I recently had the chance to watch the perfectly bland Kickboxer: Vengeance, which I had heard at one point billed as the breakout film for the great Mixed Martial Arts fighter Georges Saint Pierre. As Mr. Saint Pierre (Heretofore referred to as “GSP”) is my favorite fighter of all time, I thought I ought to check it out. It was a mistake. GSP was relegated to a supporting role, (Likely so he could make an attempt at returning to fighting. Dana White please pay him!) and his character was drunk for most of the film. Its only redeeming quality was a brilliant post credit scene that made the entire experience worthwhile and should under no circumstances be spoiled. However, it gave me the opportunity to consider my thoughts on what exactly makes a good fight scene.
Now I should be clear, the fights in Kickboxer: Vengeance were extremely well done. The actors and stuntmen, including another UFC legend Cain Velasquez, were wonderful and their physical performances were outstanding. GSP in particular brought his gymnastics training to bear and had some outstanding physical feats captured. Unfortunately, there is more to a fight scene than just punches and kicks. The characters never seem to be in any real danger or distress. By the end of the film I was completely bored with the final battle. All I wanted was for it to end so that I could move on. There were no stakes, no real exchange. I knew the hero would win and was just waiting for the end result. The fights were simply there, desperately trying to hold a series of disconnected scenes together.
What Kickboxer: Vengeance ignored is that, at its heart, a fight scene needs to be just that, a scene. Without some grounding in the story, without solid characters with goals to accomplish, an action sequence is just bodies in motion. It feels hollow and unsatisfying. Oftentimes it can even be boring, as our protagonist mows down enemy after enemy with no risk of danger. It is spectacle, and although spectacle can be used effectively, it should never be done for it’s own sake. A bad fight scene is just a fight. In fact, it’s not even a fight. A fight has real stakes for the people involved. A good fight scene must do more than simply show two burly men throwing their bones at each other, it must further the story.
Think, for example, of any of the fight scenes from the exceptional Captain America: Winter Soldier. The Rousseau brothers did a fantastic job crafting this film, and every fight or action sequence helps to tie the story together. In each scene we see characters with clear motivations and goals, and the actions that they take in these scenes has consequences that tie into the rest of the film. The first action sequence where Captain America confronts Batroc (also played by GSP, he’s great) shows us Captain America’s abilities, his commitment to his mission, and also demonstrates that Black Widow clearly has other goals that are separate from his plans. This sews seeds of doubt that are woven into the rest of the film and ultimately defines the character’s interactions throughout the plot.
Although I would absolutely call these effective fight scenes, I wouldn’t necessarily call them great. This is because,in my opinion a great fight scene, like a great scene, tells us something real about the character and who they are. Moreover, the best fight scenes tell the audience everything that we need to know about this character in a way that few other kinds of scenes can.
For those who might think that I am romanticizing the idea of two men punching each other in the face, (And I do not mean to glorify violence in any way) I would only ask that you take 30 minutes and watch the main event of UFC 195. The final bout of this spectacular card was a vicious, glorious title fight between the welterweight champion Robbie Lawler and the top contender Carlos Condit. Lawler was, and remains, one of the hardest hitting punchers in the 170 pound division. I have heard his left hand described as, “the Predator’s shoulder cannon” by one MMA journalist. Condit is a more well-rounded striker and grappler who, like Lawler, has been fighting since he was 18 years old. They are two fixtures of the sport, and their fight turned them into legends.
Over five bloody, back and forth rounds the two men traded blows with no clear lead. Lawler landed big shots but was battered by Condit’s kicks and confounded by his movement. Both men were rocked and faded, and struggled to hold on as the other fighter bombarded them with blows. Despite all logic, they both struggled on into the last two rounds. Bloody, exhausted, and barely on their feet they kept swinging until the bell rang and the referee pulled them apart. As if by cue they slumped against the cage next to each other in the same exact pose, their heads hanging as sweat and blood dripped onto the floor.
You cannot watch this fight without feeling something for these two men, who had left everything in the ring. I don’t think that fighting always tells us about who we are, nor do I think that it should. However, when it does, it speaks volumes. It’s like any kind of competition or challenge. When backed against the wall and forced to find a way out (or through, as is so often the case) we learn something profound about ourselves.
