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July 29, 2008 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Who ruined the Hollywood fight scene? With average shot length under six seconds and falling, are fight scenes more exciting than they used to be? Or is Hollywood's love of fast editing cutting us short?

Critic David Bordwell also wrote a couple of interesting blog posts on this subject, with The Bourne Ultimatum as their focus.
posted by The Card Cheat (111 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
ts;dw
posted by yhbc at 7:28 AM on July 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


I don't think the problem is strictly fast-cutting as much as it's fast-cutting done badly. It's just turning into a thoughtless shorthand for excitement -- "Hey let's use a bunch of fast cuts to make it really pop!" If you look back at fight scenes like the famous one on the train in "From Russia With Love", there are a lot of fast cuts in there, but it works because they're the right fast cuts. The fight sequence in the pool hall in "Mean Streets" has a lot of fast cutting but again, they're the right fast cuts.

There's nothing wrong with fast cutting in itself. It's just annoying when it's done badly.

It's all Michael Bay's fault.
posted by wabbittwax at 7:30 AM on July 29, 2008 [4 favorites]


So in a couple years someone will make an action movie with a 200-second continuous-shot fight scene and will be heralded as revolutionary. OK.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 7:33 AM on July 29, 2008


There have been a lot of movies recently with the shakicam style and of course I'm not alone in demanding the kids get off my lawndisliking it. I guess the idea is it involves the viewer more. "It's like I'm there."

Except that seems like lazy movie making to me. In a good movie, the viewer doesn't empathize with the characters because they are experiencing an optical illusion that they are standing in the room. They empathize because they can see themselves in the character, due to good writing, acting and directing.

I'd like to propose the opposite of a shakicam movie. It would be a disaster/monster/zombie movie but there wouldn't be any handheld camera footage. The entire thing would be pieced together from stationary surveillance cameras. Kind of like how they follow Timothy McVeigh through Oklahoma City by putting surveillance footage together, you'd have a bunch of footage (some B&W with no sound, some color and sound, in a patchwork variety) of the protagonists' story.
posted by DU at 7:36 AM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


So in a couple years someone will make an action movie with a 200212-second continuous-shot fight scene and will be heralded as revolutionary

FTFY
posted by DU at 7:38 AM on July 29, 2008 [12 favorites]


219, I mean although the description says 4 minutes.
posted by DU at 7:39 AM on July 29, 2008


If you look back at fight scenes like the famous one on the train in "From Russia With Love", there are a lot of fast cuts in there, but it works because they're the right fast cuts.

THIS IS TRUE. Good crap, I love that fight. No fancy martial arts or special effects, just two dudes who are really good at killing people doing their damndest to kill each other. It's that great kind of movie fight where you get tired from watching it. You get tired because:

[The viewers] empathize because they can see themselves in the character, due to good writing, acting and directing.

You're all very smart people and I need to go rent some good action movies.
posted by The Man from Lardfork at 7:42 AM on July 29, 2008


Not to dominate this thread, but I forgot to finish my thought.

The entire thing would be pieced together from stationary surveillance cameras.

I could never write, direct or act in this movie because I undoubtedly suck at all three. But in the right hands, I think this could be gold. You have to get the viewer to empathize without being able to use a lot of the props of modern filmmaking, such as camera angles and music. (Composition and editing are still available, though restricted to views and time lengths appropriate to the concept.)

If someone could pull this off: Instant Oscars all around.
posted by DU at 7:45 AM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


I think The Dark Knight was using disorienting short cuts to emphasize the chaos of the Joker. Seems doubtful that the problem is Nolan knowing how to shoot a scene. The situation was supposed to be confusing and stressful.

The Bourne movies were trying to get across that same sense of urgency and realism in the fights. Seems like whenever you hear a stuntman or fight choreographer talk about what they do, they point out that fights are way too slow in the movies, that in real life it's over in a second and somebody's on the floor.

We've seen plenty of damn fight scenes - I'd much rather see fight scenes that tell a story or get a mood across and don't belabor stunts for the sake of stunts, or end up being one long wrestling match.

But yeah, if it's that crappy MTV style of short cuts done without any reason or style, it can straight suck. Plenty of examples of that. I just think the first article picked the wrong two movies to showcase.
posted by dosterm at 7:45 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sounds like some of you want Mike Leigh to start making action movies.
posted by DOUBLE A SIDE at 7:46 AM on July 29, 2008


I agree that it's not the idea of the fast cut but the poor quality of some cuts that's ruining things. It's hard to tell sometimes if the punch you see being thrown is the same punch being landed when it cuts away so quickly. It's hard to get a sense of who's winning the fight until the end. That may be the point, but it's not being made well enough.
posted by sjuhawk31 at 7:47 AM on July 29, 2008


I felt the opposite in the last Indiana Jones movie: the scene where Indy fist-fights the Russian in the circle surrounded by ants. That goes on forrrrrrrrrever.
posted by yeti at 7:50 AM on July 29, 2008


The other reason to do lots of short cuts is it makes it a whole lot easier to make the movie.

Wasn't Children of Men refreshing? That 20 minute single take action scene was fantastic.
posted by Nelson at 7:50 AM on July 29, 2008 [6 favorites]


I haven't see The Dark Knight yet, and skipped the Bourne movies as I don't care for spy stuff, but I'd suggest the movies I've seen recently have more realistic fight scenes than ever.

This is just my opinion of course, but it's downright unnatural for two people to trade blows for three or four minutes. Just doesn't happen. Usually one either gets lucky or overpowers the other early on, and then its game over.

While living in New York my gal pal at the time and I sent many Friday / Saturday nights at a local biker bar (drinks, dinner and live country music!!) and the shit would hit about once a month. Almost always its was over before security could physically reach the conflict, let alone wade in. The typical scenario had Biker A dropping Biker B in one or two punches, then standing about all pissed off and worked up by the time the bouncers arrived to walk him to the door (my crowd was righteous, and kicking someone on the ground was generally frowned upon).

