All great movies are built around drama, conflict, intentions, meetings obstacles. Sometimes those obstacles are unrealized potential or unrequited love, but sometimes they’re some dude’s meaty fists.
Great fight scenes make movies better, but the best fight scenes transcend their movies and forge their own history. Take the green screen trash fire that was The Phantom Menace—you still have to give it props for crafting one of the coolest sword-fights ever seen. Darth Maul became a franchise icon despite uttering exactly two lines during the movie. That’s how good that fight scene was.
Of the tens of thousands of movie fight scenes, hundreds of which could make the top spots, this list selects ten of the best. So strap in and prepare a pre-typed comment starting with, “I can’t believe they left out…” because here are ten of the best fight scenes in movies.
10The Possessed Hand: Evil Dead 2
Aside from being a well-crafted, entertaining scene, this fight is also completely unique, and for that, it deserves a spot on this list.
After the serious horror of the first Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2 opted to blend funny into the fear and become a comedy-horror. One of the best examples of its hybrid tone, aside from the hilarious and horrifying mounted deer head, is the prolonged fight between Ash and his own hand.
After becoming possessed, Ash’s hand attacks him, viciously tearing into his face and throwing him around the room. It only ends when Ash cuts his hand off completely, and after all the violence, screaming, shoving, and wrestling, it’s important to remember: Bruce Campbell played both duelists at the same time, with only himself to act off of. Where was the Oscar?
9The Alley: They Live
There isn’t much that can be said about the long alleyway brawl in They Live that hasn’t already been said. Nonetheless, to not include this absolute gem of a scrap would be a travesty.
From the legendary John Carpenter, They Live is a top-tier example of campy horror, and this fight is perhaps its best scene, competing only with the “chew bubblegum and kick a**” scene. The brawl, so deliberately over-elongated, pits screen and voice legend Keith David against wrestling legend Rowdy Roddy Piper, the two scrapping until both are almost unable to stand. And the best part? If you haven’t seen it, we’ll tell you without any context: the whole fight is about whether or not Keith David’s character should try on a pair of sunglasses.
8“I Am Not Left-Handed”: The Princess Bride
Humor, wit, action, combat, plot, and charm—the cliffside swordfight in The Princess Bride has it all.
Almost every line in the scene is quotable, both from Inigo and the Dread Pirate Roberts. And these quotes all come during or between bouts of wonderfully structured swordplay. The fight starts as slowly as possible with the duelists actually sitting down together, talking about their feelings, and builds to deft sparring and playful use of space and platforms. Also, as the entry title suggests, the twist based on Inigo’s hand-dominance is a joyful bit of writing.
7Shredder: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
The 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is a criminally underrated gem. Despite being based on overtly nonsensical source material, the filmmakers crafted a narrative with real heart and a surprising amount of grit. And unsurprisingly, it delivers on the ninja action.
There are a few major fight scenes in the movie, and each of them manages its own distinct atmosphere and stakes. The thugs are mugging April (in which the world was introduced to Sam Rockwell); the Foot ambushing Raph on the rooftop; the battle inside the collapsing, burning antique store; and the quip-saturated war the turtles wage from sewers to streets.
Lastly, there is the epic final showdown with Shredder on a rooftop, and that fight has everything; it is atmospheric, tense, frantic, well-choreographed, and gorgeous. Perhaps its greatest feat is making giant foam turtle costumes seem both dexterous, realistic, and expressive.
6Lee vs. Han: Enter the Dragon
Later on, I’ll mention that including a John Wick scene feels like cheating. If that’s the case, including any Bruce Lee fight is like taking Olympics-level steroids for tee-ball.
No one in history has delivered more great fight scenes than Bruce Lee. In fact, this list could easily be ten Bruce Lee battles, one after the other. His dismantling of an entire karate dojo in Fist of Fury and his visceral duel with Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon are an easy two to start with.
But Lee’s best is most likely his climactic battle against Han in Enter the Dragon. So many movie fights owe this battle a thank you, not least of which any who use the “taste your own blood” bit or the “chase leading into a hallway of mirrors” trope.
