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

By:

Matthew J.R. Kohler

13393007_1015750155198946_391437627_n

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.

13400933_1015755135198448_637813503_n.png

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).

Advertisements

Choreography 101: What is Reality?

Agent-Smith-and-Neo-600x317

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.

 

How Have Fight Scenes Changed?

What Makes a Fight Scene Work? – Part 1

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

02

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.

maxresdefault

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.

12167807_884483511658945_2061702673_n  12167860_884483571658939_1475255893_n

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.

12177947_884483448325618_1715395822_n

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!

Top Ten Underrated Movies That You Should Watch!

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

Do you love a movie that is not loved by the masses?  Here is a list of films I think need to be watched by everyone, and that I think are underrated.

10.)      Prisoners (2013)

01

Prisoners stars Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. The film explores themes of how much people are willing to sacrifice for those they love, and what they are willing to give up to protect them.  One of the most intriguing things about this film is its intensity.  I’ve never been a movie theater where the audience is breathing as one, until I saw this film.  Prisoners keep you guessing and keeps you asking, “Would I do this?”  I still can’t answer the question.  I consider it a must watch for anyone who or hasn’t seen it.

9.)      Rumble in the Bronx (1994)

02

After Rush Hour came out, people didn’t pay attention to Jackie Chan’s early 90s films that got him into Hollywood. One of these films is Rumble in the Bronx. It is about an ex-martial arts champion who visits his uncle in Bronx.  Realizing how rough the underground gangs are, Chan’s character must stop an elite group of thugs with his fists!  The story is not really the point of the film. The action is what sets the film apart.  Not only does he jump from building to building, but there are several fight scenes in which Chan is surrounded by multiple people, and must fight his way out.  Chan’s fighting techniques are impeccable. Each move happens so quickly that it is no wonder why he is one of the best fight choreographers.

8.)      Robocop (1987)

03

Robocop might be the greatest misunderstood movie ever (which is part of the reason why some people leave it alone).  Directed by Paul Verhooven, this satire science fiction film delves into corruption of corporations, and is set in the inner streets of Detroit.  One thing I really like about this film is how well it has aged.  It is just as relevant today as the year it was made.  If it wasn’t for the mediocre sequel and the god-awful third movie, I think Robocop would have more acclaim.

7.)      Batman Returns (1992)

04

I don’t think anyone was prepared for this movie.  Batman Returns did many things that made us question Burton’s sanity. Batman is different than we’ve ever seen him before. The character kills relentlessly. There is virtually no color palette other than black. The villains, Danny “The humping Penguin” Devito, and Christopher Walken as Max Shreck are also quite a departure.  I did not mind most of these changes.  If you remember that in Batman, the caped crusader killed Joker, one of his main enemies. His next move logically seems to kill his enemies, instead of turning them in to the police.  I felt Burton wanted to make Batman more alone than ever and the only thing that keeps him “normal” is a psychotic Catwoman.  I think that for the best viewing experience, viewers should probably leave a lot of their preconceived notions of the character behind, as this film is not a typical presentation of the Batman mythos.

6.)      The Longest Day (1962)

05

In 1962 this was a big deal, but since Saving Private Ryan came out, interest has seemed to decline.  The Longest Day starred everyone famous from the 1950s to the early 1960s (Even Sean Connery had a little role in this film). It even had three directors from three different countries so as not to skew the different points of view.  The film tells the story of the American landing on Normandy Beach on D-Day.  Not only does it have some awesome action set pieces, but it really drives home why people were fighting.  To me, this is the original Saving Private Ryan.

5.)      Back to the Future Part II (1989)

06

I know Back to the Future is insanely popular, but a lot of people believe the second film is not as great.  Back to the Future Part II is not only a lot darker than the first film, but it is a lot more complex.  The thing I love most about this movie is the alternative 1985 era. One of the best scenes in the trilogy comes from Doc Brown and Marty in the Brown’s garage.  The film also has one of the most talked about sets, the future 2015, which I love because the directors blew most of it out of proportion.

4.)      Unleashed (2005)

07

At this point in his career Jet Li had been a staple in American theaters, but none of his American films really packed the punch as his Eastern films until Unleashed.  Not only does it have some of the best fight scenes, but some of the most heartfelt moments Li has put on the big screen.  Alongside Li was none other than Morgan Freeman. Freeman plays a blind piano player who aids Li’s character in becoming his own person. The piano music helps Li’s character remember who he used to be.  If you haven’t seen this amazing film, I recommend to any moviegoer.

3.)      The Warriors (1979)

08

It’s safe to say that The Warriors is more known for its video game than from its movie.  However, I consider the film to be a true classic.  The film is about a gang who is framed for killing the Gang Leader.  Throughout the film the Warriors are on the run to head back to their home turf before its they are killed.  Not only does The Warriors have really iconic lines: “Warriors, come out to play!” and “Can you dig it?”, but it also had a unique look to it.  Before the term gritty existed, movies in the 1970s had a lot of the same elements that we now associate with a gritty film: chaotic violence, realistic characters, drugs, and lighting schemes.  The only thing that makes The Warriors a stinker is the ending.

2.)      Clue (1985)

09

This film is a true cult classic.  I have never met a person who’s seen this film and hated it. The only problem is that many people haven’t seen it!  Starring Tim Curry, Christopher Llyod, Michael McKeen, and that one guy from Jingle All the Way, Clue puts seven people in one mansion trying to solve “Who killed Mr. Body?”  This is a film that you can either take seriously, or laugh all the way through.  One of the best things about the film is when Tim Curry retells the entire movie in Act III.