And most fighting is very, very confused both to onlookers as well as combatants. I had a lot of training in hand to hand over the years (learned martial arts as a kid, of course some time served in New York Biker bars, then finally had training before being sent off to work in Africa) and while you practice practice practice, the real thing is both faster and more furious than training.
posted by Mutant at 7:51 AM on July 29, 2008


I thought the fight scenes in Dark Knight were pretty good actually; I couldn't stand Christian Bale's over-the-top gravelly Batman voice though. The fight scenes where you can't tell what's going on are just awful, but I never felt like that watching Dark Knight.

As for this:The entire thing would be pieced together from stationary surveillance cameras., I actually think this is a wonderful idea - it will need a framing tale though, as security cams don't have sound in general. Or, since it's the movies, voila! Security cams do have sound in this movie, cuz it's 2014 or something.

I digress. The concept reminds me of a fairly popular technique that used to be employed to good effect–I think Mary Shelley's Frankenstein uses it–where large parts of the narrative are carried forth by bits of correspondence discovered by characters, like letters, diary entries, etc. Lovecraft did that as well, in "Call of Cthulhu" and some other stories. So yes, it's kind of an updated take on that, but more accidental (security cams are not directed to any particular audience–OR ARE THEY??? *scrambles off to steal DU's idea*) and modern.
posted by Mister_A at 7:56 AM on July 29, 2008


large parts of the narrative are carried forth by bits of correspondence

Coming soon to a theater near you: Screwtape, the Movie
posted by JaredSeth at 7:58 AM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'll be damned if I can remember what you call that technique though.
posted by Mister_A at 8:00 AM on July 29, 2008


Honestly, I'm less concerned with action scene editing as I am with the excessive use of the fucking ShakyCam which has completely ruined action film today. I might appreciate longer shots and less heavy-handed editing in some cases, though certainly I'm the last person to suggest a return to the filmmaking of the 60s and 70s with tragically geological pacing. But, dammit, enough with the shitty camerawork. "Grandma's Handycam" is not a film aesthetic worth emulating.
posted by majick at 8:01 AM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


...it will need a framing tale though, as security cams don't have sound in general.

Not a very big hurdle, IMO. If you copy everything else about security cameras (odd angles, odd compositions, static framing) nobody will even notice that the sound is wrong. Consider the opening shots of Omega Man, where he's driving around the empty city, which now that I think about it are basically the same as my idea. I think the camera may even move around a bit in some of those shots, but it still feels documentary.
posted by DU at 8:02 AM on July 29, 2008


I hate all the fast cutting. Fast cutting and overuse of CGI is completely ruining most action movies these days.
posted by agregoli at 8:06 AM on July 29, 2008


The final scene of the movie Friday (yes, the one with Ice Cube) has one of the most realistic fights I've seen. Actual fights are nothing like boxing or action movies, and someone usually tries to hit you with a rock.
posted by electroboy at 8:06 AM on July 29, 2008


What I learned from my stand-up comedy days is: set-up, punch, set-up, punch. Action movies are often punch-punch-punch. The set-up is just as important for making it work. A good example is the barroom brawl in Raiders From the Last Ark. You see the fire coming around the bar. There is that moment when Indy asks for the bottle before smashing it over the guys head. When the bad guy is choking Indy and the German weasel says "Shoot them both" you understand the bad guy's willingness to momentarily cooperate with Indy. It was fluid and fast-paced, every intention presented and resolved.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:07 AM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


Am I the only who just tunes out for action scenes now?
posted by Artw at 8:08 AM on July 29, 2008


Somebody fire up the Pat Signal!

COME QUICK MR. SWAYZE, HOLLYWOOD NEEDS HAAAALP.
posted by The Straightener at 8:12 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


My favorite action sequence is in They Live, which (according to legend) was really just Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David seeing how long they could keep it going. (youtube) That scene had some great, if somewhat un-prepared-for, direction. I'd have put on the glasses a lot sooner than Keith David did.
posted by headlessagnew at 8:18 AM on July 29, 2008 [11 favorites]


They Live is EXACTLY 90 minutes long isn't it?
posted by Artw at 8:21 AM on July 29, 2008


DU,

I actually worked out a story using just that technique. It was going to follow a Babbitt-type character, who was sort of ignored by society. The film was a typical day in his life, viewed entirely through "found" cameras: traffic cams, atm cams, security cams, web cams, etc. The story ended up w/ his suicide, with the point being that he left all this clues that he was going to do this, had all of these cries for help, but nobody notices except the cameras. At the end of the day, it wasn't a very good story, but I'm with you in that something like that could be done to great effect.

As far as the Bourne movies go: I think the big problem w/ the shakycam syndrome is the choice of story. In the Bourne films, the shaky-cam gets annoying. Contrast it w/ Greengrass' earlier film, Bloody Sunday, which felt so much like a documentary that happened to capture a horrible misuse of police force that it made me angry in a way that no fictional film ever has. In that case, the shaky camera MADE that movie. It went from being a "based on a true story" film (a type of film that almost always sucks,) to something really good.
posted by nushustu at 8:23 AM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


oh, and though mordern CGI action sequences lull me into a light sleep I still think Pittsburgh guy sounds like someones grandad. You couldn't follow Moulin Rouge? There there, here's a nice cup of cocoa and let's get you in front of a warm fire with a blanket.
posted by Artw at 8:23 AM on July 29, 2008


A more overt difference is immediately visible in great kung-fu movies versus American action films: I was watching Drunken Master again last week, and noticed for the umpteenth time that when the fights are on, the camera pulls back to a wide angle and lets the fight happen. There are a few short, close cuts for impact shots -- when you need to illustrate that a blow is particularly decisive or devastating -- but by and large it's just a wide shot of a battle. Compare to American action movies, where you almost never see anyone's whole body, ever.
posted by Shepherd at 8:23 AM on July 29, 2008


