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The Fighting Movie is Dead

The artistic value of video media is debatable. When we consider it low art, we call them movies. When we want to indulge their pretensions to be high art, they are cinema or film.

This trick isn’t available to all movies though. Action movies, and fighting movies in particular, are unlikely to be considered high art.

That is a loss to high art though, because fight scenes can be truly well done.

Every Frame a Painting has this wonderful explainer of why Jackie Chan movies work:

Jackie Chan – How to Do Action Comedy

Jackie Chan’s work, in contrast to most modern American fight scenes, is comprehensible. This means
– You can see where Jackie is.
– You know how many opponents there are and where they are.
– Time progresses normally. It isn’t sped up or slowed down.
– The camera perspective doesn’t change. If it does change, it does not disorient the viewer.

Compare this with any Bourne movie. All fight scenes are disorientinig to the viewer. You don’t have any sense of where people’s bodies are. Things like punches are sped up to make them appear super-human. The lighting in the room is replaced with a strobe. The scene is undexposed. Finally, the musical score overpowers any attempt to make sense of what is going on in any more detail than the general idea that Matt Damon is probably beating someone up.

Here’s the first Bourne fight scene I found:

Jason Bourne – Bourne vs. the Asset Scene (10/10) | Movieclips

Obviously, these scenes work for a lot of people, but if you care about the choreography of fighting, there is nothing here for you to learn. The implied movements are supernaturally fast. You don’t have a solid sense of who has the upper hand when. Appendages are rarely visible. You don’t know where in the dark hallway they are or where they are moving. Things are happening, but you don’t know why they are happening. There’s nothing you can learn from this. It’s clear no one involved really needs to be fighting at all, because no action is shown from start to finish. You don’t see a person getting punched. You just see reactions and sounds accompanying implied violence. That the violence comes across as intense is an impression not supported by what is actually on screen when viewed critically.

Compare that Bourne scene to this fight from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon:

卧虎藏龙 Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon [BEST Fight Scene]

Here, we see a fight that is literally supernatural. The actors sometimes do floaty things, and the whole thing is impressionistic. Even so, it’s a delight to watch and we actually see fewer signs of supernatural abilities than in the Bourne clip. Yes, there are cuts in the film to allow for the use of stunt actors, but we at least can follow what is supposed to be happening. We see multiple attacks on the same camera take before it switches. Many aspects of the fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are inferior to a Jackie Chan movie, but it’s at least succeeding in conveying the content of its fight scenes, in ways the Bourne movies can’t be bothered to attempt.

All this is to say that fight scenes can be good or bad. Among bad ones, however, the light saber battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker deserves some sort of medal starting at about 4 minutes into this clip.

The fight presumably happens in a very interesting location–a lava planet wrapped with danger. Nevertheless, none of it touches the green-screened fighters. When they fight balancing on a tripwire-width beam, they fight exactly the same way they do everywhere else. When scalding steam erupts near them, they are unfazed. When they balance on unstable rock floating in molten lava, they do not sweat.

One could argue these things don’t matter because they are Jedi, but if they don’t matter, they shouldn’t be in that location. (Additionally, Anakin is burned to a crisp at the end, so apparently these things do matter.) The true reason the characters do not interact with the scenery is because they are not in the scenery. They are in a green room and the scenery is generated in a computer somewhere. The actors can not interact with what is not there, and the filmmakers certainly weren’t going to put in the work to make it appear that they could.

That’s in our past though. Could we ever see a resurgence of good fight scenes?

kung fu photoThe evidence is not promising. I grew up watching in amazement at Jackie Chan. Now, children and adults alike pay good money to see Robert Downey Junior pretend to fly around and pretend to hit things. Computer animation has improved greatly from the Star Wars prequel movies, and viewers seem to find such fights more satisfying to watch than choreography grounded in what the human body itself can perform. Viewers interested in such work have to turn to American Ninja Warrior and the like. It seems now that the true fighting movie is dead.


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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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37 thoughts on “The Fighting Movie is Dead

  1. Gotta say I’m a fan of Jackie’s movies. Frankly, I saw references to them in the Transporter movies in some of the fight scenes using fire hoses, oil, and household items.

    Now that’s it’s been called out, I remember the Guardian’s movie and that fight scene. They really don’t look real do they?

