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From Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan and Jet Lee, and from Ip Man to John Wick, I’ve always loved a good movie fistfight. And I still think that some of the best fighting movies of all time happen to be martial arts movies.
That being said, martial arts in films are just as difficult to get right as a car chase or a sex scene. And if the choreography or camera movements are not extremely well done, it will leave us as viewers confused – or even worse – bored.
Other times it’s not as much the choreography itself but the build-up or the context of the fight that gets us emotionally engaged in the fight.
Good fight scenes will stay long in our memory and become masterpieces in their own rights.
Here are the 20 best fight scenes in fighting movies ranked for your viewing pleasure.
20. The Bourne Supremacy (2004). Munich Newspaper vs. Knife Fight.
In this second chapter in the Bourne series, we see Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) fighting the assassin Jarda (Marton Csokas) with a newspaper.
I really like the creativity and dirty fighting in the Bourne movies. The choreography in this particular has some Krav Maga mixed with Escrima to it. It looks efficient, and the sound design is great!
The problem I have with the fights in the Bourne movies has to do with the camera work. It’s way too shaky and moves around a lot, which makes the fights somehow confusing to follow.
Maybe that’s intentional – fights are chaotic. But at the same time, choreographed fights have a narrative, and the narrative in the Bourne movie fights is hard to follow.
That doesn’t take away from the fact that this fight deserves a place on this list.
If you’re into special agent films like James Bourne and Mr. 007 himself – James Bond – you should also check out our ranked list of the best Bond movies.
19. No Retreat, No Surrender (1986). Jason vs. Ivan final fight.
If you’re unfamiliar with this cult classic, you should watch it. If nothing else, just for the sheer amount of 1980s culture and movie cliches – a lot of which would be considered politically incorrect today.
This movie has everything: the mandatory training montage, BMX-bikes, breakdance dance-offs, the black and funny sidekick with a ghettoblaster, the annoying fat guy, and the xenophobic remarks towards the Russian (granted – Ivan IS bad!). Yup, the 1980s here we come.
And then, of course, we have some great martial arts by Jason Stillwell (Kurt McKinney), and Ivan Kraschinsky the Russian (Jean-Claude Van Damme).
It’s easy to see why Van Damme moved on to become a huge martial arts movie star. Despite the over-acting, his charisma shines through – and so do his amazing kicks and martial arts skills.
No Retreat, No Surrender put Van Damme into the spotlight for bigger productions such as Bloodsport, which made him a movie star, and for that this fight scene deserves a spot on this list.
18. Watchmen (2009) Rorschach Prison Canteen Scene
This scene from Watchmen (2009) directed by Zack Snyder is a good example that a fight scene doesn’t necessarily have to be very long and flashy to be effective.
Jackie Earle Haley does an amazing job as Rorschach, who has been imprisoned together with some of the criminals he has helped put away in this scene.
Two blows and a bit of hot frying oil later, everyone knows not to mess with him, and to make sure everyone gets it, he delivers one of the coolest lines ever:
“None of you seem to understand! I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me!”
17. The Matrix (1999). Trinity’s first fight scene
I clearly remember seeing the bullet-time effect for the first time at the opening of the Matrix in 1999, and thinking “what the hell was that?”.
The Matrix brought so much new technology and creativity to fight scenes that I think deserves a space on this list.
And since it was Trinity’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) cool bullet-time flying kick that introduces us to a whole new way of seeing fight choreography, I think the opening fight of The Matrix deserves a space on this list.
16. The Karate Kid (1984). The Final Fight vs Daniel and Johnny.
The bad martial arts performances and dated choreography and camera work don’t take from the emotional impact of this showdown between Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) in The Karate Kid from 1984.
Plus, to create a kick that everyone knows but no one would ever use in real life – that’s something.
The success of the spin-off series Cobra Kai is a testament to the historical impact this scene and the Karate Kid series has had on martial arts in popular culture.
For that, this scene has earned a spot on this list.
15. Crying Freeman (1995). Yo vs Netah and Kimie and her henchmen.
In this final fight from the movie Crying Freeman from 1995, we get to see Yo Hinomura aka Crying Freeman (Mark Dacascos) battling Netah (Tcheky Karyo) and Kimie (Yoko Shimada) and her henchmen.
I remember seeing this scene in my local drive-in theater and I was blown away by Dacascos’s martial arts and flipping skills.
It was also the first time I saw his famous ‘Butterfly Kick’ (near the end where he flips between two swords).