Cutting us short. Heh heh heh. Just wanted to let you know I saw that. NLE's represent!
posted by cavalier at 8:24 AM on July 29, 2008


I'm with you, headlessagnew - the fight scene in They Live is as good as it gets.
posted by sluggo at 8:24 AM on July 29, 2008


I've no idea what they're trying to say with the "space shakeycam" in BSG. This exciting action reportage - in space? Cos space and things blowing up are too boring by themselves? Still, it's a nice releif from all the crying.
posted by Artw at 8:25 AM on July 29, 2008


Damn you headlessagnew, I was going to post 'They Live'. But I second it, and suggest its a really underrated b-flick.
posted by elendil71 at 8:27 AM on July 29, 2008


headlessagnew: "My favorite action sequence is in They Live, which (according to legend) was really just Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David seeing how long they could keep it going. (youtube ) That scene had some great, if somewhat un-prepared-for, direction. I'd have put on the glasses a lot sooner than Keith David did."

I thought of that movie as soon as I saw the subject of this FPP, I love that scene.
posted by octothorpe at 8:29 AM on July 29, 2008


At the end of the day, it wasn't a very good story...

You must have very high standards or be a much worse writer than concept...originator. It sounds awesome.
posted by DU at 8:30 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Equilibrium had some awesome, if brief, fight scenes, completely sans shakiness. You even get a couple of overhead shots to show all the action, because he's always fighting (or rather kicking the living shit out of) multiple people.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:30 AM on July 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'll be damned if I can remember what you call that technique though.

Epistolary.
posted by Freon at 8:31 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have to agree that the use of a shaky hand-camera combined with fast cutting has really changed the way fight scenes are handled in film. It was innovative in the first Bourne film, but it's become way too overused and in some cases it is pretty clearly an attempt to hide the fact that they didn't put their actor through enough training to be able to sufficiently pull off the combat moves in a believable manner.

I understand that it's the directors attempt to pull us into the scene, but too often lately, I've been drawn in and then suddenly kicked back out when I realized that it was too dark, fast, and shaky to have any kind of clue what was going on. It's like a complete waste of choreography.
posted by quin at 8:31 AM on July 29, 2008


Realism? The drunken fight scene in Mean Streets stands high on my list of awesome film scenes, fighting or not.
posted by gaspode at 8:35 AM on July 29, 2008


large parts of the narrative are carried forth by bits of correspondence discovered by characters, like letters, diary entries, etc

I'll be damned if I can remember what you call that technique though.


I believe that type of narrative is called an Epistolary
posted by wabbittwax at 8:36 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Dammit. Beaten to it.
posted by wabbittwax at 8:37 AM on July 29, 2008


The fight scene in Old Boy is awesome for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it's a live-action platform scroller.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:37 AM on July 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


We're at an odd crossroads with fight scenes right now. They are certainly grittier now, more brutal and in that sense more realistic. In that sense, the fight scene is better than ever. However, I agree that the choppy editing has gotten out of hand.

However, when you mix the new brutal fight choreography with old-school film-making, you get the fight in Eastern Promises. And that means you get awesome.
posted by Bookhouse at 8:46 AM on July 29, 2008


I didn't see The Dark Knight but to me Batman Begins had the worst fight scenes I've ever seen. Poor, fast cutting, close shots. Who the fuck is who and what's going on? How many times did you just cross the axis Mr. Cinematographer and Miss Editor?

I also came in here to tout They Live but since I've been beaten to the punch, I'll raise ya'll one Old Boy.
posted by dobbs at 8:51 AM on July 29, 2008


Arrgh!!! Beaten while searching and watching.
posted by dobbs at 8:51 AM on July 29, 2008


No way man, there's a cut at 1:24 in that video... it's just a pan/blur cut so you don't notice it.
posted by anthill at 8:52 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's interesting to contrast Hollywood fight scenes with, say, Honk Kong style fight scenes. In HK martial arts movies, the camera usually pulls back and takes in the entire scene with possibly less cutting that you'd see outside the action. Of course, a lot of HK actors in these movies are, if not actual martial artists, genuine physical performers. By comparison, one wonders whether Christian Bale could pull off convincing looking brawl as Batman. I think a lot of the quick cutting is due to not wanting to spend six months training actors to throw credible punches.

On the other hand, the first Bourne movie showed that Matt Damon could stage credible fights, so I was definitely disappointed by the camera work in the sequels (especially the 2nd...I thought the 3rd was an improvement).

Now, comparing Batmans (Batmen?), I would say that the second movie was an improvement on the first (in terms of fight scenes). In addition, after seeing the first one too many times, I feel that you can mentally reconstruct much of the action from the visual hints that are captured on film. I didn't have to see Dark Knight multiple times to come to the same conclusion. I can understand not wanting to show the action too closely when Batman takes out a crowd on ten guys in a circle around him. It's hard to imagine anyone doing that believably. Furthermore, I understand the stylization involved in making the action fast and hard to see, although I'm on the fence about the results.

But in Hollywood movies in general, I think these quick-cut fights are a sign of laziness. I'd like to see David Cronenberg film a martial arts fight scene; he's one of the few directors that is content to let the camera just sit there and take in the whole scene. Sometimes it looks amateurish, but other times it looks like he trusts his subjects more than most directors.
posted by Edgewise at 8:52 AM on July 29, 2008


Ode to the implausibly extended fight scene.
posted by dgaicun at 8:54 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I would say that the second movie was an improvement on the first (in terms of fight scenes).

that's good, but it sounds like they're still pretty terrible. Considering the praise it got the ones in Begins were astonishingly bad (TBH I think people tend to have nerd blinkers on about the whole movie, because that's far from it's only problem. Still, major points for not being Superman Returns. )

(Yes I'm still going to go see Dark Knight. )
posted by Artw at 8:55 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


nthing They Live as one of the best fight scenes ever. I love it! (Great film, too.)
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:59 AM on July 29, 2008


Too me, a good action scene is all about geography. It's about establishing where everybody is in relation to everybody else, what point A is, what point B is, why you need to get from point A to point B, and what needs to be done to get from point A from point B. And then you introduce surprises and detours. A good action scene should be a story by itself. Fast cutting is fine, but you need to make sure that the audience never loses it's bearings. You're building a model in their brains, and they need to be able to update where all the players are. Unless, of course, the point is that they don't know where some of the players are.

