Fight sequences are one of the hallmarks of action cinema. It doesn’t feel like an action movie until a meticulously-choreographed fight breaks out, where the characters’ reflexes prove to be ten times faster than the average human being and every punch sounds like a pile of leather jackets being beaten with a baseball bat.
Sometimes, these fight scenes are the most thrilling element of the movie, with impeccable stunt work and riveting choreography keeping you on the edge of your seat. Other times, not so much. Let's take a look at some action movies with stellar fist fights, along with some whose hand-to-hand battles leave a lot to be desired.
10 Best: The Bourne Ultimatum
Paul Greengrass revolutionized fight sequences when he took over the Bourne franchise, with shaky camerawork and quick cuts. Unfortunately, Hollywood learned all the wrong lessons from this, and in the aftermath of the ground-breaking trilogy of spy movies, fight scenes started being cut beyond all comprehension.
The Bourne movies use choppy editing to convey the brutality and fast pace of their fight scenes, but what’s happening is always clear. The Bourne Ultimatum is the epitome of this, as Greengrass had mastered his technique by then. The threequel’s fight scenes are not nauseating or dizzying, because despite their erratic nature, they’re meticulously crafted.
9 Worst: Taken 3
Liam Neeson’s age may have been showing throughout the entire Taken trilogy (there’s a reason that it’s said to have pioneered the “geriaction” subgenre of action cinema), but it was never more distracting than in Taken 3.
Every time he was required to beat up a guy, it looked as though the actor was being given time to rest. Taken 3 was shot with too many cameras and the editors seemed to be determined to use footage from every single one, just because it was there. Remember: sometimes, less is more.
8 Best: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Russo brothers directed Captain America’s second MCU solo movie, The Winter Soldier, as a spy thriller in the vein of the post-Watergate cinema of the ‘70s. The directors set about making Cap a more exciting presence.
This included emphasizing his super-strength in the fight sequences, like kicking a guy off the side of a boat. Of course, the greatest fist fight in The Winter Soldier comes about halfway through the movie, when a bunch of Hydra agents enter an elevator with Cap and he says, “before we get started, does anyone wanna get out?”
7 Worst: The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies all suffer from the same Bourne syndrome, but The Dark Knight Rises took the cake. Nolan and his team kept the camera relatively still in the first fight between Batman and Bane, which would’ve been a wise decision if it weren’t for the whole fight not ringing true. Bane was punching holes in concrete pillars, but then when he hit Batman in the face with the exact same force, he didn’t even seem to feel it.
In their second fight, Nolan fell back into the old habit of choppy editing and Batman’s tactics were the same as in the first fight – he hadn’t learned anything or changed throughout the movie – except this time, he could somehow beat Bane.
6 Best: The Raid/The Raid 2
Both movies in the Indonesian-produced The Raid franchise have breathtaking fight sequences. The first one takes place across one fateful day as a team of cops bust into an apartment block where a criminal organization is operating and go toe-to-toe with the gangsters inside. The intensity of a cop hiding in a wall, trying to remain silent, while a gangster jams a machete into the wall willy-nilly is unparalleled.
It’s a non-stop thrill-ride. The second one is just as focused and action-packed, but it also has a more sprawling and epic narrative and a much larger scale. From mid-riot prisons to noodle bars, every setting in The Raid 2 serves as the backdrop to a jaw-dropping action set piece.
5 Worst: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
There are a lot of reasons why Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t particularly beloved among the franchise’s fan base. There are far too many CGI monkeys, there’s a scene where Indy escapes a nuclear blast inside a refrigerator, and Transformers-era Shia LaBeouf appears in almost every scene.
The main reason is that, for many, it just doesn’t feel like an Indiana Jones movie. It suffers from the same problem as Taken 3. We can’t get invested in Indy slowly punching a Soviet officer or swinging on his bullwhip, because we’re just worried that Harrison Ford will do himself a mischief. How will Indiana Jones 5 turn out?
4 Best: Atomic Blonde
From the same team behind the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gunplay in the John Wick franchise, Atomic Blonde stars Charlize Theron as a secret agent in Berlin, trying to navigate the madness of the Cold War in pursuit of a MacGuffin.
The espionage plot is just an excuse for brutally choreographed fight scenes. When Theron is punched in the face or kicked in the stomach, she has lasting bruises and cuts. The violence feels real; it’s not just Hollywood make-believe. One stairwell sequence in particular stands out and actually defines the whole movie.
3 Worst: Transporter 2
The Transporter movies are primarily car action pieces, but there are plenty of fight scenes in them, and they’re sadly very disappointing. This is mainly down to how they’re structured, as opposed to the actual choreography. In so many scenes in the Transporter movies, especially the second one, Jason Statham will be surrounded by goons who all attack him one at a time.
While he’s fighting one of them, the others just stand there, and when he’s incapacitated that one, that next one steps in. Statham gives it his all and his fight scenes are pretty incredible, but this gets distracting quickly.
2 Best: Brawl in Cell Block 99
S. Craig Zahler has quietly established himself in the past few years as one of the freshest voices in film-making. He’s like Tarantino, but with grislier violence and less mainstream appeal. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a modern-day grindhouse B-movie, starring a jacked-up Vince Vaughn as a prisoner who has to beat his way to the dirtiest, grimiest corners to save his wife from a sadistic villain.
The fight scenes in the movie are absolutely brutal, from faces being scraped off skulls to bones flying out of arms in a burst of blood. The choreography is intentionally messy, which makes the fights feel more realistic and horrifying.
1 Worst: Furious 7
The powers that be behind the Fast & Furious franchise made a smart move when they turned Deckard Shaw into a good guy, because it’s hard to root against Jason Statham. In Furious 7, he was the primary villain, and in the movie’s climactic sequence, he fights Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto.
At the end of the fight, Toretto stomps the ground so hard that it starts to crumble around Shaw and tells Shaw, “the thing about street fights, the street always wins,” before the ground literally collapses beneath Shaw’s feet. All of the F&F movies are flashy and over-the-top, but this just took things too far.