Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: In honor of the bone-crunching “Atomic Blonde,” what is the greatest movie fight scene?
Erin Oliver Whitney (@cinemabite), ScreenCrush
I’ve got a soft spot for wuxia so the “best fight scene” immediately evokes Zhang Yimou in my mind. I could list every fight in “Hero,” sequences so spellbindingly beautiful and graceful you forget you’re watching violence. The bamboo forest battle from “House of Flying Daggers” is another all-timer, a mesmerizing fight that almost entirely takes place in the air. And the bone-crunching, table-smashing Vernita Green duel in “Kill Bill Vol.” I never gets old. But if I had to choose just one scene to crown as the GOAT, it’s gotta be the “Oldboy” fight. Like the “Atomic Blonde” stairwell fight, you feel the sheer exhaustion and pain amounting during a nearly-3 minute single-take. Plus, how do you top a fight where one guy takes on 25 with nothing but a hammer and a knife in his back?
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for The Guardian, Nylon, Vulture
I am firm in my conviction that more professional basketball players should be learning kung fu. During the ’70s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar trained under Bruce Lee and developed a close personal friendship with the virtuoso ass-kicker, allegedly going so far as to fly himself to Hong Kong during the NBA’s on-season just to shoot his role in Lee’s directorial effort “Game of Death.” He plays what essentially amounts to the final boss on Lee’s vaguely defined quest upwards through the level of a pagoda, the photosensitive Mantis Guardian of the 5th Floor. The real Abdul-Jabbar was no match for Lee, and the scene has to work around that imbalance, but what the man lacked in technical skills he more than made up for in being freakishly tall. The matchup of the already-slight Lee with his stilt of an opponent is bizarre and engrossing, with every shot resembling an optical illusion. Better still, K.A.J.’s emulation of Lee’s self-originated Jeet Kune Do style pairs the two of them in a fluid interplay that should feel awkward, but somehow plays like a brutal waltz. Someone get Kyrie Irving in one-on-one sessions with Tony Jaa. [closes tab containing google search for ‘name of any basketball player’]
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
The long answer is the impetuous, Homeric ten-minute brawl between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen to top off John Ford’s “The Quiet Man,” which also has built into it the audience for fight scenes and their authentic yet dubious pleasures. The short answer is the shockingly fast (single-take, if memory serves) climactic shootout near the end of Fritz Lang’s “Moonfleet.”
Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), Freelance for The Guardian, Vanity Fair
John Goodman vs Nicolas Cage in “Raising Arizona.” The camerawork is clean and smooth and velvety, but the fighting itself is a mess. Cage winding up for a thunderous punch only to scratch his knuckles on the ceiling is the type of thing that would happen to me.
Christian Blauvelt (@Ctblauvelt), BBC Culture
I feel like I should go with something really cool and obscure like the “house of mirrors” shoot-out in Tonino Valerii’s undersung Spaghetti Western masterpiece “My Name Is Nobody.” But I’m going with my heart. And my heart tells me that the sustained, snowballing opening of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” is the greatest bit of action ever put on screen.
It begins, of course, with a musical number – Steven Spielberg directing his future bride Kate Capshaw in a lavish Shanghai floorshow production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes that opens with the striking of a massive gong (a hat-tip to Rank Films’ famous logo). Then it becomes a tense showdown over a lazy susan as Indy, wearing a white tux and in full Bond mode, negotiates for a diamond from gangster Lao Che in exchange for the ashes of the first Manchu dynasty emperor Nurhaci. Then Indy gets poisoned, balloons drop, and the diamond gets lost in a spilled bucket of ice and it’s a total free-for-all that results in a high-speed chase down the streets of Shanghai and onto an airplane – an airplane that is piloted by a Lao Che goon and drops Indy and company over the Himalayas, leaving them to slide down the side of a mountain and off a cliff on an inflatable raft. You barely get a chance to catch your breath.
“Temple of Doom” is basically Spielberg’s version of a Tarantino film – a film stuffed with references to the movies that inspired him. And the range of movies quoted in “Temple of Doom” is wildly diverse: from “Broadway Melody of 1940” for that starry bit of Norman Taurog-esque staging of the chorus girls during “Anything Goes,” to Capra’s “Lost Horizon” for the action aboard the plane and the mysterious Himalayas landing, to Disney’s “In Search of the Castaways” for the journey in the raft down the mountain.
Spielberg and Lucas embraced pulp with “Temple of Doom” with an intensity they never quite did with the more respectable “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Last Crusade” (as great as those movies are in their own right). The mix of action, comedy, and utter horror on display throughout is truly breathtaking and I love the elegance of the sight gags: when, later in the film, Indy burns his shoes using his feet as brakes to stop the cart at the end of extraordinary mine chase (the meta idea of an action scene literally becoming a roller-coaster ride) he dances around and shouts “Water! Water!” His feet are on fire! Except then he sees that Mola Ram’s henchmen have opened a dam and a river’s worth of water is rushing toward them at lethal speed, at which he point he shouts again “Water! Water” not as a plea but as a warning. A brilliant comedic reframing based on context and intonation, and indicative of how tightly crafted this whole movie is.
