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).

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.

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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.