Any genre can have a fight scene. Action, drama, and even romance have used fight scenes to forward plot, define character, and emphasize a movie’s theme. But that’s not good enough science fiction, the genre that invents concepts only to break them down and reinvent them again. Science fiction takes your standard fight scene and beats it with both fists and three tentacles. Science fiction will fight your fight scene not to the death, but to the pain.
And in the process, it creates something completely new.
Here are nine fight scenes that punch other fight scenes in the face. And one bonus scene, because we’re good that way.
The Matrix: “I’m going to enjoy watching you die, Mr. Anderson”
The Matrix was one of the first Western movies with an Eastern martial arts sensibility. The Wachoskis hired Chinese choreographer Yuen Woo-ping to rigorously train the actors for six months in martial arts and wire-fu before filming. Their hard work paid off. Before The Matrix, audiences were content to watch stuntmen double for the stars; after The Matrix, Hollywood demanded more athletic prowess from their employees.
The Matrix’ fight scenes, such as this epic one between Neo and Agent Smith, also popularized the camera technique of bullet time.
Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace: Darth Maul gets mauled
George Lucas could have hired any experienced actor to play the main antagonist Darth Maul. Instead, he hired an experienced martial artist to carry the weight of this $115 million movie. But where would this scene, or in fact, the entire film, be without Ray Park’s muscular wushu? In this perfect three-way fight, Obi-Wan, is forced to watch helplessly as Maul dispatches his master, Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan eventually slices Maul. Thus Maul learns a valuable lesson: Don’t do anything by halves.
But that’s not the only surprise. The fight scene is spectacular, true, but the best moment comes when Qui-Gon is trapped between two layers of a barrier. Instead of fighting his way out, he kneels down to meditate. The calm before the storm is as powerful as the storm itself.
Equilibrium: Gun Kata scene
Martial arts and guns don’t mix. Just ask Bruce Lee, who waved away the use of guns in his famous Enter the Dragon, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who said of the weapon, “These things? Never helpful.” The movie Equilibrium, however, unexpectedly proved that the two can be combined. Kurt Wimmer invented an entire new martial art, “gun kata,” for this movie (a detailed explanation of it can be found here), and he treats it as if it were as revered and studied a form as kung fu.
Ryan vs. Dorkman 1 & 2
If you’ve never heard of Ryan vs. Dorkman, you need to improve your YouTube-fu. This two-part fight scene was created for a fan-film lightsaber competition by filmmakers Ryan Wieber and Michael Scott. These short films prove that you don’t need a huge budget to impress an audience with your uber leet fight skillz. They also provided perfect resumes for Wieber and Scott, who now have IMDB credits as long as their sabers.
Sherlock Holmes (2009): Sherlock plans the fight in advance
Although we think of Sherlock Holmes as a cape-wearing, cocaine-sniffing dandy with an outsized brain, author Arthur Conan Doyle clearly imbued him with the martial prowess it took to kick Victorian ass. The steampunky 2009 version explored Sherlock’s brawn as well as his brains—and this scene proves that both are important to a fight. Both aspects work in tandem as Sherlock plots out every move in advance, then sets his plans in motion full steam ahead. It’s as if he made chess a full-contact sport. (Start at 1:25)
The Avengers: The argument
You may think that the best superhero fight scene in The Avengers is the throw-down between Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man. Yes, it was good. But the all-verbal smackdown later in the movie was even better. Here, all the Avengers (except Hawkeye) are assembled…and actively boiling each others’ blood while they argue their next move.
Not one punch is thrown, not one gun is flashed, not one Bruce Banner is Hulked. But the threat of all three are very real in the best sparring scene that theater-going money can buy.
Jason and the Argonauts: Jason vs. the Skeletons
Jason and the Argonauts (1963) set the standard for fights with non-human characters, and Lord of the Rings’ orcs; The Phantom Menace’s Gunguns vs. droids; and Aliens vs. Predators alien and predator can thank animator Ray Harryhausen for that. Although the battle starts slow between Jason and the skeletons that baddie Aeëtes has raised, the audience quickly gets a glorious burst of sword-and-sandal adrenaline.
To our great surprise, our hero doesn’t actually win the battle. But he escapes like a boss.
Children of Men: Car “chase”
Children of Men is the best movie you probably haven’t seen, a tense apocalyptic drama where the world is dying in real time. Our protagonist, Theo, spends more time running away than actually applying fist to face. However, he manages to get rolling in one of the most innovative car chase scenes in film history. Theo doesn’t have a high-speed chase: He has a low-speed chase as the car he steals won’t start. The reversal of speeds is simple and simply spectacular.
(Note: Better yet, this isn’t even the most remarkable scene in the movie. That belongs to a mind-blowing seven-and-a half-minute single-take battle near the end.)
Aliens: “Get away from her, you bitch!”
In the 1983 movie Krull, the heroine intercedes in a fight by tossing the hero a weapon. Pretty much, that was all that was expected of women when it came to onscreen battles. Enter Ellen Ripley, the hero of the 1986 movie, Aliens. When it came time to fight cinema’s creepiest enemy–the Xenomorph queen–she straps out a suit of metal and fire and shows her who really is queen of the fight scene.
Eastern Promises: Steam room antics
Eastern Promises is not a genre movie, but it stars Viggo Mortensen, formerly known as Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Naked. A naked Viggo Mortensen. Fighting two fully dressed men in a steam room—the first fight scene of its kind (but not the last. See Borat.) In this dark, fascinating thriller about a young midwife who finds herself embroiled in the Russian mafia, the rest of the sentence doesn’t matter because in this scene, Viggo Mortensen fights naked.
By Carol Pinchefsky
Carol Pinchefsky lives in New York City with her husband and their books. You can find more of her writing at www.carolpinchefsky.com.