    Crouching Tiger, I appreciated for the imagery more than anything else. That and the House of the flying daggers, were just beautiful movies, regardless of how unrealistic the fighting was.

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  2. CGI has killed my love for movies in general. I used to go to the movies several times a week, now, I rarely do. I don’t care to watch people do impossible things. I do t care about impossible gun fights, or impossible car chases, or impossible sceneries. It doesn’t add anything to me. It just makes every story a version of a fairy tale. Fairy tales, and movies now, apparently, are fine for little children, but I’m a grown up. I need real life in my stories.

    I loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, because the impossible was acknowledged. It happens in a world we’re it is acknowledged that certain people can train themselves to go beyond the limits of what mere humans can do. They are truly Superhuman and they do Supernatural things.

    But whatever the Fast Furious number movie we are in, the characters are just supposed to have trained to be good drivers. They haven’t trained to bend the laws of physics. When they do the latter, it’s just Cow’s Husband Digestive Residues, and I have no interest in such.

    A limited CGI has its use. I appreciated that in the TV Victoria or Versailles series, they took the trouble to CGI Buckingham Palace or the eponymous Versailles shots to what they would have looked at the time of the events, rather than their current look. But Star Wars I used CGI even when it was not needed, to the point where perhaps 40% or more of the movie was filmed in the green room. Enough that that was the last Star Wars movie I paid to watch (*).

    (*) Even though my nerdiness and interest in Roman History had made me drool for decades on a Star Wars trilogy recounting the fall of the Galactic Empire. What a disappointment.

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    • CGI makes things too easy for film makers. You can do almost anything with CGI so more people go for spectacle than substance. You don’t even need a good script or story, just dazzle with CGI and people will go for it.

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    • WithI watched a thing a while back about all the uses of CGI in modern film – they use it for all kinds of things you wouldn’t think.

      Things that exist in real life and it would be totally feasible to take actors and film there, like a field with some trees and a pond. Sure they could go to a suitable location and film, but there would be a bunch of background noise so they’d need to dub in the dialog, and the weather might be wrong, and it would be expensive to transport everyone and all the equipment. So green room it is.

      Or stuff like, we’re filming on location, but I’d like that building there to be three storeys instead of four…

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      • My other pet peeve of CGI fighty stuff is how it ruins the scale of movie battles.

        On the one hand, its cool that we don’t have to pretend that these 40 people represent an army of five thousand; but why stop at five thousand when you can have legions of legions and multitudes of multitudes?

        The obvious implication is that it makes the heroes more heroic… there are, however, other implications, and hidden costs.

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  3. I think you’ve nailed it. I don’t much like the “jiggly cam fight”. In the case of The Bourne Identity, the style kind of works for me, especially in the first scenes we see Jason fighting. The confusion and darkness mirror his own state of mind – he literally has no idea he’s even capable of doing what he’s doing.

    And this is what I look for in a fight scene – does the scene advance our understanding of the characters, how they are feeling, and what they are up to? I learned this from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which I happen to adore. Everything about this film works for me.

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    • The jiggle cam has a place, and that places is “To demonstrate the confused nature of high-intensity combat”, which worked really well in the Bourne movies because (as you noted) it was both new and fits into the character — Bourne himself is basically confused as to how he’s doing all this.

      So a confusing, intense fight scene that seems to be entirely reflexive (where the “focus” mimics Bourne, who isn’t processing what’s going on and instead reacting in a confused blur of instinct) works.

      But it then became a common tool to hide lazy fight choreography, and to create cheap tension. Which…every new idea ends up doing. It gets overused until there’s a pushback and it settles into a regular tool, pulled out when appropriate.

      Having said that, anyone else find the red-room fight scene with Rey and Kylo in The Last Jedi to be so badly choreographed as to look like a cheap direct-to-DVD film? Dear god, whomever they hired to choreograph that needs to be fired unless both main characters were actively suffering back injuries he had to work around.

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      • I am going to watch that new movie, Upgrade, and report back how this comment works for that movie. Because if the previews are anything to go off of, I think this will be reflected in the choreography and cinematography .

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        • Is that the one with the AI chip thingy that can control his body?

          If so, I suspect (from the trailer) that the director went the other way — he’ll want the audience to see, in full clarity, how effective the “puppeting” is. (It’d be nice if they got a nice fight coordinator in to work in maximally efficient movements).