I think the Way of the Gun did this fantastically well, as an example from a recent movie.
posted by empath at 9:02 AM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


Thanks Freon!

You too wabbitwax.
posted by Mister_A at 9:02 AM on July 29, 2008


> TBH I think people tend to have nerd blinkers on about the whole movie...

"Nerd blinkers"...that's good. And very appropriate when applied to The Dark Knight. I mean, it's *okay*, but not much about it - aside from Heath Ledger's performance - lived up to all of the critical hype. And the fight scenes were terrible.
posted by you just lost the game at 9:02 AM on July 29, 2008


Oh, the verbiage probably wouldn’t matter if those truck crashes were any fun, but the tumult is spectacularly incoherent. Nolan appears to have no clue how to stage or shoot action. He got away with the chopped-up fights in Batman Begins because his hero was a barely glimpsed ninja, coming at villains from all angles in stroboscopic flashes. There are more variables here, which means more opportunities to say “What the f--- just happened?” I defy you to make spatial sense of the early scene in which Batman battles faux Batmen, gangsters, and the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy in a cameo that comes to nothing). If you can, move on to Level 2, diagramming the “Bat-tank versus Joker-truck versus cop car” chase. Then, finally, take the Ultimate Challenge: following the climax with Batman, the Joker, more faux Batmen, decoy hostages dressed as clowns, a SWAT team, and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius with some kind of sonar monitoring gizmo that tracks all the parties on video screens. Actually, Freeman looks like he knows what’s going on. Maybe the sequence plays well in sonar.
-- David Edelstein reviews The Dark Knight
posted by dgaicun at 9:03 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


> It's about establishing where everybody is in relation to everybody else...

There's a great scene in Three Kings (which doesn't seem to be on YouTube) that does this very well.
posted by you just lost the game at 9:05 AM on July 29, 2008


Reading that review from Edelstein reminds me of a few pet peeves I had. The only things I clearly remember from the film, honestly, are:

1. Heath Ledger really surprised me by being at least as good as all the hype about his performance. Poor crazy kid.

2. Bad gravelly voice.


Now that's not to say I didn't enjoy it, but it's no Raiders of the Lost Ark.
posted by Mister_A at 9:07 AM on July 29, 2008


And of course.... Cripple fight!
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:07 AM on July 29, 2008


Bad gravelly voice.

Man, that really was the worst. Especially in the scenes where he was playing off the Joker. On one side you have Heath Ledger using every acting trick in the book to become this generation's Hannibal Lecter, and on the other hand you have a guy speaking in a monotone who's only allowed to display the bottom third of his face, and not allowed to smile. It's hardly fair, but it was still cringe-inducing.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:14 AM on July 29, 2008 [4 favorites]


> 2. Bad gravelly voice.

My girlfriend said Bale sounded like he had double pneumonia in every scene where he appeared as Batman.
posted by you just lost the game at 9:14 AM on July 29, 2008


I think the Way of the Gun did this fantastically well

I love that movie. Here's the final shootout. The kidnapping scene is also brilliant.
posted by dobbs at 9:16 AM on July 29, 2008


And of course.... Cripple fight!

According to Wikipedia, in the DVD commentary for that episode,
"[Stone and Parker] also specify that the fight between Timmy and Jimmy is almost a shot for shot remake of the fight between Nada and Frank Armitage (Roddy Piper and Keith David) in the 1988 John Carpenter film They Live."

The thing I always liked about the They Live scene is that you still get a sense that the two characters actually are friends who are having a serious falling out, despite the brutality of the fight. When Nada apologizes for damaging Frank's car and Frank breaks the car's window in frustration, you want to laugh at the absurdity along with Nada.
posted by lord_wolf at 9:16 AM on July 29, 2008


If we're talking about shootouts, the list of great ones starts with Hard-Boiled, IMHO.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:21 AM on July 29, 2008


Some items off the top of my head (I'm badly jetlagged, and hope this is semi cohesive.)

El Mariachi - the film that made Robert Rodriguez, has lots of fast cutting- three reasons: he recorded his audio separately, non-crystal sync, which meant about every 7 seconds, anyone speaking would fall out of sync. The second, his editing system was a 3/4" set of tape decks, and if he paused too long, it'd shut off, making a break in the control track. Last, his guns only could shoot one blank before they'd jam, so he'd cut to another shot, simulating a 'rapid fire' machine gun effect.

So, his cutting style (in this film), which seems to carry over to his other films, especially in the fight scenes is every 4-5 seconds.

Older fight scenes were far to 'big'; I particularly think of the 60's television shows, like Star Trek, where the fights were with big windup haymaker punches, that would go on for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, stunt people (and boxers/martial artists) would be frustrated at the lack of 'reality' of these fights.

When I thing of the early bond films (Goldfinder, From Russia with Love), there are a number of shots that are 'sped up', and almost look comical now.

Hollywood has striven for realism, both in fighting styles and in jarring cutting styles, to make the viewer uncomfortable (as well as 'shakycam' - something that has come out of MTV using inexperienced shooters, giving footage to experienced editors)

A real fight would be anti "They Live" (which is really a 'wrestling', highly staged, fight.) When you factor in Hong Kong Cinema, a derivative of Kung Fu Movies, you get highly stylized violence. The Matrix films, John Woo, the Charlies Angels films, and particularly at the moment, Wanted, are examples of this.

Get a director who wants something "new", a fight coordinator who wants 'more realism', a cinematographer trying to simulate some level of confusion, along with an editor with rapid cutting: you get the Dark Knight.

