Human beings love to watch each other fight. From boxing, to mixed martial arts, to Worldstar Hip Hop videos online, we love a good scrap. There is something honest about two people vying for supremacy with their flesh and blood. It captivates us on some level. If you don’t believe me, think back to the clumsy, awkward fights you probably witnessed in middle school and the crowd of spectators that invariably congregated to watch. Given our fascination with violence, it should come as no surprise that for generations we have been trying to depict it on the stage and screen.
Since Elizabethan times and beyond, directors have been simulating acts of violence on stage in order to draw in crowds. William Shakespeare was a literary genius and a master storyteller, but he was also a realist who understood how to draw crowds of peasants and nobles alike. His plays abound with combat, from sword fights to wrestling matches, and to this day they still stand out as some of his most memorable scenes. Is there a reason that Hamlet, the thoughtful, introspective journey through man’s soul needs to end with a sword fight? Of course not, but you can’t argue that it makes the play more entertaining. Adding physical violence, simulated though it may be, immediately raises the stakes of any given scene and for this reason Hollywood has been attempting to recreate it since its earliest days.
Only Kenneth Branagh would give his fencing equipment abs.
But this gets to the heart of a key question for all filmmakers hoping to spice up their movies with a few punches: How do you represent violence onscreen? To be clear, I don’t mean whether or not you show it to be good or bad, but how do your characters actually execute their fights? Fight choreography is a fascinating art, and it requires a tremendous amount of skill from the actors and stunt doubles that engage in it. Moreover, how the fight is performed can make or break a scene. If the character looks sloppy, or if it seems like a ridiculous type of movement that is out of character, it will change the audience’s perception of them. How you film and show violence in a movie is a critical part of how your audience experiences it, and it is interesting to see how this has evolved over time and how limited realism and consistency are essential to fight choreography.
Looking back at the history at film fights, you can see that it remains largely the same for the first few decades of cinema. The action tended to resemble stage combat, or was clumsy because directors and choreographers did not know how to shoot and stage it correctly. Watching these movies today the fights can look rather stale, such as Humphrey Bogart disarming multiple assailants in The Maltese Falcon simply by pulling their coats around their shoulders. Swashbuckling action films and riveting westerns predominated, and it was not until the rise of Traditional Martial Arts in the west that movies began to focus upon the hero’s skill with his fists.
Naturally many films had made use of aspects of Traditional Martial Arts before, Sean Connery’s Bond for example could be seen to use judo and aikido, but the landscape dramatically changed with the rise of Bruce Lee. Although there had been martial arts films and Hong Kong action movies that had made their way to western audiences, but none made quite the impression that Enter the Dragon did. The film solidified the martial arts movie as an action genre and would lead to dozens of attempts to imitate his success. Hell, forty years after his death we are still making movies about him. The hole Lee left when he passed away led to a next generation of martial arts action stars who would ply their trade on the big screen.
A number of martial arts stars rose to prominence in the decades after Bruce Lee burst onto the scene, each with their own unique style. Jean-Claude Van Damme brought his incredible flexibility and movie-star good looks to his thoroughly decent films, creating memorable moments that he would later go on to parody. Steven Seagal introduced the world to aikido and his… unique film presence with movies like Above the Law but eventually faded into obscurity. By far the most successful of all of the martial arts stars of the 1970s and 1980s was Jackie Chan, who transcended the long shadow of Bruce Lee to create truly remarkable action-comedies. While these martial arts films and stars were showing off their star’s abilities, another breed of action films were lighting up the screen with their larger than life stars.
In the 1980s and 1990s there was a literal arms race between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone that culminated in a series of movies that could be best summed up as, “A large, muscular man shoots things.” Their rivalry was fierce, with each man trying to one up the other. Supposedly Schwarzenegger even attempted to sabotage Stallone by tricking him into movies such as Rhinestone, and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot. The best way to get Sylvester Stallone into your movie was to tell him that a certain Austrian was trying to line up the role. Throughout these films the emphasis was placed on large, over-the-top action scenes that indulged in an excess of bullets and biceps. Although films like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon attempted somewhat more realistic fights, the genre came to be define by the testosterone-fueled explosions of its two biggest stars.
