Choreography 101: Why Did Jackie Chan Speed up His Fights?

By:

Matthew J.R. Kohler

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For forty years, Jackie Chan has been appearing in iconic action films, from being a random stuntman in Enter the Dragon to being a leading man in Hollywood films such as Rush Hour.  Yet, the biggest question remains for this great action star: Why speed up the fights?

Sped-up.

Once you notice it, you can never go back.  All of a sudden, I realized how many of Chan’s fights are sped up.  How?  Let’s take regular motion of a car or a man walking in one of his films.  They walk at a brisk pace, but you can see them move step by step.  In some of Chan’s films, such as Police Story 2, Chan’s fight scenes kind of blur together and look more like a Charlie Chaplin stunt comedy short.

In other films, Jackie Chan has demonstrated how quick he can be or how precise his movements are.  Police Story and Legend of the Drunken Master are perfect examples of that.  Police Story has not only some of the best action pieces, but also my personal favorite.

Non-sped-up.

The action pieces have quick movements with tight editing.  That way, the action moves smoothly.  Whereas in Police Story 2, we see only brief moments of smooth action, which are marred by jarring, sped-up action, making it very difficult to watch.

During the 80s, Chan filmed 21 movies.  Considering that Police Story 2 came out in the late 80s, it’s understandable that he was burning out, since he usually gives it his all with the fight scenes.  Even though most of his action pieces stepped up his game, he had some missteps during these years, Police Story 2 and Armour of God being the most prominent ones.  He almost killed himself in Armour of God, and brutally injured himself and his stunt performers in Police Story 2.  That said, there is no way the fight scenes of those films didn’t suffer in quality.

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Could he have put too much effort into them?  I think so.  And as a result, Chan had to take it easier, by fighting at a slower pace during filming.  Not wanting to disappoint fans with a slower speed, he sped up the fights in post-production.

Jackie Chan is one of the greatest martial art stars, no doubt.  His crazy action scenes and stunts, and his personality, make him such a memorable performer.  Although, I wish Chan took a step back and relaxed a bit during those years for his sake and for his art.  His fans know how much he worked to perfect the action.  Even sped up, however, those scenes are still better than most fight scenes that America has produced in the last forty years.  (By the way, American fight scenes are usually sped-up; look out for my blog coming soon on this topic).

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Choreography 101: Who Started It?

By:

Matthew J.R. Kohler

The beginning to a fight can be the most challenging to make, just like the beginning of a movie.  The challenge for most is who should start the fight.  That might sound crazy, but it is important.  If someone has more at stake than the other, then they should be the starter.  The beginning is my favorite part of a fight.  The reason being that I love the buildup and the tension but I also enjoy how it’s all going to start.

Many fight scenes simply start with none of what I just mentioned.  In The Protector, both the main character and the bodybuilder just kind of charge at one another; nothing to grasp there.  Even though a lot of the fights in the movie are exciting, there was no payoff at the end.  Not only did you not know Tony Jaa’s character, but also the filmmakers didn’t even try to make you want the fight, they just gave it to you.  When a director just hands over a fight, you know they didn’t give it their all.

Empire Strikes Back is a great example of a film that makes you want the climactic fight to happen.  Created with the style of Kurosawa, Lucas and his team created the stall, or slow walk for the duel.  The story of the fight is that Luke confronts Vader in order to save the ones he cares about.  Through the fight scene, though, the characters have to explain this.

The entire movie is built around facing your fears by confronting the dark side.  Luke Skywalker, sworn to walk the path of peace (Jedi), believes he is not afraid of the threat that is Darth Vader.  When the two finally collide, Luke Skywalker is the one who starts the battle.  This is significant for one reason: never do Jedi start a conflict.  Later in the battle, Luke shows once again that he is not ready.  Not only does he start to fear Vader, but also he simply cannot overcome him.  Also, in the middle of the fight, Luke begins to realize what he is becoming.  For two movies, Luke was slowly turning to the dark side with displays of recklessness (as shown in A New Hope, and pointed out by Yoda earlier in Empire), selfishness (facing Vader alone), and fear (of Vader).  What happens internally with Luke adds a new layer to this unforgettable fight scene, and makes “I am your father” a truly potent climax.

Fight scene openings are hard to accomplish.  If the audience doesn’t feel the excitement at the opening, then the fight scene is doomed to mediocrity (or worse).  Check out below for fight scenes with the best openings.  Enjoy!

