By Shannon Roxborough
Few who watch action movies are likely to care about the hole-riddled scripts, over-the-top dramatics and formulaic clichés, but quality fight scenes are another matter. For some, like yours truly, they’re a make-it-or-break-it element.
There was a time when the phrase “Hollywood fight scene” conjured up images of either a one-on-one knock-down, drag-out or a pitched battle with multiple attackers with the camera lens taking the eye on a ride — from a wide-angle view of the overall scene, ensuring viewers can follow the action as it happened, to an individual technique dominating the frame, allowing each movement to be fully appreciated.
This method was successfully used with untrained actors and stunt professionals in big- and small-screen productions dating back to the 1960s, where everything from martial arts face-offs to urban street fights to Western barroom brawls were given a true-to-life feel.
At their best, fight choreographers employed martial mastery or a strong sense of how to stage simulated violence to make actors with limited abilities (only capable of convincingly stringing together two or three moves) appear to be competent fighters, while directors, who were visual craftsmen, knew how to capture motion and showcase physical movements with visibly legible perspective and framing. An intuitive sense of rhythm and timing, the ability to exploit actors’ athletic prowess (or downplay a lack of it) and a long lens viewpoint captured fight scenes in full, accentuating them with tight and mid-range shots to emphasize blows and other impacts.
Lights, Shaky-Cam, Action!
In modern American action cinema, wide shots are usually only used to hint at context, while handheld cameras pan, slide and dip at odd angles, with extreme close-ups and scenes cutting fast from one shot to the next to intentionally blur the eye and create the of illusion of high-octane action where there is little — all while masking actors’ inept fighting abilities.
Cobbled together from bits and pieces of cleverly edited footage interspersed with digital gimmicks like C.G.I. enhancements and green-screen backdrops, today’s fight scenes defy not only gravity, but what’s humanly possible. Presented in a choppy, frenetic and largely incoherent blur — punches, kicks, block, wrist locks, elbow strikes, someone flying back or being knocked to the ground and immediately recovering — it’s next to impossible to tell who’s doing what. In the end, the deluge of crosscut fragments jump around so frantically that the resulting agitation undermines the very realism and continuity they seek to portray.
Thanks to the likes of Paul Greengrass, the director who helped redefine action with the Bourne films’ shaky-cam, quick-cutting approach to on-screen combat, today’s fight scenes, whether featuring superheros (Ben Affleck as Batman) or killer spies (Daniel Craig’s James Bond), make movies feel more like video games than films. Blurring the distinction between the reality and the virtual world, they’re designed for a first-person effect to make audiences feel part of the action and to make viewers believe that what they saw actually happened. In truth, one can’t help but be left trying to make sense of something that didn’t really happen.
All told, technology has left us addicted to speed and flash, at the expense of clarity, and our obsession with superficial aesthetic usually means style trumps substance. The dizzying camera movement, off-center perspectives and abrupt jumps used to create a visceral impression of intensity and chaos are little more than visual sleights of hand that conceal poor choreography and the shortcomings of minimally trained players who learn moves with only a few hours or days of practice; weeks or months at best. (Most American actors who do have extensive martial arts backgrounds still lack the chops to make full-view fight scenes look credible.)
So, the fast-moving visuals have changed action moviemaking forever, but not necessarily for the better. The now long-prevailing and overused trend of herky-jerky, motion sickness-inducing action sequences results in fight scenes that are laughable and unwatchable, at least for this longtime martial arts practitioner-enthusiast and celluloid fight fan.
Fight Scenes Rooted in Kung Fu Tradition
Modern exceptions to the quaking, rapid-fire contemporary style can be seen in “Into the Badlands” (Daniel Wu) and “John Wick: Chapter 2” (Keanu Reeves). Badlands used a crack team of Chinese specialists helmed by fight director and actor Stephen Fung (“Tai Chi Hero”) and kung fu choreographer Ku Huen Chiu (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), Badlands pulls the camera back to create a martial arts spectacle. Shooting for realism in the John Wick sequel, cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who breathed visual life in the Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water,” employed the still cameras and broad views commonly used in Hong Kong shoots, allowing viewers to appreciate its tight choreography, and actually see punches and kicks hit their target.
Hong Kong directors and martial arts choreographers are responsible for some of the best fight scenes ever caught on film. The late Lau Kar-leung — also known by his Mandarin name, Liu Chia-liang — helped define a generation of fight scenes with his traditional martial arts-focused approach highlighted in Shaw Brothers’ movies like “Challenge of the Masters” (1976) and “Legendary Weapons of China” (1982). He was also the creative force behind the iconic kung fu film “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” (1978), with Kill Bill’s Gordon Liu, and “Drunken Master II” (1994) starring Jackie Chan at his comedic and acrobatic best.
Hollywood could learn a lot from the East about how to use intricate fight choreography, martial-trained stunt people and ideal vantage points — more wider shots and close-ups with restraint — to lend realism to action. Due to less-hurried shooting schedules (two weeks to film an average Hong Kong fight scene, instead of mere days for American movies) and the high level of skill and intense training regimens required by its filmmakers, Chinese-produced fight scenes have a sophistication, precision and orchestration that easily puts Hollywood to shame.
Counterfeiting hand-to-hand combat this way is hard work. But the payoff is huge, especially for those who appreciate fighting as an art form. Because for the kung fu film fan, true martial skill, physical ability and full visuals are the best special effects, and that’s something that all the cinematic tricks and computer-generated elements in the world can’t replicate.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shannon is a widely published veteran freelance writer and editor who has studied Chinese history, cultural and martial arts for decades. He began practicing Chinese kung-fu, chi kung, Taoism and health and healing arts in 1980 and spent 1987 and 1988 studying in China as the initiated apprentice of a Taoist priest, kung fu master and traditional Chinese doctor. A former mainstream magazine correspondent and newspaper columnist, as a freelancer his work has appeared in martial arts publications including Inside Kung-fu, Black Belt, Journal of Asian Martial Arts and The Okinawan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.