My Anatomy of a Good Fighting Scene

DISCLAIMER: I’m not a professional critique or a high rated director of action films. All stuff that I’ll mention here are purely my opinion and mostly not based on any studies in film and audio visual arts but on over a hundred action movies that I watched, which served as my reference materials.

I’ve watched a lot of action movies that I developed a strict taste when it comes to watching them. To some extent, I tend to bypass the story or lack thereof once I see the fighting scenes. Not that I’m saying it is unnecessary to have an engaging plot to create a good action movie, but if the production claims that its movie belongs to the action genre, then they have to deliver violence in its most entertaining form. I don’t think that you can label an action movie as an action movie without any fighting scenes in it. With this, here’s my take on what I think are the elements of a good fighting scene.

Awesome Choreography

In real street fights, you’ll rarely see those fancy backflips or flying roundhouse kicks for the simple reason that it’s impractical to use in such situations. However, your aim in making a movie is to entertain, and in the action genre, one of the most effective ways to execute this is to use awesome fight choreography. This is what I like in a lot of Asian action movies (spare my fanboy side XD). The heavy influence in martial arts has been effectively used, they can have a single template of a story in all movies but each will still stand out based on the unique presentation of the fight choreography.  Speed of movement, strength of strikes, and difficulty of execution. Combine these three characteristics and you can create total eye-candy violence. Take a look at this example:

The three factors I mentioned were totally captured in this fighting scene. Both Donnie Yen and Wu Jing displayed exceptional weapon handling skills that pulled of this fast-paced combat. One wrong mistake could lead the one knocking out the other. It may seem that the overall difficulty is not at par with other fighting scenes, but take a look the timing and placements of each strike and you’ll see how carefully choreographed this scene is. By the way, the choreographer was Donnie Yen himself (*_*).

To be fair, the western movies had its own share of good choreography. I commend Troy in capturing the Greek style of combat and present it in an entertaining way. Most of the fight scenes were set on army confrontations, but my favorite scene is none other than the Achilles and Hector face-off. The pace was just right, and the usage of different weapons was fantastic to watch.

Spectacular Camera Views

Sometimes, the good choreography doesn’t cut it. If the moves were not captured in the right angle, the opportunity to display an excellent execution is wasted. Come take a look at this example:

It’s such a shame that the camera angle was too unstable to follow. Eun-Kyung Shin and her double had a pretty decent performance in the fighting scenes, but the shifts and angles of the camera views did not complement with the actresses’ skill. This is one of things that can get me frustrated in watching an action movie. Actors/actresses are trained to perform at their best but then the end product did not properly capture the scene. Moreover, there are certain parts of a fighting scene that are best viewed in slow motion. Usually, when executing a high-risk maneuver (yeah I watch WWE). However, there’s a limit on how much you can use this element. When abused, the scene can get dragging, which damages the pace of the fight scene (*cough* *cough* Resident Evil Movies *cough* *cough*).

On the other hand, a good handling of camera views can make amateur action stars perform like they are trained for combat for a long time. A good example would be the movie So Close. Shu Qi, is not an action star at all, but although she was trained in martial arts before the production, it’s the good cinematography of the movie that really amplified her performance. Take a look at this one-on-one fight with Karen Mok.

Perfect Playground

I believe that choosing the right place to get it on is essential in determining the limitations for the other elements of a fighting scene. Based on the location, the team can define the set of choreography that can be included in a scene. Different places can present the same choreography on distinctive perspectives. An overhead kick on a wide park may seem mediocre, but do that same move inside an elevator, and you will see the difference. Such confined space will significantly increase its difficulty of execution. On the other hand, a small cubicle will give you limited camera angles to use and a limited number of people to put in. In large areas like parking lots and playground, you have more freedom in the types of choreography that you can use, and you can include more people for a classic one man vs. goons fight scene.

Nobody uses this element better than Jackie Chan. If you watched Jackie Chan: My Stunts, he showed the viewers that he collects different magazine pictures of unique and interesting places in his kitchen wall. That serves as his database of target locations when conceptualizing his next film. He also has his own stunt lab to experiment on various objects that he can improvise as weapons as well as practice on different stunts that he can use on different environments. All these references led him in creating the finest action-packed and stunt-oriented fighting scene that JC can pull off. Well, I can’t find a source for the Playground fighting scene in Police Story 2 (such a shame, it was the best example for this part), so I’ve chosen the couch fight scene in his recent movie Chinese Zodiac. The scene was filmed in what seems to be a typical sofa set. However, they added a nice touch to the actual fighting scene by implementing a Swagger rule that whoever loses his touch from the couch will be declared as the loser of that bout.

Swagger Image

If there’s one thing that makes an action star look awesome… it’s the swag, and a good fighting scene can utilize this element to create those in-between spotlight moments wherein the scene focuses on that main character when he or she is either striking a pose, delivering a hard punchline,  performing single strike knockout, etc. Basically, it’s about anything that can make the action star look fabulous ahem… in a bad-ass way.

I think Jet Li not only mastered the art of combat, but also the art of being a swagger. That fierce look in his eyes scream i-am-a-motha#$*(!%-bad-ass-who-will-kick-your-teeth-down-your-throat. That guy portrays so much swag, I can’t imagine how he can fair with a comic role (but he did in his latest movie, Badges of Fury). I don’t want to sound redundant here, so just watch this end fight in Kiss of the Dragon. All the examples of being a Swagger that I mentioned above had been used here.

Intense Music

I think this is more of a bonus since a good fight scene can live without this, but it adds a nice touch to the final product. Like in other genres, it sets the mood of the scene that something bad or cool is going to happen, and if it’s an action movie, it’s a no-brainer to figure out what will happen next. The music should not only harmonize with the combat’s pace, but it should have the right tune and instrument to be used in each part of the fight.

As much as I want to use a live-action movie, one of my favorite music for a fighting scene is the one used in Rurouni Kenshin. The one played in the first 30 seconds of this video. It’s also worth mentioning that this anime series was able to utilize the use of music to intensify any type of mood of the scenes that it portrays.

Whew. Is it just me, or I just made a long post XD? Maybe it’s because of watching too many fighting scenes that it made me tired after writing this post. Well, I hope you had fun, at least by watching the sample video clips. If you think, I missed anything, or you disagree with some of my points, then feel free to post a comment, but let’s leave the violence in the movies shall we? Peace out! (~^_^)~