Possibly one of the best fights ever, and certainly the best one about eye wear.
Even if you’ve never seen They Live* you probably have seen or have at least heard of this legendary throwdown. Directed by genre master John Carpenter and apparently coordinated by the actors themselves, the scene is a masterpiece of blue collar rough-housing. It’s been referenced, parodied and paid tribute to countless times since. It’s often the case with indelible pop cultural moments that their lasting success took the creators by surprise, but not here. Here it’s safe to say that everyone involved knew exactly how awesome they were being.
[*I haven’t. The silly attempt at social commentary aspect of it– “It’s all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money!” says John Carpenter, who I assume gives all his movies away for free– sounds tiresome & boring to me, so I was never in a hurry. But I’ve watched this scene many a time.]
Nada vs Frank
- Nada, a drifter whose encounter with a strange resistance cult has opened up his eyes to the secret reality around him. Incensed, he has begun to haphazardly launch a one-man war against humanity’s hidden overlords. Played by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, a living legend. Piper knew a few things about selling a good fake fight given his past as a boxer, martial artist, and of course one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time.
- Armed with: nada. But he does grab a wooden plank at one point.
- Frank Armitage, Nada’s new pal at the construction yard and a pretty hefty guy himself. Frank likes Nada but is fairly sure he’s crazy, and doesn’t have time to listen to his crazy talk. Played by Keith David, who will always be Goliath to me.
- Armed with: also nothing, but he briefly attempts to weaponize an empty beer bottle.
The Setup: After finding a special pair of sunglasses that allows him to see the villainous alien infiltrators and their cunning subliminal messages (this movie’s plot is basically the views of a schizophrenic hobo taken seriously), Nada has gone on an ill-advised rampage and become a wanted man. He meets up with Frank in a quiet alley, and though Frank is able to give him some severance pay from work, he wants nothing else to do with the seemingly unhinged drifter. Nada tries to open up Frank’s eyes by making him don the glasses, but Frank refuses. They argue with increasing forcefulness until Frank clocks Nada in the face as he comes in closer.
Nada replies with “Either put on these glasses, or start eatin’ that trash can.” “Not this year,” Frank counters. Them’s fightin’ words.
The Fight: It’s odd how something can be totally straightforward and yet completely ridiculous, but that’s precisely what this is. It’s not overly flashy or complicated, it stays completely within a very mundane setting, there’s no music, little dialogue (memorable or otherwise), and few genuine surprises. It’s just two burly guys punching, tossing and grappling with each other. And a lot of it– the brawl lasts well over five minutes, practically an eternity in fight scene time, especially for one that doesn’t cut away to elsewhere or have any significant change-ups.
Yet it’s utterly absurd and raucously entertaining. Not just the length of the fight but its constant escalation of brutality over such a simple thing– Frank’s stubborn refusal to put on a pair of sunglasses– will be instantly familiar to any guy who’s slugged it out with a buddy over the stupidest of reasons (typically when alcohol’s involved). It’s the fight scene as platonic male bonding. And it’s kind of beautiful in its ridiculous way. It’s sublimely silly.
As is typical with the more straightforward battles, it’s hard to give a decent accounting here without descending into a literal blow-by-blow. But standout bits include changing up from the punches with the occasional headbutting, choking, and improvised suplexes (one of them after shoving off from a brick wall). And when Nada tries to take a swing at Frank’s frank & beans, Frank utters a truly irritated “you dirty motherf****er!”
Frank does seem to be the more clever fighter, as he twice tricks Nada into taking some surprise hits: first, early on in the fight as he offers Nada a seemingly friendly hand back up only to punch him back down again (the look of relief on Piper’s face before the blow comes is hilarious), then again as he threatens to stomp the glasses but knees Nada in the face when he leans in to save them.
Weapons come into the fight briefly in the latter half, as a desperate Nada grabs a 2×4 and swings it around. Frank dodges all the blows but his car isn’t so lucky– the plank goes right through his rear window, which enrages Frank but causes Nada to apologize & laugh in sheepish embarrassment. Which is just so perfectly emblematic of the relatable nature of the fight: when you’re brawling with your buddy, on some level you still expect to be friends again afterward, so any step too far over the line (or collateral damage to valuable property) is cause for apology. Frank unfortunately is not so forgiving, and though he smashes a beer bottle he’d been holding, he tackles Nada instead of cutting him.
Towards the end, an awkward body slam seems to put Nada down for the count, but as Frank walks away our hero rallies and charges.
After a bit more scuffling, another suplex stuns Frank enough for Nada to put the glasses on his face and get him to see the hidden threats around him. Two bleeding, sweaty guys and a lot of thumping sound effects later, a piece of cinema history has been made.
It’s basically the rough-edged, 1980s version of The Quiet Man. High praise indeed.
Recommended Links: South Park’s incredibly offensive parody/tribute.
The new video game Saints Row IV (where Keith David plays himself, and also the Vice President) offers up its own odd recreation of this scene.
Coming Attractions: Los Hermanos Del Lobo.