6 Ways Hollywood Ruins Fight Scenes
Fight scenes are the metric by which the six main genres of film are measured (Action, Kung Fu, Kangaroo Documentary, Femdom Genital Torture Fetish, Lambada, and Space). Despite this, a lot of directors still shoot fights by shaking a camera at Liam Neeson while stuntmen jump into crates before someone chops the footage into something an epileptic might describe as "He-kbllbllpp-gbllbbbbb!" So I want to define the things people do to ruin a fight scene, and give good and bad examples of each. It's an article structure you may have heard of called a "list."
Note: As we go further down the "list," each fight will also be a good or bad example of all the previous entries, which means that if everything goes according to plan, we'll soon scientifically know which fight scene is perfect and which one did every single thing wrong.
Disguise What's Happening With Frequent, Chaotic Editing
A shaky, wild brawl with hundreds of edits might give you a fleeting sense of excitement, but so will paying for your girlfriend's abortion with your wife's credit card. At the very least, a fight scene needs to be coherent. Who just threw a punch? Did it hurt? Is this 17th rancher extremely brave, or did he just not see Walker, Texas Ranger easily kick his 16 friends unconscious?
A good way to measure the coherence of a fight is by how easily you could explain it to a blind person. For instance, you could say, "Daredevil is going into another hallway and smashing a guy through a door. Now he's very tired and the next guy hits him with a wrench. He's wearing his red suit, so- gah, how can I explain the color red? I guess it's kind of like making love by a cooling campfire, and in the distance a lonely motorcycle? Anyway, he gets up and fucking wrecks the wrench guy. He is punching his skull into ... what's the Blind word for Jello salad? The point is, when this poor bastard gets to the hospital, they'll name a brain injury after him."
Now compare that to how you'd explain a Jason Bourne fight. "The cameraman seems to have picked a terrible time to learn how to roller skate, and he's doing his best to film two men trying to save each other from Africanized bees. This is like a cat's final moments before dying in a clothes dryer. I guess .... OK, say you reach your hand into a bag, and a trusted friend says, 'No, stop, that's my bag of spiders, dear god why would I put that near my blind guest.' Picture that, only from the spiders' point of view. Wait, now one of them has a knife and the other is rolling up a magazine, which is ... uh, magazines are like disposable books with no reading bumps for Sighteds to sell each other perfume? Anyway, I guess they're fighting. I'll let you know when one of them loses. You know, in a way, you're lucky you can't s- OK, there. The magazine guy won."
The obvious way to show everyone what's happening in a fight is to train the hell out of the actors and do it all in one shot. And unless you're a total asshole, you just thought of Oldboy or the Daredevil prison scene or the time Tony Jaa went into a building looking for his elephant and kicked the fuck out of every man and furnishing that wasn't it. But the example I want to talk about is the fight between Max and Furiosa in Fury Road.
There's an absurd number of things happening in that scene. There are six different weapons being fought over by eight people, and two of them are chained together. The momentum swings back and forth 12 times, and it's always clear who's winning and why. But maybe the most impressive thing is how it's never ridiculous that a man with triple the muscle mass and twice the arms of his opponent is having a tough time. It's a perfect sequence from a perfect movie, and I'll defend that statement with a car door on the end of an intravenous chain.
Now I want to talk about a bad example, and the dumb shit that led to it. In the last 20 or so years, there's been a trend in action movies to make fights look more "realistic." No one will ever agree on what exactly that means, but filmmakers sort of decided it was two guys deliberately bashing their wrists together. Instead of haymakers and spin kicks, they started focusing on no-nonsense fighting arts like Krav Maga or Arnis or Telling Dave Bautista that Daniel Craig is Filled with Delicious Candy. These styles seem brutal and effective, but they've suspiciously never been adopted by any professional fighters, alive or dead. What I'm saying is most "no-nonsense" martial arts are tested only in the crucible of some nerd's imagination, which made one of them perfect for the official fighting style of The Batman.
For Batman's gritty and intense combat, Christopher Nolan chose the Keysi Fighting Method, a martial art designed mainly to protect your skull as you trash a bar. In KFM, you keep your elbows up and maniacally bash, similar to how a chimpanzee might escape a car and change its T-shirt at the same time. It's since been abandoned by the guys who developed it, but KFM is the reason Batman looks like he's auditioning for Paula Abdul when he fights. Combine this with darkness and frantic handheld shots, and you have three movies where no one can tell what the fuck Bruce Wayne is doing.
In this scene, Ra's al Ghul is training Bruce how to become the night, but good luck figuring out how. All the hits connect off-camera, and there are so many edits between swings that even physics seems to forget which direction they're moving. Then suddenly the ice that supports leaping ninja battles all day gives away when it's gently rapped with a sword?
