As our friend Angry Asian Man broke the nerdtastic news this week that some fine fighters from The Raid would be joining the cast of Star Wars, it seemed as good a time as any to convene a roundtable of some of us martial arts film enthusiasts here at the NOC to talk about our favorite martial arts fight scenes.
Before we shared our favorite scenes with one another, we guessed there would be significant overlap, especially concerning the great Bruce Lee. Sure enough, each of us had picked at least one Bruce Lee scene on our individual lists. To avoid repetition, we decided not to double up, so as you can see some folks wrote about legendary Bruce scenes and the rest of us wrote about alternates — but please trust, we keep Bruce at the front of our fighting hearts.
Who’s not on the list, though? Uma Thurman. Just… no.
Zhang Ziyi vs. Michelle Yeoh — Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
I’m all for bone crunching, brutal fight scenes. But I also enjoy a very well choreographed, elegant one. Some of my favorite fight scenes combine beauty with brutality (see all of the first Ong Bak) — but this scene between Michelle Yeoh against Zhang Ziyi is probably my favorite of the “fantastic” choreographed modern fight scenes: wire work combined with honest stunt fighting. And it’s gorgeously shot.
Jackie Chan vs Lau Kar-leung — Drunken Master 2
I first saw this at the Riverview when Asian Media Access would run late night showings of martial arts flicks in the 90s, with a rowdy audience, and not believing what I was seeing. If right now you’re seeing Jackie Chan’s name and rolling your eyes, just watch this. And remember, he was 40 when this film was made.
Jim Kelly — Black Belt Jones
Jim Kelly whuppin’ ass and wearing fool’s hats, while his friend hits the light switch on and off. Enough said.
Tony Jaa, Uncut Long Take — Tom Yum Goong
The first time I saw this scene, I was amazed at the camerawork. Usually these aren’t things I really pay attention to when I’m watching a fight but the fact that as soon as Tony Jaa enters the restaurant and makes his way upstairs, the camera does not make any cuts is amazing. All in one take we get to see Jaa makes his way up as he takes on endless amount of goons. You do not want to mess with Tony Jaa’s elephants.
Choi Min-Sik, Hammer Fight — Oldboy
Oldboy’s fight sequence in the corridor is one of my most favorite moments in a film just because it’s so different to me. I enjoyed how different it was than most fights; it’s not about being technical or showing how much of a badass he is. Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su is a broken man. Throughout the entire scene you see him just barely making his way through the crowd; he stumbles and gets knocked into the ground plenty of times. However he uses whatever means necessary to take any who oppose him out. The music really emphasizes the scene as well with its dark, desperate theme. Once again, this whole scene is in one take and the way it’s shot makes it feel like I’m watching a live-action beat-em-up game.
Bruce Lee vs. Robert Wall — Enter the Dragon
“Boards don’t hit back.”
I still get mesmerized at watching the fight between Bruce Lee and O’Hara. Just watching Lee coolly play off O’Hara’s intimidations following with one of the most brutal ass-kickings I have seen in cinema is still jaw-dropping. Seeing Bruce Lee swiftly counterattack each move is so elegant and vicious at the same time. Finally, when the camera shifts to a screaming Lee going for the finishing kick in slo-mo sends a pain to my chest because damn it, it feels like he kicked me in the damn chest. Watching him finish off O’Hara with his battle cry is so intense that I can’t even describe it into words. Even time cannot defeat Bruce Lee as this is still one of (if not the) best fighting scene in film.
Donnie Yen vs. Collin Chou — Flash Point
I trust Bruce to my comrades, so I’ll go to my #2: Donnie Yen. I’ve always been a Donnie Yen fan, but became a bigger fan as his fight choreography evolved. Yen has always been an MMA fan, is sometimes seen Octogon-side at UFC events, and started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) before SPL (Kill Zone). SPL was his first chance to show off his hybrid of “MMA-Fu.” His fighting translates to pure beauty on screen; a unique balance between the rough and the smooth in terms of styles. I didn’t catch Flash Point until a few years after its release and honestly, the film itself is kind of slow. If you’re patient though, you get treated to one of the best fight scenes ever filmed where he takes the MMA-Fu to another level in a long and brutal battle with Collin Chou (The Matrix: Reloaded). Decades of martial arts flicks down, it takes a lot to get me on the edge of my seat. I fell off my seat on this one and it reset the bar very high. I backtracked to re-watch it I don’t know how many times and it never, ever, gets old.