I'm curious to see how far this can continue to possibly go (and what sort of eventual shift) this will cause in the "roller coaster" summer blockbuster films.
posted by filmgeek at 9:22 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


The beauty of the Bourne fight scene style is that it makes Matt Damon look like an absolute badass, and without wires and stand-ins. Moreover, it looks improvisational, which is in character for Bourne's identity as the smartest spy on the block. Most HK fights are highly stylized with their own set of tropes, references and classic, recognizable moves. The Bourne style is tightly choreographed so as to appear as if Damon is just making it up as he goes along. "Oh look, a hard cover book! I bet I can use it to smash that guy's throat!"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:26 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hilarious. When I saw the description, the first thing that came to my mind was - yes, you guessed it - They Live. And I've seen a lot of movie fights.

After that though, I'm thinking of the rooftop fight in Who Am I? where the bad guys time each other to see how long it takes them to beat Jacky Chan's ass.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:29 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I actually like the Bourne Ultimatum fights. They're far far better than the BB ones.
posted by dobbs at 9:31 AM on July 29, 2008


Bad gravelly voice.

The problem was that they asked him to actually speak in the bad gravelly voice. The gravelly voice works well for short, blunt sentences and threats. Not for heartfelt dialogue between Batman and Gordon.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:32 AM on July 29, 2008


I thought the action scenes in Casino Royale were quite good, too. Particularly the first chase scene. What I loved about it was the contrast between the two characters and the way they crossed various obstacles, one using acrobatic free running, and Bond using straight forward force. I loved every second of it.
posted by empath at 9:34 AM on July 29, 2008


"Nerd blinkers" is wonderful. It certainly explains the guy who wouldn't shut up about how Peter Jackson's re-make of King Kong represented "the fullest expression of 'what it means to be human' ever achieved in the medium of film", but then I saw it, and it turned out to be a big ol' stinkburger.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:41 AM on July 29, 2008


I'm with Mutant on this one -- the extended fight scenes in movies are just silly, compared to real fights.

This scene in Once Were Warriors comes pretty close, in terms of how fast and brutal a real fight can be. (Similar scene, different movie.)

The really stylized martial arts movies (like that 4 minute scene DU posted above) are pretty -- totally divorced from real life, but that's why they are pretty and fun to watch.

But the really jumpy scenes get old, too -- you can't see anything (which at least is realistic) but at the same time the hero absorbs unrealistic damage while the bad guys drop like flies. Yawn.
posted by Forktine at 9:46 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


DU: Fight Club pulled off the idea you're proposing to an extent in it's climactic parking-garage fight between Norton and Pitt, and used the distinction between the "on the ground" camera (which showed both actors) and the security cameras (which only showed Norton) to great effect.

I don't think that the driving force behind making fight scenes (or really any action scene) faster and faster cut is because the actors can't pull off the moves. Bale, for instance, trained for 6 months before Batman Begins by my understanding, and came to set so bulky and ripped that they had to make him pull it back a notch.

No, I think the real reason is that most writers and directors just know have an instinct into how to make any one image of their fights particularly memorable. Using hand-held just makes this problem worse, because the disorientation keeps us from focusing on anything that could even accidentally be iconic.

For modern examples of how an inspired director can make it work well, take three modern examples: The Matrix, Snatch and Kill Bill.

None of these movies are afraid to use rapid cuts, but they also have clear ideas of what they want you to see. The end fight sequence between Neo and Smith is quick-cut, but you're never lost, because the quick-cutting isn't on closeups of fists hitting faces, but rather on Neo/train approaching/Smith/train approaching/etc., which let us feel the increasing visceral pace while suspending a single moment, in fact giving us more information than we would have had otherwise. The Wachowski's also know their money shots, and will revel in them once they've got them, which is fun.

In Snatch, Mickey's ending fight scene obviously comes straight from Jake LaMotta, but is so quick-cut in the actual rounds that you have almost no idea what's going on except for when the camera freezes for a second just to let you catch your bearings on important punches, and for the languorous, beautiful shot of Mickey "underwater." It's impressionistic and manic, but the action is clear.

And of course with Kill Bill, Tarantino threw everything he had at using slow-build/rapid-action/slow-build/rapid action in that setup/punch style dances with sneetches was describing.

But yeah, there will always be shitty and pedestrian filmmakers, and they will always have a few tricks up their sleeves to cover over their faults, it's just that now they have higher budgets.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:49 AM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure the fight would've been over after Keith David has Roddy Piper pinned and repeatedly knees him in the nuts. (And I dream of seeing a Keith David/David Keith fight one day.)

I liked The Dark Knight, but I had no idea what was going on in the climactic fight scene.

You could apply some similar criticisms (fast cuts, not showing the whole body) to the way dancing is shown on film.

There's a brutal fight scene in Hitchcock's Torn Curtain which was meant to show how difficult it is to kill someone.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:49 AM on July 29, 2008


Of course the fight scene is dying. It is no longer the payoff part of the action porno. Now it's the chase scene or the large explosion. Fight scenes are now melding into characterization. The quick, choppy way Bourne takes down a guy shows how frenetic, how determined he is. The way the Joker performs a 'magic trick' shows how violent and sadistic he is.

Of fun part about The Dark Knight is making up sequels. In writing stuff like that, I never thought about fight scenes, just "fight ensues" because I really don't think about fights in movies much anymore. Unless they're a big deal, like the set piece fight scenes from the later Star Wars movies, they kinda just wash over me.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:52 AM on July 29, 2008


"Of fun part" - Seriously, brain? Your fired.

