Favorite Moments: The Best (?) Fight Scene of All Time

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The movie:

‘Undefeatable’

The scene:

Why it’s great:

It a fight featuring two muscular men fighting each other, then ripping off their shirts for no reason (and revealing heavily oiled-chests) and then continuing to fight, all while yelling “Rrrrraaaaahhhhh!” and “Yaaahhhhh!” over and over while cheesy 90’s synth music plays. And that’s before a lady charges into the fight with a broken arm and a towel.

Many people would call this fight lame or terrible. For me, though, it’s so ridiculous that it becomes awesome, showing that a fight scene doesn’t have to feature perfect choreography, music, or even a big budget to be memorable and fun. And if you’re looking for an improved version, you can try this fan version that features improved sound effects:

I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 2

Last week, we took a look at the duels in the first Matrix film. Being the biggest surprise of 1999 (quite a feat considering the cultural juggernaut that was ‘The Phantom Menace’), it’s not surprising the film got two sequels, and bigger budgets to allow for more lavish and spectacular action scenes. But is bigger always better? Let stake a look at ‘Reloaded’s duels and find out.

Neo vs Upgraded Agents

Emotional Context: Neo holds off three agents from getting to his fellow rebels.

Analysis: The first duel in ‘Reloaded’ is short, but shows how Neo has grown since the first film. No longer is he the wide-eyed rebel who was pushed to the brink of death trying to defeat Smith in a fight: now he’s a stylishly-dressed warrior monk who can easily take out three agents without breaking a sweat, all with a minimum of flashy moves. It’s a brief, but effective fight that tells us a lot about Neo’s skills, setting the stage for his later fights.

Neo vs Seraph

Emotional Context: Neo duels Seraph to prove that he’s worthy of seeing the Oracle

Analysis: This duel feels like a logical attempt to inject some action into a scene that would otherwise play out like this:

Neo: Hello?

Seraph: You seek the Oracle.

Neo: Yes.

Seraph: What is your name?

Neo: Neo

Seraph: Can I see your ID?

*Neo hands Seraph his driver’s license*

Seraph: Good. Come. She is waiting.

In the film’s defense, having Seraph test his visitors by fighting them to see how determined they are to see the Oracle is an intriguing way of vetting someone’s character. But at this point in the story, Neo needs to get to the Oracle and discuss vital information regarding saving Zion. Pausing the film to have him fight Seraph just slows things down when the story needs to keep going.

The Burly Brawl

Emotional Context: None.

Analysis: If you were to ask a fan of the Matrix series what scene they would choose to sum up ‘Reloaded’, the Burly Brawl would be a good choice. As one of the more hyped scenes of the film before its release, it’s an impressive feat of CGI and visual spectacle, managing to pit Neo against a hundred Agent Smiths at once. However, while this scene is fun to watch, it has one substantial flaw: It does nothing to advance the story. Zion has less than twenty four hours before the machines come in and blast it into dust, and Neo, having just learned about the Keymaker’s existence, should logically want to find him as quickly as possible. Instead, he takes several minutes out of his busy schedule to fight multiple Smiths before realizing that punching, kicking, and hitting them doesn’t seem to be working (with the exception of the Smith who literally breaks into pieces upon hitting a glass wall at 1:43 in the second clip) and flies away.

The Burly Brawl is impressive from a technical and cinematic viewpoint, but it doesn’t advance the story in a meaningful way outside of showing that Smith can now make copies of himself, and that Neo is now really good at fighting. A more logical fight could have Neo trying to get away to find the Keymaker, only to be swarmed by Smith doing everything in his power to keep him grounded and assimilated. Or, we could go with the fight as it was presented in ‘The Path of Neo’ and have Neo resort to taking out the buildings to stop Smith before flying away:

The Twins Fight

Emotional Context: Morpheus and Neo fight to get the Keymaker to safety while holding off two foes they can’t defeat.

Analysis: While it’s the shortest duel in the film, this brief fight comes closest to the feel of the original film. Morpheus and Trinity – while highly-skilled – aren’t Neo. We know they can be hurt or killed, making them the underdogs as they struggle to hold off the French prick’s Merovingian’s albino henchmen, who can materialize and de-materialize at will, making it exceedingly difficult – if not impossible – to put them down for good. Morpheus and Trinity are outclassed here, adding considerably more suspense and a sense of danger than if Neo were fighting, but they manage to accomplish their goal of getting the Keymaker to safety, showing that in stories, running away from a fight can be a better choice than trying to defeat an antagonist.