And while I'm on the subject of insane, Ra's al Ghul doesn't train him to fight so much as prepare him for a world of deranged nonsense. At one point, he dresses a whole room full of grown men like ninjas and screams, "You must BECOME AN IDEA!" while jumping out and swinging a sword at Bruce's head. That's not only a risky way to teach a student how to avoid a beheading, but also completely meaningless unless that student is hoping to become a Batman -- which in this context is some ludicrous thing no one has invented yet. If he attacked while yelling, "Diaper cream is only inedible to cowards, Jeff!" it would be less crazy.
Stop Telling Any Kind Of Story
I don't mind when a movie stops to have a pointless fight, but an ass-kicking is no reason to stop telling a story or developing characters. In Return Of The Dragon, Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee pound on each other for ten minutes without uttering a single word, and any martial arts geek could talk for an hour about everything being said. Violence communicates at least as well as dance, and anyone saying otherwise is so goddamn doomed if that argument gets heated. To demonstrate, let's look at the best fight scene from the fourth-best Donnie Yen movie, Ip Man:
In about one minute, Ip Man gracefully transforms from peaceful teacher to avenging China murder machine. He savagely shames the Japanese soldiers for their weak morals and weaker Karate by replacing the bones in their faces and chests with punch debris. Most of those guys will give up fighting forever, either because their legs will never work again or because they'll never recover from seeing so many friends turn into Japanese word for Jello salad. He bounced one guy's head off the floor so many times that it replicated 2 million years of woodpecker evolution. That poor fucker's face probably grew back with a beak that will forever chirp every time he lays a bitch-ass egg. What I'm saying is Ip Man beat those men so one-sidedly that their DNA decided they must be pregnant woodpeckers.
In addition to all the scene's fun maiming, we also learn a lot about Ip Man, the quisling translator, and the evil Japanese commander. Everyone's reason for being there is established, and it's clear how they feel about Donnie Yen pounding those men into the Jello word for Japanese salad. Now let's check out a scene that's just a sloppy wet sack of crazy from a man I would describe the same way, Steven Seagal:
That's from Seagal's 16th movie, Out For A Kill, known overseas as Cranky Ham Goes For Haircut. It's a fight that comes out of nowhere after Steven goes into a barber shop to get a fresh triangle of carpet ironed on to his head, and then everyone leaves except a monkey man who starts kicking him. It's one thing to have a distinct Kung Fu style, but this weirdo is in a life-or-death battle against a guy 40 times his size who hasn't been hit by a punch in 15 movies, and he's dedicating 90 percent of his energy to pointlessly selling his monkey impression.
He's crawling on the floor and checking his hair for ticks while Steven Seagal patiently makes his own gravy in water like premium dog food. What the fuck is the point of any of it? Is it a fight, or some kind of ape cultural exchange? Fights are supposed to advance the story, and I understand Asian barber shops LESS after watching this shit. And while we're on the subject of Steven Seagal slowly slapping his way through overmatched clowns, here's something else fight scenes need to do ...
Make Sure Nothing Can Hurt The Good Guy
In 1992, America sent the greatest basketball team history would ever know to the Olympics. It was living legends like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird squaring off against Panama's five tallest banana-mongers. Obviously, every game was a blowout. A quarter into each one, Barkley would already be throwing himself alley-oops off the backboard while Patrick Ewing lingered at half-court to dig hot dog money out of his knee braces. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see such an assemblage of talent, but mercy wouldn't allow us to watch it. Sportscasters would cut to archery or steeplechase as soon as America was up by 20ish points, because we didn't look like heroes -- we looked like fucking bullies. This is exactly the type of self-awareness missing from most action movies.
It seems absurd to think Commando could be a better movie, but remember when Arnold killed 70 men to get to a final boss who looked like an out-of-shape PE teacher with a 2-7 fight record against his wife? Why even bother showing us that battle? They should have cut from that guy agreeing to a fair fight to a small group of Arnold's friends laughing at his grave.
And these kinds of mismatches happen all the time. Nine out of ten Luke Cage enemies have no conceivable way of hurting him. Shredder has never hired a single ninja who can deal with a mutant turtle, and when Blade starts killing vampires, it's more of a sweet music video than an unfolding drama. No one thinks any of those confused ravers is going to land a shot, and the movie doesn't even bother explaining what would happen if they did. There is one action star, though, who spends a troubling amount of time on the receiving end of ass-kickings: Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Bloodsport is one of those entertainment masterpieces in which every moment that isn't an awesome fight is someone saying insane shit. In this scene, Frank Dux is throwing every kick he has at The Sumo Guy, and it's only making things worse. After a near-crushing, he battles back with headbutts and a Dim Mak, which is an actual magical death touch used in this film based on a true story. We're used to Jean-Claude getting the shit kicked out of him in order to stage a comeback, but this fight forces him to use the splits both defensively AND offensively. It changed the landscape of martial arts forever. If you've ever wondered why you use the full splits to set up a cock uppercut, it's because of this scene right here.