Ah, crap.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:53 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Deadwood's fight between Dan and Captain Turner is the best ever.
posted by bunnytricks at 9:56 AM on July 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm partial to the fight scene in Truck Turner myself. The entire thing is shot in POV shots, and it looks like Isaac Hayes is beating up the camera. It. Is. HAWESOME.
posted by pxe2000 at 9:57 AM on July 29, 2008


Nerd Blinkers is a V-ism: The apologist fan’s greatest weapon; the ability to stubbornly refuse to admit that there’s anything wrong with your beloved TV shows, or movies or comics.
posted by Artw at 9:58 AM on July 29, 2008


When we get to the point that we're adding motion blur and light bloom effects to video games in order to simulate the effects we get in film, it's time to move on.

Editing styles will change, although the increased speed of cuts in film do tend to create an expectation in the viewer, and in a sense become their own worst enemy - I find that many of my students become bored watching older films with longer scenes and fewer cuts, not because of the content or the writing, but by the fact that they've been trained, visually, to pay attention and be excited only WHEN the CUTS are FAST.

Part of the solution may be to move to 60 frames per second in film. This isn't practical in traditional projection (it would more than double the size or number of reels, with associated increases in cost), but is entirely possible with digital projection. Visual quality would go up, with an inverse relationship with the average director's predilection for making things exciting (and saving money at the same time) by using shaky / blurry-cam.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 9:59 AM on July 29, 2008


now this is some stellar fight scene pacing...

I'm not a huge fan of fight scenes (tend to get bored),
but have always thought it was curious when the cutting was so rapid that it became difficult to tell what was going on

sometimes, it feels as if the scene could speed up and meld seamlessly into a barrage bright lights flashing at epilepsy inducing rates - as long as it was in sync with punching noises and sweeping camera motions the effect on the viewer would be about the same

then beat - and - "ladies and gentleman, I present to you your winner"
posted by sloe at 10:02 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's a totally brutal fight at the end of Twentyfour Seven... because according the people who made it, it was real. And Meadows does some similar shocking violence in This Is England... mainly by making it a one-punch fight (like a lot are in real life - so I've heard, I'm no expert)

I think there's a bit of a backlash going on now re Nolan's fight sequences... I've heard in a couple of places of grumbling about how bad they are. Still not as Bay's blury-shaky efforts though...

I was going to say the main problem is that it's because Woo-ping Yuen can't do everything but then I remember though I loved the fights in Kill Bill... the Matrix ones left me cold, so perhaps it's all down to the director.

Oh and you can keep your Trek punch-ups, I miss the Blake's Seven chop to the back of the neck...
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:14 AM on July 29, 2008


It's a bit too one-sided to call it a fight, but the beat-down that William Bendix delivers to Alan Ladd in "The Glass Key" (1942) is one of the most brutal I've ever had the pleasure to watch, right up to its end when Ladd crawls out of a second story window and drops to the ground like a sack of potatoes, that being a more agreeable alternative to the asswhoopin' that was going on. Even better, he doesn't make one of those miraculous hollywood recoveries, but spends the next several days in the hospital, covered in some shockingly realistic bruises.
posted by the bricabrac man at 10:15 AM on July 29, 2008


Nerd Blinkers is a V-ism

I'm not sure it originated there, but somewhere in the Warren Ellis Forum diaspora, surely. As well as Nerd Rage and Nerd Baiting, I think.
posted by empath at 10:29 AM on July 29, 2008


Deadwood's fight between Dan and Captain Turner is the best ever.

That was a brutal and harrowing scene. Hard to forget.
posted by Mister_A at 10:34 AM on July 29, 2008


Speaking of Bond fights, I always liked the finale of Goldeneye. It goes on forever, but there are points where Sean Bean and Pierce Brosan seem like they're really kicking the shit out of each other.

Maybe it's just good sound editing.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:46 AM on July 29, 2008


I'd like to propose the opposite of a shakicam movie. It would be a disaster/monster/zombie movie but there wouldn't be any handheld camera footage. The entire thing would be pieced together from stationary surveillance cameras. Kind of like how they follow Timothy McVeigh through Oklahoma City by putting surveillance footage together, you'd have a bunch of footage (some B&W with no sound, some color and sound, in a patchwork variety) of the protagonists' story.

So, you want Goodbye, Dragon Inn mixed with Dawn of the Dead?

I'd see it.
posted by reductiondesign at 10:49 AM on July 29, 2008


I was going to pop on to say that the cinematic fight scene was perfected in 1988, but I see that not only did someone beat me to the the punch, but a couple others beat them as well. I think that cements it.
posted by RavinDave at 11:00 AM on July 29, 2008


This been linked yet?
posted by Brocktoon at 11:02 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


"sometimes, it feels as if the scene could speed up and meld seamlessly into a barrage bright lights flashing at epilepsy inducing rates - as long as it was in sync with punching noises and sweeping camera motions the effect on the viewer would be about the same"

Oh, you saw the Bay production of Transformers, too? I didn't object to the re-envisioning of beloved childhood characters (although the product placement was blatant and distracting), or the several minutes of wasted film on a piss joke, or even the poor design of the characters that made them largely indistinguishable. But those fight scenes were so bad it was like someone was making a parody of the worst possible Mike Bay-isms, but incompetently.

I could make those fight scenes with my cell phone. Blurry grey closeup going this way. LOUD NOISE! Blurry grey closeup going that way. ANOTHER NOISE! Arthritically unsteady long shot with something potentially emitting smoke, maybe, I think! VICTORY TO ONE OF THE CHARACTERS YOU DON'T RECOGNIZE!
posted by majick at 11:29 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I re-watched Silence of the Lambs again Sunday night, and every time I watch it I grow more and more impressed with it. It stands head and shoulders above almost every other horror movie ever made for a lot of the reasons we've been talking about here.

For example: right after the Senator's daughter is kidnapped by Buffalo Bill, there's a short shot of her cat in the windowsill of her apartment looking at the van. That one shot humanizes her, emphasizes her normalness, pays off the setup of the scene where she was complaining about it's hungry meows, and also keeps the clinical pace of the movie going, even in the middle of a scene with a very fast turn in its center. That shot slows down the scene and lets the impact of what happened sink in. In general, I dislike fast cuts because they obscure details like that in favor of simply shocking you when it's possible to both shock AND observe at the same time.

