Top 10 movie showdowns

The movies are full of one-on-one battles, not least in X-Men: First Class, which arrives on disc next week. To celebrate, here are 10 classic cinema showdowns...

Perhaps someone has dissed your woman/man, or perhaps they threaten you, your loved ones, or your way of life. Or perhaps someone within earshot uttered something none-complimentary about Bruce Campbell. Whatever the reason, when diplomacy has failed, capitulation is not an option. And when your pride – nay, your life – depends on it, sometimes there is no other choice but to confront your nemesis, roll up your sleeves and have an almighty dust-up.

The movie showdown is a trapping almost as old as movies themselves; two sworn enemies face-to-face, once and for all, knowing there can be only one victor. In celebration of cinema’s affinity with the showdown, here’s a selection of ten of the best.

Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader – The Empire Strikes Back

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For all their wrongdoings, the Star Wars prequels certainly have the technical edge over their esteemed forebears in terms of lightsaber duels; all those in the recent trilogy were elegantly balletic displays of minutely choreographed sheen. Yet the encounter from Irvin Kershner’s insurmountable sequel stands above all others, not only because of the desperate imbalance of abilities leading to an inevitable outcome, but due to four words that, above even the loss of a paw, were the emotional haymaker from which Luke Skywalker could never recover.

A relatively slow and sombre duel in comparison to the kinetic space and land battles that the other films ended with, it was the first time the two faced each other, and audiences had been waiting for the moment since the original film’s release. This fight was the outlet for a culmination of emotions for Luke, elevating it above the more technically assured encounters of the other entries in the saga. Rocky Balboa vs Ivan Drago – Rocky IV

Insurmountable odds. National pride. Cheesy music. A montage. This scene has everything you could ever want from a showdown, and represents the point where the inherent silliness of the Rocky franchise peaked exquisitely.

Ivan Drago, the super-human Soviet punching machine, has had the temerity to kill Rocky’s friend and mentor Apollo Creed in a previous fight, and Rocky hath sworn vengeance. Bravely, he’s also resisted the urge to practise any actual boxing while training in the leadup to the fight, choosing instead to frolic in the snow and saw logs. Hey, it paid off.

What’s great about all the fights in Rocky (and this one in particular) is how terrible at boxing the combatants appear to be; to Rocky, the word ‘block’ describes something heavy you lift in training montages, and nothing else.

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It’s a tossup between Drago and Clubber Lang for the best Rocky baddie, but due to its ability to unite nations, this fight makes it to the list.

‘Harmonica’ vs Frank – Once Upon A Time In The West

Let’s face it, this entire list could have easily been consisted of nothing but Westerns, yet in the interest of genre equality there is only one, and it is the shootout at the end of Sergio Leone’s masterpiece that takes pride of place here.

Leone increases the tension gradually and expertly, swelling it in perfect unison with Ennio Morricone’s legendary score, while finally revealing who Charles Bronson’s nameless harmonica-loving protagonist is and what his motivations were for wanting to kill Henry Fonda’s despicable Frank.

It’s a beautifully shot scene; Leone’s graceful camerawork drinks in the immensity of the scenery, while close-ups show both men reading every twitch of their opponent. And while the actual shooting is over fairly quickly, the scene’s darkly ethereal tone makes it a classic and hugely effective stand-off.

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Lee vs Han – Enter The Dragon

Marking Bruce Lee’s final full cinematic appearance before his untimely death in 1973, Lee’s undercover kung-fu master accepts an invitation to appear in a martial arts contest held on an island owned by Han – a mysterious baron suspected by the authorities of drug and prostitution offenses.

Han (whose claw/knife/hand is, simply, awesome) has made the mistake of offending Bruce and a Shaolin temple, and for this there will be no forgiveness. The final confrontation in the hall of mirrors is perhaps the most famous of any from Lee’s irritatingly short career, as the conceit of hiding in plain sight is an intriguing (if far-fetched) one. It remains tense, too; a cinematically assured ending to perhaps the most consistent Bruce Lee film.

Dutch vs Predator – Predator

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John McTiernan’s bombastic jungle shoot-em-up was one of the most gloriously testosterone-filled of the 80s, with a fantastic cast of iconic hardmen, from Carl Weathers to minigun-wielding wrestler Jesse Ventura (and, oddly, Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black).

Yet an arsenal of automatic weaponry mattered not one jot when the crack team of commandos found itself as sport for the titular extraterrestrial hunter, and by the film’s finale their ranks were reduced to only one: Dutch, the Austrian Oak, Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For the first time in the film we are able to see Stan Winston’s remarkable work on the Predator’s face, which apparently caused Kevin Peter Hall (the unfortunate soul behind the mask) severe problems in the three weeks it took to shoot the scene: he couldn’t see through it, so he had to rehearse without it, memorise his movements, and then shoot the scene blind.

