glimmering motorcycle–sword fight designed by stunt coordinator Gui-Duck Kwon and cinematographer Jung-hun Park. Sook-hee, in an all-black leather ensemble, straddles a motorcycle and enters a tunnel while being chased by besuited assassins from the agency carrying katanas. It appears at first glance to be a continuous shot once they’re in the tunnel, but in the split seconds in which a sword falls or another assassin is sent skidding along the road, nearly invisible cuts allow for the scene to breathe. What makes this sequence is its ingenuity and camerawork, which opts for a stark, almost claustrophobic intimacy. Tracking in with every flick of Sook-hee’s sword or punch thrown before moving out. Its influence — like that of so many 21st-century South Korean thrillers — can be seen seeping into Hollywood cinema with no greater example than Chad Stahelski lifting this motorcycle fight almost wholesale for a crucial sequence in John Wick 3. A.J.B.

We’re not sure if you’ve heard, but Tom Cruise loves movies, and he loves them in all their old-school glory, which is why the Mission: Impossible films, while ostensibly focused on a group of agents with access to all manner of imaginable tech, are actually about getting back to basics. The effects in them are largely practical, the suspense is visceral, and they allow their star to hang off as many insanely tall buildings as he pleases.

Even the fight scenes have an old-school quality, which has never been more effectively displayed than in the glass-shattering bathroom beatdown in the sixth Mission film. While attempting to scan the face of a man they’ve knocked unconscious, IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his assigned CIA partner (Henry Cavill) realize the guy has reawakened. That’s when a pristine white nightclub bathroom turns into the unexpected ring for a brutal three-man bout, one that involves fist-to-face combat, bodies flying through massive mirrors, and attempted strangulations with sink pipes.

In certain ways, this feels like a natural evolution from the subway scene in the 1953 spy film Pickup on South Street, which also begins in a bathroom and, like this Fallout sequence, does not turn away from its more brutal details. When Cavill “reloads” and puts up his dukes so he can start punching again, a moment that became a meme before the movie even came out, he practically looks like Popeye after downing a freshly opened can of spinach. This breakneck banger of a sequence has a reverence for the classics and knows exactly how to shine them up so they look brand new, a quality it shares with the Mission series as a whole. —Chaney

There is a tipping point at which homage becomes invention, and Everything Everywhere All at Once’s fanny-pack fight is it. Throughout its entire run time, EEAAO feasts on references to Asian martial-arts films and utilizes the techniques and fighting styles that made them so visually appealing (to name a few: fewer cuts and longer takes, wirework, intricate wushu). The cumulative effect is one of so much muchness, whether Michelle Yeoh is in one reality an opera singer while in another she attacks riot police with their own shields, or Stephanie Hsu makes it rain glitter before she morphs into a salsa dancer and attacks police with dildos acting as nunchucks. It’s a lot! What sets the film’s early fanny-pack fight apart from the pack, though, is how it declares the movie’s mash-up methodology — its merging together of kung fu, breakdancing, and parkour — in a scene that replaces the classic martial-arts rope dart with an oversize dad’s fanny pack and undermines the assumption that the accessory is a symbol of emasculation.

Self-taught fight choreographers and stunt performers Brian and Andy Le, who gained a following on YouTube with their Martial Club videos, infused the film’s fights with their DIY, pull-from-all-disciplines mentality, and the fanny-pack scene jams in references while also shoving action forward. Ke Huy Quan cracking his knuckles as he prepares to throw down are a nod to Bruce Lee, and his character Waymond shedding his beleaguered-middle-age-dad identity to morph into a warrior version of himself is another trope, too. Yet how he whirls and twirls the fanny pack, incorporating it into sweeping on-the-ground kicks, leaping over it like a jump rope, and using it to perform a final scorpion drop on the last-standing security guard, feels fresh and unexpected. (The pack had a seven-foot-long strap for maximum spinning.) Directors the Daniels avoid overloading the fight with cuts and edits and instead shift perspective to get as many angles of the action as possible, so we see the full extent of Quan and his foes’ moves and reactions, including those of the Le brothers, who appear here and in the much-discussed butt-plug sequence.

“The human body is not supposed to bend that way,” Andy Le told Insider about the guard looking like he lands on his neck after Waymond slides the fanny pack’s clip into his nose and slams him down on the ground, but that observation could apply to everything Quan does in the scene. The Le brothers are increasingly booked and busy with work in Bullet Train and The Brothers Sun, and their crossing over from YouTube suggests a future blurring of the lines between venues as Hollywood looks outside itself for inspiration. (Something similar is happening with Uganda’s Wakaliwood studio, which uploads its low-budget, action-packed films to YouTube.) The marvels of the fanny-pack fight feel like the beginning of something, a New Wave for action to ride not just to the Oscars but beyond. —R.H.

