I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness over the weekend. A good movie – I had a lot of fun and that fun far outweighed the parts of the movie I found a bit silly (the Enterprise hiding underwater, for instance). This post, though, is only tangentially inspired by the movie, and I only reference it as a way to indicate how pervasive the issue under discussion is.
What I want to talk about is kung fu. Well, not real kung fu, but movie kung fu. The kind of martial arts action sequences that have been slowly permeating western cinema for the past 40 years or so to the point where, currently, it has completely taken over. “But,” you say, “not every fight scene is a kung fu thing!” True enough, but the various unspoken tropes of the kung fu fight are still very much present. The piped-in punch sounds, the dramatic pauses between exchanges, the acrobatics, and the duration of most fights, whether traditionally ‘kung fu’ or not, are pretty much everywhere. I would count Benedict Cumberpatch’s take-down of the Klingon patrol in this latest Star Trek as kung-fu in style, as was his thumping of Kirk and his brawl with Spock.
Now, I’m not here to say that the average kung fu style fight is an inherently bad thing, but there is another way to do things. The kung fu battle is something of a dance – we watch to see the grace and ingenuity of the combatants, even though the end is not inherently in doubt. We don’t spend the fight on the edge of our seats, we nod along and applaud the good maneuvers just as we might when watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers skip across the floor. This is not ‘real’ fighting or even a facsimile thereof – this is performance art. It’s fun, but it isn’t really intense most of the time. It’s a precisely timed routine with beats and rhythm, and you know when it’s about to end based on that. There isn’t much surprise in the Kung Fu fight, because surprise and shock are not its purpose.
As an example of the Kung Fu battle, consider this classic:
This fight is about five minutes and change, and it’s a richly choreographed and impressively performed scene. It has as much to do with real combat, however, as Grand Theft Auto has to do with actual crime. Here is my counterpoint, and, for my money, one of the most intense fight scenes in cinematic history:
This fight is ugly, brutal, and spontaneous. It doesn’t look choreographed (even though it is) and it’s hard to tell who is getting the worst of it. Is it real? Well, no, obviously not (I doubt the train compartment window would break so easily, for instance), but it isn’t a dance. This fight means business, and I find myself holding my breath every time I see it. Why? Well, it doesn’t have any signals that indicate what’s supposed to happen next. There are no piped in sound-effects to tell me who hits who harder, there is no dramatic music to tell me how I should feel. I don’t know if Bond is going to get strangled or not, despite his mile-thick plot armor. The old movies of the 60s and 70s have a lot of fights like this. Check out the old 1973 Three Musketeers with Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, and Raquel Welch if you don’t believe me – some of the most intense swordfights in history right there, and all because they worked to keep them away from the kind of stage stylization that has become common in modern movies. The violence is spontaneous and unpredictable, ugly and fast, and it’s hard to tell when the battle is going to end and how. I like that. I honestly miss that stuff in movies today, since it seems everybody needs to have their five minute ‘I punch you but it doesn’t hurt until the music’s right’ scene.
Let’s have a little less theatrics and a bit more drama in our fight scenes. That’s all I’m asking.
Are you ever bored by action sequences? I am. As much as I love action movies, dig a good scrap between hero and villain, and adore edge-of-your-seat stunts, I often find myself bored or underwhelmed by very technically advanced and well choreographed action in movies and, indeed, in books and comics as well. Where one film can blow twenty million dollars on some special effects extravaganza involving two guys wrestling on top of a moving plane in the middle of a dogfight and fall utterly flat, another movie can have a simple brawl in a bar that takes my breath away. So, what’s the difference? Well, quite simply it boils down to emotional investment in the stakes involved.
The same rules that make good musicals can and should make good action movies. Sound crazy? Well, consider this: when do characters sing in a good musical? Well, they usually do it at a crucial juncture in their story–when they are trying to make a decision, expressing their emotions, or are at a point where they can’t do anything other than sing to resolve the tension or advance the conflict. Fights and action sequences should basically work the same way. A hero should get into a fight when the stakes are too high to do anything else–they are at a crossroads, with an obvious choice to make, and we are invested in that choice as it is an important part of the story. The best action and adventure movies understand this implicitly. Take, for example, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which features many of the best action sequences in movie history–every single one of them involves high emotional stakes for Indy, for the audience, and are necessary for the plot to advance. Each sequence adds to the film, rather than wastes our time by putting the ‘real’ story on pause.
For a good example of how to both do this right and do it wrong, we need look no further than the Matrix movies. The first film was fantastic–the stakes were clear, we were invested in the outcome of the fights, and they served to advance the story. The fight between Neo and Agent Smith in the subway station is cathartic; it is the culmination of the plot, and we hang on every blow. We feel as though Neo’s life is in legitimate danger (even though we know it probably isn’t through simple plot calculus), and when he escapes agaisnt all odds, we cheer for joy. It works because it fits with the story, not outside or around it. It’s part of why we’re there.
Now, let us consider The Matrix Reloaded. Now, I don’t think the essential storyline of the film was bad (John Kenneth Muir writes this review that explains why better than I ever could), but the action sequences were objectively terrible. Think back to that never-ending highway fight. Remember it? Do you remember what that was all about? Yeah, neither do I. I didn’t know when I saw it, either. I remember vaguely they were trying to catch something, but I forgot what during the scene. Oh, right–they were trying to get that keymaster guy, I think. Hell, I don’t know. All I do know is that the scene went on for a really, really long time and must have spent a lot of money for me to be checking my watch halfway through. It’s purpose wasn’t clear, if indeed it had one, and we weren’t invested in the stakes. Snore.
A lot of adventure books, movies, shows, and so-on live by the mantra that the next fight needs to be bigger than the last. Budgets get larger, stakes get higher, and CGI effects multiply like mosquitos in a Louisiana swamp. The funny thing is, though, that bigger doesn’t automatically mean better. Better means better, and what makes something better is high stakes, yeah, but stakes that we identify with, care about, and understand. If the fight doesn’t do that, then what’s the big deal? They may as well sing, for all I’ll care.