Morpheus vs the Agent

Emotional Context: Morpheus has to protect the Keymaker from being killed by an agent.

Analysis: What I like about this fight (which is my favorite in ‘Reloaded’) is that it’s essentially a rematch between Morpheus and Smith… once again, Morpheus doesn’t win. Morpheus may be Neo’s mentor, but he’s still the underdog here, struggling to survive against a vastly-superior opponent while protecting the Keymaker; unlike Neo, he’s hit quite a bit and thrown around, coming dangerously close to death several times, and not even wielding a sword against an unarmed opponent is enough to secure victory, giving the fight a sense of danger and urgency.

In the end, Morpheus only wins by taking advantage of the agent being distracted: Like the duel with the Twins, Morpheus’ victory isn’t in defeating his opponent, but in getting out of the fight alive while completing his objective. Personal glory or victory means nothing when there’s something greater is on the line.

Hallway fight

Emotional Context: Neo and Morpheus have to get to the door leading to the Architect while also protecting the Keymaker

Analysis: The last duel of ‘Reloaded’ could be seen as a mini-version of the Burly Brawl, but is, in my opinion, much better. It has a solid goal for both the protagonists and antagonists (Get the Keymaker to the right door, and stop/assimilate the heroes, respectively), but the tight confines makes Neo, Morpheus, and the Keymaker’s escape a difficult proposition, not to mention being outnumbered. Even better, this is one time where Neo’s superhuman abilities are negated: he can handle Smith by himself, but he has to protect Morpheus and the Keymaker, who aren’t as strong as him, which adds more suspense to the scene. And as a final twist, we, the viewer, know that if Neo and the others get to the door before Trinity disarms the bombs, they’ll be blown to pieces. Thus, we have a paradox: Neo and the others have to get to the Architect’s door, but if they get to it too soon, they’ll die, and they don’t know that.

Though it may be quite small for a final fight of a film, the Hallway Fight is a great example of a fight that moves the plot forward, has multiple layers beyond ‘punch everyone to death,’ and adds in some twists that the audience knows about, but the characters don’t.

Tune in next week, where we’ll take a look at the duels of the third and final Matrix film, ‘The Matrix Revolutions.’

What we can learn from ‘Sarah Conner vs. Jason Vorhees’

Ever since his first appearance as a masked killer in the 1981 film ‘Friday the 13th Part 2,’ Jason Vorhees has become the poster child for slashers who take out horny teenagers as brutally (and creatively) as possible. Being such a staple of pop culture, it was inevitable that he’d eventually face off against other pop icons, the most famous being a fight against Freddy Kruger in 2003’s ‘Freddy vs Jason.’ But many of these fights have taken place in fan videos, featuring Michael Myers, Pennywise the Clown, Leatherface, and even Barney the Dinosaur. Today, we’re taking a look at what would happen if Jason Vorhees took on one of the toughest women in cinema: Sarah Conner from ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day,’ courtesy of Youtube creators WTFLOL

Having a plausible explanation as to why two characters are fighting makes it easier to accept such a fight

When most pop culture characters fight, plot usually comes second to seeing them duking it out. But having a strong reason why two different characters from two different universes are fighting each other makes said fights easier to accept. ‘Conner vs. Jason’ has a particularly good one: Sarah, while en-route to foil Cyberdyne yet again, has car trouble and breaks down near Camp Crystal Lake. While searching for help, she comes across helpless campers being slaughtered by Jason, and rushes in to help. Not only is this a plausible way for the two to meet up, but it also helps us root for Sarah by showing how she doesn’t hesitate to help others in trouble, even if she doesn’t know them.

In our own stories, it’s a good idea to set up the fight in a way that feels logical. While it’s tempting to throw your two (or more) duelists together as quickly as possible, setting up why they’re fighting will make your story more believable, and tell your audience that you’ve thought this out beyond the standard, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be awesome if ______ and ______ fought each other!?”

Consider limiting how much of your intercontinuity fight doesn’t revolve around the title characters fighting

Perhaps more than any other type of story, your audience knows exactly what they want when they see a duel film (watching the title characters fighting each other). They won’t be interested in anything else that doesn’t lead up or add to those moments. Thankfully, ‘Conner vs. Jason’ smartly limits those scenes to Sarah going to Crystal Lake, and the camp’s campers being killed off by Jason in quick order, knowing that audiences don’t have any interest in the campers being developed when they’re only going to be killed off.