More importantly, however, I think the film finds a good balance between realistic violence and movie violence.

I once heard Quentin Tarantino talking about Reservoir Dogs, and he said that he thought people made too much of the violence of the film because there were only a few acts of violence in the script and all of them took place off screen. Compared to, say, Die Hard, Reservoir Dogs isn't particularly bloody, but because the violence all takes place in a real world context, with miserable after effects and stress and consequences, its a lot less fun to watch than a Die Hard, where people die instantly and then are forgotten. Realistic violence makes people uncomfortable; I know someone who saw City of God one night and said that she hated it because she "didn't like violent movies" and then literally the next night saw Kill Bill 1 and loved it - which is vapid, because City of God is an amazing movie and clearly she can be fine with violent movies - but also understandable in a way, because you can have fun at Kill Bill (though I didn't), but City of God is definitely a stressful film. (Absolute genius, but stressful.)

My point about Silence of the Lambs is this: there's room for both realistic violence (which has consequences, and takes place in an environment that shapes the fight, and which is often brief and terrifying) and movie violence (which happens to inconsequential people, takes place in unimportant environments, and is drawn out and titilating). Silence of the Lambs bridges that gap by seamlessly fusing realistic scenes like that kidnapping or the final chase in Bill's house with longer, less realistic scenes like Hannibal's escape.

To me, it's less about the style of the violence, whether its fast or slow, realistic or impressionistic or whatever, as whether its used effectively in the movie, and its definitely possible to use all of the techniques we're talking about here well in a movie.
posted by Kiablokirk at 11:52 AM on July 29, 2008 [5 favorites]


The alley fight in Sha Po Lang deserves mention in this thread. It's the best fighting scene made in recent years.

I'd also like to mention Red Belt. The fights are not that great but it is still the only movie that makes MMA look interesting
posted by uandt at 12:40 PM on July 29, 2008


And most fighting is very, very confused both to onlookers as well as combatants. I had a lot of training in hand to hand over the years (learned martial arts as a kid, of course some time served in New York Biker bars, then finally had training before being sent off to work in Africa) and while you practice practice practice, the real thing is both faster and more furious than training.

It's true. Movies HAVE to clarify the action to some degree unless they are attempting to stylize how enigmatic the result violence can be. In movies when they show dudes relentlessly trading punched bare fisted the intent is certainly NOT to render realistic fighting by experienced fighters. People who KNOW how to fight know that hitting is vastly over-rated.

Here is how most fights go:

Look it's Elvis! What? BAM! Big overhand. Stumble. Tussle. Tussle. Bad headlock. Fall. Punch, punch, punch. Soccer kick. Whoa. Broken up.

I've seen hundreds of "real" fights. Real fights in a public space are usually over fairly quickly becuase usually somebody has a little more experience or mass and get's the drop on somebody else an/or they get broken up. Untrained people have terrible balance and on uneven ground, slippery floors, and rooms with obstacles it doesn't take much for somebody to tumble. An experienced fighter (not necessarily a trained one) will know this and plan an opening salvo to take advantage of all these factors. It's why plenty of 1st Dan black belts get the shit kicked out of them by drunk fat out of shape Bubba's with a good cheap shot. Bubba has actually fought out side of a dojo before.

That fight scene from Deadwood between Dan and the Captain is a perfect illustration of some fairly real fighting. Both those guys immediately go to clinch (obviously the fight choreographer knows his period as that was some classic Catch Wrestling) on that muddle slipper street. Throwing big punches (or, god forbid, kicks) was gonna put the the thrower on his ass (not to mention the risk of breaking your hands) so they run to close with each other hoping that first guy to be driven backwards would get tripped with the other on top.

That all said I have seen some remarkably long street fights. 6-7 minutes. Usually this is an ritual battle of some sort and the on-lookers have decided in advance to NOT break it up. They always start in a big flurry and then usually continue on because both guys gas out. Basically who ever is the best shape wins.

Situations where dudes are trying to kill each other? I've seen a knife fight. Man. That can go either way. People won't break that up so fast becuase nobody is anxious to get stabbed. Usually the stand off lasts a while. If somebody doesn't get the fist good cut immediately, of get their hand slashed so they can't hold a knife, they can go on for a while until somebody chooses the wisest course and runs like a mother fucker away.

Your average real fights won't make very good movies I'm afraid.
posted by tkchrist at 12:49 PM on July 29, 2008 [4 favorites]


Mister_A: As for this:The entire thing would be pieced together from stationary surveillance cameras., I actually think this is a wonderful idea - it will need a framing tale though, as security cams don't have sound in general.

Use a tapped mobile phone, perhaps?
posted by Pronoiac at 12:50 PM on July 29, 2008


I'd also like to mention Red Belt. The fights are not that great but it is still the only movie that makes MMA look interesting

Oh. That movie was just awful. The fight choreography was pretty good but it sure had little to do with BJJ or MMA. Oddly more JJJ than BJJ. And that John Machado was the big bad guy was a laugh Olympics. The Machados are the nicest guys on the planet.
posted by tkchrist at 12:54 PM on July 29, 2008


Man, I'm gonna have a lot of youtubing to do when i get out from behind this work firewall.
posted by garlic at 1:06 PM on July 29, 2008


Whenever I think about long fight scenes I always come back to this one. Especially as the entire movie up until that point has been building to that fight.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:22 PM on July 29, 2008


Your average real fights won't make very good movies I'm afraid.

Agreed. A lot of weird wrestling before it gets broken up.

That said, I saw one street fight that was amazing. Across the parking lot, a fight started. Don't know how or why, and nobody I knew was involved. My one aggressive friend said, "Fight! Fight!" and ran toward it. I'm always wary of these things, so I hung back.