I mentioned earlier that each entry on this list will incorporate all the previous ones, so let's stop for a quick fact check. This fight absolutely shows what's happening (#6). We see every blow land and the effect of each one. The filmmakers even establish that Sumo Guy loves it when Jean-Claude's shirt gets torn off. They didn't have to do that, but they did. The fight also adds details to the story (#5). It shows Frank Dux is weak against Fat Type, but also that he's resourceful and willing to do anything to win. And of course, viewers learn this isn't a regular "No Rules" secret Karate tournament. This is a "No, Seriously, You Can Punch Dicks" secret Karate tournament. There's no arguing against the brilliance of Bloodsport's storytelling, so let's move on to an example that does all the same things wrong.
That's a scene from Spawn wherein the hero arrives in a swirl of Sega Saturn cutscene. Spawn's cape was created using state-of-the-art CGI that had 1997 audiences wondering, "Is it too late to go back to stop-motion clay?" Spawn yells at a cocktail party for a minute before a woman walks out in a way the screenwriter, at most, described as "WOMAN ENTERS." No bullshit, some lady just walks out from behind a curtain and starts shooting. And she misses everything. She throws out a wall of bullets, and not a single one hits Spawn or any of the extras spawning in and out of existence near her line of fire. If you cleaned the urinals at the Michael J. Fox Foundation, this woman's aim would remind you too much of work.
She finally gets a few bullets into Spawn, who consequently discovers he's immune to them. So if that's the case, what is she still doing here? What are any of us still doing here? She tries for a crotch kick, but from the writer of "WOMAN ENTERS" comes "SPAWN'S BELT BUCKLE COMES TO LIFE AND BITES THE KICK. WOMAN SCREAMS."
This madness raises more questions than it answers. Spawn is made out of cadaver elbow stretched around green devil fire. Did ... did someone staple a dick and balls to that? Why? Under what circumstance would he need them? Assuming he found a woman who could look past the rage issues, sulfur smell, fruit-by-the-foot skin, and that bullshit CGI cape, wouldn't his balls produce a torment of fire beyond the safety limits of any condom? Let's maybe think next time, Spawn's belt buckle.
Ignoring the dementia that led to demon pants scientists inventing Spawn's belt, you're still left with a confusing scene taking place in a universe where nothing has a prayer against Spawn. The guy does a front flip while shooting two guns, and all it does is waste 50 bullets on the empty balcony he just left. In any other movie, they'd give the stuntman a second chance at it, but who cares in this one? Spawn could put all those bullets into his own mouth, and the only effect it would have on the fight would be a $275 increase in CGI budget.
Make It Look Like They're Dancing
It's not the easiest thing in the world to convincingly hit someone without hurting them. For example, Hulk Hogan killed 78 apes and maimed 241 others in a lab setting before WWF researchers let him simulate punches on human subjects. If performers don't have a talent for it, a fight ends up looking like the electric slide at a Mormon wedding reception. There's a lot of waiting around and indecisive shuffling, followed by a short, disappointing sex scene. In your faces, devoted Mormon couples.
One way to give impact to movie fights was invented during Rocky IV, when Sylvester Stallone came up with the idea of letting Dolph Lundgren try to really knock him out. When he woke up in the hospital, he learned that it worked. Jackie Chan used an only slightly smarter method of standing in the path of certain death and barely getting out of the way. And of all the certain death Jackie Chan stood in front of, none was more certain than Benny "The Jet" Urquidez, a bull shark that grew legs to walk among us. Benny the Jet kicks like a roller coaster beheading. Here's his fight against Jackie from Wheels On Meals -- a movie named dyslexically because its Chinese distributors feared, and this is real, that movies starting with the letter "M" were cursed.
With anyone else, the amount of choreography in that scene would look like two men practicing a complicated handshake. With Benny the Jet, it looks like he's trying to cave in Jackie Chan's chest so he can nurture his shark young in the moist remains. The attacks come with murderous intent, and you can see the effect of every impact. A lot of Jackie scenes are pointless near-death experiences, but here he's using the near-death to tell a story. He realizes he can't match Benny's serial killer intensity, so he switches styles from Kickboxing to Fucking Around. And it works -- there's a reason bull riders are protected by rodeo clowns and not very serious men who charge the bulls with their own heads.