 

Food For Thought: The Character Makes the Fight Scene

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

rocky

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!”.

How Have Fight Scenes Changed?

What Makes a Fight Scene Work? – Part 1

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

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Yesterday, I sat down to watch one of my favorite Jackie Chan movies, Rumble in the Bronx.  In it, Chan plays a martial arts champion dealing with the criminals of the Bronx.  The movie didn’t have much of a plot, but that does not matter; the focus is on the fight scenes.  And man, are they fun as hell.  These scenes also do something different, true to Chan’s form.  This time his stunts extend to jumping from a building onto a ledge.  That stunt was only the beginning of my excitement.  While watching the movie, though, a thought hit me.  In the last five ten years we have lost the art form of action sequences.  With guys like Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo Pien, and the Shaw Brothers growing older, the new wave needs to take over.  But that is not happening.

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In the early 2000s, The Bourne Identity was released in America, and became an instant hit.  This film skyrocketed already-famous Matt Damon’s career, while also popularizing a new style of filming fight scenes—the shaky cam.  The purpose of the shaky cam is to make audiences believe that they are in the fight scene, unlike setting up the tripod and moving with the characters.  While shaky cam was a unique look for the film, and therefore worked, the problem started when everyone else started doing it because it was popular.  The underlying issue here is that most American fight directors today do not realize that fight scenes are an art form.  Look at Bruce Lee’s films, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger or Chan’s Drunken Master.  We used to live in an era where the fight directors would tell a story through the fight scene.

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Let’s take a look at one of my favorite American fight scenes ever—Luke vs. Vader in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.  In act I, we have the confrontation between Luke and Vader.  This is the stare down, and the first real surprise to Vader. Luke actually hits him a couple of times.  The audience wonders. Maybe Vader is unwise to lower his defenses?  Not only is the speed of the fight scene perfect, but there is buildup to the fight scene (I’ll discuss more of this later).  Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, which was made 25 years later, lacks all of the aforementioned qualities in its climactic duel.  The focus is more on CGI.  On top of that, the fight lasts for eight freaking minutes.  A fight scene isn’t good when it not only drags, but also looks choreographed to be flashy rather than emotional.  Back to The Empire Strikes Back.  Act II is the midpoint of a fight scene.  In this act we have Luke turning the tables against Darth Vader, that is until Vader unleashes a small dose of his power via the force.  The audience realizes that Luke cannot win, and his mission now is to escape.  Then there is Act III, the climax.  Well, we all know what happens here—the finale that emotionally devastates both Luke and the audience (I won’t say it just in case you have somehow missed every pop culture reference to what caps off this scene).  The Empire Strike Back has arguably the best climax to any fight scene ever, because each character has gained and lost something from it, both mentally and physically.

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The modern approach to fight scenes is wholly different.  Apparently, people’s attention spans demand that characters start and end the fight scene as quickly as possible, and if it doesn’t end within less than a minute, it better have a screen full of CG eye candy.  What is the logic behind this thought?  It is an action movie!  The audience should work for those moments of action by anticipating the next fight.  And while it is happening, they should still work for the payoff, by anticipating during the breaks in the fight (in which the opposing characters stop fighting for at least a few seconds).  One of the handful of modern fight scenes that demand anticipation is Ip Man.  After a master’s head is blown off by a Japanese general, Ip Man realizes that Japan’s oppression of China is happening right in front of him.  So, he asks for ten Japanese warriors to step into the ring with him.  When he finally gets into the ring, after taking several moments to stare them all down, he explodes with rage, brutally beating all ten of them.  This scene once again showed how fight scenes can move a story; in this case, by showing the emotions of the main character in relation to the plot.  In addition, the fight scene is crucial to the story, because it leads to scenes that deal with the consequences of his actions.  Action movies in America have always had a hard time understanding the full potential of fight scenes.  Even though, over the last 40 years, greats such as Bruce Lee have shown America what can be done, America is very much stuck in the primitive state of fight scene filmmaking, in which the intended reaction is always “ooh” or “ahh”.  I think it is about time that American audiences desire and demand more out of not only fight scenes, but also out of a story.

With Ip Man 3 coming out soon, I only hope the movie feels more old school than what we see nowadays.

Check back soon for part 2!