There are so many to pick from, the following two are more obscure ones that need more light shown on them.
Lateef Crowder vs. Tony Jaa — The Protector
I’m going for a 241 here, because I think there should always be more capoeira in martial arts flicks. At present, nobody does it better than Mr. Crowder. Besides achieving master capoeirista status, he’s also an in-demand stuntman having worked on some big films like The Hunger Games since he can basically fly all over with his acrobatics. Also, he plays with BJJ and other martial arts to make a more modern mixed capoeira. His big break came in a spectacular battle with the always phenomenal Tony Jaa. I remember hearing Jaa say when they were working the choreography, it took him some time to find the space in Crowder’s capoeira and he wanted to convey that real sense of confusion from training with him in the actual scene. It is a great battle of contrasting styles and the water and fire set an epic tone.
Lateef Crowder vs. Scott Adkins — Undisputed 3
With Scott Adkins as Boyka, we get treated to this turbo-paced over-the-top aerial and acrobatic assault from both guys. You just stop counting the jumps, flips, and rolls at some point. It’s very entertaining and nobody else has really filmed anything where someone keeps up with Crowder since that scene (though there’s a new Crowder x Michael Jai White I’m anxious to see).
Jude Law vs. Everyone, Repo Men
Before we talk Repo Men, we should back up and briefly talk Dan Inosanto.
Dan Inosanto is the foremost authority in the Filipino Martial Arts, an expert in many other styles, and one of only three people awarded instructor status in Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee before he passed away. In fact, he’s responsible for teaching Bruce Lee all things nunchaku. This annually makes him a strong candidate for greatest living martial artist. His bio is huge and worth the read. Similar to anyone training in BJJ eventually being tied back to the Gracie family, anyone in the U.S. training in Kali/Filipino Arts and JKD can be tied back to Dan Inosanto. Starting there, we get to one of his top students named Jeff Imada. You may not know the name, but if you’ve cheered the crazy fight scenes in any of the Bourne Trilogy movies, you’ve cheered his work. Imada is one of my favorite fight choreographers after the aforementioned Mr. Yen.
Another of Inosanto’s students is one famous Oscar winner for Best Actor, Forest Whitaker. Imada, Whitaker, and Jude Law came together for Repo Men and filmed some of the most gory and realistic Kali knife fighting I’ve ever seen. In a style like Oldboy, it totally surprised me and for that, is extremely memorable. I tried to find the Whitaker x Law fight, but couldn’t, so this one is the next best. Also worth noting for all of the Arrow and The Flash fans: the fight choreographer of both, James Bamford, has a strong base in Kali that comes out in every fight I’ve seen thus far. A warning: kicks, punches, and even bullets are one thing. If you’re skittish about blades and stabbings, better stay away from this one.
Jet Li vs. Billy Chow — Fist of Legend
Jet Li is in his prime here. You see his blend of martial arts skills and pure athleticism, which always seemed more intense to me versus other martial arts actors of his day (or since). Li was always able to convey a certain urgency in his fighting (as if in every scene there is a real chance Li will get owned if he does not take out his opponent), and even now Li still conveys that in the few movies where he still does any fighting. Basically, no one sells a scene like Li. So, for as much as I appreciate the skill displayed in the General Fujita fight, it’s the selling of each hit that makes it memorable for me. Kudos also again to the opponent — in this case, Billy Chow (a longtime and somewhat under-appreciated villain in countless films).
Michael Jai White vs. Roger Yuan — Black Dynamite
On the surface, this scene is just dumb and fun (which is perfectly fine, especially within the context of the film). However, even in its silliness, Michael Jai White (aka Black Dynamite) shows what martial arts comedy can be in the hands of an accomplished martial artist and fight choreographer. Not a very long scene either — see here for the prelude and aftermath of the fight, and certainly not intended to achieve the blistering pace of more sophisticated scenes like the Bourne/Desh fight (see below), but what is there captures a truly hilarious fight sequence that seems to hold up in quality as time passes.
Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris — Way of the Dragon
Admittedly, I’m as much a fairly harsh critic of Bruce Lee on film as I am a fan of the man himself. I’ve always been of the opinion that the true talent of Bruce as both a martial artist and fight choreographer was too often poorly captured on film or missed altogether. An exception to this is the fight scene between he and Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon/Return of the Dragon, which I believe is transcendent of its time period, the best Bruce fight I’ve seen on film, and worthy of honor among the great fight scenes of all time for two reasons.
First, the change in style mid-sequence. Too often in martial arts action films during the 70s, protagonist and antagonist would engage using similar or completely identical styles. Lee recognized early on that if the quality of such films were to change, they needed to show more diversity in styles and training. As both combatants in this scene were roughly equal in skill level (make no mistake — Chuck in his prime was EVERY bit the accomplished martial artist as Bruce), this plays out very well on film. Witnessing Lee having to adapt his style halfway through the fight is a subtle way for him to sneak in some early Jeet Kune Do philosophy, but cinematically it also changes the pace of the fight and the film. This makes for a more robust sequence, not unlike the effect of placing a large mirror in a room to make the room look bigger. This fight between Chuck and Bruce is made “bigger” because of the style and pace adjustment Bruce makes in order to beat Chuck.
Second, the talent and familiarity between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. A good fight scene relies heavily on the talent of the players. For both Chuck and Bruce, being accomplished martial artists in their own circles, as well as having actually trained together for a few years prior to WOTD/ROTD built a certain comfort level between them that allowed this scene to be more fluid. Clearly, this was Bruce’s intent. He could have handpicked any of a number of actors he’d trained over the years to be in the film. But Bruce knew the integrity of the Colosseum fight he was going for demanded someone basically as good as him who also knew how he moved. The greatness of the scene is such because of this critical convergence of martial arts skill and knowledge between the two of them in this respect.
Matt Damon vs. Joey Ansah — The Bourne Supremacy
I’m a sucker for fight scenes that strive for realism. Don’t get me wrong — there is always room for fantasy in film. But for my money, I tend to prefer those scenes that are “honest” representations of skill and intensity. The Bourne/Desh fight epitomizes such a scene. Everything about this fight is blistering and brutal in pace. It’s place among my favorites is partially due to the tremendous speed in which the scene is executed. Due to the pace, every move is efficient, powerful, and carries the feel of two combatants highly trained at dispatching opponents quickly and definitively. Thus, the overall effect is enhanced. Additionally, it’s impressive how much is squeezed into a scant two minutes. Joint locks, pressure points, some kali (I believe), close-quarters combat (e.g., Muay Thai elbow strikes), environmental improvisation… it’s all there and very well-executed by Ansah and Damon. Especially impressive is Damon. While Ansah is obviously quite skilled and a real up-and-coming talent in both stunt work and fight choreography, Damon has had basically no training before The Bourne Identity movies and certainly does not train with the regularity of someone like Ansah (who is also 12 years younger than Damon). So really, kudos go to both, but Damon really worked to make this scene one of the best in my opinion.
Jet Li vs. Donnie Yen — Once Upon a Time in China 2
I might be a little biased here: I watched this movie in the old Music Palace in New York’s Chinatown back in 1992… the first kung-fu movie my dad took me to see. I originally wanted to go with Wong Fei Hung’s final battle with the White Lotus, but I chose this because it’s two of the best, Donnie Yen and Jet Li.
Wong Fei Hung is something of a Chinese folk hero, and he’s the most portrayed character in martial arts cinema. Now, I like MMA and all of that, but there’s an elegance to kung fu that I enjoy immensely. Take the two staff styles on display: Donnie Yen’s is aggressive, obviously destructive, and initially very cool looking. Jet Li’s Wong Fei Hung is far superior, in my eyes. In the scene with the double staffs, he displays the power, grace and skill to smash the bamboo supports without breaking them, thereby giving Donnie Yen’s Lap-Nan Yun-Sut a bit of hesitation. As he attempts to pursue, the entire structure falls apart. Grace and power. Of course, 8-year old me loved the over-the-top, unrealistic bicycle kick inspired “Shadowless kick,” but the way these two move, they don’t need any special effects, except maybe slow motion so we can catch up with them. The movie’s fight scenes are still some of my favorite of all time.