Food For Thought: The Character Makes the Fight Scene

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler


For the past month, everyone has been talking about how great Creed is.  Well, I’m here to tell you that a much better version of this movie came out forty years ago.  It was called Rocky.

To be a character in a movie about the big match you have to stack the deck against our hero.  In other words, the audience has to think that this guy could never win, but desire to see him succeed.  Throughout Rocky, you see a thirty-year-old man being made fun of by everyone, thinking that he is nothing.  Not to mention, Rocky isn’t exactly the most attractive man in this film; he looks like your everyday working man.  His low income comes from boxing other no-names, and being a debt collector for the mob.  In other words, he is the last person you would think could win the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World.  Then, he gets the chance of a lifetime to go toe-to-toe with Apollo Creed, the current holder of the title.  And, he has five weeks to train.  Even though Rocky doesn’t beat him, he does match evenly with the best, and that’s all that matters to him.

For a fight scene to be excellent, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the best crafted fight scene; it just needs a great character.  If you don’t have a character that people can relate to, then why bother?  One of my favorite action/ fight scenes is from Fearless.  Throughout that film, we see how much Jet Li’s character had changed not only through his words, but also through his actions.  His character change is shown in the climactic scene (which I will not spoil).  Back to Rocky.  Rocky didn’t only have to make the characters believe he would win, he also had to make the audience believe.  What Creed lacks is the underdog protagonist.  The titular character is rich and he looks like a model (in fact, his face makes him look like he has never even been in a fight).  Right there, he has a lot more going for him than what Rocky did in the original.  Granted, he has the reasonable goal to go the distance so that he does not feel like an accident.  But, it is not as interesting as Rocky’s goal, which is to go the distance with the champ in order to prove to himself that he’s not just another bum from the neighborhood.  Why is Creed’s story not as interesting?  Because Rocky’s story is far more relatable.  How many of us are already rich and good-looking, as opposed to average-looking with average-to-low income?  Rocky IV is another example of an unrelatable protagonist.  This version of Rocky is rich, “in shape”, and his only naysayers are those dastardly Russians.  In order for a protagonist to be interesting, he or she has to have flaws that make you believe there is a strong chance that he or she will fail.  What’s the fun in watching a flawless, “in-shape”, rich guy pursue a goal?  Don’t you think it’s lame when you realize that there’s nothing to suggest that he might not accomplish his goal?  Real people have flaws; therefore, relatable characters have flaws.

A very average guy.

That is one of the words I will continue to throw at you—relatable.  In any fight scene, the main character needs to be relatable and realistic.  Nobody looks like Michael B. Jordan or Rocky in Rocky IV.  But everyone can look like Rocky in the original, or be like him.  I think anyone would want to root for such a character.  The major problem with too many films is that you cannot relate to the protagonist at all.  What amazes me is that our current generation of moviegoers are all about “realism” in movies, but seem to be okay with Captain America, a WWII hero, being devoid of any physical damage whatsoever.  Jackie Chan, on the other hand, looks realistic, like his face has been through hell.  The imperfect guy looks a million times cooler than the pretty boy.  If you’ve read other articles of mine, you know that Bruce Lee is my favorite action star and character.  Sure, he had an amazing body, but it made sense because of what he was doing—taking on a bunch of fighters one after another, by himself.  His flaw, though, as shown in the films Fist of Fury and Big Boss, is that he is not wise enough to realize that violence doesn’t solve anything.

We all remember the ascension, the build-up to the final fight.  Whether it is Rocky’s montage or Luke Skywalker training on Dagobah, every hero needs the ascension.  By the end of the Rocky montage (when he is running), he is all alone.  What does this reinforce to the audience?  That everyone thinks he cannot do it.  The indifference among most of Philly drives Rocky to shock Creed when the two begin to trade devastating blows.  As an audience, we need to see that our character learned something by the end; otherwise, the fight makes no sense.  I despise action scenes that have no point.  Example: what the hell did Captain America learn in First Avenger?  Nothing!  Early on in the film, he is told that he is a hero.  From there, true to Marvel’s current trend of films, the movie is all about watching the perfect good guy beat up the ruthless bad guy.  Even in the second one, it’s all about the perfect Cap helping his imperfect friend.  Why should I care about his big fights?  Rocky, on the other hand, learned that all you need is heart and determination, which he demonstrates at the end of the movie.  When Apollo is dodging every blow, Rocky uses heart and determination to change up his method of attack.  He uses what he learned as the key to achieving the impossible.

Luke is terrible for two films before he gets good.

Rocky is an all-time classic character.  He is the center of a true underdog story, in which no one, even the viewer, believed he could win.  So, why stop with just him?  Why can’t we have more films like Rocky?  In Fist of Fury, the Japanese warriors believed all Chinese were sick dogs.  Who wouldn’t want to see these guys destroyed?  When you have an amazing conflict and everyone is out to get you, that is when a fight scene works the best.  Ip Man is the most recent film to masterfully tell such a story.  Instead of a person who is down on his luck to begin with, Ip Man shows the transition from the protagonist having everything to having nothing.  This transition made me want to see Ip Man destroy the villain—the Japanese general.

The bottom-line is that great action scenes (whether it’s a gun fight or a boxing match) cause more of an audience reaction when they are emotionally invested in the main character’s journey.  I would like to see more movies like Rocky, ones that make the audience say, “This character’s awesome; I hope he/she makes it!”.

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