Fights embody the conflicts that drive stories. There’s a reason why action movies rule, and why virtually all of them end in climactic melee fights: it’s viscerally satisfying to see a guy meet his problem head-on and beat on it til it pees out a kidney.
As a professional martial artist, fight director and stunt man, I’ve worked with real and staged violence for over 12 years. I see audiences respond when a well-done fight works, even if they don’t know why it resonates. This article is about why a good fight works when it does, and where even famous fights like these can fall short.
A great fight does 3 things: advance the story, reveal character, and dazzle us with badassnessology. These 5 classics are by no stretch of the imagination bad, but because they stumble, they’re criminally overrated.
#5. Spider Man 2 Train Fight: Spider-Man vs. Doc Ock
For a while this was commonly considered the coolest fight in any superhero movie ever, and ranks high on multiple top 10 lists. Hell, I even choke up watching Peter stop the train later (shut up).
1. The choreography is spectacular. Both combattants pull unpredictable, exciting moves, and both use their powers in new and unexpected ways that are still natural and instinctive.
2. Each character has a specific, consistent movement style. We expected this from whoever’s in Spider-Man costume, but it’s refreshingly also true of Alfred Molina, who adds the right physical intention to moving each of Doc Ock’s new arms.
3. The fight displays each character’s natural advantage. Spider-Man struggles to get in past Doc’s super-limbs, and Doc works to keep Spider-Man away from his own soft, doughy body.
1. Both of them are the fucking Highlander.
a. “Doctor Octopus’ …ability to take damage is still at a human norm even if he can deliver a superhuman level of punishment.” (Wikipedia)
Despite titanium super arms, the rest of Doc Ock is a weak, pudgy, pasty, feeble scientist…who somehow takes 15 punches straight to the grill (count em) from a guy strong enough to stop a speeding train with nothing but brute strength and wrist-cum. Doc, at fight’s end, after the facial abuse, even after a 300-foot fall from a clock tower wherein he lands HEAD FIRST, still looks like this:
No bruises, nothing broken, his goddamn sunglasses still look good.
b. Spider-Man isn’t much the worse for wear ether. “While his body is tougher than an ordinary human… he can still be injured in ways comparable to an ordinary human.” (Wikipedia)
Bearing that in mind, rewind the fight to 3:23.
Here’s a clue.
A train. A God damn train. Doc Ock pushes him in front of a moving train, while they’re standing on another train going the opposite direction.
The combined G-forces would have turned a normal person into salsa, yet Spider-Man completely shrugs it off in literally 3 seconds (fucking time it, I fucking did). If the damn train can’t hurt him, then all that slamming, tossing, and his multiple face-to-titanium encounters with Doc’s hentai nightmare limbs mean nothing.
Yes these are super heroes, but the end result of all this violence is…nothing. Other than some manly scratches on Peter’s chest (which he never even acknowledges), both Spidey and Doc are completely unhurt.
Just think for a minute. If they skipped the fight entirely and Doc Ock simply met Peter on top of a train he just sabotaged, would anything have turned out different? Anything at all?
Nothing in the story, characters, or plot has been changed or affected by this fight in any way. This fight serves zero purpose beyond spectacle.
Bottom line: if the fighters can’t hurt each other, then the fight is fucking pointless.
#4. Snatch Boxing Match: Mickey O’Neil vs Bullet Tooth Tony
Everyone has a soft spot for Snatch (insert: sex joke). The film is famous for its unique method of construction with its odd, off beat delivery. Too bad the climactic fight is ass.
1. The music. It’s well chosen, fits the mood of the fight and the film, is fast-paced, up-tempo, and adds energy and feeling. The sound effects on the hits are brutal, and SFX as a whole serve the scene well.
2. The cinematography is epic. Quick-cut montages are atmospheric, and the smash cuts to closeups are vivid and visceral, if manipulative (more on this later). A nod to makeup, too.
3. Mickey’s (Brad Pitt’s) story is clear. We see him capable of dominating the pale gorilla he’s up against, but struggling with his own instincts, particularly in the opening round and at the end.