In the interest of fairness, weapons are eschewed for good old-fashioned fisticuffs, and while Arnold takes an almighty pounding, he manages to outthink a creature that had thus far always had the upper hand. It’s a camply satisfying encounter, and remains the finest the series has produced.

Neo vs Agent Smith – The Matrix

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Despite its sometimes po-faced philosophies and habit of borrowing heavily from earlier films, The Matrix remains a decisive moment in the history of action cinema, unifying eastern choreography with sci-fi to dizzyingly assured effect.

Keanu Reeves’ Neo has had the wool pulled from his eyes, seeing the world for what it is: an oppressive illusion, cast by a race of machines that uses humans as a renewable source of electricity. Agent Smith is the personification of this regime; a snarling Hugo Weaving, finding an unlikely nemesis in computer hacking office worker Thomas Anderson.

This duel’s relentlessly inventive choreography (the work of cinema kung-fu master Yuen Woo-ping) ensures each punch feels weighted and painful, while Agent Smith is imbued with a sense of solid immovability. It is the tipping point for Neo and Smith – the point where they realise the balance of power has shifted – and is, arguably, the finest fight of the entire trilogy.Riggs vs Mr Joshua – Lethal Weapon

Few would argue that the original Lethal Weapon isn’t the best of the four, and Gary Busey (who is always good value) makes Mr Joshua a delightfully sneering antagonist.

The culmination of the animosity between Riggs and Joshua comes in the form of a muddy scrap on Murtaugh’s front lawn – a brawl that is refreshingly free of the over-rehearsed sheen and slapstick sound effects that plague many 80s action films. You feel the blows, and the characters are visibly injured by each one.

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UFC founder Rorian Gracie taught Mel Gibson Jiu-Jitsu in preparation for this scene (hence the presence of his trademark triangle leg-lock), and when Gibson mercifully leaves Busey alive, you know there’s only one way it will end.Rob Roy vs Archibald Cunningham – Rob Roy

Tim Roth’s Archibald Cunningham is one of the most deliciously evil baddies of modern cinema, and by the time we get to this epic duel at the film’s climax he has defrauded, hunted, and had his nasty way with the wife of 18th century clansman Robert Roy Mcgregor.

This ensures the encounter is laden with emotion and pent-up animosity, not to mention a very real sense that sword fights are – as those who have never actually had one have always suspected – extremely tiring. The dawning realisation that he is bettered in terms of ability is in the eyes of Neeson, and the finishing blow is a gloriously gory one.

The Bride vs Elle Driver – Kill Bill Volume 2

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There are many great fight scenes to choose from in Quentin Tarantino’s violent homage to genre cinema, and this close-quarters contest between Kiddo and cycloptic superbitch Elle is chock-full of nods to Eastern martial arts and classic westerns.

Daryl Hannah’s Elle has just murdered Bud, and now has the Bride’s Hanso sword. Hannah’s is the only name left on Uma Thurman’s Death List Five besides that of the eponymous Bill, and in the ensuing chaos we are treated to some more fantastic choreography courtesy off Yuen Woo-ping, as everything from a stiletto heel to a toilet is hastily weaponised.

Yet it’s the finishing blow that lends this frenetic showdown its sucker-punch, as The Bride unceremoniously relieves Elle of her one remaining peeper.

Ripley vs the Alien Queen – Aliens

Two mothers – one fighting for the safety of a surrogate child, the other to avenge the death of her offspring – collide in the epic final confrontation of James Cameron’s superlative sequel. The scene could not be further in tone from the clammy and tense standoff at the end of Alien, yet it remains a grin-inducingly daft and incredibly exciting sequence.

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Following the disastrous events that befell the team of marines on LV-426, Ripley, Newt, Bishop, and a wounded Hicks have returned to the ostensible safety of the Sulaco, only to discover (mainly at Bishop’s expense) that the shuttle carries another passenger.

With such attention given to the mechanical loaders early on in the film, it was perhaps unsurprising that Ripley used one to address the disparity in size between herself and the hulking Queen. Brilliantly, the loader itself is real, yet it is supported by wires removed from the shot in post-production. Which means – in theory, at least – that if you really wanted one, you could buy one.

Have we missed any? Please add your own suggestions in the comments below.

X-Men: First Class is released on DVD and Blu-ray from Monday.

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