The Fighting Movie is Dead

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Vikram Bath

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.

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37 Responses

  1. Avatar Damon
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    says:

    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.Report

  2. Avatar J_A
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    says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to J_A
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      says:

      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.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to J_A
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      says:

      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…Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to dragonfrog
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        says:

        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.Report

  3. Avatar Doctor Jay
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    says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Doctor Jay
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      says:

      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.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Morat20
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        says:

        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 .Report

        • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Oscar Gordon
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          says:

          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!”.Report

  4. Avatar Andrew Donaldson
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    says:

    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.Report

  5. Avatar Doctor Jay
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    says:

    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.Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    “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.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      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?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Doctor Jay
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        says:

        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!Report

  7. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    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.Report

  8. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    says:

    Those kicks are fast as lighteningReport

  9. Avatar CK MacLeod
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    says:

    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?Report

  10. Avatar Kolohe
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    says:

    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).Report

  11. Avatar Kolohe
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    says:

    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)Report

  12. Avatar Aaron David
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    says:

    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.Report

  13. Avatar Owen
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    says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Owen
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      says:

      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.Report

    • Avatar Owen in reply to Owen
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      says:

      I remembered this article which has a good discussion of the Bourne legacy (but not The Bourne Legacy).Report

  14. Avatar jason
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    says:

    I don’t know; the John Wick movies have some great fight scenes that are intelligible. That gives me hope.Report

  15. Avatar Mike Siegel
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    says:

    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.)Report

  16. Avatar atomickristin
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    says:

    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.Report

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