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Vicious Movie Punches That Weren't Fake

When a movie or television show's script calls for characters to engage in fisticuffs, there are a wide variety of tricks that filmmakers can use to make the punches appear to be as authentic as possible onscreen. Time-honored shot blocking techniques can make a fight look devastatingly realistic while ensuring that nobody on the set actually gets hurt—because after all, it simply wouldn't do for Brad Pitt's million-dollar face to get rearranged just for the sake of one shot.

Or would it? It turns out there are plenty of times when all that movie magic has gone right out the window—along with safety and common sense—and your favorite actors have ended up actually beating the tar out of each other for your entertainment. Wondering how they pulled off your favorite fight scenes without anyone really taking a wallop? Maybe they didn't. Here's a look at some truly vicious movie punches that weren't fake.

Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, Fight Club

The underground boxing matches of David Fincher's Fight Club are steeped in gritty realism, but one earlier scene involving one simple punch actually was real. Soon after their meeting, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) goads the Narrator (Edward Norton) into a fight outside a bar, just because he's "never been in a fight before." The script called for the narrator to lob a weak punch at Durden's shoulder, but Fincher had other ideas, pulling Norton aside a few minutes before the take and whispering, "hit him in the ear."

Knowing Pitt wasn't expecting this, Norton was understandably reluctant. Also, he had practically just met Pitt—this being early in the shoot—and wasn't too eager to anger his co-star. Fincher listened patiently to his protests, then repeated his instructions word for word. So Norton steeled himself, got into character, and delivered the punch we see in the finished film. Pitt's shocked expression, along with his hilarious reaction—"You hit me in the ear?! Ow! Why the ear?!"—are completely genuine. He may have had a few choice words for Fincher once the cameras stopped rolling, but even he likely had to admit that if the scene had been shot as scripted, it wouldn't have been nearly as funny.

Heath Ledger and Christian Bale, The Dark Knight

There aren't enough superlatives in the English language to adequately describe Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in 2008's The Dark Knight, and it's lost none of its power nearly a decade later. Nobody was expecting Ledger to deliver such powerful work, but his dedication to the role was legendary, and it should come as no surprise that he requested to be put through actual physical abuse during the film's famous interrogation scene.

Speaking with the The Hollywood Reporter, Ledger's co-star Christian Bale remembered shooting the scene, which happened to be their first together. "I was saying, 'You know what, I really don't need to actually hit you. It's going to look just as good if I don't,'" Bale recalled. "And he's going, 'Go on. Go on. Go on....' He was slamming himself around, and there were tiled walls inside of that set which were cracked and dented from him hurling himself into them. His commitment was total." Batman opens his interrogation by slamming Joker's head onto a table, and it's easy to see on the actor's face that it was no fake.

Martin Sheen and Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now

No film shoot has ever spiraled wildly out of control quite like Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which ran roughly a year over schedule, $20 million over budget, and nearly drove everyone involved insane. Star Martin Sheen, brought in to replace the fired Harvey Keitel two weeks into the shoot, was battling alcoholism and was a prime candidate for a heart attack or nervous breakdown—both of which he'd suffer before filming was completed. In one famous scene, Sheen's character stumbles around his motel room in a drunken stupor, punching a mirror and slicing up his hand before breaking down into hysterical sobbing, getting completely naked, and guzzling more liquor. 

Unfortunately, Sheen was just barely in character for this take. He was actually stinking drunk, and had ordered the camera crew to film him in this state after being subjected to an intense hounding by his director (in an attempt to bring the "evil" out of him). The result is exactly what we see: Sheen really did cut up his hand pretty badly, and the rest of his freakout is more or less genuine. Speaking to a panel at the Telluride Film Festival, Coppola remembered, "He started to get really weird. He punched his own image in the mirror, and all this poured out of him." 

"Including his blood," added the panel's moderator.

Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, Raging Bull

If you ask five Martin Scorsese fans to name his best film, you'll likely get five different answers, all backed up with solid arguments. At least one of them will cite 1980's Raging Bull, Scorsese's biopic about boxer Jake LaMotta, which marked the director's fourth collaboration with Robert De Niro. By this time, De Niro and Scorsese had become close friends, and even though the film is widely considered one of Scorsese's best (and arguably among the best films of all time), the director had to be persuaded to take the job—the film was actually De Niro's passion project.

His commitment is evident in the scene in which Jake, despondent over not getting a shot to fight the heavyweight champion, eggs on his younger brother and manager Joey (Joe Pesci) to punch him in the face harder and harder, doling out vicious slaps in between verbal provocations. Real blood is flying by the end of the scene, and it couldn't be any more obvious that the blows are real. LaMotta, who passed away in September 2017, was quite happy with his immortalization by one of the greatest actors ever—in an interview with Esquire late in his life, he admitted, "I wanted to play myself in the movie. ... The producer said, 'Jake, you're not the type.' Good thing there's a Robert De Niro."

Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone, Grudge Match

More than 30 years after Raging Bull, De Niro would again put on boxing trunks for 2013's Grudge Match, in which he and Sylvester Stallone play a pair of way-past-their-prime pugilists whose only defeats were to each other, coming out of retirement for... well, the title explains it. The film was savaged by critics, but its two stars seemed to have a great time making it—even when they were taking actual shots at each other.

Stallone said of his partner, "Once he commits, he goes all the way. He took some serious hits and falls. He won't admit it, but he did." According to director Peter Segal, De Niro wasn't the only one taking hits: "I wanted the reality and those guys, unfortunately, weren't able to do perfect movie punches every time. They connected quite a bit. You can see their backs and shoulders got scarred up by the ropes." Grudge Match may not be everybody's favorite sports comedy, but at least the audience weren't alone in suffering for the stars' art.