You could feel S.S. Rajamouli’s Telugu blockbuster shaping what was to come in action cinema over the course of its three-hour-and-seven-minute run time, after it broke through to western audiences and made current Hollywood product look shabby and dull in comparison to its eye-popping spectacle. Rajamouli has cited Braveheart and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as among RRR’s influences, and while it’s still a little early to see the influence of his own movie about Indian revolutionaries on American productions, its unfettered maximalism seems destined to leave a mark.

It’s hard to pick a single fight from the film. It starts off with superstar Ram Charan taking on a whole raging crowd of people, includes a sequence in which Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr., another highly decorated (and compensated) Tollywood actor, make a prison escape on piggyback, and concludes with the pair battling British soldiers using flaming arrows and whole motorcycles as weapons. But the core of the movie is the sequence in which Charan’s Raju and Rao’s Bheem collide in the chaos of an attack on the governor’s mansion as two friends seemingly on opposite sides of the colonial divide. Their clash is (comparatively) on the restrained side, though it does still include Bheem grabbing a hose from a fountain and Raju hefting a lit torch so that each can pose dramatically with, and then attack using, their signature element. (Raju also punches a tiger.) But it’s the unapologetic emotions that underscore the fight, the tears and the anguished betrayal, that are ready to leave their mark on the future. For as operatic as the set pieces are, the feelings motivating RRR’s action leads are even more extravagant. American action films don’t always know what to do with big, dramatic sentiment, sometimes eschewing it entirely in favor of heroes who speak in quips or paeans to their families. Here’s to the further opening up of English-language audiences to action cinema from all over. The continued cross-pollination of ideas and approaches is the only way the genre will continue to change, grow, and blow our minds. A.W.

Before you get really angry, here is a partial list of the films we considered for our final list that did not make the final cut:
A Clockwork Orange, A History of Violence, Aladdin, Ali, Amores Perros, Annihilation, Atomic Blonde, Attack of the Clones, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Avengement, Barry Lyndon, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Batman: Under the Red Hood, Battle Royale, Blade, Blade Runner, Borat, Bottoms, Captain America: Civil War, Charlie’s Angels, Cowboy Bebop, Crazy Samurai, Creed III, Dabangg, Deewaar, Demon Slayer: Mugen Train, Die Hard With a Vengeance, Drive, Drunken Master, Duel to the Death, Dumb and Dumber, Escaflowne, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Fight Club, First Blood, First Strike, Flashpoint, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Freebie and the Bean, From Russia With Love, Gangs of New York, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Goldeneye, Goodfellas, Gorgeous, Grosse Pointe Blank, Happy Gilmore, Harakiri, Hard Times, Hardcore Henry, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hercules, House of Flying Daggers, I Saw The Devil, Ip Man, Iron Monkey, Irreversible, Jaws, John Wick Chapter 4, John Wick: Chapter 3, Jurassic Park, Khoon Bhari Maang, Kick Ass, Kickboxer, Kingsman: The Secret Service, La Femme Nikita, Lady Snowblood, Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Man of Steel, Merentau, Mission Kashmir, Mission: Impossible, North by Northwest, Only God Forgives, Pink Panther: A Shot in the Dark, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Point Break, Police Story, Qayamat: City Under Threat, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Raising Arizona, Rapid Fire, Raya and the Last Dragon, Resident Evil, Resident Evil 4, Rob Roy, Rocco and His Brothers, Rumble in the Bronx, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Snatch, Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, SPL 2, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Sudden Death, Tenet, The Big Country, The Crow, The End of Evangelion, The Fifth Element, The Godfather, The Great Mouse Detective, The Kid, The Last Duel, The Last of the Mohicans, The Matrix Reloaded, The Naked Kiss, The Night Comes For Us, The Predator, The Raid 2, The Set-Up, The Way of the Dragon, The World’s End, There’s Something About Mary, Toy Story, Transformers, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, True Lies, Undisputed III, Us, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Virasat, War of the Roses, Warriors Two, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, and Zoolander.

The real Wong was a physician and military coach as well as a martial-arts instructor, and his gradual accruing of heroic exploits turned him into a mythic figure. Some of China’s greatest action stars have played him, including Jackie Chan (in the Drunken Master movies) and Jet Li (Once Upon a Time in China).

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