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The Last Duel: Cinema's 11 best showdowns
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From grudge match to high-stakes battle, cinema's ultimate face-offs all make for classic movie moments. Nicholas Barber rounds up his top tussles.
The Last Duel (Credit: 20th-Century Studios)

The Last Duel (Credit: 20th-Century Studios)

The duel in The Last Duel is a long time coming. Ridley Scott's Medieval drama has been underway for two hours before Matt Damon and Adam Driver get on their horses, grab their lances, and gallop towards each other – and by then we know their characters, we know why they're ready and willing to fight to the death, and we know what's at stake in the wider world of 14th-Century France. In other words, Scott has laid all the groundwork necessary for a classic big-screen showdown. 

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It's always a treat when such a showdown arrives. Cinematic battles between rival armies and sports teams can be impressive, but nothing is as satisfying as the moment when two arch-enemies get up close and personal for a one-on-one, winner-takes-all face-off. Filmmakers know that it's a make-or-break scene. Viewers know that everything they've seen in the previous hour or two will be resolved. In real life, disputes are rarely settled so quickly or decisively – which is probably a good thing. But in films, showdowns offer us the fantasy of an all-out, no-holds-barred path to ultimate victory or defeat. Here are 10 of the best – and the 10 elements which make them so rewarding.

From Russia with Love (Credit: Alamy)

From Russia with Love (Credit: Alamy)

The high stakes

James Bond (Sean Connery) vs Red Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia with Love (1963)

Winner: James Bond, of course

One of cinema's most brutal brawls is confined to a small space – a pair of cramped train compartments – but the stakes are vast. Before the first punch is thrown, James Bond and Red Grant have the kind of civilised hero-vs-villain chat which is a Bond speciality: The Man with the Golden Gun and Dr No contain two notable examples. In this instance, their discussion establishes that Grant plans to murder both Bond and Tatiana Romanova, to ruin their reputations in the press, and to pass the Lektor cipher machine to his Spectre superiors. It also establishes that Grant is a thoroughly nasty piece of work. To paraphrase footballer Bill Shankly, their showdown isn't a matter of life and death, it's much, much more important than that. The makers of the Last Duel take care to convey what's at stake in their jousting match, too: without giving anything away, it's not just the lives of the combatants that depend on its outcome.

Star Wars (Credit: Getty Images)

Star Wars (Credit: Getty Images)

The anticipation

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) vs Darth Vader (Dave Prowse / James Earl Jones) in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Winner: Darth Vader

The two-hour build-up in The Last Duel? That's nothing compared to what George Lucas put us through 40 years ago. Luke Skywalker had posed with his lightsaber on the posters advertising the first Star Wars film, but audiences didn't get to see him cross swords with Darth Vader (or anyone else) until near the end of the second one. Their lightsaber fight remains the most memorable of the showdowns in the Star Wars series, thanks to its atmospheric range of spooky Cloud City locations, and the way each buzzing and crackling burst of combat is punctuated by musings on whether the enemies should really be allies. And let's not forget the revelation that Darth is (spoiler alert) Luke's father. But none of it would have been so momentous if Star Wars fans hadn't been kept waiting for three agonising years for the two men to reach this point.

Rocky IV (Credit: Getty Images)

Rocky IV (Credit: Getty Images)

The preparation

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) vs Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in Rocky IV (1985)

Winner: Rocky Balboa

The Rocky films all wend their way towards the third-act slugfest between Rocky Balboa and whoever he happens to be up against in that particular episode. When the fourth film came around, Sylvester Stallone realised that the stakes had to be absurdly high, and so they are: not only is Balboa getting his revenge on the gold medallist who killed his buddy Apollo Creed earlier in the film, he is also a soldier in the Cold War between the US and the USSR. No pressure. But Stallone has always appreciated the importance of another showdown component: the preparation that goes into it. Pulling sleighs through the snow! Chopping down trees! And all while your opponent is plugged into a zillion rubles' worth of computerised exercise gizmos. A Rocky film is nothing without a ludicrous training montage, and they don't get any more ludicrous than this one.