In our own stories, while some buildup and setting the scene is always necessary, cutting out everything that isn’t necessary to set things up, or that doesn’t relate directly to two famous characters fighting is a good idea; our audience will thank us for getting to what they came to see in a quick and timely manner.

Consider having the nerd help save the day

Pity the poor nerd: this unfortunate character continues to be relentlessly mocked in pop culture, portrayed as being wimps, cowards, and having zero social skills. Yet, don’t underestimate them: while the nerd in ‘Conner vs. Jason’ first comes off as the stereotypical game-obsessed dweeb, he quickly comes through by using his smarts to tell Sarah about Jason’s only weakness, and risks his own life to lure Jason towards said weakness at great risk to himself (and saving Sarah in the process).

While it’s easy to use the nerd as an easy source of humor and comic relief, it’s much better to have them have hidden depths: Nerds may have a love of all things video games, movies, anime, and cartoons, but they’re still people with weaknesses and strengths, and showing those, whether it’s bravery, strength, or resourcefulness will help make them memorable.

Consider poking fun at a character’s mythology in your crossover fight

Little moments of humor can often be the most memorable parts of any story, and in a crossover fight – where drama and strict adherence to the rules of either universe are put aside for the sake of awesomeness – poking fun at both story’s mythologies can make funny moments even funnier: my favorite here comes when the nerd loudly yells about smoking and having lots of premarital sex with naked women, causing Jason to immediately ignore Sarah and head after the nerd. Another has the Terminator, after blowing Jason to pieces, saying his classic trademark about how he’ll be back. Is it cheesy? Yes, but it’s funny, and a good reminder on that we watch these crossovers to see how awesome they are; having some humor – even if it’s slightly out of character – only makes a fun experience even more enjoyable.

Avoid having someone come in and steal a victory at the end of a crossover fight

While having the Terminator suddenly show up to save the day at the end of the video is undeniably awesome (The Terminator vs Jason? Heck yeah!), it does have the unfortunate effect of making the whole ‘Sarah vs. Jason’ fight somewhat pointless, as neither of them determine the outcome. While it’s common for crossover fights to end in a draw (so as to not offend fans of either character by having them be defeated), having neither side winning, or having both off each other, having a third party arrive and end the fight by themselves feels like a cop out. Even Freddy vs Jason made this error by having one of the teens decapitate Freddy at the climax of the big fight, instead of Jason.

When writing our own crossover fights, having them end because of the results of the fighter’s efforts – instead of an outside force – will avoid the feeling of the fighters and the audience being cheated out of a fair match. If you must bring in a third party, foreshadow it before the fight, or at the very beginning (such as how Sarah Conner helps Pops during the Terminator vs Terminator duel in ‘Terminator: Genysis’), but still avoid it if you can.

An Alternate Universe version of ‘Sarah Conner vs. Jason Vorhees’ that learned from its mistakes

While en-route to take out a subdivision of Cyberdyne, Sarah Conner’s car breaks down outside Camp Crystal Lake. Setting out to search for help, she hears helpless campers being slaughtered and runs to help. While she’s too late to save everyone, she does save one nerd from Jason. The two quickly hatch a plan to lure Jason to the camp’s lake, eventually managing to get them there, thanks to the nerd’s smarts, and Sarah’s combat skills.

However, when trying to knock Jason into the water, Sarah – injured from her fight – runs out of ammo for her weapons. Using herself as a battering ram, she tackles Jason, managing to shove him into the water.

The nerd anxiously tries to decide whether he should jump in after Sarah to save her. Then she appears: Injured and bleeding badly, but alive. With Jason defeated and trapped at the bottom of the lake, the nerd helps her back to the camp’s main building to patch her up and call for help. Along the way, he asks if she’s interested in a date, to which she replies that he’d better not hold his breath.

What we can learn from ‘The Ritual’ (the Book)

The Ritual Book Cover

Monster horror stories are everywhere these days, and for good reason: There may be no better way to get the blood pumping and the adrenaline flowing than knowing that you’re being hunted by a unseen creature, and ‘The Ritual’, by Adam Nevill, joins those ranks.

