What Makes a Fight Scene Work? – Part 1
by: Matthew J.R. Kohler
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.
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.
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.
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!