Call him a one-hit wonder. Mixed martial arts fighter Tom Hardy possesses such tremendous, coiled power in the rousing sports drama Warrior that he can dispatch opponents with a single blow. Here, we've compiled a list of the ultimate movie fighters, men (and women) who have engaged in hand-to-hand combat on movie screens down through the decades -- and proven to be the best.
Whether he was shoving a grapefruit into a woman's face (The Public Enemy), earning the idolatry of neighborhood street kids (Angels with Dirty Faces), or battling his way to the top during the Prohibition Era (The Roaring Twenties), James Cagney was the consummate tough guy, a man who'd rather punch you in the face than answer your stupid questions. It was 1945's Blood on the Sun that showcased his hidden talents: Who knew he knew judo?
He was only 39 when he died in 1952, his life cut short by a heart attack. Garfield overcame an impoverished childhood to star on stage and screen. He had a mighty warrior spirit, evidenced early on when he played a prizefighter hiding out on a ranch in They Made Me a Criminal. He's superb as a conflicted, hopelessly compromised boxer in Body and Soul, which features amazing fight footage.
It can be difficult to separate the man from the myth (and the politics), but contemplating John Wayne on screen, you can't help but be struck by his physical presence made famous first by John Ford in Stagecoach. Take away his spurs and his six-guns, his hat and his horse, and you're left with Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man, a retired boxer who conquers his personal demons by engaging in an epic bout with blustery Victor McLaglen in a classic knock-down, drag-out match.
Watch Kirk Douglas in Out of the Past, and you're convinced that the actor is playing himself, a shady, powerful, wealthy gangster who bends people to his will. And then you catch sight of him in Champion, and you're positive that's his twin, that there's no way the smooth, menacing criminal is now a ruthless, ambitious boxer, fully capable of beating men senseless in the ring. But it's the same person, of course, two sides of the same warrior coin in which Douglas traded.
With his steel-blue eyes and charming smile, Paul Newman disguised the warrior within. He shot to stardom playing real-life boxer Rocky Graziano in 1956's Somebody Up There Likes Me, showing heart and courage as he believably transforms himself from a criminal into a champion. Later, as a ne'er do well who finds salvation (of a sorts) on a Southern chain gang in Cool Hand Luke, he proves his heart in a one-sided bare knuckle fight with George Kennedy.
Equally skilled with a gun (The Magnificent Seven), a motorcycle (The Great Escape), a deck of cards (The Cincinnati Kid), a Ford Mustang (Bullitt), and a chess board (The Thomas Crown Affair), Steve McQueen rarely went looking for a fight, but he never backed down, either. In The Sand Pebbles, McQueen played a sailor on a U.S. gunboat whot plays a key role, heroically acting under heavy fire so the ship can break through a blockade.
As James Bond, Connery showed that quick-witted thinking could bring down bigger opponents, time and time again. In From Russia With Love Bond battled assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw) in an train compartment duel to the death. Goldfinger introduced the indestructible Oddjob (Harold Sakata), defeated by Bond only because he could think on his feet. And in Diamonds Are Forever, he showed he still had "it" by going mano a mano against yet another enemy in a tiny elevator.
Brute force, thy name is Lee Marvin. That's why he could command a dozen convicted murderers on a suicide mission deep behind enemy lines in The Dirty Dozen; long before that, he threw down against rival gang leader Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Built like a brick wall, he could pummel a man into a blubbering mess without breathing hard. If you have any doubt, watch Emperor of the North.
Bruce Lee allowed his deadly fists and lethal legs to do his talking for him. Even if you don't know the difference between judo, karate, kung fu, and jeet kune do (Lee's own combat system and philosophy), you knew that Lee was different from everyone else. His technical skills were breathtaking and his close-up knockout punches legendary, but it was his indomitable spirit that lives on.
From her earliest films, Grier displayed a raw energy that belied her relative lack of acting prowess, so that when she came into her own as a full-fledged action star in Coffy, Foxy Brown, Sheba, Baby, and Friday Foster, there was no disputing that she belonged on center stage. Anyone --- male or female -- who dared to touch her without her express invitation received a well-deserved beating. And why not?
Known as "The Hammer" during his football-playing days, Fred Williamson easily took on the mantle of action hero in the aptly named Hammer, in which he convincingly played a prizefighter with integrity, and followed that up with the terrific Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem. He's one of the few on this list who could knock you out with a blinding smile alone, and that may be the smartest fighting tactic of them all.
His spaghetti Westerns made him a star, his exploits as Dirty Harry made him a legend, and his talents as a director and a producer earned him Academy Awards, but it was Clyde the orangutan that made everyone stand up and take notice of Clint Eastwood as a bare-knuckle fighter. Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can may rank low in the rankings of "Eastwood the Actor," but the fight scenes rank high in entertainment value, demonstrating Eastwood's ability to defend himself even without his .44 Magnum.
Bronson grew up in poverty in a small coal mining town, one of 14 children. He turned to acting after World War II, eventually gaining notice as a brooding "stone face" in The Magnificent Seven and as one of The Dirty Dozen. He looked like a man with anger issues, always ready to strike down those he perceived to be his enemies, whether as a melon farmer (Mr. Majestyk), a bare-knuckle boxer (Hard Times) or a vigilante architect (Death Wish).
He created a character for the ages in Rocky, a small-time boxer with big dreams; he yearns for the chance to show what he can do, not necessarily to win championships, but to compete at the highest level possible. Stallone's other signature character, John Rambo, is more of a reluctant killing machine, but Stallone is always at his best when he's playing an underdog who displays surprising resilience and strength.
Robert De Niro
As Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets he mixes it up with all comers and handles himself in a bar fight with aplomb. The same could be said for De Niro, who has consistently taken on challenging roles that provoke audiences. The physical manifestation of his warrior spirit is most evident in Raging Bull, but it exists in every character that he's ever played.
Li has had an impeccable 30-year record of riveting battle sequences, frequently engaging in fierce hand to hand combat to vanquish his foes. Teamed with director Tsui Hark, Li created a new version of the legendary Wong Fei-Hung in Once Upon a Time in China and has continued to dazzle in settings both modern and historic. His work with Luc Besson and in Hollywood has been uneven, but rarely less than entertaining.
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Van Damme, Chuck Norris, and Steven Seagal exemplify the action star prized more for his physical than thespian abilities. Norris seems too nice, Seagal too sleepy; Van Damme is the wildest and most fun to watch, the one most likely to surprise with his tightly choreographed movements and propensity for doing splits. The "Muscles from Brussels" surprised everyone with his self-mocking, entirely assured dramatic performance in JVCD. Who know what he'll do in the future?
His fighting ability has never been in question, as evidenced by late '80s action flicks Tiger Cage and In the Line of Duty 4. In the last half-dozen years, he has emerged as a fine actor too, in modern-day police flicks (Kill Zone, Flash Point) and in his portrayal of the gentle soul who would later instruct Bruce Lee. Ip Man and Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster have finally given Yen his signature role, allowing him to stand proudly alongside the ultimate movie fighters.
Finally, no movie fighter list would be complete without Statham, trained in MMA fighting and kickboxing and who does most of his own stunts in movies like The Transporter series.