1. Technical problems. Technically this fight is a train wreck of kittens, poisonous acid, and cancer.
Mr. Fluffles was never quite the same after the chemo.
a. Here’s another term stunt coordinators use: “air.” Put simply, it’s the idea that for a punch to read like it landed, it must pass through space that the audience perceives to be occupied by the target. If the space is perceived to be unoccupied, we get “air,” which is the visible space where the punch misses.
Pitt’s first punch after the knockdown. The camera whip tries to cover it, but yes, that is as close as he ever got.
With the picture above, the punch clearly missed because Pitt’s fist never crossed the line of the walking manatee’s face. The visible space in between is the “air”, and this fight is full of it.
In terms of fault, it’s partly the cameraman (who films several punches from the worst possible angle), partly the stunt coordinator (who put together and allowed a sloppy fight), and partly the elephantine jackass fighting Brad Pitt (some of Pitt’s punches are fine, but almost everything that human rhino does looks terrible). Whoever most deserves the punitive Karate chop to the dick, there are so many unintentional whiffs that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a stylistic choice.
You can see the problem beginning from the first punch thrown. We can barely even see it behind the pasty beached whale;
Did he trip on his way to the buffet line?
What follows is a flurry of complete misses:
Get punched to the left… head goes to the right?
Or Brad Pit and Capt. Hippo delicately pawing at each other’s elbows and stomach like kittens playing with balls of yarn.
The worst part: the editor and director fucking know it, too. So much of the “style” of this scene is used to distract from the fact that, bottom line; it looks like his boxers aren’t hitting each other. They saturate the fight with camera whips on impact, montages of half perceived blows, crazy sound effects, and even entire frames of blank gray layered on the big punches:
Look at his left fist below Brad’s chin; that’s clearly a miss…but he hit him so hard he knocked ME out!!!
It’s fucking shameless.
It’s all there to convince us that the people in the ring don’t simply have sexy, sweaty, bloody epilepsy. Even the slow motion Shoryuken that sends Brad Pitt into black and white adult swim time is badly sold by Pitt’s head position (uppercut knocks your head…forward?) and looks, more than anything else, like the bipedal walrus is doing an epic fist pump for getting away with this crap.
Imagine if they forgot to CG out the wires in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yes we know they’re there anyway, but seeing them would make us think about the movie instead of the story. All this crappy technique is like seeing the wires holding up the fight; it just screams “FAKE!” and pulls us out of the moment.
Bottom line: If we don’t buy the fight, then the fight is worse than pointless.
#3. The Matrix Subway Fight: Neo vs. Agent Smith
Considered the best fight in the best (read: least shitty) Matrix, this is the movie that redesigned what we expect from action film making.
1. The fundamentals are excellent. The actors physically commit to every attack, and sell every reaction. The sound work, while bordering on cheesy with its constant ohmygodwe’retotallygoingsofast swooping, gives each hit a different feel. This is topped off by some solid, moving, mood enhancing music.
2. Great characterization through physicality. The way the two characters move demonstrates their specific character traits, which are clear and consistent right from the start (after the gun exchange), in the different ways Neo and Smith both stand.
a. Agent Smith fights with direct efficiency. No complex artistry, no jumping or open-hand techniques, and almost no kicking. Simth just punches Keanu Reeves square in the goddamn sternum with his goddamn super robot fist a full 28 times (yes, I counted). Smith is also much stronger; his punches break concrete and hurtle Neo into walls, and Neo can often barely parry.
THAT’s for Johnny Nuemonic!
b. In contrast, if Smith is the “martial”, Neo is the “art,” fighting like he knows Kung-Fu. Neo has a much wider range of attacks and is more fluid, agile, and faster than plodding, inexorable Smith. Neo launches 27% more attacks (yes, I counted again), though fewer of them land. It’s as if Neo has something to prove, while Smith is almost surgical.
1. Technique from one actor. In fight work we talk about the concept of “interrupted action;” the idea that both parties are always trying to win at all times. No one intentionally throws a punch so it can be blocked or stands still to be hit; if you get hit, it’s because you tried something and failed. Watch the fight again, and you’ll see Smith just standing there getting punched. He does that shit all the fucking time. This is not a character getting hit despite his best efforts, it’s an actor waiting for his turn to fight back.