The scene that I always refer to for this subject and the scene that inspired my philosophy towards fight scenes comes from another Marvel Studios production, Daredevil. This Netflix series chronicles the adventures and challenges of the blind, Catholic, indomitable Matt Murdock who fights crime as the superhero Daredevil. Daredevil is my personal favorite superhero, so I am partial to the series overall. (As a brief aside, my wonderful girlfriend recently spent 10 hours trying to figure out how to get a rashguard for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu made for me with the Daredevil log on it. She is great, and it is one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.) Like many other viewers of the show, I was sold after the famous hallway fight at the end of the second episode.
Throughout the episode our hero has been trying to heal from his wounds and track down a child who has been kidnapped by the Russian mob while we get flashes of his own story and of his relationship with his boxer father. Finally, battered and nearly broken, he goes to confront the kidnappers. In order to reach the young boy he has to fight a room full of Russian henchmen and after taken a moment to steel himself kicks in the door and starts swinging. What follows is one of the finest fight scenes ever filmed, masterfully shot and set to appear as if one take. Our hero fights off the mobsters, but takes tremendous damage in the process. He hits. He gets hit. He knocks one down and falls down himself. He gets back up. It is a struggle, and Matt perseveres through his grit alone.
To adequately describe the scene (Please go watch it if you can.) I would like to cite the wonderful nerd kingpin Kevin Smith, who discussed it on his podcast Fatman on Batman. While discussing the show with his friend and former collaborator Joe Quesada, the creative head of Marvel Studios, he described the scene vividly. He discussed the hero Daredevil and his moniker “The Man Without Fear.” When Matt Murdock hears that the child is in danger, understands the considerable danger that he is in, and still chooses to kick in the door and fight, he shows the audience who he is. The fight scene illustrates his character to us completely. It shows Matt’s fear, his weakness, and ultimately provides him with the chance to demonstrate his control over them. He is The Man Without Fear. And all of heaven and hell cannot stop him from saving this little boy.
We could have seen his character illustrated in any number of different kinds of scenes. But because of the nature of Matthew Murdock, we get it through a fight scene. The hallway scene is no better or worse at showing us Matt’s character than other devices. But like any storytelling tool, when used correctly the fight is incredibly effective. It shows us aspects of the character and allows us to see them at one of their most primal and vulnerable moments.
I believe that this applies to any number of great fight scenes throughout the history of cinema. Think of the fight between Inigo and Westley in The Princess Bride, we learn that they are skilled, determined, crafty, and ultimately have a terrible amount of respect for each other. The final confrontation between Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman in Unforgiven reveals the kind of man that Eastwood’s character has been hiding from the world, himself, and the audience for the entire film. Indiana Jones’ battle with the burly mechanic in Raiders of the Lost Ark demonstrates Indy’s craftiness and determination, the traits that save him again and again throughout his films. The prospect of pitting one’s mind and body against another person’s is deeply personal and cannot help but reveal something about our characters.
A fight can also show us a character’s shames or weakness. For example, Richard Harris’ character in Unforgiven and the Sherriff’s goons does exactly the opposite and shows us the flimsy basis for his grandiose claims. The brawl between Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and the Chinese thugs in the first scene of Batman Begins introduces us to his character and his considerable, uncontrollable rage. Even the duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi ends in Luke ultimately succumbing to the dark side and defeating his father with his rage, despite the cool façade that he has presented. Ip Man’s remarkable fight against ten opponents demonstrates the titular character’s rage and discontent with the Japanese occupation despite his control. In this way the fight scene can be the most versatile of all scenes, and provide opportunities that few others do.
The fight scene is a versatile, often overused and misunderstood device that should be more properly understood. Punches and kicks do not stand in for good acting and storytelling, but when used properly they can help to provide us with insight about how a character thinks and feels as few other scenes can. They are the ultimate example of the old rule, “Show, don’t tell.” I believe that fight scenes are often misunderstood, but I never fail to be impressed when a director and stunt team come together to use this device to teach me something I didn’t know about the character’s involved.