Fighter, now on SBS On Demand, is the gripping tale of a young Turkish girl in Denmark who enters a world of elite competitive Kung-fu. Only problem is: the tournament is mixed-gender, which for her conservative parents is a no go.
The best competitive fighting films immerse us into the life of the fighter while still satisfying our expectations for competition in the ring—even better when those two are intertwined. It’s a genre that usually celebrates the underdog; and reminds us that fighter’s live their life in perpetual danger.
So without any further repetitive leg kicks, let’s get into the best films about competitive fighting.
NOTE: Special mention must go to The Karate Kid, but we’re grown ups now.
Raging Bull (1980)
Let’s get cinema’s most acclaimed boxing film out of the way first, a masterpiece of a character study that also happened to revolutionalised the way boxing was shot.
Scorsese saw the balletic potential in Jake La Motta’s fights, playing with speed and perspective to give a kinetic, often beautiful portrayal of getting your head punched in.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
I realise that hundreds of other martial arts films may qualify for this list. I also realise that picking Enter the Dragon is like picking ‘Help!’ by The Beatles—yeah it’s a great song, but there are others, but it’s a great song, but there are others (rinse, repeat).
Enter The Dragon is a household name for a reason, and it’s often cited as the best martial arts film of all time.
Here, star Bruce Lee goes undercover in an elite, underground fighting tournament in order to reach the big boss who also just happens to run a prostitution ring.
Competitive fighting AND altruism.
Before Michelle Rodriguez was Lost or too fast and also too furious, she headed up a fantastic indie film that celebrated girl power to the power of ten.
While it owes a lot to the last entry on this list, the best thing about Girlfight is the actual fighting—exciting both in execution and emotion, and watching Rodriguez scorch a hole through every frame of the film makes us wonder why she hasn’t chosen films that show her acting, rather than her action chops.
Warrior hit our screens relatively quietly and left the building with just as little fanfare, but it was actually the first highly effective and entertaining film about Mixed Martial Arts to hit our screens.
Our Joel Edgerton plays brother to Conor McGregor-esque Tom Hardy, and their rivalry and interpersonal woes fuel the competition.
In the end, when the two bloody, sweaty brothers face off in the finals and end up locked in an immovable wrestling hold that we don’t even realise how much we’ve been touched by a film about MMA.
Cinderella Man (2005)
Once you get past the aspects of Ron Howard’s depression-set boxing film that scream ‘give this film an Oscar’ (Renee Zelwegger’s part in particular), it’s actually a pretty bloody great fighting film. Russell Crowe’s Jim Braddock is the very definition of an underdog, ravaged by a poverty that the fighting world look down upon, with wins in the ring as the only thing that will help his family survive.
Howard shoots the fight scenes with a deft eye, and each bout is surprisingly kinetic, given the fact he’s the scrawny dude from Happy Days and not exactly synonymous with testosterone.
Okay, so this is less a dynamic masterpiece and more a sugary treat, but for teenagers of the 90s, Kickboxer was the shiz-nit.
Jean-Claude Van Damme quickly picks up Muay Thai in order to avenge his brother’s death. Entering a series of melodramatic ring bouts that show off Damme’s vein cultivation as much as his actual fighting skills, this is an indisputable late 80’s classic.
Not much to say here that isn't obvious. Sylvester Stallone’s script sparked a sub-genre all unto itself, and multiple images and lines of dialogue are iconic even to those who’ve never seen it. It spawned many, many sequels. Some of them good.
Head over to SBS On Demand now and let Fighter dance you around the ring.