THE SET-UP (1949)
West Side Story's Robert Wise directed one of the first movies to authentically depict the violence of a fist fight on film.
Stoker Thompson is a washed-up loser in the ring, so accustomed to defeat that his manager begins accepting bribes for him to take a dive without Stoker's knowledge, he just assumes the losing streak is unending and victory is impossible.
Stoker discovers this during the fight and now has something to prove, the fight is about regaining his pride while also putting his disloyal manager in serious danger. The film uses the fight to further the story, conclude the character arcs and serve as a commentary on the selfish, destructive nature that drives so many of us.
During the fight it cuts away to the onlookers, their reactions every bit as vicious and ugly as a fist to the face. The rapturous response to violence, along with the amoral underbelly of match fixing and organized crime that informs the tone of the entire fight, gives the whole thing an ugly look.
The brutality of the fight and the baying of the crowd creates a level of immersion that is still impressive to this day. This is especially surprising given the fight scenes Robert Wise is best known for involve a lot of finger-snapping and choreographed dance.
THE WAY OF THE DRAGON (1972)
This is a bit of a cheat, I will admit. It's not strictly a competitive fight, and I could have easily used something from Enter The Dragon to fit that criteria, but the nature of this fight does involve money being traded hands with specific rules laid out (Namely: Fight to the death), so it's really no different to a boxing match.
This may not be my favourite Bruce Lee movie, it's not even be my favourite Bruce Lee fight, but it perfectly illustrates my main point and who better to make a point than Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris?
Martial Arts movies have always had speed in their favour, the skill on display is second to none, and there's none greater than Bruce Lee at bringing that energy and ferocity to the screen. The editing and fight choreography is fast and terse, the sound design makes every blow feel like a thunder-clap, but what makes the fight work is the men involved.
Chuck Norris can't meet Bruce Lee in terms of technique or agility but he has a modest amount of acting chops and so he can convey personality in his gestures without having to trade a single word with his opponent.
And Bruce Lee, well, nobody could combine physical prowess with screen presence quite like Bruce Lee. He radiates charisma without even trying, a subtle reaction shot can tell us everything about his character without any need for exposition.
The fight here works so well because it communicates their strengths and weaknesses quickly and dictates the tempo of the rest of the fight, you know Lee has speed and stamina on his side and you know Norris has strength. It's just a matter of which has the staying power. It helps that this fight includes dramatic reaction shots of an adorable kitten, you don't get that in The Matrix.
When I think of fight scenes that place emphasis on character over technical flair, I think of Rocky. Outside of Bill Conti's incredible, iconic score, the fight itself is very basic; no flashy editing or other visual flourishes, and the choreography is almost a joke with every punch going unchallenged, it starts to demand more than a little suspension of disbelief as the fight wears on.
What matters, however, is the significance of the fight. Every scene leading up to this fight has shown us a world of failure and disappointment. The odds have been stacked against Rocky Balboa from the start, he was a born loser and nothing in his life has ever given him reason to question that. This exhibition fight against the unbeatable Apollo Creed is his chance to make a stand for the underdog, the ones the world overlooks and undermines.
The fight isn't about winning, it's about Rocky proving something to himself, to the girl he loves, and to the world that doubted him. So, even though Apollo Creed ultimately defeated Rocky, he never knocked him out and that's the real achievement here. Rocky, some bum from the slums of Philly, went toe to toe with the Heavyweight champion of the world and he never went down.
Despite all that, the most satisfying moment in the entire film is the simple image of a battered Rocky embracing Adrian one more time with Conti's score reaching its highly emotional climax. It's one of the great moments in movie history, completely earned through strong character writing and knowing just what buttons to push in the audience. After a moment as joyous and engaging as that, it's hard to argue with Rocky beating out other equally worthy Best Picture contenders such as Network, All The President's Men and Taxi Driver. It's these moments that remind you why you love film.
RAGING BULL (1980)
Unquestionably one of the greatest films ever made, a film where the brutality and tension does not end in the ring but spills out into the world around it, Raging Bull is one of the most unapologetic biopics to ever grace the screen. A searing insight into the hearts of violent men and the damage they can inflict.
