I originally entitled this post:
The Best Fight Scene Ever. Part Deux.
But then I realized that this article is just as much about how movies make us actually care about the hero as opposed to just watch them go around and do things without any emotional involvement.
Note: There are a few plot spoilers in this article.
Move over, Jackie Chan. Need to make some space for Donnie Yen.
Okay, okay, so I already made a post about the best fight scene ever, so how many movies can I say that about?
In my previous post, I stated that, along with Roger Ebert, I consider the final fight scene in Jackie Chan’s Drunk Master II, a.k.a. The Legend of Drunken Master, the greatest fight scene ever. But looking back, I should have qualified that statement. First of all, what criteria are we using to judge it as the greatest fight scene ever?
I’m admittedly too lazy to go back and calculate exactly how long Drunken Master II’s final fight scene was (if you know this statistic, please leave it in the comments below), but it seems to me like it was about 20 minutes. 20 minutes of relentless, non-stop, Jackie Chan-at-his-finest, ass-kicking.
The DMII scene was as intense as any fight scene I’ve ever scene. In fact, much more intense. (Physically, that is. See below.) They were throwing kicks and punches at hundred miles an hour, non-stop. (For that whole 20 minutes!) Not to mention Jackie Chan was mixing in all sort of crazy flips and Zui Quan (drunken kung fu) pandemonium.
In this midst of all this mayhem, Jackie Chan, who not only starred in, but actually directed the final fight scene, included all sorts of crazy stunts, including walking on hot flaming coals, and catching fire. That Jackie Chan is a madman.
Harder, better, faster, stronger. Suffice it to say, Jackie Chan leaves me with martial arts envy.
Drunken Master II takes the cake in length, physical intensity, and stunts.
However, there are other criteria with which a fight scene can be judged. I am going to propose that the greatest fight scene ever in terms of emotional intensity is the scene in Ip Man where Donnie Yen either kills or seriously maims 10 Japanese soldiers in retaliation against the tyranny of the World War II Japanese Occupation of China.
We previously talked about the physical intensity of Jackie Chan’s scene. But one thing that I absolutely love is movies that actually make us care about the hero. Movies that move us. That make us feel as if we were there in the hero’s shoes. I think I can honestly say I prefer a movie with emotional intensity to one with physical intensity alone.
Some examples come to mind. In Batman Begins, we enter the psyche of the hero, Bruce Wayne, as played by Christian Bale. It was the first Batman movie actually about Batman, not about his antagonists. Its sequel The Dark Knight had more physical intensity but arguably less emotional intensity, at least as it involves the Bruce Wayne character.
Other prime examples are John Woo’s action films from the late 80s and early 90s, such as A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Bullet in the Head. The bullets flying in Woo’s films actually speak more volumes about the characters’ emotions than the actual words that come out of their mouths. It is action cinema turned into Art in every sense of the word.
As you are beginning to see, I love films full of angst. And nothing can be angst-ier (just created a word!) than when Donnie Yen playing the part of Ip Man finds out that a cruel Japanese general has been taking his friends away and using them as punching bags for martial arts practice, and as a result, killing several of them. He volunteers to go and fight them so that he can learn what happened to one of his friends, whose murder was covered up by the Japanese military and their translator, another Chinese who was supposedly a friend of Ip Man’s. When he finally confronts the Japanese general and his men, another one of his friends is callously shot in the head right in front of him. He then asks the general to let him spar with 10 men at once. He systematically beats the crap out of all ten of them, breaking their bones and apparently killing some of them, taking revenge on his friends, and showing the Japanese army that there is one among them that is willing to retaliate.
That scene was one of the most emotional scenes I’ve ever seen in any movie, regardless of genre. And at the same time it was extremely physically intense and rapid-fire. It goes to show that Donnie Yen is able to simultaneous display an extremely high level of proficiency in martial arts while simultaneously creating a compelling performance that moves us and makes us care about his character. That scene was not only a great feat of martial arts, it was a great feat of acting.
Given, the emotional impact of this scene has a lot to do, not only with Donnie Yen’s amazing abilities but also with the writing and directing of the film. Screenwriter Edmond Wong and director Wilson Yip definitely deserve to be mentioned here for their fine contribution to this bit of martial arts cinema history.
So, if you love emotionally intense films and scenes, watch Ip Man. Bring on the tragically conflicted hero. Bring on the kung fu. Bring on the angst.