10/01/2013 12:49 GMT | Updated 12/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Jack Reacher Is Kicking Ass at the Box Office but What Are the Best Ever Movie Punch-Ups?

New film franchises like the Die Hard, Mission Impossible, Matrix, Batman and Bourne series have kept the box office ticking over. But they have also become dangerously generic. What really makes a memorable movie punch-up?

In new action blockbuster Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise is surrounded by thugs when he gives a calm, chilling appraisal of their situation: "Remember, you wanted this".

What comes next is a predictable staple of just about every Hollywood action flick made today. And in a market crowded with such franchises, making these fight scenes bigger and badder than anything before is a continual challenge for writers and choreographers.

But what really makes a memorable movie punch-up?

The James Bond films set a standard for the tough-guy butt-kicker and since the advent of Hong Kong martial arts movies the model has been refined and reiterated over the decades.

New film franchises like the Die Hard, Mission Impossible, Matrix, Batman and Bourne series have kept the box office ticking over.

But they have also become dangerously generic.

Whether it's Daniel Craig or Matt Damon you always know the brutal outcome. They are heroes who don't break a sweat enroute to battering or killing their assailants.

But there's very little meaning behind these fights.

The thugs who oppose Ethan Hunt or John McClane are no more than obstacles. And the fight scenes themselves are really just bridging devices between the narrative cogs of the plot.

Most of the best bareknuckle stoushes, the ones we remember and await eagerly when returning to a film are the believable ones, between real people. They are fights that mean something, angry dust-ups where the protagonists leave everything on the floor.

So here are a dozen of the best Hollywood-style punch-ups, some iconic, some comedic, some more obscure and some just better at the genre than the rest.

I've not included fights in a ring, alien face-offs or supernatural bad guys, and where weapons are used they are still secondary to the fistic action.

Quite simply they are some of the best street fights, bar room brawls and general ass-whoopings committed to celuloid.

Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck get down and dirty in The Big Country

1) Gregory Peck vs Charlton Heston in The Big Country (1958)

With films like To Kill a Mocking Bird and Gentleman's Agreement, Gregory Peck became known for epitomising the decent man who stands up for what he believes in. Central to this legacy is The Big Country, in which Peck plays retired sea captain James McKay trying to end a bloody feud between two ranchers. For a moral man who shuns sorting out his problems in public Peck stoically gets into more scraps than is on the average boxing undercard. His dawn fight with the bullying foreman Steve Leech (Heston) after earlier refusing to preserve his honour by fighting in front of a crowd is almost poetic. Cinematographer Franz Planer emphasised the fact it was just two men in a vast landscape by frequently switching from close-up to wide angle, the sound of their exertions also muffled by the distance between actors and camera. The result is dramatic and unforgettable.

Edward Norton prepares to hammer Jared Leto

2) Edward Norton vs Jared Leto in Fight Club (1999)

Horrifyingly violent, the bareknuckle fight between the Narrator (Norton) and Angel Face (Leto) instantly undercuts the phoney glorification of fighting that is the film's great red herring. Having extolled the 'buddies fighting for fun in carparks' ethos Norton dishes out a savage hiding that leaves Leto's character permanently disfigured. Fight Club is a complex film with many levels and metaphors, and this scene provides a pivotal moment where the commune spirit is revealed to actually be a cult of personality with one person making the rules and exercising his power.

Rock Hudson takes on racist diner owner Sarge

3) Rock Hudson vs Mickey Simpson in Giant (1956)

You rarely get pyrrhic victories in film fights but Rock Hudson enjoys perhaps the best defending the dignity of Mexican farmers against the racist diner owner Sarge (Simpson). As the old-fashioned, unabashedly non-liberal oilman Jordan Benedict his sense of justice is awakened by racist jibes directed at his Latino daughter-in-law, his grandchild and finally a group of farmers being ejected from the diner. The scene itself is pivotal to the film after the family return dejected from a gala organised by rival Jett Rink (James Dean) in which Benedict's son Jordy (Dennis Hopper) is beaten up and his wife subjected to various racist remarks and actions. The effect of Hudson's stand is to re-establish the family's sense of who they are. It is one of the most stirring fight scenes committed to film and strangely satisfying considering Hudson is beaten up and knocked out in front of his family, all to the strains of The Yellow Rose of Texas playing involuntarily on the jukebox.

