Sunday, March 17, 2024

The 100 Greatest Action Fights in Cinema


NY Mag Vulture - "The 100 Fights That Shaped Action Cinema"

68. Michelle Yeoh vs. Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

"What happens in this showdown between Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien and Ziyi’s Jen is, technically, not new. The wirework and defiance of gravity, the whirligig of clashing swords and poles, harks back to the films produced by the Shaw Brothers. At the time of its release, this scene and others like it in Crouching Tiger registered as an expansion of the mind-blowing “bullet time” style of combat seen in The Matrix, itself influenced by classic martial-arts films, only the year before. In fact, action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping, a veteran of Hong Kong cinema, worked on both.

Despite all of that, this sequence was fresh to American eyes, which were not as familiar with the tropes and techniques of Asian cinema. In what was something of a novelty for Hollywood at the time, this was a clash between two women, each formidable (both can defy gravity) but also human enough to have limitations (at one point, Yeoh picks up a weapon and prepares to run at Ziyi with it until she realizes it’s too heavy for her to lift). Yeoh and Ziyi are like a pair of tornados waltzing, literally twisting through the air and somersaulting to avoid getting hit by their respective unrelenting attempts to strike the other with whatever weapon they can find. Hook swords, machetes, spears, and straight swords: All are fair game. It is, simply, breathtaking to watch, not only because of the gymnastics but owing to the fierce determination that goes from simmer to boil in the eyes of both women, each determined to best the other.

Crouching Tiger sequences like this one helped pave the way for more wuxia films to reach American audiences, particularly the works of Zhang Yimou. Well-known American directors with a deep love of martial-arts movies — Quentin Tarantino being the most obvious and influential — would also pay homage to it and the acrobatic, propulsive Asian cinema that paved the way for Crouching Tiger’s existence. Look closely at the climactic fight scene in Dune: Part Two, when Timothée Chalamet’s Paul faces off against Austin Butler’s Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. When Chalamet spirals through the air to avoid getting struck, there’s a bit of this sequence in there, too."

89. Arthur vs. the Dream Guard, Inception (2010)

"Despite his reputation for scientific precision, Christopher Nolan’s work is always built on a foundation of creativity. Inception is a movie about dreams, so where better to explore surrealist ideas that still “feel real”? The hotel hallway fight between Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur and Cillian Murphy’s mind guards is set in a dream-within-a-dream but still two levels above further warped realities. One level above us, Arthur is rattling around a van, so his gravity is constantly shifting. As such, the battle moves all over the place, like if the ship in The Poseidon Adventure just kept on capsizing.

Production-wise, the hallway fight allowed Nolan, a lifelong 2001: A Space Odyssey devotee, to build out a 360-degree rotating set, as Stanley Kubrick did for the spaceship Discovery. The actors rehearsed for weeks to learn how to fight inside a giant dryer while the camera’s movements needed to be perfectly in sync. When it was time to really get nuts, everybody was on wires. A second rotating set was built for the spinning hotel room, which had different dimensions, and all the interior lighting was functional, as there was nowhere to rig anything inside the tubes. All of this builds to an intercutting thrill-ride sequence that, as with the characters from Inception, could have come to Nolan from an outside source. There’s been plenty written on the commonalities between the 2010 blockbuster and Satoshi Kon’s 2006 anime Paprika. Both projects deal with the concept of shared dreaming (and provocateurs using this technology for ill purposes), and both films have a dazzling moment in a beige hallway. Also, several action scenes in Nolan films since can be seen as visual or thematic variations on the hallway fight, like Matthew McConaughey floating through a higher-dimensional set of bookshelves at the end of Interstellar, the layers of time-released action impacting one another at the climax of Dunkirk, and the backward-and-forward tussle between John David Washington and his inverted self at the freeport in Tenet."

98. Ethan Hunt and August Walker vs. “John Lark,” Mission: Impossible — Fallout (2018)

"We’re not sure if you’ve heard, but Tom Cruise loves movies, and he loves them in all their old-school glory, which is why the Mission: Impossible films, while ostensibly focused on a group of agents with access to all manner of imaginable tech, are actually about getting back to basics. The effects in them are largely practical, the suspense is visceral, and they allow their star to hang off as many insanely tall buildings as he pleases.

Even the fight scenes have an old-school quality, which has never been more effectively displayed than in the glass-shattering bathroom beatdown in the sixth Mission film. While attempting to scan the face of a man they’ve knocked unconscious, IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his assigned CIA partner (Henry Cavill) realize the guy has reawakened. That’s when a pristine white nightclub bathroom turns into the unexpected ring for a brutal three-man bout, one that involves fist-to-face combat, bodies flying through massive mirrors, and attempted strangulations with sink pipes.

In certain ways, this feels like a natural evolution from the subway scene in the 1953 spy film Pickup on South Street, which also begins in a bathroom and, like this Fallout sequence, does not turn away from its more brutal details. When Cavill “reloads” and puts up his dukes so he can start punching again, a moment that became a meme before the movie even came out, he practically looks like Popeye after downing a freshly opened can of spinach. This breakneck banger of a sequence has a reverence for the classics and knows exactly how to shine them up so they look brand new, a quality it shares with the Mission series as a whole."

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