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Movies & TV

04th Nov 2023

35 years ago, we got one of the most realistic movie fights ever

Stephen Porzio

They Live

It lasts for over five-and-a-half minutes and features several real hits.

There are numerous contenders for the title of best ever movie fight.

Definitely in consideration for the honour are scenes from Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies, along with set-pieces from more modern Asian action films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Oldboy and The Raid or sequences from Hollywood blockbuster franchises like Bourne, John Wick and Mission Impossible.

However, in terms of the most realistic fight ever captured onscreen, I would argue that the street brawl centrepiece of legendary writer-director John Carpenter’s 1988 cult classic action sci-fi horror They Live is undefeated.

For those not aware, the film itself revolves around a homeless drifter named Nada (played by pro-wrestler Roddy Piper) who comes to Los Angeles in search of a job but stumbles into a global conspiracy.

Discovering a box of sunglasses that enable him to see reality for what it really is, Nada learns to his horror that humanity is being taken over by a race of aliens.

However, as opposed to launching a war against Earth, the extraterrestrials pose as wealthy humans and leave subliminal messages in media – brainwashing people to obey them and crave money.

This is so that the aliens can later bribe select humans into becoming collaborators to their quiet world takeover.

With its homeless protagonist and its otherworldly villains who turn the people of Earth against each other by the promise of wealth, They Live is an angry political movie – with Carpenter warning how, to many in society, making money has become more important than looking out for their fellow man.

However, perhaps sensing that a critique of Reaganomics and unrestrained capitalism did not scream ‘box office hit’, the writer-director (best known at that point for helming Halloween, Escape from New York and The Thing) managed to make the film tremendously entertaining as well, partly through the casting of Piper and upping the levels of action.

This is best exemplified through the aforementioned street brawl, during which Nada attempts to get Frank (Keith David) – one of the few people to show him kindness since coming to LA – to put on a pair of those special sunglasses.

However, Frank is understandably reluctant since there is a police manhunt for Nada underway due to his killing of several of the aliens disguised as humans.

As such, the two wind up coming to blows in a back alley with Nada shouting the iconic line at Frank: “Either put on these glasses or start eating that trashcan.”

35 years ago, They Live gave us one of the most realistic movie fights ever

As for how the fight came out, They Live producer Larry Franco explained to Syfy: “The first script I got from John [for They Live] said: ‘They fight’ and then there were five empty pages and then the script went on.

“And he said to me when he handed me the script: ‘You’re going to see a fight and I’m going to make it a big deal.”

Inspired by a similarly long fight scene in the John Wayne-starring classic The Quiet Man, Carpenter drew on Piper’s wrestling experience in crafting the set-piece – adding in wrestling moves like suplexes.

In order to nail the sequence, Piper and his co-star David rehearsed the scene for two months in the filmmaker’s back garden.

According to Carpenter and Piper on the DVD commentary for They Live, David before the rehearsals was more of a “dancer” than a fighter.

However, Piper joked that by the end of the training, his co-star hit like legendary boxer Ernie Shavers.

Then, the actual filming of the fight took three days, with rubber mats painted to resemble the ground for safety purposes and Carpenter setting up three cameras to capture all he needed.

they live

Roddy Piper and Keith David squaring off in They Live

Speaking about his idea behind the fight, the writer-director told Piper: “It’s not a flashy fight. You guys don’t have kung fu going, you don’t have martial arts, you’re not flying through the air. You’re just going at it.”

And adding to the realism is that Piper actually encouraged David to really hit him, according to the latter.

“Roddy, he taught me so much about how to sell it. I hit him a couple of times but he never hit me,” David recounted in the same interview to Syfy.

Joking about this on the DVD commentary, Piper said upon watching himself get kicked in the groin repeatedly by his co-star: “I haven’t had a kid since then. Good thing I got all my work in before.”

And Carpenter claimed the fight was so well-done that he “used every piece of footage” he shot except for any mistakes.

Totalling over five-and-a-half-minutes, the scene has become a classic not just on account of its length and the authenticity of the fighting but also because of how it furthers the movie’s story – serving as a metaphor for how the aliens turn humans against each other.

By the end of the scene though, Nada has gotten Frank to put on the sunglasses, making him realise the truth about the global threat.

From this point on, the now appropriately battered-looking pair team up in an effort to take down the extraterrestrial invaders.

they live

The subliminal alien messages in They Live

As Piper explained: “With this hero [in They Live], he hurts and the more he gets beat up, the more people are going to feel for him.

“Rather than [if he is] this tough guy [where] you’ll have this big fight that means nothing, big kicks.

“What we did here, the fight matches the story.”

On this topic, Carpenter added: “What makes this fight interesting is that it’s between two people who really do like each other.

“It’s one thing when you have a fight against an obvious villain. That stuff is easier.

“But it’s different when you have these two men have a relationship and have a connection between each other,” with Piper also telling his director:

“And that’s what you established at the beginning [of the movie] so this works.”

They Live is available to rent on Apple TV, Google Play and the Sky Store.

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