It's damn hard to rank movie fight scenes in a definitive way. Truth is, their effectiveness depends entirely on the viewer's visceral reaction, on how well the fight produces that feeling of "holy shit, what's next?"
Some are closer to mind-blowing acts of athleticism, where you're just impressed the actors got through it all alive, pulling off what amounts to an epic, bloody dance scene. Others have an element of feral violence that imitates what you might feel watching a real fight; that fear that someone's going off in a fatal way, that death is definitely on the table.
So yeah, every single list like this will be different. For this definitive ranking, I opted to go for the combo of great fight choreography and violence that feels just a little too real—as well as the scenes that fall in between, like some of the best moments in the Bourne films. So there are no giant monster battles (unless The Rock and Vin Diesel count), just somewhat real characters getting hurt for our entertainment.
21. The Matrix Reloaded—Neo vs. All the Smiths
Hear us out here: The first pair of Matrix movies do not suck that bad. The greatest fights are probably in the first, but Neo taking on Smith and his clones was eminently watchable when Reloaded was out in 2003. The CGI has become ridiculously obvious since then, but it's still plenty of fun.
20. Atomic Blonde—Apartment Fight
With Atomic Blonde the fight scenes are by far the best thing about the movie. Charlize Theron's Lorraine is getting hurt but she is absolutely relentless, yet creative. Somehow she also manages to look like a badly bruised supermodel through the whole thing.
19. The Bourne Ultimatum—Bathroom Fight
You could do an entire list of Bourne movie fights. We picked this because it's brutal to watch and incredibly claustrophobic. Jason's creativity with whatever's on hand is on full display (a book!) and you feel like he's got an especially dangerous foe. The end isn't thrilling, just visceral and disturbing.
18. Anchorman—The Newsteam Brawl
"Brick killed a guy. Did you throw a trident?" Seriously, don't sleep on comedies when it comes to epic fight scenes. Anchorman is in contention for best comedy fight scene of all time. It escalates so quickly.
17. Captain America: The Winter Soldier—That Elevator Fight
Great fight scenes just come with superhero movies but most are too over-the-top to be truly believable. In this scene we're reminded that Cap is an enhanced human, and not completely invulnerable.
16. The Protector—Endless Staircase Fight
This might deserve to be a little higher on the list, yes. One continuous, epic shot of Tony Jaa just kicking ass nonstop as he charges up a seemingly endless staircase. It's amazing fight choreography but there are moments you feel like you're watching, well, a choreographed fight.
15. John Wick—Home Invasion
With the Wick movies you might as well just flip a coin. This is more grueling and real than some other moments, especially John slamming the blade into a dude's throat. Yikes.
14. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation—Tom Cruise Kicks Ass All Over the Opera House
Tom Cruise is very good at onscreen brutality. He's not the biggest guy in the world, but he's a good enough actor and athlete to completely sell any fight he's in. He sells the hell out of it, and the filmmakers added a dramatic opera soundtrack for good measure.
13. Gladiator—Maximus faces Tigris
Russell Crowe has progressed through more and more mature, perhaps sedate roles over time. He hasn't gone the Liam Neeson route of taking on whoever regardless of age. So it might be easy to forget that Crowe could pull off a battle between Gladiators in memorably ferocious style.
12. Casino Royale, Parkour in Your Face
It's not that there's so much hand-to-hand in this scene, it's actually the chase that blows your mind. It's literally exhausting to watch and has gun battles, breathtaking leaps, and serious explosions. Not an obvious choice for this list but it's such a nailbiter it belongs. here.
11. Eastern Promises—Naked Bathhouse Fight
We're not sure anyone had "Buck naked Viggo Mortensen fighting a knife-wielding gangster to death" on their bingo card when this hit the screen in 2007. It's actually a masterpiece of brutality, a little too realistic to watch without clenching up everywhere one can clench.
10. The Transporter—Jason Statham vs. Everyone
This is a feat of clever fight choreography. It transcends the usual format and has Statham just multitasking like crazy. We could watch it over and over again but probably wouldn't be able to breathe.
9. Fast Five—The Rock vs. Vin Diesel
Watching Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Vin Diesel go at it is a little like watching Godzilla vs. King Kong. Dwayne Johnson has a major size advantage—6'4" to Diesel's 6'0" or so—but this brutal battle is a heavyweight match and as choreographed as it is, you really do feel like someone's about to get hurt in a big way.
8. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—Michelle Yeoh against Zhang Ziyi
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has the gravity of a "serious" movie in many respects, but it also has combat scenes that combine grace worthy of ballet with dangerous, unearthly savagery. You can't always call a movie fight beautiful, but this one is as close as it gets.
7. Haywire—The Creepy Bedroom Fight
Steven Soderbergh's spy flick didn't exactly burn down the box office, and that's a shame—it features an intimidating performance by former MMA pro Gina Carano. Whatever Carano lacked in acting chops, she more than made up for in playing a realistically deadly spy. She takes out Michael Fassbender here, and the scene has this ranking because it's easy to believe she's in real danger till the very end.
6. Kill Bill Vol. 1—The Bride against the Crazy 88s
Kill Bill movies are binge-worthy for the fight scenes alone. They're bloody yet have the same almost dance-like feel as Crouching Tiger. Watch this on repeat and then see if you're still able to breathe at the end.
5. Deadpool—Deadly Freeway Ride
Save Anchorman—which is pure goofball comedy—Deadpool is the funniest fight in this list that's also a classic quick-cut superhero battle. The audience meets the title character and realizes he's just having a hell of a good time, which is pretty much his trademark style.
4. Atomic Blonde—Stairwell Fight
Sure, we might be partial to anything starring Charlize Theron, but hear us out: This is one of the most amazing move fight scenes of the last five years, at least. It's pretty much one long shot, and it's utterly brutal and grueling the whole way. Lorraine is a step away from death the whole time and she's utterly savage fighting her way out of it. This one is actually hard to watch no matter how many times we watch it.
3. John Wick—The Club Scene
So, yes. Some of the same people are behind John Wick and Atomic Blonde—and they are brilliant with extended, bloody battles that rack up major death tolls. The Club Scene from Wick has a lot in common with The Stairwell Fight in Blonde as John isn't leaving untouched, no matter how many he kills. He's believably exhausted at the end, and vulnerable.
2. The Raid 2—The Kitchen Fight
Gareth Evans wrote, directed, and edited The Raid 2. It's an Indonesian movie about a special forces operative battling dirty cops around Jakarta. It didn't have awesome box office or anything, but holy hell does it have some of the bloodiest, most stunning hand-to-hand battles seen in any action movie in years. There's a gruesome hammer fight in a subway car and there's the kitchen fight, in which is an absolute masterpiece of choreography. It's as if someone made a torture porn Bruce Lee movie. It's hard to watch, and it's mind-blowing as well.
1. Oldboy—That Hallway Fight
Director Park Chan-wook's ultraviolent revenge tale throws away the book on quick-cut, fast-moving sparring and leaping and with the Hallway Fight pulls of a single tracking shot of an exhausting battle between one man and a group of thugs. There's no clean fight dancing here, just rage, fear, and blood. It's about three-and-a-half-minutes long, and you'll hold your breath the entire damn time.