Now let's look at a fight that never, even during its most insane, eyeball-dangling moments, stops reminding you that everyone is an actor participating in a very careful Karate dance:
That scene is from the Cynthia Rothrock classic Undefeatable. As in all her films, the stars look like they got the role by being the only adults in her self-defense aerobics class. Those guys hit the gym every day, and all it did was make them look like weirdly jacked Radio Shack cashiers. It also features another Cynthia Rothrock hallmark: strikes thrown with all the intensity of a fitted sheet coming loose. Every combo in a Cynthia Rothrock movie looks like a Nabisco robot delicately squirting cheese onto Ritz Bits. She works exclusively with directors who scream "HOW THE FUCK ARE THEY NOT DEAD!?" when they see nine-year-old Taekwondo students spar.
This particular scene clearly goes so far past failure that it reaches a place which no adjective would be wrong in describing. It's entertaining in every single way other than the one intended by its creators, and the depth of its lunacy could be studied for years. When they become sentient, this fight is what I'll show Nabisco's robots to remind them they will never, ever fully understand us. And speaking of technology rising up to replace people ...
Get Rid Of All The Real Humans
Whenever the characters in a movie are replaced with computer generation, my mind starts to wander away from the plot and toward the families of the Polish animators who spent three years of their lives getting Hulk's dick basket to look right while I'm checking my phone. The nicest thing I've ever said about a CGI fight is, "Oh, I've got it, you have to HOLD triangle to skip this shit." So it was pretty hard to come up with a good CGI battle that made sense, told a story, and wasn't a total gimme for the good guys. This fight from Deadpool 2 somehow does all of that:
There are a lot of reasons audiences forgive unconvincing computer animation more than they might ignore a conspicuous stuntman with a bad wig. We accept that there's no other way for Colossus to exist, or for Carrie Fisher to be alive again, or for Henry Cavill to shave a mustache, but movies often replace actors with cartoons for no reason. For instance, there's this scene in Black Panther:
Black Panther had the full resources of the most powerful, talent-rich film studio on the planet behind it, and the climax looks like someone beat Mortal Kombat's story mode. The principal actors who had a shirtless panty-dropping life-and-death struggle earlier are now video game characters flipping around each other in unkillable super suits. That makes the stakes lower, not higher. If you watched Black Panther and were ever, at any point, worried that one cartoon cat was going to land a claw against the other cartoon cat's claw-proof suit, you're definitely not emotionally prepared for this twist: You've been an idiot this whole time.
Keep The Rules Vague
Most movies do a fine job of establishing what the stakes are in a fight, but almost all of them forget to establish the rules. And I don't only mean rules like "no guns allowed" or "participants must menacingly lick all blood from knives." I mean, what are the basic rules of their universe? Do fighters get tired? Are there consequences for taking a punch to the face? What's, like, the ballpark number of office buildings Superman can get smashed through before it becomes a problem?
Without clearly defined rules, no one has any idea when they should be worried. Say Hulk Hogan holds his foot perfectly still in front of a jogging man's face, and then gently drops a leg onto his head. You and I know he's as good as dead, because jabroni skulls spent years establishing those rules, but if you take a moment to dare picture a world without Hulkamania, think of how fucking stupid all that would look. That's how your movie fight looks if you don't tell the audience what the rules are.
There are thousands of ways filmmakers can communicate these rules. If you're watching a great Kung Fu movie with an educated eye, you should almost be able to see the health bars of the fighters. To demonstrate, here is the greatest fight scene from the greatest Kung Fu movie, Fist Of Legend:
The scene does everything right. It tells a story, everyone seems interested in hurting each other, and nobody suddenly turns into a cartoon. It's a battle to the death combined with a debate of philosophies and styles, which is pretty standard for honorable Kung Fu warriors, but these guys are so honorable that they each carry a blindfold in case they have to kill someone who has shit in their eye. Jet Li leaves the fight wiser, cooler, and with almost comically clear instructions on who he needs to go beat up next. It's the best.
But what would a fight scene look like if it did absolutely every possible thing wrong?
More than zero of you knew this article about bad movie fights would end with the Matrix Reloaded scene wherein Neo fights a crowd of Agent Smiths in a pointless collision of shapes. The sheer number of participants makes it impossible to track the progress of the fight, especially since the Smiths are fully disposable and Neo seems to take no damage from anything. Even assuming you stay emotionally invested in the characters after they transform into a FIFA Soccer 2004 crowd, you can't tell what either side is trying to accomplish or why.
The movie seems to forget about the story entirely to let these invincible cartoon characters put on an orange belt demonstration. And right as you start to wonder if there are any goddamn stakes at all, Neo just flies away, as if to say, "No, there were not." It's a fight scene so terrible that it ends with a character leaving. What kind of lazy-ass writer spends hours building up to some huge moment and then just ends it like that? Anyway, bye!
(Special Thanks to Eddie Doty, Zak Koonce, and Alan Chang for narrowing down these choices with me)
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