5The Hallway: Old Boy
When creating a list like this, the goal is to, hopefully, surprise readers with fresh takes that are as fun as they are informative. But sometimes, an old idea that’s been sitting out is just too appetizing to ignore. When it comes to movie fights, there is one scene that, although long-matured, was made so darn well that it will never expire: the corridor scene in Old Boy. It would be a travesty to exclude it. And though it could easily be #1, we’ll tuck this masterfully arranged scene in the middle to give some others a chance.
The scene, almost entirely comprised of one long, wide shot, is clumsy, chaotic, and visceral. And it deserves recognition beyond its own merits: perhaps the most famous fight scene in Netflix’s Daredevil series is a direct homage to Old Boy. It also sets itself in one corridor; features one clumsy, tired combatant against a score of weapon-wielding gangsters; and is built from only a handful of long tracking shots. Old Boy, then, earns two spots in one.
4Too Many to Name: John Wick
It may be unfair to include John Wick. After all, the franchise has three movies (so far) that are entirely devoted to awesome action scenes, even at the cost of every other aspect.
There’s the first real action scene, in which Wick’s home is invaded, and he expertly double-taps the goons around corners and through walls. There’s the loud, pulsing nightclub scene that took 30 seconds of the Dark Knight and blew it up into six minutes of dubstep and freneticism. Perhaps best of all is the scene in the weapons collection room, which features more knife-throwing than an entire Barnum & Bailey tour.
3The News Team Rumble: Anchorman
Brick: “I stabbed a man in the heart.”
Ron: “I saw that! Brick killed a guy. Did you throw a trident?”
Brick: “Yeah, there were horses and a man on fire, and I killed a guy with a trident.”
Ron: “Brick, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. You should find yourself a safe house or a relative close by. Lay low for a while because you’re probably wanted for murder.”
If you’re like us, then those lines made you burst out laughing in the theater. Especially since they came during a moment of reflection after one of the most surprising scenes in movie history. No one going in to see a comedy about local news expected to see a giant melee with swords, severed limbs, and an afro-wearing Tim Robbins. Yet, it happened and is still a highlight in Ferrell’s filmography.
2Fighting Apollo: Rocky
Rocky lost. The filmmakers of Rocky made an unusually brave decision and decided that their hero should lose in the end. The choice was strong, uncommon, and ultimately the right one for the story’s theme. It’s especially unexpected, as well, since it follows one of the most energetic, epic, climactic battles in movie history.
Rocky and Apollo fight for fifteen rounds, and over its duration, the fight evolves perfectly. Creed’s punches begin as massive, titanic blows and by the end become desperately tired, sweaty swings. Likewise, Rocky and Creed both grow ever more sluggish, sweat-drenched, bruised, and bloody. At the fight’s final, merciful end, you simply had to expect a triumphant Rocky, and yet that’s not what you got. Instead, Rocky went the distance and landed Adrian, and that was enough for him.
1The Bespin Duel: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
Many superlatives could be applied to the lightsaber duel in The Empire Strikes Back. It spawned possibly the most famous line in movie history with “No, I am your father,” and the movie itself may well be the best sequel of all time. But if there’s one thing above all others that puts this fight at the number one spot on the list, it’s the pure, finely-wrought atmosphere.
Throughout the extended fight, flashy lightsaber tricks and force magic are rare. In fact, it’s mostly just lazy wand-waving and rock-throwing. But it succeeded in implanting itself in so many people’s minds for so long because it manages to do so much with so little.
After almost two movies of buildup, this was the first time Luke and Vader squared off (outside of spaceships), and the tension was unbelievable. The darkness and fogginess of the various set pieces only add to the feeling. They made audiences feel like every fleeting shimmer of blue was hope, and every flash of red was death.
Then, of course, there’s the severed hand, the genealogy reveal, and finally—Luke desperately ejecting himself into the vacuum of space to escape his mortal enemy/father. Don’t agree with our choice? Then draw your weapon, Jedi.