And oh boy, I'm glad I did. My friend froze in his tracks, because out of the struggle, this one wiry guy emerged from the scrum and started to beat the living daylights out of anyone near him with an elegant series of film-quality combinations. It didn't even look real. He'd hit one guy in the stomach, and when he doubled over, he socked him with an uppercut that straightened him back up and felled him like a Douglas fir. Then he moved around the "arena" with an underhanded stance, like a turn-of-the-century boxer, looking for a new target.

My friend turned on his heel and walked back to our car.

"Holy shit. That guy's good," he said.

"Better than you, dumbass," I said. "Get in the motherfucking car."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:31 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


it sure had little to do with BJJ or MMA

Sure but what other movies are there? I saw Red belt a week after Never Back Down. There is your truly awful movie. Flashpoint was pretty good, err boring.

MMA is popular now. Movies are made. Guys grappling is not fun to watch though. Wuxia is a dead genre for now so there's not much good fighting in cinema nowadays. Which I guess is the point of this whole post...
posted by uandt at 1:46 PM on July 29, 2008


Yeah, Red Belt was a real disappointment, and I was really looking forward to it too.

Chocolate or Flashpoint were was much better.
posted by the cuban at 2:07 PM on July 29, 2008


re: surveillance - I saw a great student film that made disconnected visuals and sound work. The premise: a bored/broke cameraman decides to steal a camera from the 2nd rate porno company he works for. His accomplice is the sound guy, who stays with the company owners with the tape running. The (short) movie consists of one big chase scene, with the POV of the stolen camera, and the soundtrack of the pursuing gang.
posted by anthill at 2:52 PM on July 29, 2008


HOW ABOUT I KICK YOUR ASS? THEN WE'LL SEE IF YOUR PRECIOUS FIGHT SCENE LASTS LONGER THAN SIX SECONDS! BOOYAH!
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:06 PM on July 29, 2008


I've always been partial to Sonny's beatdown of Carlo in The Godfather It's not much of a fight, though. Carlo's just hanging on for dear life because Sonny would kill him if he fought back.

And I love the fight scence in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
posted by kirkaracha at 3:09 PM on July 29, 2008


PS. I realize there are about forty typo's in my post up there. Sorry. I'm kinda slammed.
posted by tkchrist at 5:05 PM on July 29, 2008


Earlier I suggested that the end fight between Jackie Chan and the two bad guys in Who Am I? is a great one (overall, it's not one of Jackie's best films but you've got to love that fight).

Now that I'm home, and can actually see Youtube, I see the clip I posted earlier starts once the fight has already begun. So here's a better clip.

Also, Deadwood was a great call. I don't think I'll ever forget how grossed out my wife was by the conclusion of that bust-up.
posted by stinkycheese at 5:22 PM on July 29, 2008


The Lion's Roar is not a myth!
posted by homunculus at 6:00 PM on July 29, 2008


Also, Deadwood was a great call. I don't think I'll ever forget how grossed out my wife was by the conclusion of that bust-up.

Seth Bullock's rumble with the Indian in one of the earlier episodes ("Here Was A Man"? Possibly) was pretty brutal and realistic as well. And of course the classic stoush with Al Swearingen in the Season 2 opener. "The camp pugilist," indeed.

(See also: Charlie Utter's whooping of Francis Wolcott)
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:28 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Some of the best fight scenes ever come from HK, especially the movies early in an actor's career: see Jackie Chan in Druken Master 2, Bruce Lee in The Big Boss, Jet Li in Fist of Legend, and more recently Tony Jaa in Tom Yum Goong.

As far as US and UK films go, there are a few notables: we've already mentionned They Live, From Russia With Love, and the Bourne Identity. But I'd also like to mention Rocky I, the last fight versus Apollo Creed is excellent. The problem with the Western style of fight scene is that they take actors and try and get them to fight well, usually this doesn't turn out too well and you need to compensate with effects. However in HK they take a fighter and attempt to turn him into an actor, and sure the acting is rarely great, but the fight scenes are superior. And personally I find the HK and Japanese style of fight scenes much more entertaining.
posted by Vindaloo at 9:03 PM on July 29, 2008


Ooh, just found this for those who have spare time on their fists... heh... hands.
posted by Vindaloo at 9:10 PM on July 29, 2008


My last comment before I head to sleep, this is one of the harshest fight scenes I have ever seen, yet because of the context it was very powerful, truly must be seen to be believed: Hell in A Cell
posted by Vindaloo at 9:19 PM on July 29, 2008


Gah! Meant to link to this.
posted by Vindaloo at 9:21 PM on July 29, 2008


***crosses fingers and hopes he did the HTML right...***

I don't think quick cuts or close-ups are inherently evil, and I'm all for athletic performances and intricate fight choreography. Still, I think the real secret to a good fight scene is old fashioned narrative construction.

My favorite popcorn action directors (Frankenheimer, Verhoeven, Cameron, Scott, etc.) skillfully foreshadow their fight scenes long before the fists start flying. They construct plausible physical environments through keenly-observed sensory detail, scale and contrast (not CGI spectacle), and allow time for their characters to interact with these environments. The care that goes into establishing the "laws of physics" within the frame creates a more credible sense of danger and difficulty. Finally, they raise the stakes gradually, reintroducing riffs/motifs from earlier in the film to bring meaningful closure to the action sequences (note the similarities between the bar brawl at the beginning of T2 and the showdown at the end).

This sort of directing doesn't rely on speedy edits, jaw-dropping stunts, extreme close-ups, FX shots or the ol' shaky-cam, nor does it forswear these tactics. It just assumes that an action sequence needs to be folded into the overall texture of the film to have any meaning or impact.
posted by ducky l'orange at 10:04 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


While I can accept that most actors can't actually fight convincingly and thus need to be cut so you can't actually see how poorly they move, it's a real shame that ultra-short cuts have invaded even martial arts movies. Watching these professionals perform their art used to be a joy. Nowadays, the only thing many martial arts movies manage do produce is a splitting headache.
posted by L_K_M at 8:10 AM on July 30, 2008


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