If you asked me for my favorite movie moment so far this year, I wouldn’t have to think very hard about it. In fact, I wouldn’t have to think about it at all. The answer’s easy: when Keanu Reeves singlehandedly dispatched more than 100 bad guys in John Wick: Chapter 2, the follow-up to his 2014 gun-fu cult classic.
Yes, the scene was outrageous. But if you watched Reeves closely, you would’ve seen that there was plenty of truth to his movements and technique. As he told Men’s Fitness, in February, he studied judo and is obsessive about his fight scenes. “I’ve used this term ‘superperfect,’” he said. “As in, ‘Can we get it superperfect?’” The guy even has a pre-fight-scene tradition: he devours a steak the night before.
Now, I appreciate this more than anyone. I grew up in the Bronx, which meant fistfights several times a week. Later on, I became a cop, working in the South Bronx, and then went on to be a bouncer at exclusive nightclubs and a bodyguard for c-suite execs. Suffice it to say: I’ve seen my fair share of fights.
I’ve also seen my fair share of movies. You could say I’m an amateur expert on all things Bronson and Stallone, Wayne and Neeson. (Seriously: If Harvard had a class called Fight Scenes 101, I could teach it in my sleep.) So when my friends at Best Life asked me to rate my favorite, most brutal, and most realistic fight scenes in history, I couldn’t help myself. Here they are. And if you’re looking to get fighting fit yourself, check out this former Olympic Judo medalist’s guide to transforming your own physique.
They Live (1988)
Who would’ve thought I—a guy who’s seen all manner of street fights—would pick a fight with a guy from WWE? But the raw energy and pure heavy hitting here makes it an obvious choice. Watching, you can feel every single punch land.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Saving Private Ryan is mandatory viewing by any and every measure. But even if you don’t care about history or great filmmaking, watch this for the fight scene. You can almost feel the knife piercing Mellish’s heart—a heavy metaphor on the toil and pain that comes with war.
Hard Times (1975)
This is Charles Bronson, the quintessential tough guy, at his absolute best. The physicality of the fight shows off a level of emotion that, since, has yet to be replicated. And to top it off, he’s in his 50s here, and could still kick your ass.
The Cowboys (1972)
I remember crying in the theater watching this fight. In fact, this is one of the few films where John Wayne actually dies in—by the hand of Bruce Dern’s character. To this day, Dern claims people approach and reprimand him for killing The Duke.
Bad Day At Black Rock (1955)
Bad Day at Black Rock is a classic, and it makes the cut for two reasons. For one thing, this is one of the first movies that showed off karate as a fight style. For another, the Spencer Tracy wins the fight one-armed. One-armed!
Rob Roy (1995)
As Butch Cassidy taught us earlier, there are no rules in a knife fight. This rule also applies to big knives—also known as swords. Liam Neeson, with his particular set of skills, only reinforces that rule in this film.
The Equalizer (2014)
At a certain point, you no longer care what happens to your adversaries. In this film, Denzel is exactly that—the man with everything to fight for, and nothing left to lose.
Rocky Balboa (2006)
Sly makes this list twice and here’s why. In Rocky Balboa, the man is 60 years old, and still kicks more ass than kids half his age. Stallone shows us all the way on how to keep moving forward by consistently raising your game to the next level.
Darker than Amber (1970)
This is a neat little film from 1970. Heralded as one of the most violent and realistic fights ever filmed, it’s rumored that both actors refused to pull their punches, to the point where bones were broken. It shows.
Eastern Promises (2007)
Fighting completely in the buff, Viggo takes down two dudes way larger than he his in a fight to the death. You can see the fighters actually grow tired throughout the brawl—which is precisely what happens in situation like this.
2 Days In the Valley (1996)
Watching Charlez Theron in anything is always a treat. But well before she was kicking ass in Mad Max, she spent her film debut going toe-to-toe with Teri Hatcher.
First Blood (1982)
You can’t have a list of any fights without including Rambo. As you see real fear morph into the fight-or-flight drive, Rambo strategically and systematically dismantles a bunch of poorly trained officers, including a young David Caruso—well before his time on CSI: Miami.
End Of Watch (2012)
Since I was a former cop in the South Bronx, I can neither confirm nor deny ever seeing anything like this, where the officer removes his belt and gear to fight like a man, bare knuckle, one-on-one.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
This fight scene between two martial arts legends, Bruce Lee and Bob Wall, goes down as one of the top fight scenes of all time; Bruce Lee set the bar for every martial arts movie to come. The reality is, this scene was shot in one continuous take (because they were not only the stars, they were the stuntmen and the world karate champions). This scene involves Bob Wall breaking a beer bottle, then coming at Bruce Lee with it. This was not so much a “prop bottle” but an actual beer bottle. Before going into the scene, Bruce told Bob to “go for it.” And that he did. So much so, in fact, that the bottle cut Bruce deeply, and he instinctively reacted (as martial artists innately do…). Bruce reacted with such a fierce kick to Bob’s chest, that when he flew back into the crowd (of extras), one of the extras broke his arm from the sheer force of Bob Wall being thrust onto him. It doesn’t get more authentic than this.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Butch Cassidy teaches us an essential and all-too real-lesson: There are no rules in a knife fight. Sometimes, as in cases like this, the loser loses the fight before he even knows it.
A great fight scene shows off in two ways: what you see on the screen, and what went into making it. In this scene, it’s clear how long and hard Tom Hardy trained—and that’s a feat in itself.
Blood on The Sun (1945)
About 50 years before the UFC, there was James Cagney making full use of Judo throws, dirty boxing, and rear naked chokes. While everything isn’t black and white in a fight (like in this artifact of a scene), Cagney makes it all work right.
My Bodyguard (1980)
This movie brings back such memories for me—and not just because it was Matt Dillon’s film debut, but because I was about the same age as the kid needing the bodyguard. (I was also bullied similarly. Unfortunately, I didn’t have Adam Baldwin as my backup.) What makes this two-for-one fight scene so good is the sheer awkwardness; no one here really knows how to fight, giving it a visceral, realistic feel.
John Wick (2014)
Alas, we are here. John Wick. This is the film that brought gun-fu (a beautiful mix of gunplay and martial arts) into public consciousness. It may be a little unrealistic, especially considering the sheer amount of guys he knocks off. But who is going to argue with John Wick?
Not me, that’s for sure.
Lethal Weapon (1987)
Detective Riggs versus Mr. Joshua—this is one of my all time favorites. The raw savagery and emotion behind the fight; the fact that the fighters grow fatigued, as they would in a real fight; the collateral elements—the mud and holiday ornaments—that get brought in; and the creative combination of kicks and punches all elevate this fight above and beyond any in cinematic history.
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