The Value of Fight Scenes in Movies

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I’m very picky when it comes to fight scenes. I’ve discussed some of my favourites here before on 1Up Culture, but there’s a lot to be said about deciphering the value of a quality fight scene in comparison to a poor one. It’s easy to watch scenes from The Raid duology, and think that the key to the brilliance of their action scenes is the kinetic, high paced fighting. Yes the talent on display is incredible, but there’s a lot more beneath the surface that makes those scenes work. If the key was speed, then many of the sub-par Hollywood fight scenes would be better received than they are.

A good movie fight does more than just excite, it tells its own story, carries emotional weight and character investment. The fights in The Raid matter because you’re invested in the lead character Rama. So when a punch is thrown at him, or a knife is drawn, the tension builds. The fight itself might be spectacular, but the value goes beyond a nice sequence. Every fight scene in The Raid duology carries story or character value with it, they are never there because one is ‘due’ or to keep the audience happy.

Notice how the Assassin, Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man are all introduced above in The Raid 2. Between the three of them there’s about one line, they aren’t given exposition filled backstories, yet after their introductions you have an idea about who they are. Their fighting style, and the way Evans frames their action scenes tell you all you need to know. They’re all distinct, with their own mannerisms and style, with easily identifiable features that speak beyond “that looks cool”. Both movies are deceptively good at doing this: even the first movie sets up Mad Dog through the fight with Jaka as he chooses to systematically kill him a straight fight rather than just shooting him.

The Assassin receives the least amount of screentime here, but it’s by design, showing how ruthless and efficient he is. He has others working for him, uses the least amount of energy to dispatch his victim and it’s made clear he is the one to be most feared. With Hammer Girl the sunglasses add some element of mystery (why she wears them is revealed later) but the hammer attacks are sharp and calculated, and of the three her fighting style is the most brutal, representing what she herself has gone through. Baseball Bat Man is a little more laid back, even asking his eventual victim for help getting the ball back. But he’s also the quickest striker, landing deadly combinations from unusual angles, making him tough to predict. We get a small hint at Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man’s backstory later on, and even that has a payoff in an action sequence near the climax of the movie. The story and character dictates the fight scene, not the other way around.

But what about the action itself? The big thing a good fight scene does well compared to a bad one also features an old writing adage: Show, don’t tell. A lot of Hollywood movies rely on multiple cuts to tell you what happened, rather than showing it. Watch an Eastern produced Jackie Chan fight scene, and see how the direction of the scene allows every moment to flow naturally. When a punch is thrown, you see the action and reaction without obstruction. Your brain is allowed to process what it going on.

This isn’t the case if a movie is cut to show the action and reaction separately. Either the camera cuts out the ‘impact’ of a strike, showing the punch being thrown and the recoil of the head, but not allowing the brain to visually connect those dots, or the action is too obscured by the camera movement/placement. If there are cuts between the strike and impact in a Jackie Chan movie, if you pay attention you’ll see the strike’s impact is actually shown twice, which allows the viewer’s brain to process the hit in spite of the cut.

The cause of this can come from any number of factors. It takes a certain talent to effectively film a quality fight scene, but it also takes a hell of a long time. The epic one shot climb in the Tony Jaa film The Protector 2 took months to prepare and execute, and Jackie Chan will do hundreds of takes to get one shot just right. It’s an expensive process and one that most Hollywood films can’t justify, so certain shortcuts have to be made in order to make it work.

Actors have to be extremely talented but also a jack of all trades. Coming into an action movie often involves several months of intensive training in a discipline or physical activity. An actor has to be able to believable pass themselves off as a martial arts master despite having never thrown a punch before signing on. This might work to an extent, but to get to the level of a dedicated martial artist is impossible in a matter of months. Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Bruce Lee and Tony Jaa have invested years upon years of their lives to their craft, and the differences show in the final product.

The problem is that often directors and writers will want the style of a martial artist in their movie without the substance. They try to match the frenetic speed and style of some of these fights without the necessary experience and talent, and so they use shaky cameras or overly close angles in order to hide the skill differential. It simply does not work, not only can’t you see whether they’re any good or not, you can’t see anything that’s going on. It’s all a blur of motion, or straight up hidden in darkness.

If you don’t have someone who can make a highly complex fight work, don’t try and choreograph one. Let’s use Return of the Jedi’s lightsaber battle as a case study:

There isn’t any overly complex choreography present here, yet it is still considered one of the more popular fight scenes in the Star Wars universe. Why? Because of the story being told. You can watch this scene without any prior knowledge, and get a feel for what is going on and the emotions that are present. That makes a simple scene carry power, and that was achieved without any undue flash. Their mechanics of the fight are basic, but you don’t question the abilities of Vader or Luke because the narrative gives you everything you need, and each hit feels real.

Compare this with the Lightsaber fight between Emperor Palpatine and the Jedi there to arrest him in Revenge of the Sith.

The way this fight is filmed isn’t particularly appealing to the eye, and tries to do too much with some very real limitations – in this case actor Ian McDiarmid…and maybe Samuel L Jackson. It tries to show some flash in spite of the limitations, and uses filming tricks to hide those limitations. Again, it doesn’t work. It all feels awkward and staged, and the hits don’t register. The Jedi that are killed are all meant to be masters, but their quick demise doesn’t make Palpatine look incredible, it just makes them look weak.

The lightsaber fights in the prequels were some of the stronger points from the trilogy, because they generally did well in combining flashier choreogaphy with the all important story: Maul v Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan was about highlighting the strength of the returning Sith and the loss of a Master, while Obi-Wan v Skywalker demonstrated the final fight for Anakin’s light side and the balance of their former friendship. There is story involved in the Windu/Palpatine duel, especially when Anakin arrives, but it’s told separate to the actual fighting itself.

If fight scenes are necessary with actors who aren’t highly skilled in the area, it’s best to tell the story differently. Don’t make them masters, make them brawlers. Intentionally make the fights ugly, but use it to tell the story of a gritty no holds barred fist fight. Or go over the top, like they did in Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. But if you need the character to be a black belt, it might be best to cast someone who is already adept, especially if the fighting is key to your movie.

Does the Raid benefit from having incredibly talented martial artists on hand? Absolutely. You can tell instantly from how they throw their kicks and punches that the actors know what they’re doing. And while Gareth Evans’ knack for filming the scenes in clever ways certainly makes them visually engaging, there is far more going on beyond just the action. Each fight has a story to tell, both in of itself and the broader movie narrative. It excites the audience, but it’s never done just for the sake of that result. There’s always more at work there. And that’s the key. Good fights have their own story to tell.

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