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!

 

Ip Man 3: What to Expect

 

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By: Matthew J.R. Kohler

Over the last few weeks, we have been shown footage from the latest and final movie in the Ip Man series starring Donnie Yen.  As someone who was a non-believer of the first one until seeing it, I feel that the newest one forgets what made the original so awesome.  A good rule in action movies is to never do a sequel that is very similar to the first one, because lightning does not strike twice in the same place.  Just look at the sequels for Die Hard, Rambo, Taken, and Police Story.  None of those movies broke new ground in the franchise.  The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, and Terminator 2 did; that’s why they are such memorable sequels.  While Ip Man 2 was a good film, it changed nothing about the franchise.  Ip man still is amazing at fighting, everyone is still out to get him, and he must again engage in the one fight that will change the world.  I will admit that the final fight in the second one is better in terms of quality, but its context didn’t have the same impact as the first one due to lack of character development for the main villain.

What about the latest one?  In many ways it is the most star-studded with Donnie Yen, Mike Tyson, Yuen Woo Pien directing it, and the character Bruce Lee being in the film.  At first, I was stoked about what the film could have to offer; then, I watched the trailers.  Nothing makes sense.   For some reason, Ip Man looks to be fighting a bunch of people at once, for the third time.  All this tells me is that the filmmakers are once again trying to recapture the magic of the amazing ten-on-one fight scene in the first one.  The second one suffered from weaker choreography, largely because of the overuse of CGI.  Judging from a certain clip that I’ll get to momentarily, the overuse of CGI looks to be a problem with Ip Man 3 as well.  I have the impression that the movie doesn’t have the realistic punch it needs to make an impact.  Donnie Yen is an amazing martial artist and a great actor, so why use special effects?

In the latest clip, Ip Man finally meets Bruce Lee!  When the first movie came out, I was excited to see a portrayal of my idol as a youngster receiving his formative training.  Boy, did this clip kill all of my excitement.  Not only does the person who is playing teenage Bruce Lee look like a grown man, but he also mimics all of Lee’s mannerisms.  If you’ve seen Big Boss or Green Hornet, you would know that Lee didn’t develop a lot of his famous mannerisms until his later films.  To me, it doesn’t seem like an accurate depiction, but instead just a tribute to him.  And, the aforementioned cringeworthy CGI of him kicking water and cigarettes has also greatly lowered my expectations.  With Sammo Hung not returning from the first two to choreograph the fights for this third film, let’s hope that what we’ve heard and seen is the worst.

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!