Choreography 101: What is Reality?


by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

It has been a while since I made a post in our Choreography 101 series, but the wait is well worth it.  This week I’m talking about how a lot of movies I see break reality in fight scenes.  Nothing is more jarring in a fight scene than when a main character is suddenly revealed to be physically capable of certain things, even though we had no prior knowledge of it.  It would be like if Indiana Jones, mid-way through a movie, started fighting like Agent Hawk in Armour of God. It wouldn’t make sense.  So how do you keep a characters’ physical abilities consistent?  How do you make your audience believe what you are showing them?

Setting up your universe:

Every movie needs a universe, especially action movies.  It doesn’t matter if the universe is small like Rocky, or big like Star Wars¸ but there needs to be one.  In the first thirty minutes of an action movie, the director should show an action sequence.  That way, the audience knows how the fights are going to be for the rest of the film.  Whether it is a brutish slugfest like in Rocky, or if the fights are well-choreographed like in a Jet Li movie, the audience needs an introduction.

Not only that, your characters need to be consistent with the universe.  Look at Jackie Chan in Mr. Nice Guy.  He is a cook who doesn’t know martial arts, which is why he is not a cop.  Fifteen minutes later, he is taking on the best of the best in hand-to-hand combat.  It’s pretty hard to suspend disbelief, isn’t it?

But when you look at another one of his movies, such as Rumble in the Bronx, they demonstrate the speed and accuracy of Chan within the first ten minutes of the movie.  They also tell us that he is a martial arts expert.  Right then, I am able to get on board with Chan kicking the crap out of anyone.  Plus, he is fighting ordinary men throughout the movie, which is evident when none of them show martial arts abilities. Chan destroys them in one or two punches.

What I notice when watching good action flicks is how well the main protagonist’s skills are illustrated.  In Commando, John Matrix is considered the best of the best.  Yes, he eliminates EIGHTY people with no effort, but it makes no sense that directly afterwards he can hardly take on one out-of-shape bad guy in hand-to-hand combat.  Although this movie is amazing, this scene is pretty ridiculous.

Stop making your hero cool for coolness’s sake:

The perfect example of this is Legolas from the Middle Earth franchise.  In The Fellowship of the Ring, Legolas is equally as good as some of the other characters in the fellowship.  Sure, he jumped on a troll and two-for-oned a Uruk-hai, but that was the biggest thing he did.  As we continued in The Lord of the Rings, he was depicted as the most skilled character by far, but he was still believable.

Then, the head scratcher came in The Hobbit movies.  For some reason, Legolas was more skilled in these movies than in The Lord of the Rings.  How?  Why could he just jump from barrel to barrel or take on an army by himself?  So many movies want to have action scenes just because they have the technology to do so, and because they think the audience will think it looks cool.  The biggest problem with this is the filmmakers don’t understand the phrase “based in reality”.  If a movie tells me that Superman can jump only fifty feet, then ten minutes later he flies around the world, then the movie is forgetting its own rules.

In Fist of Fury, Bruce Lee takes on the entire dojo in the first fight scene.  Then, Robert Baker demonstrates how menacing he is in a later scene.  It makes sense these two have an awesome battle in the end.  However, there are also movies that don’t set up how awesome the villain is, which makes the final fight so much less exciting.

Romeo Must Die is guilty of this crime.  Earlier in the film, the main bad guy tries to see how quick Jet Li is.  Jet Li shows that he is much quicker than the main bad guy, yet the final fight is still about five minutes.  Why?  In the movie they do not explain how the villain became such a threat.  All they would need is a simple line of dialogue, like “I’ve learned his weakness”, and base the fight off of that.  Some sort of explanation would have made the movie more accessible to people outside of martial arts fanatics.

Explanation goes a long way:

One of my other biggest problems with fight scenes is when the filmmakers expect you to just know what is going on.  For example, how does Captain America go from hand-to-hand combat to doing parkour?  We had never before seen him do parkour in the movies.  You cannot change a person’s style in a fight scene just because.  And I know, most would say to me, “It’s a fight scene, who cares?”  If you are watching the movie (especially an action movie), then you should care.  It’s like when you are watching a horror movie.  When they scare you a certain way, the movie is set up to scare you in similar ways again.

0:00-4:40–Non-Parkour Cap; 4:40-5:00–Parkour Cap (from Winter Soldier)

So, a character morphing from one style to another in an instant doesn’t make sense.  Why does the fighting style of the lightsaber duels in Star Wars change from The Phantom Menace to  Revenge of the Sith?  How do the Jedi unlearn that style by Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope?  Movies should try to explain some things to us, so we know what reality they are based in.  Look at The Matrix—it takes an hour to set up its reality. By the time a fight scene happens, you are blown away.  In contrast, look at its own sequels. Suddenly, Neo is all powerful outside of the matrix too.  Why?!

From now on, before you call a fight scene realistic, be sure that it makes sense within the context of the movie’s universe.


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