No rush, I get paid by the hour.
No, it’s not as bad as Snatch, but it still pulls us out of the scene.
2. This fight (and film) suffers from a severe case of “make up rules as we go along” syndrome.
We don’t know Smith’s limits. He shows no fatigue, debilitation or pain. He reacts when struck, but merely seems annoyed or angered (minor discomfort at the fingers to the throat is the extent of it). He ends the fight as strong as he began, despite being given an agressive happy ending by Neo some 30 times (assume I’m always counting). He is never close to losing.
So here’s the big question: minus the train, could Neo have ever won? Neo delivers flurries of hits, but every sequence ends literally the same: Smith tosses Neo into a wall (4 times!) and glowers, uninjured.
A core axis of a good fight (or a good story) is dramatic tension. Without it, we’re wasting our time with pointless effects and stuntman sweat. There must be a moment – even in an uneven fight – where there’s a chance for the other side to win. Smith’s invincibility just drains all the tension out of the room. No, it isn’t as bad as Spider-Man/Doc Oc, as Neo is clearly affected by incoming damage (and Smith’s sunglasses do break, thank Christ), but the effect is sadly similar.
See, because you were always going to die anyway! Ha HA!
Finally, much like with Spider-Man 2, if this fight had never occurred, would anything be different? Neo begins this fight confronted by Agent Smith, and ends the fight…confronted by Agent Smith. He fights the first time and runs the second. So what if he had just run the first time? What did all this fighting change?
#2. The Karate Kid: Daniel vs. Johnny
Don’t read this. It’ll ruin your childhood.
1. Distinct fighting styles and stances for Cobra Kai vs. random participants vs. Daniel.
2. Made me beg my parents for karate classes.
1. How the fuck is this shit scored again?!?
a. Just before Daniel’s first match Princess 80’s Hair tells him, “Anything above your waist is a point; you hit the head, the sternum, kidneys, and ribs.” Not 30 seconds later, however, we get off to a bad start when Daniel’s first opponent gets a point for kicking him…in the arm?
B. Weird rule breaking bullshit continues for a while until, after a few more minutes of 80’s nostalgia (YOU’RE THE BEST…AROUUUUUUUUND!!!), we come to the final match. Close to the end Johnny hits Daniel with a solid right, square in the jaw. The Hitler youth already has 2 points, so why doesn’t the movie end with Johnny winning and taking Daniel’s girlfriend home to show her his own “secret technique”?
“If can do right, is no defense”
The judge yells “that’s a foul!”…so are you really telling me that a standard punch is suddenly illegal, but using “The Crane” to kick someone so hard that they poop their own teeth is totally legit?
C. Lastly, just before Daniel inexplicably wins doing some bullshit that more resembles a kangaroo than anything else, Johnny drops a clearly deliberate elbow into Daniel’s injured knee. Why the fuck isn’t he immediately disqualified? His earlier teammate got axed for doing exactly that, even though, as far as the refs know, the first guy was an accident.
Bottom line: the rules of the fight dictate our perception of the fight.
When the clearly established rules are frequently, blatantly, and randomly contradicted it muddies the story. It stops being about the struggles of an underdog who, through raw determination, finds his inner strength…and starts being about some kid who lucked out with random bullshit.
#1. Revenge of the Sith: Anakin vs. Obi-Wan
You knew it had to be coming.
What it did right:
1. Choreography is powerful, innovative and technically excellent; we see a cornucopia of varied and interesting techniques for what’s actually a very simple weapon. All moves flow into one another naturally while the light weight and harmlessness of the actual prop allow the actors to move blazingly fast. McGregor and Christensen worked hard (www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRZO1WOt70I), and consequently, their blade work is spectacular.
2. The music is as epic and varied as the setting; both provide emotional peaks and nadirs to follow the ebb and flow of the fight, wherein the combatants battle their environment as much as each other. Visual effects enhance this, making the fight visually stunning.
3. There’s no sound in the world like a lightsaber cutting the air and colliding with another lightsaber. It’s canonical in sci-fi pop culture.