I’m putting it out there: “Temple of Doom” is the best Indy movie. It’s the purest execution ever of how to make a bit of Old Hollywood pulp new again.
Jude Dry (@judedry), IndieWire
Flying slightly under the radar when it came out in 2007, Michael Davis’ woefully underrated action parody “Shoot ‘Em Up” is the kind of movie you either love or hate, depending on how serious you think Davis takes himself. Though it seems pretty clear from the outset that Davis is having fun; anyone who opens his movie with the protagonist (a stone-faced Clive Owen) delivering a baby in the middle of a shoot-out and severing the umbilical chord with a bullet clearly has a sense of humor. The ridiculous action sequences stand out even more in opposition to the seriousness of the characters, namely Owen as a drifter caught up in an outlandish baby-farming ring who goes by the name Smith, Paul Giamatti as a criminal overlord for the ages, and Monica Bellucci as a drippingly sensuous femme fatale.
The best fight sequence in the movie is as inventive and naughty as any more artfully done, when Smith and Bellucci’s character are besieged mid-shag by a comically endless string of gun-toting assassins. Without missing a beat, Smith takes down each and every one with a series of moves that get both jobs done at the same time. Bellucci really helps sell it, registering each flying bullet and inadvertent stroke with alternating shock and pleasure. It’s completely ridiculous, and oh so much fun.
Davis drives home the movie’s pulp parody showing Smith biting a carrot, and actually uttering the words, “What’s up, Doc?” to Giamatti’s equally outlandish and oily villain. All in good, fun, “Shoot ‘Em Up” infuses its satisfying action sequences with humor at every turn, providing layers beneath the fun for those who choose to see it. Thankfully, Davis doesn’t bang you over the head with his satire, which is probably why it was lost on so many — an unfortunate side effect of not taking yourself too seriously.
Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics and Film School Rejects
This week’s question is close to a stumper for my attempt to always answer with documentaries, but I’m not giving in. If anything, I could just say the fight scene from “They Live” as featured in “The Pevert’s Guide to Ideology,” but that’s sort of cheating. Would the confrontation in “Harlan County USA” count? Probably not. I guess I have to go with something very recent: the cat fight scene in “Kedi.” Actually, that’s not too much of a settle, since it’s a pretty crazy fight scene.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail
So, although I did not love the extreme violence of “Atomic Blonde” nor its clunky plot set-up and reveal, I loved the panache of its design and wild choreography of its fight scenes. That’s always what gets me: pure choreography, like a brutal ballet, motivated by the narrative. Which should make me a fan of Asian martial-arts films, but I confess I have a gaping hole in my film knowledge there, though I adore what Jackie Chan films I have seen (that man is a genius). One of my favorite moments in the very silly “Rumble in the Bronx” is when Chan does battle from within an abandoned refrigerator. That was cleverer to me than anything I saw in the much more renowned “Drunken Master” films (which, granted, are better actual movies). And Chan would be nowhere without Bruce Lee (and Buster Keaton). Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” is a delight, for sure. I am not such a fan of “wire fu,” however: those films where the characters can fly. It takes the fun out of it, for me.
Other movies where the fight scenes have stood out are as follows: the bald Nazi fight in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”; most bits of the first three Bourne films; the train fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in “From Russia with Love”; Jason Statham kicking ass while greased to the gills in the otherwise very dumb “The Transporter”; Sigourney Weaver squaring off against the mother alien in “Aliens”; and Sandra Oh and Anne Heche doing serious damage to each other in Onur Tukel’s “Catfight.” But my two absolute favorites, as I write this, are the vicious naked-in-the-sauna fight scene in David Cronenberg’s 2007 “Eastern Promises” and the tragicomic pas-de-deux-in-the-boxing-ring of Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 “City Lights.” The former is a masterful bit of non-gratuitous savagery that is entirely justified by the story and where the stakes are genuinely – and viscerally – high. The latter is a wonder of comic timing made more resonant by its sad conclusion, with similarly weighty stakes. Boxing films aren’t usually my thing, but I can watch this moment in “City Lights” over and over again and it never gets old.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
My immediate response to this question — my immediate response to most questions really — was to think of the scene in “The Legend of Drunken Master” where Jackie Chan fights a guy in the cramped space beneath a train. There are too many incredible Chan fights to name, but the grace, confidence, and comedy of this exquisitely violent ballet is what first made me recognize that his talent is on par with that of Charlie Chaplin.
Mike Ryan (@MikeRyan), Uproxx
The underwater fight in “Top Secret!.”