Before you see Looper, the sci-fi thriller that pits Joseph Gordon-Levitt against Bruce Willis on September 28, you might want to take a look at some of the best cinematic face-offs in movie history. Casting two big actors for a single movie is often a good idea, but casting them in the hero and villain roles gives cinematic titans the perfect opportunity to act their heads off or, at the very least, fight to the most spectacular death possible. Here are our picks for The Best Movie Face-Offs. Did we leave off your favorite? Let us know in the comments below.
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Hunky superstar Clark Gable faced off with iconic character actor Charles Laughton in this, the best of many solid adaptations of Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s classic novel. Gable plays Fletcher Christian, who takes arms against the cruel Captain Bligh (Laughton), who repeatedly abuses his crew to stroke his own ego. As the title suggests, there is eventually a dramatic mutiny. Mutiny on the Bounty was a monumentally successful film and has been remade several times (including a decent, more historically accurate 1984 version starring Mel Gibson and Sir Anthony Hopkins), but they can’t hold a candle to the rousing original.
Touch of Evil (1958)
Orson Welles didn’t originally want to direct classic potboiler, but once he signed on (at co-star Charlton Heston’s request) he didn’t phone it in. Welles drastically rewrote the script and engineered one of the most memorable opening shots in the history of cinema, a tracking shot through a Mexican border town following the a ticking time bomb to its ultimate destination. But beyond that, Touch of Evil is a remarkable noir thriller about a Mexican narcotics agent (Heston, strangely cast) facing off against a police captain (Welles) who may be corrupt, but who may also be completely right. Touch of Evil pulls no punches, and wound up including some of the most memorable roles of both Welles’ and Heston’s careers.
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Godzilla fought a lot of monsters in his day, but none of them were as famous as King Kong, the first great giant monster in the history of cinema. (There were dinosaurs previously, but they were the right size.) Like several of the face-offs on our list, King Kong vs. Godzilla started with a very different concept, namely “King Kong vs. Frankenstein” (Kong was going to fight a giant Frankenstein monster in San Francisco), but the rights wound up in Japan, and the film – the most successful Godzilla movie in history – wound up having two different versions, American and Japanese. It’s a silly film (King Kong winds up with electro-powers at the end), but a spectacular monster mash-up nonetheless. Rumors used to swirl that different monsters won the conflict in the different, previously hard to find versions, but that’s not true at all.
Way of the Dragon (1972)
Bruce Lee wrote and directed this kung fu thriller, aka Return of the Dragon, about a martial arts expert (Lee) who travels to Italy to help in the family expert, only to become embroiled in a battle against ruthless gangsters who, in the finale, hire a ringer to take the hero down. That bad guy is none other than Lee disciple and future action superstar Chuck Norris, who fights the king of kung fu in the Coliseum. The film itself is a bit of a mess, awkwardly combining culture clash comedy with badass fight scenes (and the American version, which cuts out a lot of the comedy, is often just confusing), but the final battle between these two action titans is unforgettable.
Universal Soldier (1992)
Hollywood finally took notice of director Roland Emmerich after this kick-ass sci-fi action film that featured Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as Vietnam veterans resurrected by the American government for black ops missions. The plot kicks in when Van Damme and Lundgren start getting their memories back, which is bad news since Lundgren was a dangerous psychopath. Their climactic battle is one of the best of either action star’s careers, and helped land Emmerich such high-profile directing gigs as Stargate and Independence Day, which cemented him as one of the most notable blockbuster directors alive.
There was a time when Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, considered the greatest actors of their generation for decades, had never appeared on screen together. (They were both in The Godfather, Part II but never at the same time.) That finally changed in 1995 with Heat, Michael Mann’s incredible cops and robbers film that pit Detective Pacino against a master criminal De Niro. The funny thing is, they even don’t have that much screen time together in Heat, except for an incredible, subdued conversation and a pair of shoot-outs towards the end of the film. The face-off was the selling point, but the film itself is worthy beyond the casting gimmick. Many critics consider Heat one of the best films of the 1990s. Pacino and De Niro eventually appeared together one more time, in Jon Avnet’s 2008 thriller Righteous Kill, but it’s nowhere near as good.
Two of the most unexpected action stars of the 1990s do battle in Face/Off, a film many consider director John Woo’s best American outing. Both Nicolas Cage and John Travolta had been known solely for their dramatic and comedy work before the mid-90’s, which made them the perfect fit for this whacked out sci-fi actioner about an FBI agent (Travolta) and an international terrorist (Cage) who trade faces and wreak havoc on each other’s lives, punctuated by Woo’s iconic, slow-motion riddled “Gun Fu” shoot-outs. Cage and Travolta are so good in their respective roles, and as each other, that it’s almost hard to imagine Face/Off in its original form: a starring vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
Infernal Affairs/The Departed (2002/2006)
Martin Scorsese finally won his Academy Award for Best Director with 2006’s The Departed, a crime saga about an undercover cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) facing off, unknowingly, with an undercover criminal in the police department (Matt Damon). It’s a great film based on another great film, Infernal Affairs, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, a more streamlined version of the story with Chinese superstars Andy Lau (no relation to the director) and Tony Leung in the lead roles. Purists prefer the original film, but both are remarkable in their own ways: Infernal Affairs is leaner and more stylish, but The Departed devotes more time to the protagonists’ complex psychological struggles. Watch them both.
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
The original 3:10 to Yuma pit Van Heflin against Glenn Ford, and while that’s quite a face-off too, we prefer James Mangold’s remake, which had Maximus vs. Batman. Christian Bale plays an everyman rancher who’s placed in charge of a notorious outlaw, played by Russell Crowe, until a train arrives to pick him up. Along the way, Crowe tries to manipulate his captor, and Crowe’s men (led by a fantastic Ben Foster) attempt to reclaim their leader by violent force. The action is fantastic, and reminds us all that the western is far from dead, but the lead performances are the real selling point, playing characters who in another universe could be friends, but are here forced to be mortal enemies.
Full Disclosure: This article has been sponsored by TriStar Pictures.