Frank Grillo and Chris Evans, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

For a great example of what happens when you provoke Steve Rogers, look no further than the epic elevator brawl near the beginning of 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier. For that matter, it can also serve as an example of what happens when you provoke Chris Evans—movie magic, if Frank Grillo is to be believed.

Grillo, who portrays Brock Rumlow a.k.a. Crossbones in the series, spoke with Conan O'Brien about the grueling six-day shoot—and his special technique for making sure the scene looked as brutally physical as it does. "Early on, Chris realized that I'm really gonna hit you," he said. "So he said, 'Grillo, you know, I'm getting black and blue,' and I said, 'Yeah, just keep your hands up.' By the end of the fight, we were both packed in ice... it was bad." When O'Brien pressed for clarification that the actors were really beating on each other rather than using fake movie punches, Grillo quipped, "Doesn't it look better?"

Jake Gyllenhaal and Everyone Else, Southpaw

2015's Southpaw received mixed-to-favorable reviews, but Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as boxer Billy "The Great" Hope earned nearly universal praise. The actor underwent an insane training regimen for the film, working out twice a day, seven days a week for six months to sculpt an astonishingly ripped physique. Director Antoine Fuqua, speaking with Entertainment Weekly, sounded in complete awe of his star: "I watched him vomit in the gym and almost pass out. I watched him take hits, gut shots in the ribs, get dropped. He took punches and was swollen for real. I'd watch to see if he would stop or drop. He'd keep going. I pushed Jake to the edge and he went right there with me."

All of that intense training paid off in the film's fight scenes, which look intensely realistic because they were basically real. "There was no stunt double," Fuqua claimed. "He shot every boxing scene himself. Not only was he really in there, he was calling to do more." This is all par for the course for Method actor Gyllenhaal, who dropped 30 pounds for his role in Nightcrawler and spent time in an extreme altitude simulator prior to shooting Everest

Jonah Hill and Jon Bernthal, Wolf of Wall Street

Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci aren't the only actors to take a beating on the set of a Scorsese film—Jonah Hill has his own hilarious story about the punch he took for The Wolf of Wall Street, and his ensuing revenge. The scene called for a goon played by Jon Bernthal (Marvel's The Punisher) to deck Hill's character in the face; Scorsese was having trouble getting the shot he wanted, so he suggested trying a take where Bernthal would land a real punch.

"I don't wanna look like a wuss," Hill recalled. "So I turned to [co-star Leonardo DiCaprio] to try and make eye contact to say... 'OK, Marty, maybe do something else.' So I don't answer and I look to Leo and... he completely looks away and leaves me hanging." 

The scene was shot as suggested, and Bernthal's punch split Hill's fake teeth and sent them flying. "I'm on the floor and I'm in a daze and I just hear Scorsese [say] out loud, 'His face is swelling, get him some new teeth and let's shoot it!'"

Hill got his revenge on DiCaprio—for that incident and other abuses—while shooting a later scene. Hill's character was to eat the last piece of raw fish on a plate, but on the first take, he ad-libbed and offered it to DiCaprio's character. Dozens of takes and raw pieces of fish later, DiCaprio was throwing up in a trash can while Hill and Scorsese laughed their heads off over what Hill called "my favorite scene I've ever shot in any film."

Michael B. Jordan and Tony Bellew, Creed

Director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan revitalized the Rocky franchise with Creed, which sees an aging Rocky Balboa mentoring the son of his greatest friend and rival Apollo Creed, killed in the ring years earlier. Not only did Stallone revive one of his greatest characters, he also brought a time-honored tradition of the franchise: the "Dead Man Walking" scene. Speaking to Jimmy Fallon, Stallone explained, "When you do a Rocky film... we decided to have this kind of initiation that you have to get clobbered, usually by a man infinitely stronger and larger." Jordan insisted he was up for anything, but Stallone implied that he didn't quite know what he was in for: "When a real pro hits you, it isn't like you see [in] these barroom brawls, or Westerns, this big punch... it's 'BOOM!' and the next thing you know, you are talking to angels."

The shot that Jordan ended up taking, from real British boxing champ Tony Bellew, knocked him right the hell out. Jordan somewhat sheepishly admitted, "Like, pretty much, I had to really get hit. And legally, [Coogler]—he'll definitely tell you this—as a director, he can't legally say 'Take the punch.' So I had to willingly step up and be like, 'All right, I'll take the hit.' But I definitely got peer-pressured." Of course, Stallone had his own story to tell that probably made Jordan feel a little better. 

Dolph Lundgren and Sylvester Stallone, Rocky IV

Dolph Lundgren is an impressive man. A karate champion with a Masters degree in chemical engineering by the ripe old age of 25, he decided to take up acting more or less on a whim, suggested by singer and actress Grace Jones (whom he was dating, of course). A bit part in the James Bond film A View to a Kill led to his casting as unstoppable Soviet killing machine Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, one of the biggest films of 1985. He was chillingly effective as the fearsome boxer who takes on Rocky in a grudge match on Russian soil after mercilessly killing Apollo Creed in the ring—so effective, in fact, that he almost killed Stallone for real.

In a 2006 Ain't It Cool interview, Stallone described shooting the climactic fight's opening seconds: "I thought these two characters should hate each other so much that they should just attack each other... after the third take of taking body blows... I couldn't breathe very well, and they took me to the emergency room." His blood pressure spiked dangerously, "and the next thing I knew I was on a low-altitude flight...to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, and there I resided in intensive care for eight days. What had happened is he struck me so hard in the chest that my heart slammed against my breastbone and began to swell." 

Asked about it, Lundgren had this to say: "All I did was obey orders. He was the boss, I did what he told me."