Once Upon a Time in the West (Credit: Getty Images)

Once Upon a Time in the West (Credit: Getty Images)

The grudge match

Frank (Henry Fonda) vs Harmonica (Charles Bronson) in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Winner: Harmonica

The duel between the sadistic Frank and the mystery man known only as Harmonica is over in no time: there are no cunning tactics, no athletic ducking and diving; just one man being quicker on the draw than the other. It's still a masterly showdown, though, because Sergio Leone takes the Western trope of the pre-duel stand-off to its monumental limit, increasing the tension for seven full minutes while the guns are still in their holsters. First there is the duellists' slow, careful striding into position on a dusty landscape. (See also: the samurais' trek up the hill in Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri.) Then there are the extreme close-ups of the suspicious Frank and the stone-faced Harmonica, accompanied by Ennio Morricone's slicing guitar twangs and ghostly harmonica wails. And then, at last, a flashback reveals why Charles Bronson's character is determined to kill Henry Fonda's. When Harmonica was a boy, his brother was strung up by Frank, and Harmonica was forced to participate. Their score-settling, then, could hardly be more personal, which is one reason why it is so riveting. The funny thing is that a showdown can be personal even when it doesn't have two people in it: for proof, see Ripley's hatred of the Alien queen in Aliens, and Brody's hatred of the shark in Jaws.

Kill Bill Vol 2 (Credit: Alamy)

Kill Bill Vol 2 (Credit: Alamy)

The perfect match

Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman) vs Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) in Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004)

Winner: Beatrix Kiddo

Most showdowns are between two evenly matched opponents. The excitement comes from believing that either one of them could win (even if you know that it will probably be the goodie). Quentin Tarantino has fun with this notion in Kill Bill: Volume 2. Of all the people Beatrix Driver kills on her way to killing Bill, none is more similar to her than Elle Driver. Both are tall blonde female members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad; both have names, Bea and Elle, that sound like letters. Tarantino often shoots them as mirror images, using identical weapons in identical ways. At one stage he even has them connecting with identical kicks, and then uses a split screen to show them falling down and getting up in exact parallel. Unfortunately for Elle, Bea has one crucial advantage which lets her blindside her doppelganger...

Blade Runner (Credit: Getty Images)

Blade Runner (Credit: Getty Images)

The mismatch

Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) vs Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner (1982)

Winner: Roy Batty

Not all opponents are quite as balanced as Bea and Elle (above). Some films tweak the formula by putting the protagonist up against a far more formidable antagonist, so we aren’t hoping that the hero will win: all we’re hoping is that they’ll survive. There are versions of this showdown in The Shining and The Terminator, but it's hard to top Rick Deckard and Roy Batty's epic game of hide and seek in Blade Runner. The rain, the darkness, the crumbling building, Roy's poetic farewell speech... everything in this sequence is awe-inspiring, but one key aspect is that the replicant outmatches the exhausted bounty hunter who has been tracking him down. Hauer is like a demigod, and Ford, however many tough guys he has played, is better than anyone at action scenes in which he looks scared, tired, and downright groggy.

The Mark of Zorro (Credit: Getty Images)

The Mark of Zorro (Credit: Getty Images)

The expertise

Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone) and Don Diego "Zorro" Vega (Tyrone Power) in The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Winner: Zorro

Sometimes a showdown is elevated by the sheer breath-taking skill of the combatants – and few actors were more skilled with a sword than Basil Rathbone, a former British Army fencing champion. His most influential bout is the one in The Adventures of Robin Hood in which he and Errol Flynn thrust and parry their way through a castle, but the most thrilling has to be his rapier duel with Tyrone Power in Rouben Mamoulian's The Mark of Zorro. Captain Esteban Pasquale and Don Diego Vega never stray from one office, and there are no tricks or gimmicks, just plenty of long takes so we can see that both men knew what they were doing. Such is the ferocity and speed of the whipping blades, it seems amazing that either Rathbone or Power got out of the scene alive. In some shots, Power had a fencing double, but Rathbone still said in his autobiography: "Power was the most agile man with a sword I've ever faced before a camera. Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat."