Why it sucks:
1. This fight is the single most overdone, soulless, heartless, black hole of joy that has ever been put on film.
a. The characters are shallow, sterile, flat, bland, Ritalin suppressed caricatures of humanity. The first great sin this fight commits actually has nothing to do with the fight itself. The problem is that we don’t give a shit about these people.
Let’s play a game (from redlettermedia.com): describe Anakin or Obi-Wan without mentioning his (a) clothing or physical appearance, (b) job or (c) role in the plot.
It’s a hell of a lot easier with Han Solo or even C-3P0 because, even after 3 movies, neither Anakin nor Obi-Wan has grown or developed more than a tiny bit – and even that has been hampered by the soul-crushingly bad dialogue, cinematography and story.
No matter how good the choreography is, if we don’t care about the people fighting, than the fight is fucking pointless.
b. The characters fight as generically they’re conceived. They both use the same moves with the same techniques, moving at the same pace in the same style with the same weapons. The fight says almost nothing about these people or their relationship. We don’t see Anakin as betrayed, corrupted, enraged, heartbroken, or even much more powerful (he’s more aggressive, but not faster or stronger, they land about the same number of punches, and their Force pushing match is a draw). Similarly, we don’t see Obi-Was as torn, disappointed, reluctant or filled with righteous fury. The one exception is the “high ground” lunacy at the end that makes the effort to show Anakin’s arrogance — but like so much else in this series, is so badly done that it’s become a punchline.
This makes about as much sense.
c. It’s far, far too long. Excluding the “dialogue,” it’s over six and a half goddamn minutes. Longer than any other 2 fights on this list combined. Longer than anything in Crouching Tiger or The Princess Bride or Rocky or Bloodsport or Fight Club or 300 or Drunken Master. Longer than anything in any Bourne, Bond, Ong Bak or Indiana Jones film. Longer than fights that are famous for being long; like the hallway fight in Oldboy, the alley fight in They Live, or the Crazy 88 fight in Kill Bill vol 1.
This wouldn’t be so bad except that, because we don’t give half a fuck about these empty shells, the fight, even with all its effects, manages to be boring.
I’ll just nap on your shoulder…
“Epic” is not the same as “engaging”. This fight is truly epic. The problem is that, no matter now flashy it is, we’re still not invested.
Spectacle alone can’t make us care.
It’s like a man with a 2’’ penis who buys a Ferrari. After three awful movies the only thing George Lucas has left to try to make us actually give a shit is “MORE!!!”. He spends six minutes screaming “LOOK AT THIS! LOOK HOW SHINY IT IS! YOU CARE BECAUSE IT IS SO VERY SHINY!!!!”
But that’s all he has to offer. Maybe it’s all he understands.
The real tragedy is that it didn’t have to be this way. I’ve spoken at length and gotten to do some lightsaber fighting with Nick Gillard, stunt coordinator for this film. Aside from being a genial, charming, short little British man, he’s also a genius.
Awwwwwwwwww, you just wanna put him in your pocket.
We spoke at length about his ideas on combat in general and Jedi in particular, and the man was spot-on. There was nothing I could bring up that he hadn’t considered, no question I could raise that he couldn’t answer. He showed me the rough-cut footage for this fight, and, understanding that I don’t throw this word around lightly, it is fucking perfect.
The original choreography maintains the technical excellence, but adds layer upon layer of character development, storytelling, and raw, unfiltered awesome. Every problem I’ve mentioned here? Gone. Anakin and Obi-Won fight differently, with clear motivations and story progression, using the Force in totally new and varied ways, and even the abysmal “high ground” ending is fixed (read: they do something different)! Yes it’s still long, but that doesn’t matter as much when it’s really worth watching. It was, without a doubt, the best fight I’ve ever seen in any medium, period.
And no one will ever see it.
What you see on screen is Lucas’ cut. He came in and scrapped what he deemed unnecessary; all of that character bullshit. So, not only did he destroy the most beloved sci-fi franchise of all time with shitty writing, shitty direction and shitty cinematography, he actively sought out and crushed a little glimmer of excellence that could have helped claw his film back towards tolerable.
I’m hating you SO HARD right now.