In terms of pure quality and general badassery, 2018 has been a banner year for fights on the screen both big and small. Think Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, and Liang Yang shotgun-arming each other around a Parisian nightclub bathroom in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Think Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) dodging violently tossed office supplies across from his nemesis Bullseye (Wilson Bethel) in Marvel’s Daredevil. Or simply think of Nicolas Cage, getting in a chainsaw duel with a cult demon in Mandy. But amid all that flash and pyrotechnics, 2018 also stands as the 30th anniversary of, for my money, one of film history’s best brawls: the six-minute alleyway tussle between Roddy Piper and Keith David in John Carpenter‘s 1988 sci-fi horror mind-bender, They Live. I recently revisited the film in light of the anniversary and Carpenter’s name slashing its way back into headlines thanks to the new Halloween, and I finally figured out what makes that brutal, absurd fight scene so great, even today. It doesn’t need to be that brutal or that absurd—and definitely not that long—but Carpenter commits, man, and the result is a thing of B-movie beauty.
First, the set-up. Piper—an iconic pro wrestler who Carpenter cast after meeting at WrestleMania III—plays John Nada, a vagrant moving to Los Angeles in search of construction work. What he finds instead is a pair of sunglasses that allows him to see past the veneer of media and advertising through to a reality—the real reality—where formaldehyde-faced aliens control humanity through subliminal messaging and consumerism. Now a fugitive in possession of dangerous technology, Nada finds his construction buddy Frank Armitage (David) in a back alleyway and urges him to try on the sunglasses. Frank, thinking he’s batshit insane, refuses. And that’s it. It’s the longest big-brother-little-brother disagreement fight in film history. Six minutes of bone-crunching, window-smashing, and ball-mashing is predicated on the simple premise that Nada wants his work acquaintance to try on these sunglasses, and Frank refuses. In a script brimming with quotable one-liners, not much touches “Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.”
And again, the simplicity of the set-up only adds to the uncanny valley of it all. This thing really does come out of nowhere; up until this point, an hour or so into the movie, They Live is not the type of film that does a six-minute long fight scene. It’s barely even an action movie. But it builds and builds to a violent, knockdown crescendo. You could show this fight scene to a film class by itself for a mini-lesson in escalating action. Piper and David start with realistic, sluggish haymakers that two people throw when they don’t actually want to fight. When that doesn’t work, elbows, then a two-by-four, then honest-to-goodness pro wrestling suplexes on to concrete. It’s like Return of the King but in a bizarrely satisfying way, a fight scene with about four logical endings that just plows past all of them. My absolute favorite part is after Frank puts Nada down and utters a definitive “Fuck. You.” in his face—pretty much the point where most scenes would, and possibly should have ended—but Nada gets up again, for like the tenth time, to straight toss his friend over his head.
I can confidently say, to use a highly technical term, that this scene owns, and it owns hard, but I also think one of the worst things you can do to it is apply too deep an analysis to the meaning of it all. I’ve seen some theorize that the They Live fight is actually a parody of fight scenes, or is meant to be seen as some experimental anti-fight. For me, what makes the scene fantastic to this day can be boiled down to a quote from Carpenter himself: “I wanted a good fight!” the director told Yahoo. “I hadn’t seen anything like that, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ I had a wrestler as the star!”
This scene practically oozes the phrase why not? Why not cast a pro wrestler in your lead role? Why not have your already-absurd fight scene stretch on for an uncomfortably long time? Why not have Piper chuckle in the middle of it? In the day of manufactured franchises and tentpole starters, I feel like more mainstream films could use a healthy dose of why not?
Because look at this result; the They Live fight scene, no matter how you feel about it, is a lovingly crafted setpiece from a director having a dang blast with tone and style. Carpenter uses three cameramen to capture every elbow and angle, making sure there was never a moment where the lense wasn’t squared on the two participants. There’s no music, no grand swell to signal dramatic beats, and that alone makes the scene feel unique. Both Piper and David have the type of voices that could cut steel, and together they made their own symphony with grunts and screams.
There’s been nothing like it since. Anyone can go long on a fight scene or take a weird left turn in their script. But what Carpenter dared to do was go too long, go too weird, because why not? If They Live is the director’s “fuck you” to the establishment inside our magazines and on our billboards, then the six-minute long alley fight is a “fuck you” inside a “fuck you” to anyone who thinks there’s an established way to shoot a fight. Because why not?