The Matrix (Credit: Alamy)

The Matrix (Credit: Alamy)

The transformation

Neo (Keanu Reeves) vs Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) in The Matrix (1999)

Winner: Mr Anderson? No: "My name is Neo."

Some showdowns have a vital narrative purpose that goes beyond one person defeating another. They're really about one person proving how far they've come by demonstrating abilities they didn't have before. In Little Shop of Horrors, Audrey II blossoms from a carnivorous plant to a towering, multi-headed mean green mother from outer space. In The Sword and the Stone, Merlin teaches Arthur how to outwit Madam Mim. In The Matrix, Neo's fight with Agent Smith starts by showing that he is now a superhuman martial artist, and goes on to show him as The One who can stop a hail of bullets in mid-air with a flick of his hand. The effects and the choreography are stunning, but the essential point is summed up by Morpheus's comment: "He's beginning to believe." 

Halloween (Credit: Alamy)

Halloween (Credit: Alamy)

The final girl

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) vs Michael Myers (Nick Castle) in Halloween (1978)

Winner: Laurie Strode (with a little help from Sam Loomis)

In her 1992 book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Carol J Clover identified the "final girl", the sole female survivor of a killing spree in a slasher movie who then has a climactic confrontation with "the boogeyman". Sally in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an early example, but the final girl who sets the standard is Laurie Strode in Halloween. When she and Michael Myers come face to masked face, Laurie quite reasonably shrieks and runs from the maniac who has been stalking her around Haddonfield. But soon she is giving as good as she gets, stabbing him with a knitting needle, a wire coat-hanger and a knife in quick succession. In fact, she is so adept with sharp objects, and yet so traumatised by the ordeal, that (hot-take alert) it feels like a wasted opportunity that John Carpenter and Debra Hill (the film's co-writers) didn't turn her into the main killer in Halloween II. On the other hand, Laurie's career as a final girl has been outstanding: more than 40 years since they first got their knives out, she is still fending off Michael in Halloween Kills, released this month.

The Third Man (Getty Images)

The Third Man (Getty Images)

The battle of wills

Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) vs Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in The Third Man (1949)

The winner: Harry Lime

They're not always physical, of course. Some of the most vicious showdowns involve verbal sparring alone. In Carol Reed's The Third Man, scripted by Graham Greene, an American author reunites with a former friend on Vienna's Wiener Riesenrad ferris wheel. Holly Martins fights his corner manfully, but he can't land a blow on the insouciant, amoral Harry Lime, whose mischievous jibes and impish smile make his evil all the more sinister: this is a racketeer who is bothered more by his indigestion than by the deaths from which he has profited. He mentions the gun in his pocket, but he doesn't have to resort to violence: as in Hannibal Lecter's dealings with Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, brains and confidence are all that's needed to get the upper hand.

Heat (Credit: Alamy)

Heat (Credit: Alamy)

The actors

Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) vs Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) in Heat (1995)

Winner: It's a draw, for now

Heat boasts one of the loudest, bloodiest shoot-outs ever staged, but the film's highpoint is a short scene in which two men have a tete-a-tete in a restaurant. According to Michael Mann, the writer-director, the sequence is based on an actual meeting between the real police detective and bank robber who inspired the characters. Whatever its origins, though, what mattered to audiences was getting to see two New York acting legends and old friends, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, playing opposite each other at long last. (They were both in The Godfather Part II, but never in the same scene.) If different actors had starred as Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley, the dialogue wouldn't have had much of a charge, but sometimes a showdown is less about the characters than what the actors bring to them. On a slightly less Oscar-worthy note, this rule holds true for the tussle between Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel in Fast & Furious 5.

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