I think Dacascos was actually the first to perform that particular move on the screen in Only The Strong (1993). Since then, this kick and variations have been copied and shown in multiple martial arts films.
14. Million Dollar Baby (2004). The Final Fight Scene
The final fight scene from Million Dollar Baby is one of those that leaves a deep and long-lasting emotional impact on you.
Hilary Swank does an amazing job as the hard-working boxer Maggie Fitzgerald, who slowly works her way up the ranks until this pivotal moment.
Sure, you can find more flashy boxing choreography and camera moves in other fight scenes – like the one-take boxing fight from CREED – but it’s hard to find a more emotional beating than this.
I loved this movie so much, but I never want to see it again!
13. Man of Tai Chi (2013). Job Interview Fight Scene
Man of Tai Chi (2013) is directed by Keanu Reeves, who also plays the villain Donaka Mark.
In this scene, we see Tiger Chen Lin Hun (Tiger Hu Chen) going to his first job interview at Donaka Marks company.
The surprising fight that follows shows many great martial skills from both Chen and his opponent (Jeremy Marinas). It’s a nice mix of traditional flashy kung-fu moves and ground-style MMA fighting.
I just hope I’ll never have to do that for a job interview!
12. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Bar Fight Scene.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from director Ang Lee popularized wire kung-fu (aka Wire Fu).
There are so many great fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but the bar fight scene where the young rebellious Jen (Ziyi Zhang) picks a fight with seasoned kung-fu masters is probably my favorite.
Jen not only tears the place apart physically, but she also tears apart the ego of all the proud masters while making her name known everywhere at the same time.
The flow and choreography, the amazing performance by Ziyi Zhang, and the humor earn this scene a well-deserved place on this list.
11. Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003). The Bride vs. The Crazy 88
This list wouldn’t be complete without this scene from Kill Bill: Vol. 1.
We see The Bride, aka Beatrix Kiddo, aka Black Mamba (Uma Thurman), dish out some serious punishment to the Crazy 88, aka the private army of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu).
This scene is so over-the-top it’s almost cartoonish in character, but I love it for its overall coolness and amazing cinematography, and use of colors.
10. John Wick (2014). Red Circle Night Club
The John Wick movies starring Keanu Reeves have done a great job of combining cool Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu moves with armed combat.
Granted, Reeves isn’t as fast as he was in The Matrix. Instead, he understands to channel a seasoned hitman, who is less flashy but extremely efficient in his hand-to-hand combat movements and firefights.
In the scene, Wick methodically and cynically hunts Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen). The fluidity of the mix of hand weapons and martial arts earns this scene a place on this list.
9. The Transporter 3 (2008). The Garage Scene.
In this scene from Transporter 3, we see Frank Martin (Jason Statham) beating the crap out of Johnson’s (Robert Knepper) men while a mechanic tries to disarm the device on the car.
Statham always manages to create fight scenes that show quick and efficient skills with a few flashy kicks sprinkled in.
In this particular scene, I especially enjoy his fight with “the big one”.
8. Ip Man (2008). Ip Man vs Jin Shan Zhao
Ip Man from 2008 tells the story of Bruce Lee’s famous teacher and master of Wing Chun.
In this scene, we see Ip Man (Donnie Yen) challenged by Jin (Siu-Wong Fan) in Ip Man’s home.
It’s a great and fun scene, and I like how we see Ip Man’s calmness in stark contrast to the aggressiveness of Jin.
At the same time, it’s a battle of Northern Kung-Fu (Jin) vs. Southern Kung-Fu (Ip Man).
Yen and Fan’s great performances and martial arts skills ear this fight a natural place on this list.
7. Sherlock Holmes (2009). Boxing Match
In this awesome scene from the 2009 Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr., we get to see some great slow-motion shots, as Holmes uses his analytical brain to plan his next moves. And after that, we see it carried out in real-time.
I think this was a really great and creative idea, and Downey Jr. does an amazing job of coupling his Wing Chun training with traditional old-school western bare-knuckle boxing moves and stances.
I also love the open-handed slapping techniques and throws, as these were the preferred technique so that you wouldn’t hurt your hands before the invention of the boxing gloves we know today.
6. Enter The Dragon (1973). Lee vs. Oharra fight.
Enter the Dragon from 1973 is probably the most famous film by Bruce Lee.
It’s easy to see why since it’s full of amazing fight scenes. The hidden mirror room fight scene at the end is probably the best known of all of Bruce Lee’s fight scenes.