          Jackie Chan style works pretty well (although without Jackie Chan, you’re stuck with cuts and camera switches to cover up the fact that it’s not Jackie Freaking Chan) in this case — you want the audience to see the fight clearly, to see the moves and think “Holy crap!, look at the moves he’s busting out!”.

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  4. I agree with most of these sentiments. One of my criteria for something being a good movie/video/show or whatever in the sense of enjoying is at some point-for a least a moment-I need to forget I’m watching a production. The more CGI and unnatural movements, however tech advanced and amazing, always does that. It focuses back on the “look at this amazing thing I made” instead of the actual story. Some people no doubt enjoy that, but I prefer more realist, more human-centered action where the people are the story, not the show itself.

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  5. The fighting movie isn’t dead, exactly. It’s just moved to Netflix:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B66feInucFY

    So many of the elements mentioned in the piece about Jackie Chan are here. There is a rhythm to it. The hero isn’t funny, but he’s vulnerable, he gets hurt, and he gets tired. There are only two cuts in the whole thing. We get to see, very clearly, how everything plays out. With a few exceptions where things happen offscreen and then crash through a door. The director isn’t “hiding” action so much as creating suspense.

    This really is one of the best of the last 10 years.

    And here’s another one:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtVznoxEdDs

    This clip starts with an action bit from Black Widow that has most of the usual problems – moving camera and maniacally short cuts that make it difficult to see the movement – even though it’s really good, my hat’s off to her stunt double, who makes some tough throws look easy.

    The reason I’m sharing this clip is the setpiece fight between Cap and Batroc. Most filmmakers hate a static camera, even though in the Jackie Chan style, it lets you see everything more clearly. This fight is an acceptable compromise, very little of the fight is obscured. It fails on the “hero is vulnerable” score, though.

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  6. “Oh, I’ll just watch this Jackie Chan clip for a minute…”

    And now it’s an hour later.

    Yeah, me and my buds spent a lot of the 90’s watching all kinds of Kung-Fu movies and Jackie Chan was one of our favorites. Shakey-cam fight scenes where the communication is how phrenetic the action is rather than what’s going on.

    It’s like they are saying “we all know that Jason Bourne is going to win this fight so we won’t bore you with the details”.

    My buds and I watched a *LOT* of Kung-fu movies in the 90’s. Jackie Chan was one of our favorites due to his technical perfection that looked identical to only just barely getting it. (We had a lot of sub-genres for various itches that needed scratching… sometimes we liked “Wire-Fu” and Jet Li was our go-to guy for that. Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, and Gordon Liu were favorites for the between space of Jackie’s perfection and Jet Li’s dreamlike fight scenes.)

    Yeah, I agree we’re never going to have these fight scenes again. Jackie Chan explained why in your first clip: we don’t have time for hundreds of takes. Get it in 5 and we’ll edit the best third of seconds out of each one and put together something the audience will pay for anyway. Wait, wait, just did the numbers. Get it in 3.

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    • I first saw Chan in Rumble in the Bronx. We went on kind of a whim. It was, of course, awesome, and we ended up renting dozens of VHS/DVDs of his films.

      One of my complaints about the current media climate is the loss of Blockbuster. Where can I go that has the full Jackie Chan library that I can watch if I want? Is this what Amazon Prime is for?

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      • My bud had a garage sale last year and on one of the tables was his entire VHS Kung-Fu collection.

        Sigh.

        At this point, I almost think that just putting in the movie title into google and scrolling down a bit is the best bet. Wanna watch “Last Hero In China”? Ooh! There it is on Daily Motion!

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  7. Actually, it’s the movie without fight scenes that’s dead. As it should be, of course. Think how much more awesome Duck Soup would be if Firefly had had a lightsaber duel with Trentino.

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  8. I like the Bourne fights and the Daniel Craig as Bond fights – especially Casino Royale, which was heavily under the influence of the Bournes. The emphasis is on a certain style of street fighting but equally on the sheer brutality of “fighting to the death, hand to hand.” The movies want, in their way, to help you imagine what it would be like to be, help you put yourself in the place of, a supremely skilled fighter fighting to the death, hand to hand against another supremely skilled fighter.

