This weekend saw the release of two solid action films from performers many fans had already written off, Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa – my reviews of Kung Fu Killer and Skin Trade can be found here – and inspired by this happy surprise I’m listing twelve of the best movie martial arts-style fight scenes!
I’m focusing on hand-to-hand fights, with or without weapons, and avoiding gun fights, war movies, and the likes of Godzilla vs King Kong. For me the best fights rely mostly on a combination of skill and choreography — while fights accomplished strictly through editing or with a heavy dose of wire-fu/CG can be entertaining and a lot of fun they’re ultimately less impressive than ones featuring truly talented fighters showing real skill. I love the bathroom free-for-all in The World’s End and the church fracas in Kingsman: The Secret Service for example, but both owe as much to post-production efforts as they do anything else.
I’m also ignoring dramatically powerful bouts like the ones in Rocky, The Karate Kid, or Warrior and the awesome spectacles that are They Live’s six-minute back alley brawl and Oldboy’s hallway hammer skirmish in favor of martial arts-style fights featuring real artists and visible impact. Even then, though, there are dozens of truly great contenders to choose from. Hell, the list could easily consist of just Jackie Chan. Or Donnie Yen. Or a dozen movies I haven’t even seen yet.
But there can only be twelve — because that’s the arbitrary number I’ve chosen — and here they are, twelve of the best, most impressive, and most compulsively re-watchable movie fight scenes.
12. Jackie Chan vs glass in Police Story (1984)
There are a fair amount of stunts in this sequence, but they don’t distract from the ferocious fights between an uncharacteristically angry Chan and a mall filled with bad guys. He uses a variety of props, but unlike most of his films there’s no sense of playfulness here. That darker edge faded as the Police Story franchise went on (although it returned for the last two installments, New Police Story and Police Story 2013), and the scene serves as a reminder of the brutality he’s capable of. It’s also just incredibly entertaining.
11. Donnie Yen vs ten black belts in Ip Man (2008)
This one is short, sweet and brutal – just like Yen! – and it earns a spot for precisely those reasons. Most fight scenes that pit one character against many drag it out, and while more fighting is rarely a bad thing Yen’s surgical efficiency here shows fantastic precision and skill in addition to some machine gun-style pummeling. The film features several stand-out fights including an end battle with a Japanese general and a test of skills with fellow masters, but this one remains my favorite.
10. Bruce Lee vs a Japanese dojo in Fist of Fury (1972)
I love watching Lee in action, but I’m not really a big fan of his film fights. My preference is for more modern films that benefit from tighter choreography, but I return to Lee again and again for his grace and speed. This scene is an iconic one, and while it’s been recreated by Jet Li (Fist of Legend) and Donnie Yen (Legend of the Fist) there’s a power to seeing Lee dispatch his country’s occupiers with lightning-quick ferocity.
9. Michelle Yeoh vs Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
There are plenty of female fighters who could kick our collective asses – Maggie Q, Gina Carano, Jija Yanin, Veronica Ngo – but Yeoh remains one of the most consistently impressive. Her work in Jackie Chan’s Supercop (aka Police Story 3), The Heroic Trio and others reveal a talent that belongs on any list of martial artists in film. This fight pits her against Zhang, herself no slouch at fighting, in a mesmerizing battle highlighting Yeoh’s mastery of handheld weapons, and it’s just one of the film’s many gorgeous displays.
8. Donnie Yen vs Wu Jing in SPL a.k.a. Kill Zone (2005)
This is a simple fight between two guys at the top of their game. Yen choreographed the fight’s framework, but reportedly he and Wu improvised as they went along. They basically competed to see who could make contact with the other, and the result is a blistering display of coordination and speed. The fight that follows, between Yen and Sammo Hung, is also fantastic.
7. Iko Uwais and Donny Alamsyah vs Yayan “Mad Dog” Ruhian in The Raid (2011)
It’s incredibly rare to find a movie where a villain is double-teamed by the good guys because it looks far from heroic, but that’s part of the brilliance at play here. It’s two against one, but we’re cheering for the heroes because they’re still the underdogs against the incredibly scrappy Mad Dog. He has an earlier fight with Joe Taslim that also delivers a strong balance of skill and intensity.
6. Jackie Chan vs Ken Lo and his never-ending legs in Drunken Master II (1994)
Re-titled The Legend of Drunken Master for Western audiences, this was one of Chan’s biggest hits for obvious reasons. It revisits his popular character and fighting style while upping the quantity and quality of fights and set-pieces, and seeing Chan take on an opponent whose legs are as long as he is tall never gets old. A similar match-up can be found in the end fight of the under-seen Who Am I as he takes on two long-limbed guys.
5. Tony Jaa vs most of Thailand in Ong Bak 2 (2008)
Jaa’s debut as a director was filled with all manner of drama and personal breakdowns, but the end result is a big, messy film overflowing in spectacular action. The twelve minute final fight sees Jaa utilizing multiple fighting styles and weapons, and regardless of what you think of the rest of the film or the man himself his skill demands respect.
4. Jet Li vs Billy Chow in Fist of Legend (1994)
Li enters the fray around the 3:40 mark, and the next several minutes feature a fantastic combination of rapid fire hits and powerful kicks as the two men face off. Highlights include Li fighting one-handed until he can pop his arm back into its socket and some solid belt play. Li’s a great fighter, but the vast majority of his work uses a bit too much obvious wire-work for my taste. It’s kept to a minimum here, and the result speaks for itself.
3. Iko Uwais vs Cecep Arif Rayman (prefaced by Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man) in The Raid 2 (2014)
Less of a single, protracted fight than its predecessor, The Raid 2 punctuates the numerous action beats with pockets of drama. The third act though is one big fight as Uwais’ character works his way through a building overflowing with bad guys, and in that beautiful mayhem is this brilliantly executed face-off between hero and assassin. Love it. (The YouTube clip includes the Hammer Girl/Baseball Bat Man fight that immediately precedes it, but that’s fine as their clash is also awesome.)
2. Jackie Chan vs Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez in Wheels on Meals (1984)
Chan and Urquidez faced off again four years later in Dragons Forever, but this remains a high mark for both fighters. (Well, Urquidez did go on to fight John Cusack in Gross Pointe Blank.) Their similar stature and equally fast speed make for a highly enjoyable battle between peers. Fans of these two should check out Chan’s Gorgeous – it’s not a great movie, but it features a pair of fights between Chan and Bradley James Allan who’s also a smaller guy packing immense ability.
1. Donnie Yen vs Collin Chou in Flash Point (2007)
Yen mixes his MMA-style fighting into all of his modern-day features, but this one remains the best example of its inclusion in a martial arts battle and my absolute favorite fight to watch. Yen is a blast to watch in action for both his grounded, punch-happy style and the inevitable swagger that appears towards the end of the fight.
Honorable mentions could go on for days, but some of the scenes that just missed the cut include:
- Scott Adkins vs Marko Zaror in Undisputed 3: Redemption
- Tony Jaa vs a spiral staircase full of baddies in The Protector
- Donnie Yen vs Sammo Hung in SPL (aka Kill Zone)
- Won Bin vs Thanayong Wongtrakul in The Man from Nowhere
- Bruce Lee vs Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon
- Jackie Chan in Who Am I’s rooftop fight, in First Strike’s ladder fight, in Rumble In the Bronx’s hideout fight, in Gorgeous vs Bradley James Allan and so on…