In the martial arts movie genre, there are fight scenes, and then there are fight scenes - sequences of awesome choreographed physical prowess that sear themselves into viewers’ brains. Every fight scene serves a purpose, of course, but the best fights go beyond mere punches and kicks; they push the boundaries and limitations of even the most seasoned performers. A good fight scene captures your imagination. A truly epic fight scene, however, leaves you slack-jawed.
So what makes a fight epic? Is it the length of the scene? Does it feature heaps of crazy, over the top stunt work? Is it the calibre of the actors involved, or the backdrop used? Should the total liquid volume of blood drawn be taken into account? The answer to all of these is “yes,” though not every fight need contain all of them to qualify as “epic.”
We’ve talked about our favorite fight scenes a few times in the past, so you’ll see some recurring hits on the list below. But we had to retread some ground to put together a list that lives up to its name. Read on for our picks for the 10 Most Epic Martial Arts Movie Fight Scenes.
The Matrix: Neo vs Agent Smith
No matter what anyone has to say about The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, it’s hard to touch the Wachowskis'original as a major influence on modern action flicks and high-concept blockbusters. For pure martial arts know-how, look elsewhere; there are stronger examples of technical mastery throughout the martial arts canon. But if we’re going to talk about epic dust-ups, then touching on the subway confrontation between Neo and the nefarious Agent Smith is a must.
These two combatants incur substantial damage to public property all on their own; concrete cracks and crumbles at the impact of their onslaught. Entire chunks are knocked out of weight bearing pillars. But their contest isn’t just a great display of wirework vandalism - it’s one of the most pivotal moments in the entire film, the point at which Neo begins to live up to his own mythos.
The Legend of Drunken Master: Wong Fei-hung vs John and Henry
Lau Kar-Leung’s The Legend of Drunken Master has its fair share of fights that fit the bill for this list (that midday tea house melee involving Jackie Chan, Lau himself as a renowned Manchurian officer, and the extensive coterie of the Axe Gang), but seeing Chinese revolutionary Wong Fei-hung go toe-to-toe with turncoats John (Ken Lo) and Henry (Pak Ho-Sung) takes all.
We know that Fei-hung’s drunken boxing style is dangerous. Imbibe too much and you risk becoming a career boozerino; too little, and the benefits of drunken boxing are lost on you. So, backed into a corner against a pair of very gifted opponents, Fei-hung remembers his dear old dad’s advice and gets just soused enough on grain alcohol to become a the kung-fu equivalent of the Tasmanian Devil, an unstoppable whirlwind of merciless beatdowns. At one point Fei-hung sets Henry on fire, but as much as that’s got to sting, there’s a sense that he gets the better end of the deal compared to the thoroughly trounced John.
Fist of Fury: Bruce Lee vs Evil Japanese Dojo
Bruce Lee may have left this world far too soon, but he attained immortality through his incredible, storied career as a big screen star and an inspiration to fellow martial artists from all over the world. This isn’t a Bruce Lee list, but any list dedicated to his film catalogue is going to be hard-pressed to identify either his “best” movies or his “best” fight scenes - there are so many of both, choosing seems like a Herculean task.
Fortunately, the parameters for this list are narrow, and Lee taking down an entire dojo is the definition of epic. Pound for pound, the sheer quantity of cannon fodder here is overwhelming, but it’s Lee who makes this scene what it is. He’s a tiger let out of his pen, ferocious and precise in every movement he makes as he takes down his myriad opponents one by one.
The Raid 2: Berandal: Rama vs The Assassin
Another movie so chock-full of action sequences that can be characterized as “epic” that it’s hard to know where to start. Take that insane car chase through Jakarta, for instance; how nobody on set wound up dying while filming that little ditty remains a happy mystery. Elsewhere, Yayan “Mad Dog Forever” Ruhian proves his badassery in one of the great bar ruckuses of all time.
But Rama’s (Iko Uwais) head to head with the nameless Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman) is a knock-down, drag-out slobberknocker for the ages. Neither man shows any quarter; the moment that Rama squares off with the Assassin, we know that it’s about to get gritty, and gritty it gets. How much of The Raid 2’s budget did Gareth Evans dedicate toward purchase of red dye and corn syrup? A third? Half? By the time Rama wins the upper hand and cuts his enemy to ribbons, they’ve spilled enough of each other’s blood on the kitchen floor to give any health inspector fits.
The Protector: Unedited Restaurant Brawl
As Tony Jaa movies go, you can’t do much better than The Protector without going straight to the original Ong Bak. But even Ong Bak doesn’t have a four minute unbroken sequence where Jaa fights non-stop without breaking a sweat. As a general rule, fight scenes require careful planning and perfect timing to function; they demand great blocking and attentive editing, too, because most are composites of beats shot non-consecutively.
Not so with The Protector. Life lesson: don’t steal Tony Jaa’s elephants. He’ll storm your restaurant in a heartbeat and start wrecking the place. The actual fighting we see is arguably less impressive than what apppears in more traditionally constructed dust-ups, but that’s an allowance we have to make in exchange for what's going on behind the camera.