    I’m not going to criticize the Jackie Chan or Crouching Tiger approaches. They are based on different intentions, and why should I set out to ruin other people’s fun? Plus I like Jackie Chan fighting. It’s just not very fight-y. It’s more “dancing in the mode of fight.”

    Eventually, the Bourne and Craig-Bond fighting is also balletic dance for non-ballet-ish people. I even quite like the Anakin/Obi-Wan fight, which I likewise viewed as dramatic dancing and Sprechgesang within the extended grand finale of a space opera, governed as much by musical and symbolic as by “naturalistic dramatic” values. Degrees of naturalism are important to cinematic sci-fi, but gross violations of it are also normal, especially in Star Wars movies.

    Y’all checked out Atomic Blonde yet?

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  9. My partial defense of the 1st Bourne movie is that the shakey-cam in media res thing was innovative when they did it. I think it’s been made chiche in hindsight because so many other people had copied it. And as was said, the technique that can make anyone an action star. (but, as a counterpoint, Jackie Chan made Chris Tucker and Owen Wilson(!) action stars for a bit too).

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  10. But you do have a solid point about Star Wars. Light saber battles ranked, worse to best.
    4) 2 actors without martial arts experience and without training – Kenobi and Vader in A New Hope
    3) Actor with training versus CGI – Christopher Lee versus virtual Yoda*, Ewan McGregor vs virtual Grievous
    2) 2 actors without MA experience but with training – Obi Wan and Anakin on Lava Planet
    1) 2 actors without experience but with training, and one with martial arts experience and training – Gui Gon & Obi Wan vs Darth Maul

    (*there’s also a school of thought, which I subscribe to, that Yoda fighting with a light saber was a huge mistake thematically)

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  11. Jackie Chan (and Bruce Lee before him) is like a dancer, his physicality is what you are paying (in money or time) to see. Not much of an actor, but that isn’t what we want from him. We want the roundhouse kick, the punches fast as lightning. The emoting… not so much. And while Matt Damon, like Tom Cruiz before him, is a better actor, albeit marginally so, he has not spent his life learning and mastering a martial art.

    To attempt to show the intensely physical action of an old school martial arts movie, not dissimilar to a ballet, we don’t want to focus on a guy, no matter how much coaching he gets, who is obviously acting this. It ruins the whole thing, not unlike two fools spinning around in front of a blue screen.

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  12. This post is pretty unfair to the Bourne movies, IMO. It’s unfortunate that the proliferation of shoddy imitators (and apparently some of the later sequels) have given the series a bad reputation.

    This for instance is a very well choreographed fight scene. It has plenty of cuts and camera angles, but it is entirely legible. The camera doesn’t obscure the action or disguise the force of the blows. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that Jackie Chan’s style is the only way to make “good” fight scenes.

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    • There are a lot of things that can be compared to e e cummings.

      On one level, you look at that and say “heck, I could do that” and then there are ten thousand people who show up and try and you realize “holy cow… not even one of those ten thousand succeeded”.

      Opinions differ on whether those ten thousand are sufficient reason to hate e e cummings.

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  13. This is good. I wrote a post on my own blog comparing the old Clash of the Titans to the new one. This was the late Roger Ebert’s hobby horse as well. I think I first noticed the first “move the camera in and shake the hell out of it” technique in the last two Schumacher Batman movies and it’s gotten far worse since then. It’s astonishing to see actors go through all this training and choreography only for NONE of it to show up on film.

    Chaos *can* be good. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, for example, does this and it works because that’s the point. Later in the movie, the actions scenes are more coherent.

    Would also disagree with you on Sith. One of the things about George Lucas: he always a great visual sense. So while the actors are reacting the environment, you do a good sense of where things are, the ebb and flow of battle etc.

    (PS – You might want to check out Jim Emerson’s video series on this. Very good as well.)

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  14. I just watched Thor Ragnarok today and even though I liked it, I caught myself playing Plants Vs. Zombies during the fight scenes. When the characters were talking I was interested, but the fight scenes were just not compelling enough to make me watch them.

    Worst/best example – the remake of King Kong. I saw that in a theater (so no escape) and the fight scenes, especially the one with Kong fighting the dinosaurs just went on and on. I actually got a little annoyed over it and it took me completely out of the movie magic.

    Great piece Vikram, I really enjoyed it.

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