Bruce Lee's killer punch resonates through his body like a bell being rung

4) Bruce Lee vs Tony Liu in The Big Boss (1971)

Martial arts fight scenes have become predictable in their attempts to create ever more outlandish action scenes, but few are better than the arse-kicking Lee's character Cheng Chao-an hands out in this seminal '70s fight film. Vengeance is the theme as Cheng funnels all his pent-up rage from various crimes suffered by himself and his oppressed co-workers during the course of the story. Eventually it all blows up in the ice factory where he works, and there is a palpable sense of Lee's bottled-up rage unleashing from the balls of his feet to the pulsating vein on his forehead. The moment in which he is slashed with a knife and pauses the fight to menacingly taste his own blood, simply and powerfully ups the rage threshold even further. He ends up killing Liu with a punch that resonates through his body like a bell being struck.

Paul Newman on his way to a serious battering

5) Paul Newman vs George Kennedy in Cool Hand Luke (1967)

The betrayal of Christ and the crucifixion are key themes in Stuart Rosenberg's prison film, and the scene in which social misfit Luke (Newman) fights prison tough guy Dragline (Kennedy) also contains oblique biblical references. Smart-talking nice guy Luke offends Dragline and takes him on in a prison yard punch-up in front of other inmates and guards. Despite being pounded to a pulp he continues to get to his feet and fight. It soon becomes a sad spectacle as he is flattened over and over, and the once uproarious mob begs him to stop. Carried away semi-conscious he wins the respect of the other inmates with his personal sacrifice and strengthens the bond they all have against the soulless prison guards.

There's no love lost between Richard Gere and Louis Gossett Jr

6) Richard Gere vs Louis Gossett Jr in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

It's a close call as to whether this fight or an early encounter Mayo (Gere) has with a redneck outside a bar in which he breaks his nose with a backward roundhouse kick, is the best fight in the movie. It perhaps narrowly edges it because of all the baggage it brings. A great rivalry film, An Officer and a Gentleman has several fights and a long training ground scene in which Sgt Foley (Gossett Jr) tries to break Mayo's will and get him to quit. Such is the enmity between the pair, even after winning Foley's respect they end up battling it out in an impromptu kickboxing match-up. The fight itself doesn't follow the rules and is ended by a low blow to the groin from Foley.

Alan Ladd busts up Ben Johnson in this classic bar room brawl

7) Alan Ladd vs Ben Johnson in Shane (1953)

There can't be a better bar room fight than the one Alan Ladd as Shane has in this classic gunslinger film. Goaded by the henchmen of tyrannical cattleman Ryker enigmatic outsider Shane (trying to live a quiet life... ho hum) returns to settle the score, sending his main protagonist Chris Calloway (Johnson) flying backward through the bar room doors and into the adjacent store. Calloway dusts himself off and the fight ensues with more hired hands joining in the fray. When Shane is overpowered, 'sodbuster' Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) comes to his aid with a pickaxe handle and it starts all over again. There's an early filmic bromance going on between Ladd and Van Heflin and the whole scene is watched from under the swing doors by Starrett's wide-eyed son Joey (Brandon de Wilde). It's the best of the 'Wrong guy to pick on' fights.

Sonny takes out his anger on brother-in-law Carlo in The Godfather

8) James Caan vs Gianni Russo in The Godfather (1972)

While more of a beatdown than a fight, James Caan's Sonny Corleone dispenses a very satisfying comeuppance to his wife-bashing brother-in-law Carlo (Russo). A one-sided beating it is, but Russo does what he can to avoid it, attempting to run, then clinging to railings to confound Caan's blows. Caan, the personification of hot-headed rage from the moment his car screeches up to the steps of the brownstone Russo is holding court on, uses his fists, his feet and a garbage can lid to mete out vengeance, and leaves him lying flat-out under a burst fire hydrant. The scene importantly sets out the abiding characteristics of both men, one brave but uncontrollable, the other cowardly and conniving. It carries even greater emotional resonance when later in the film Carlo easily baits Sonny into coming after him, setting up his murder on the Long Beach Causeway.