‘The Ritual’ made quite a splash when Netflix aired its adaptation of the book last year, with acclaim given to the design of Moder, the story’s monster. I wanted to read the book before seeing the film, so let’s see what writers can learn from this tale of horror in Sweden’s forests.

Consider making your protagonists anything other than hot teenagers

Unlike so many horror victims, the protagonists of ‘The Ritual’ aren’t attractive youngsters in their 20’s with fantastic bodies, but middle-aged men, two of whom are in poor physical shape. Furthermore, they’re not out to get laid or do drugs; they’re on a hiking trip to try and rekindle their friendships that have been fading with time, and dealing with various problems:

      1. Not getting anything out of life

      2. Being overweight

      3. About to loose everything in divorces

      4. Trying to restore old friendships that have clearly run their course

      5. Being dirt-poor

These out of shape, depressed underdogs are far more interesting to follow than young people who are having pretty radical lives. Even Luke, the youngest and most carefree, has to endure the silent scorn of his companions for refusing to take any initiative with his life (to the point that he realizes that if he went missing, it’d be months before anyone would bother to look for him, which makes us wonder if he even has a future to look forward to if he escapes), and it isn’t long before all four are at each other’s throats.

These are not happy campers, and their struggle to deal with depressing lives while tying not to become gutted flesh-flags hanging from trees makes for gripping reading. In our own stories, consider making your protagonists the last kind of people who should be dealing with monsters. Why not try released inmates who can’t get a job or acceptance? Or try senior citizens who’s tour bus broke down in the middle of an abandoned city. (Admit it: You’d pay to go see the Golden Girls fight zombies.)

Make your environment an antagonist

Much like the Moder, the forest our protagonists stumble into is a threat as well. While many horror locations are far from help (Space, the ocean, or a crumbling mansion in the center of a forest far from civilization), the forest seems to have a malevolence to it, as if it’s working with Moder to disorient our protagonists and making it impossible for them to just turn around and leave the forest, as any sane person would do.

It’s left ambiguous if the forest is malevolent, but having an environment seemingly working with the monster is a great way to make survival even more challenging for our characters.

Have your characters face ethical decisions when it comes to survival

The forest our heroes find themselves trapped in strips away all the niceties and rules of civilization, reducing everything to a simple formula: Survive or die. In the first half of the story, Luke has to decide whether to abandon his out-of-shape companions so he can make a break for safety. Then, in the second half, he faces an even worse dilemma: Does he kill the teenagers who have taken him captive so that he can survive?

In the former example, Luke comes very close to abandoning Phil and Dom, but ultimately doesn’t. However, he does end up killing two of the three teenagers, but not before debating whether he should or not. The teens are cruel vagrants who are willing to torture and sacrifice Luke for their own pleasure, but their gung-ho toughness vanishes when they have a gun pointed at them.

Putting these dilemmas in our stories is a smart move for two reasons:

1. They reveal what a character’s true personality. What do they do when all their defenses have been taken away and they have to make a hard decision? Do they choose to spare others? Do they save themselves? Or do they try a third option? Furthermore, how do they deal with their choice after it’s been made?

2. They make the reader ponder what they would do in such a situation. Would you have it in you to kill teenagers who would otherwise kill you?

It’s a sign of good writing when dilemmas stay with the reader long after your story has been finished.

Consider having your characters made amends in the face of death

Though they’re trying to mend their old friendships, it’s clear from the beginning that Luke and the others just aren’t a good fit anymore, and that their hiking trip was an exercise in futility before it even began. What few connections they have are strained and then shattered when stress makes them snap at each other and permanently destroy their relationships. But, in a smart move, Mr. Nevill makes it so that they still have to work together to get out of the forest alive, even if they hate each other, which only adds more tension.

Then, in an even better twist, Luke and Phil, the last two survivors, realize that they’re almost certainly going to die and try to make amends to each other in the book’s most heartwarming moment. Death, in fiction and in real life, has a way of cutting through all our anger and self-righteousness and makes us realize what truly matters: each other. After all, when faced with a horror beyond human comprehension, we all want someone by our side, even if it’s just to hold our hand when the end comes.

In our own works, we should consider giving our characters the chance to make amends and heal any hurts they’ve had with other characters. While Phil dies in ‘The Ritual’, you could make it so that your characters survive, giving them a chance to go on in life with a newfound appreciation and respect for one another.

