Back in 1953, Ernest Borgnine gave Frank Sinatra an Oscar for From Here to Eternity by sticking him with a blade in a back alley. Then there was James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven (1960), who was willing to draw his knife against any podunk cowboy’s six-shooter. But in 1961, West Side Story decided that knife fights needed a good neutering. It wasn’t just the dancing or the god-awful writing; it was the cardboard acting that really did the trick. A knife fight in a movie doesn’t have weight if the actors can’t bring any real desperation to it. Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video, with its nauseating combination of switchblades, West Side Story dancing, red leather, and Eddie Van Halen, didn’t help any. After such displays of stylized, bloodless almost-violence, how could anyone take knife fights in movies seriously? Such combat is a nasty, brutal thing. It can be graceful, awkward, startling, even grimly funny—but it sure as shit ain’t dancing.
Thankfully, the 21st century has put American knife fights back on track. Jason Bourne, faced with a blade, surprises us by retaliating with a pen. Uma Thurman’s Bride and Vivica Fox’s Vernita Green go at it with chef’s knives in a living room. V for Vendetta (2006) gets completely blade-drunk and brings us along for the ride. The two best recent fights, however, belong to two of the most underappreciated films of the past decade: David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) and William Friedkin’s The Hunted (2003), both of which flopped at the box office.
Eastern Promises, starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts, is about the Russian mob in London. Mortensen plays a driver very adept at cleaning up other people’s messes—and quite talented at making his own. The movie’s subdued, menacing tone and nuanced performances deserve much praise, but it’s the bathhouse knife fight that you’ll remember above all else. Mortensen, completely naked, takes on two Russian heavies in a gruesome struggle that leaves the white tiles of the steamy bathhouse spattered with red. It’s a visceral, holy-fuck-I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing moment. Just remember to breathe when it’s over.
In The Hunted, Tommy Lee Jones plays L.T. Bonham, an expert survivalist who is brought in by the FBI to help capture Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro), an AWOL government assassin whose new hobby is gutting arrogant, rifle-toting deer hunters in the forests of Oregon. Director Friedkin (The French Connection) is a master at constructing chases. The Hunted gives us one of the best in recent memory. After viciously disemboweling some stubborn FBI agents, Del Toro is chased by Jones through sewers, parks, up bridges, and even onto moving trains. Del Toro’s a young man here; it’s easy to believe his stamina. It’s a credit to Jones (57 at the time) that we never doubt his. I love how physical this film is. There’s no CGI anywhere to be found. Who needs CGI when you have the charismatic Del Toro with his sorrowful eyes and graceful brutality? Or when you have Tommy Lee Jones, whose weathered face and stoicism are perfect for this role? Tommy Lee Jones knows how to use that face. The only reason he is able to elevate this role beyond its corny lines and cliches is because he knows exactly when to let us in, throwing off short bursts of dry humor, compassion, and fear.
A perfect movie this is not. The final act starts to come unhinged with ludicrous 100 ft. falls, inexplicable booby traps, and Hallam forging a knife in the middle of the woods in about five minutes (yay for the power of montage!). Fortunately, Friedkin and his actors reel it all in for an exhilarating, suspenseful knife fight. This isn’t the stark, bloody mess of Eastern Promises. Jones and Del Toro battle it out with waterfalls as the backdrop. Such picturesque scenery could potentially undermine The Hunted‘s climax, but these two men, with their eyes just as desperate, fearful, and fierce as Mortensen’s in Eastern Promises, do what the ham-fisted West Side Story never can: they make you believe.