Someone please reboot this movie with Helen Mirren.
The 2000s however would give rise to fight choreography that placed less emphasis on the hero’s bulk and more on capturing some degree of realism. After the brief, albeit fierce, success of kung fu movies such as The Matrix, and Equilibrium, new films such as the Bourne trilogy pioneered a new kind of action scene. The frenetic, quickly cut fight scenes of these films began to supplant previous models of action film due to the benefits that the so-called “shaky-cam” style brings. While the Bourne movies pioneered this style to make the action easier for the audience to feel and connect with, many directors use it as a crutch. By cutting quickly from close shot to close shot, it is easy to show only snippets of a fight and give the impression that action is occurring. It is useful because it is one way to hide the fact that the choreography is subpar, or that the actor is not doing the stunts. This has led to any number of action films with forgettable fights and has given Liam Neeson a revitalized career in what I like to call Karate Dad Movies. As film fans, we have come to expect that our movies have some level of realism in them, and it has become increasingly difficult to market films with fantastical fight scenes unless the characters are in some way superhuman.
A film’s choreography must either look realistic enough to pass by an audience, or if there is some fantastical variation, it must be consistent throughout the film. Real fights will never be as graceful or dramatic as a movie fight, and tend to be characterized by a lot of awkward grabbing. Audiences expect more form their heroes, but unless the character is a superhero or a master martial artist they also expect to see a level of skill that seems physically attainable. This is one of the many reasons that John Wick is such as successful film, because Keanu Reeves’ character is consistently impressive while never seeming otherworldly. We can relate to the title character in some small way, and because of this it is possible for us to imagine it really happening.
What stands out however, among all of these different types of styles is that the important part of good fight choreography is not that it is realistic, but that it is consistent. Audiences want to be swept away in the action of a well-choreographed scene, and they only need to receive the proper visual cues. A perfect example of this is the first six films of the Rocky franchise. Rocky and his opponents look nothing like boxers, but we buy into the scenes because they are internally consistent. Moreover, they tell a compelling story, and the movie is choreographed and shot in such a way that the audience can connect with the characters as every punch lands. Overall consistency can save even subpar choreography so long as the audience can believe that, in this world, that is how people fight.
Another fine example is the 80’s action classic Road House, featuring the dance-fighting of Patrick Swayze at the height of his career. Swayze was a trained dancer, and the movie makes every fight resemble some kind of cross between ballet and kickboxing. Yet surprisingly, the movie doesn’t suffer for it, and it even holds up well to this day. The movie has its moments of absurdity, largely involving the removal of a villain’s trachea, but because the fights are choreographed in the same style it is at least internally consistent. It does not matter that the fights are not realistic, because they have an internal consistency that allows the viewer to believe that this is how people fight in this world.
Pirouettes don’t hurt.
However there is a limit to how much a movie can indulge in an exploration of a strange style of fight choreography, which is excellently demonstrated in the infamous Gymkata. The often-lampooned film is an exploration of a fictional fighting style known as the “gymkata,” which the main character, played by Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas, that combines karate and gymnastics. It has, among other things, an extended scene where our hero mounts a stone pummel horse and defeats wave after wave of angry Eastern European peasants. It is the single greatest piece of cinematic genius ever put to screen.
For movies such as Gymkata that feature a hero with a “special” fighting style, internal consistency becomes all the more important, because it grounds the hero’s over-the-top techniques. Equilibrium for example showcases the fictional “gunkata” art, but shows several of its characters utilizing this outlandish style. Because it is a part of the world of the movie, the audience is still able to suspend their disbelief. I don’t know whether this would have saved Gymkata from its infamy, but it might have helped sell the premise if the protagonist’s style was shared by another character.
Fight choreography is an interesting aspect of most major films in the current world of cinema and it is interesting to see how it continues to evolve. The landscape of choreography is always changing as directors and choreographers attempt to explore their own unique vision for how their characters move. I think that it is fascinating to see how these visions are expressed and how trends have changed over time and how the fights that we put onscreen affect the layman’s understanding of what fighting actually is. I look forward to seeing how current trends in fight choreography, particularly incorporating more grappling techniques into fight scenes, will affect how scenes are shot in years to come.