Scorsese uses the fights as an extension of the drama outside the ring, as further insight into the character of Jake LaMotta, and the finest example of this must be the bout with Sugar Ray Robinson (played by Johnny Barnes).
It's Scorsese, so you know the fight is going to be a technical powerhouse. Michael Chapman's gorgeous black and white photography makes every drop of blood sickeningly dark and pronounced and Thelma Schoonmaker delivers a masterclass in film editing, creating a seamless trade between action-shot and reaction-shot, it's a fluid and savage experience. The sound design delivers every skin-bursting blow with a gruesome realism.
The fight is brutal and impeccably constructed but it's still all about the character. Jake LaMotta is a beast of a man, arrogant and cruel and volatile, unwilling to back down from anything. That bull-headed stubborn pride that made him such a destructive force in life made him such an indomitable fighter in the ring. DeNiro conveys this brilliantly through body language and subtle expression.
As the fight reaches its vicious conclusion, Scorsese puts aside realism and begins to indulge in some astounding cinematic poetry. The lighting fades beautifully around the two men, the sound drops to whispered breath, only these two men remain in a frozen moment. Sugar Ray bearing down on LaMotta like a monster, LaMotta staring down certain defeat with a look of grim defiance. DeNiro's expression says it all, every frame of his performance in this film is work for the ages.
As if holding back a coiled spring, Scorsese finally lets loose, and the editing becomes a visual assault, every cut punctuated by the flash of camera bulbs, the volume of every hit cranked up, the blood-letting becomes excessive and stomach turning. There is no question of how decisive a defeat LaMotta has suffered, making his arrogant claim to Sugar Ray that he never knocked him out a sad footnote to the fight.
Raging Bull takes the very sentiment that made Rocky such a life-affirming experience and turns it into something dark and damaged; even in absolute defeat LaMotta will never learn humility and never shake that damned pride of his. He is doomed to an endless cycle of the same destructive behaviour.
Warrior has the unique position of not just having one character to invest in, but two. Tom Hardy's Tommy is the volatile, broken war veteran and Joel Edgerton's Brendan is the desperate but fundamentally decent family man. Two brothers, torn apart by a terrible childhood, brought together in the last fight of a MMA tournament.
I talked a lot about the characters in my review, so let's focus on the fight. What stood out for me was the way Tommy and Brendan’s fighting styles differ, both being a reflection of their personalities.
Brendan absorbs punishment, he is a stamina fighter, he takes the hits and lets it make him stronger. This is how he lived his life in the wake of his abusive upbringing, he became a loving father and husband and well-liked by his friends, co-workers and even his students. He may have scars, he still holds resentment towards his father and is understandably incapable of forgiveness, but he doesn't let his family see any of that.
Tommy, however, holds onto his pain. He keeps it all inside, rotting him from the inside. No matter how many years pass the pain is very present and it has poisoned his relationship with his family, and gives him a terrifying strength in the octagon. The fight gives all of that pain and anger a physical form and he is a monster.
In the build up to the main event, these two styles lead to inevitable victories for both men, but when the brothers face-off in the finale things become unpredictable. Much like with Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris above, their combat styles complement each other well.
This was best explained during one of Brendan’s physics lessons, teaching his class about Newton’s third law of motion: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Tommy is pure aggression, capable of destroying his opposition but never lasting longer than a few minutes. Brendan, however, is capable of taking immense amounts of damage and wearing his opponents down. His fights are always the longer and more tense of the two. As a result, these compatible fighting styles make the conclusion difficult to pin down.
The technique is never quite as important as the emotional stakes involved, each brother has very noble and admirable motivations for winning, and they both deserve it. What really elevates Warrior's final fight is seeing these two brothers work out all of their problems physically, having only shared one scene prior to this. It's primal but honest, the conclusion builds to an emotional conclusion every bit as rewarding as the other fights listed.
Warrior is available to buy on DVD and Blu Ray now.
It may seem absurd to hear, but a fight scene only works if there is strong characterisation to back it up. Effortless stunt work and violence will grab your attention in the moment but the scenes you will always remember are the ones that gave you a character to invest in.
Basically, we need to care whose face is getting punched. That's why you don't see Shia LaBeouf and Patrick Dempsey's slap fight from Transformers 3 on this list.