Benicio Del Toro and Ryan Phillipe don't know it yet, but they are about to be verbally and physically assaulted by Sarah Silverman

9) Sarah Silverman vs Benicio Del Toro and Ryan Phillippe in The Way of the Gun (2000)

The Way of the Gun itself was disappointing and disjointed with the opening sequence bearing little, if any, relevance to the rest of the movie. But in comic Silverman's profane attack on Del Toro and Phillippe as they lounge against her car outside a nightclub, it is one of the funniest fight scenes in film. Silverman gets a broken nose but the film's two protagonists come off worse as they are beaten by a mob to the strains of the Rolling Stones' Rip This Joint. Though the fight carries no great significance, in terms of comedic value it is a stellar stand-out.

Elvis sings up a storm.. then lets his fists do the talking

10) Elvis Presley vs Kenneth Becker in Loving You (1957)

The second of 33 films the King made, Elvis plays to type as Deke Rivers, a young singing sensation on his way up and partly based on his early life. When a fan spots him having dinner in a diner her domineering boyfriend (Becker) demands he sing for her and starts a fight when he refuses. Elvis agrees to perform to avoid trouble and belts out Mean Woman Blues before clashing again with the boyfriend. The resultant stoush is pure satisfaction, with Rivers showing he's not just a pretty boy. The end is punctuated nicely by the King kicking the feet out from under Becker as he collapses over the jukebox.

Mickey Rourke goads macho barman Frank Stallone

11) Mickey Rourke vs Frank Stallone in Barfly (1987)

The film written by the poet Charles Bukowski and based loosely on his life, features a rivalry between Rourke's character Henry Chinaski and Frank Stallone's beefcake barman Eddie. Chinaski is a down-and-out alcoholic penning his poetic observations through a drunken haze. His search for truth and meaning directly contrasts macho Eddie's swaggering, shallow muscleman, and the pair repeatedly clash. Rourke loses badly to Eddie earlier in the film before goading him into a new fight in which he endures another beating but perseveres and succeeds in knocking him out. The fight is a metaphor for creativity overcoming stereotypes.

Not the diner scene (it's pretty hard to find) but a fight nonethless with Pare taking on Dafoe

12) Michael Pare vs 'diner gang' in Streets of Fire (1984)

Michael Pare was on the cusp of becoming a big star when he made Streets of Fire with a young cast that included Diane Lane, Bill Paxton and Willem Dafoe. But critics didn't know what to make of the film, with its unusual mix of genres, and Pare's career stalled. Though he ended up on the B-movie merry-go-round, he still enjoyed two great fight scenes as Tom Cody in this film, one with the villain Raven (Dafoe) above, and the other with a gang of diner hoods. In the hyberbolic, amusing style of the film he disarms one hood of his butterfly knife and slaps him before handing it back. He then disarms him again and repeatedly slaps him about in a display of superior strength and speed. Good fun.

And 12 more that might have made it: John Wayne vs Victor McLagen in The Quiet Man (1952), Sacha Baron Cohen vs Ken Davitian in Borat (2006), Clint Eastwood vs Nicholas Worth in Heartbreak Ridge (1986), Arnold Schwarzenegger vs steamroom baddies in Red Heat (1988), Sean Connery vs Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love (1963), Patrick Swayze vs Marshall Teague in Roadhouse (1989), Ken Wahl vs The Baldies in The Wanderers (1979), Jason Scott Lee vs Eric Bruskotter in Dragon (1993), Robert De Niro vs trio of thugs in Cape Fear (1991), Clint Eastwood vs William Smith in Any Which Way You Can (1980), Albert Finney vs Gabriel Byrne in Miller's Crossing (1990), Bruce Lee vs Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon (1972).