1.)      Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

10

Yes, this movie did go to theaters, and yes, this is the best Batman film ever.  In 80 minutes, the filmmakers are able to tell a better story than Christopher Nolan did over three movies.  Starring Kevin Conroy as Batman, Batman: Mask of Phantasm is a story about Bruce Wayne’s first love, and about him becoming the Batman.  It leads to the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker (played by the great Mark Hamill).  The film brings in the best elements from the 90s show, and contains (possibly) Mark Hamill’s best performance as The Joker.  If you love great cinematic experiences, then this is the perfect movie for you.

Food For Thought: Police Story (1985) – True Action!

By: Matthew J.R. Kohler

01

It’s sad when people think of Jackie Chan they think of the racist films known as Rush Hour.  Before Jackie Chan’s onslaught bad American films, Chan made his name by creating amazing fight scenes.  Overseas, action films rely much more on the strengths of the fight choreographer. In these films, there is an emphasis made on the skill and realness of each fight.

Chan became famous for not only being a consistently inventive and successful fight choreographer, but also an engaging performer of his own fight scenes.  His unique use of various props in a given location is what made him a star.  However, the United States, true to its history of borrowing from other cultures, watered down the true extent of Chan’s talent by focusing more on dialogue scenes than action scenes (in action films, mind you).  Today in the U.S. it seems that we are content with CG fight scenes, or completely fake ones.  Now, I know what you could say, “If they are so good then why don’t we know about it?”  That’s simple. Hong Kong films aren’t released in the US, because apparently there is not a market for fight scenes that are meticulously choreographed, shot, and edited. The truth of the matter is that foreign films don’t perform as well in the United States, so Hollywood studios are less likely to import them.  Only a select few have played in American theaters: Enter the Dragon, Ip Man, The Raid, and Rumble in the Bronx being among them.

One film that is not part of this select few, but should have been because it defined how fight scenes should be done, is Jackie Chan’s Police Story.  It was one of the first and only films to go all out, by using thick glass instead of breakaway glass, and, more generally, showing the brutality of an actual fight.  In most action films, the actor or stunt person doesn’t usually get hit. Usually the film will cut to a different angle for their reaction.  Chan did the exact opposite. Everything you see is real!

02

Yes, this really happens.

The mall fight scene really highlights Chan’s skill, as well as the shortcomings of modern action scenes.  Let’s take a look at a newer film that has received praise for its action.

For most of the fight scene you only see a small portion of the action, and Chris Evans does very little actual fighting.  He also can’t even roll properly, or throw a believable kick.  In that scene the actors are actively try not hitting each other instead of trying to hit.  I’ve noticed the difference in intensity with my stunt team from not trying to hit and trying.  Going for the hit captivates the audience much better.  The other problem with the clip from Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that the placement (as well as the rapid movement) of the camera, combined with the constant quick-cutting, gives the illusion that the actors are moving faster than they really are.  But not even the greatest cinematographer, editor, or VFX artist can cover up the evidence that Evans can’t even roll properly, or throw a believable kick. Compare that scene to what Jackie Chan was doing thirty years ago:

If you want to watch the whole fight scene, scroll to the bottom.

In the second scene, the action stays on Chan, and the entire fight scene is tight and smooth.  Jackie also utilizes his background with the many different blocks he executes in that twelve seconds.  Chan combines basic movements (front kick, elbow, dodging, etc.) and makes them seem complex.  One thing I always found funny is that people counteract my point by saying that Chan’s fight scenes are unbelievable.  What is unbelievable about his scenes is that nobody is enhancing their movements, or tricking you mind.  Chris Evans portrays a super soldier who is not only physically strong, he’s also extremely fast.  Yet you can tell how little of experience Evans has as a fighter because we never see him do advanced moves with precision.  You can tell this when they show shots of Winter Soldier’s shoulder for three seconds.  Why do we need to see this?  It’s either: a) lazy filmmaking, b) terrible choreographing, or c) probably both.  People often say, “But Chris Evans can do flips, and that other cool stuff!”  No, that means he is a gymnast, not a martial artist.   American filmmakers don’t seem to understand the importance of analyzing what a character can, and cannot do in a fight scene. Instead of focusing on how the characters could add to the fight, they focus less on individual characters, and view the whole scene as just a set piece.  In reality, a fight scene should be a driving force for the story.

Jackie Chan, as well as many other eastern choreographers, understand how to make a fight scene.  They also understand that having too many fight scenes in one film destroys the movie.  Police Story only has two real fight scenes in the film (at the beginning and end).  Both have their unique moments.  In the opening scene, Jackie drives a car through a downhill town, and chases down a racing double decker bus, before clinging onto the back of it.

03

Police Story is one of the best martial art movies ever done. It has realistic fight scenes, injuries (Chan got cut from several pieces of glass in a fight scene), and Chan adds complexity to simple maneuvers to make them fresh. It’s no wonder he made five more Police Story movies after this, and became a living legend.  People might think I’m too harsh on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but audiences need to know that there is much better content out there from across the world.  I’m not saying American cinema stinks, but moviegoers should be open to what filmmakers across the world have been creating. There are lots of great movies out there, and Police Story is one of those gems.

Here is the whole fight scene.