Be careful when stopping your story halfway through

‘The Ritual’ is a gripping read (I read through all of it in one afternoon), but I was caught off guard at the halfway mark, when the story shifts from Luke surviving against an unseen evil to Luke being kidnapped by homicidal teenagers and trying to escape becoming a human sacrifice. It was as if in ‘Jaws’, Chief Brody and his companions went out to hunt the shark, only to run out of supplies and food and pass out, then wake up on a deserted island with natives who worship the shark and want to sacrifice them to it. While Brody would still end up killing the shark, the straightforward story of three men vs a really big shark would become needlessly expanded.

In a way, ‘The Ritual’ is like a roller coaster ride: it’s a fast, gripping adrenaline rush, but suddenly stops halfway through before starting up again. And while we do learn more about Moder during the slower-paced second half, it takes a long time for the gripping survival story to come back to the forefront.

In our own work, it’s understandable if we want the audience to have some breathing room. How that’s implemented, though, is vital. If, for example, we want to have protagonists in a survival story to get a break from a monster, we can try the following:

*Have our characters be captured by natives, but make them as threatening and alien as the monster: They don’t speak a language anyone can understand, have customs that make no sense, etc.

*Have our characters stumble into the village of cult members, who are all long gone, but there are clues left to be found that will help our protagonist realize what they’re going up against. For bonus points, you can have the village only seem to be deserted, and then have the locals come back. (Walt Disney’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ did this well with the crew of the Nautilus.)

*Have our characters meet the villagers, but they’re as terrified of the monster as our characters are, and a constant life of fear makes them lash out at anyone and anything they don’t recognize (like the tribe in the 2005 King Kong film).

Consider having a morally ambiguous ‘ally’ help your characters

One of the most interesting characters in ‘The Ritual’ is the old woman in the house where Luke is kept captive. Seemingly helpless and useless throughout the story’s second half, it’s gradually revealed that she’s the only one who can summon Moder (who is secretly her mother), and while she’s kind to Luke, we learn that’s only an act, as she intends to sacrifice him after he helps her by getting rid of the teenagers (and all without her saying a word we, the reader, can understand).

Such moral ambiguity keeps readers invested in a character, as they will want to figure out if he or she is a hero, a villain, or someone who’s neutral. A good example of this is Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series, who kept people wondering for years just who’s side he was on.

Be cautious when your protagonist fights the monster

Moder, like all great monsters, is only glimpsed and heard throughout the story, not making her full appearance until the very end. And like so many other great monsters, Luke finally faces her at the climax. However, Moder’s buildup is popped when, for all of her speed, strength, and cunning, this ancient god of the forest is driven off by a pocket knife to the throat. While she’s in rough shape at the time (tangled up in the wreckage of a van after ramming it head-on), it feels almost anti-climactic to have her defeated (but not killed) by such a tiny weapon.

If our character/s are finally facing the monster, how they are defeated should be relative to how powerful they are. If your character is fighting a T-rex, have them use a spear or an axe. For a large monster like Moder, a shotgun, machete, or other large weapon is appropriate. Or, if our character doesn’t have any weapons, have them resort to traps, similar to Dutch during the climax of ‘Predator,’ or Nancy in ‘The Shallows’. And even then, the trap doesn’t have to kill the beast; it can just slow the monster down enough for our protagonist to get away.

Consider having an uncertain, but hopeful ending

‘The Ritual’ doesn’t have a happy ending: Luke has managed to escape Moder and kill all her followers, but he’s naked and far from civilization, with a low likelihood of survival. But even in his lowest moment, he realizes that all the labels he has, all the things that he has – his job, his check, his living spaces – don’t matter. All that matters is being alive, and free to do what he wants.

It’s not a clear-cut, happy ending, but there is still a glimmer of hope, leaving us to imagine what happens to Luke. When doing horror stories, pulling off a happy ending can be very difficult, as it’s easy to make it sappy or unearned. Bittersweet ending, however, feel more logical: Things can be bad for our protagonist/s, but there’s still hope that things can or will get better. And as a bonus, leaving it open-ended allows the viewer to imagine for themselves what happens next. Personally, I like to think that, against all odds, Luke does make it to safety, and returns home.

The takeaway

When doing a monster horror story, try having the victims be down on their luck underdogs who have to make brutally difficult choices when trying to survive, but be careful not to interrupt the flow of the story to introduce a new plot idea, nor make the monster easy to drive off or defeat at the end before having an uncertain but hopeful ending.