However, my favorite has always been this one, where Lee battles the crime lord Han’s bodyguard Oharra (Robert Wall).
It’s a great display of Bruce Lees’s fast one-inch punch and Wing Chun roots. Lee manages to impose both fear and respect in Han (Kien Shih), Bolo (Bolo Yeung), and the other martial artists attending the competition on Han’s private island.
And, of course, the “boards don’t hit back” line seals the deal.
5. Unleashed (2005). Danny The Dog gets unleashed – first fight scene
Like with artists such as Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Donnie Yen, you could create a whole list with just fight scenes starring Jet Li.
Li has starred in so many cool fight scenes showcasing his Wushu skills.
This scene from Unleashed, aka Danny the Dog, is a bit different – it’s less flashy kungfu – and more dirty and aggressive than we usually see from Li.
Unleashed is underrated compared to other Jet Li movies, but I like it and the fighting style in it.
The scene has some really cool moves, and it’s easy to follow even though it’s gritty and dark.
That’s why I think it deserves a spot on this list.
4. Oldboy (2003). Hallway fight scene
This scene from Oldboy is so cool on so many levels.
First, there’s the fighting itself. It’s dirty, chaotic, and non-flashy at all. And we don’t get the impression that our hero Dae-su Oh (Choi Min-sik) has superhuman fighting skills, like in so many other movies.
In fact, Oh gets beaten down several times, and even gets a knife in his back. But he keeps fighting.
The cinematography is also impressive. I love the colors and the lighting, which really adds to the grittiness of the scene.
And then, of course, is the fact, that the whole fighting sequence is a one-take where the camera slowly and steadily follows the chaotic action down the hallway.
And I’m pretty sure that this scene inspired another cool one-take scene from the Netflix series Daredevil, which you can watch below:
3. Ong-Bak (2003). Fight Club Scene
Chinese Kung-Fu dominates martial arts movies, so it’s nice to see some excellent Muay Thai on the big screen too.
And no one represents Muay Thai better on film than Tony Jaa.
In this fight scene from the first Ong-Bak film, we see Ting (Tony Jaa) battling multiple opponents in an underground fight club.
I love how Jaa deals with the first opponent – one kick – and the reaction from the crowd.
But it’s the second fight I think really stands out. It has a lot of great choreography, cool moves, it is easy to follow the action, and Jaa manages to use signature knees and elbows from Muay Thai and use them creatively.
If you like lots of flying knees and elbows to the head, you should definitely check out the movies with Tony Jaa.
2. Rumble in the Bronx (1995). Jackie Chan vs. Tony and his gang
Picking the best Jackie Chan fight scene was really hard. The man is a legend and his fight scenes are so great and creative, that it was really hard to choose.
I settled on this scene from Rumble in the Bronx, which also happens to be one of my favorite Jackie Chan movies, where Keung (Jackie Chan) teaches Tony (Marc Akerstream) and his very 1990s gang a lesson.
I think this scene embodies everything the audience has come to love about Jackie Chan: great martial arts skills combined with comedic elements and creative genius.
The action is clear and easy to follow all the way without the use of shaky-cam like we see in the Bourne movies.
Plus, no one understands how to utilize the different props in a scene to his advantage and make it all seem easy, like Jackie Chan.
1. Undisputed 2 (2006). Final Fight Scene
Okay, admitted, I’m a huge fan of Scott Atkins. I think his fighting skills on-screen are unmatched.
In this scene from Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing, Yuri Boyka (Atkins) battles it out against George Chambers (Michael Jai White).
It’s not often we get to see such two huge martial arts movie stars battling each other on-screen.
As always, Atkins kicks are out of this world (fx check out his move at 2:40). But also, the action is always easy to follow, and the sound design is great! You can really feel those heavy punches landing.
That’s why this fight scene has earned the number one spot on this list.
Man, that was harder, than I thought. Picking out the best fight scene of all time is no easy task with so many great scenes and martial artists to choose from.
Fight scenes don’t necessarily have to be very long or flashy to have an emotional impact. Sometimes a single-timed kick can seal the deal.
In fact, long fight scenes with a lot of flashy moves risk being boring and suffer the same fate of so many car chase scenes or action scenes. Especially if you can’t follow the narrative in the scene due to shaky camera movements or bad choreography.
So that’s my take on the 20 best fight scenes of all time. Do you agree? Disagree? Which ones did I miss? Let me know in the comment section below.
About the author:
Jan Sørup is a videographer and photographer from Denmark. He’s the owner of filmdaft.com and of the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.