The Problem with Today’s Fight Scenes

One of the first movies I saw in theaters this year was Mortal Kombat and I gotta say, it felt good to be back. Hearing that bombastic MK theme and Hiroyuki Sanada laying down the most badass line of dialogue ever just screamed CINEMA to me. Which is to say I was all too happy to return to the theater for me to be completely objective to the movie. Something stuck out to me that I couldn’t quite pinpoint until I re-watched Mortal Kombat before it left HBO Max last week – how lackluster its fight scenes really are.

You would think that a movie featuring the athleticism of Joe Taslim and the gravitas of Hiroyuki Sanada would deliver, but neither are in the movie long enough, and the movie for some reason can’t properly stage their ass-whooping chops. The fights left me wanting MORE—so much so that right after I binged The Raid and The Night Comes For Us, both of which Taslim stars in.

Now, I don’t think this is an issue exclusive to Mortal Kombat, but speaks to an ongoing problem with modern Hollywood action movies: they take international stars like Taslim and have no idea how to use them, or wastes them entirely.

Take the pivotal fight scenes between Scorpion and Sub-Zero. Their rivalry bookends the movie, but the movie can’t match the energy of its stars, and it’s because the camera never sticks around long enough to show off their physicality. I can’t begin to tell you how disappointing this is because Taslim’s almost silent, purely physical performance carries the whole movie and he’s not even the main character.

In the beginning fight scene (which starts at the 7:00 minute mark), Taslim and Sanada throw 1 or maybe 2 hits before the camera cuts to another angle. It’s jarring, overdone, and takes you out of the moment literally as the scene mixes in faraway wide angles of the fight. Wide profiles are often the best way to capture fights in longer takes – something Jackie Chan mastered and made a reliable cinematic spectacle of (more on him in a sec). But the wide shots here are so distant, with the camera sweeping behind trees that obstruct our view. On top of the over-editing, it starts to seem like director Simon McQuoid DOESN’T want to show us the fight.

MK’s climactic fight is much better staged and is way more creative than what came before. Ice daggers, ice walls, pulling chains, flaming heads, etc. It uses the established vocabulary of the video games and this delivers on fan satisfaction. But the film’s penchant to over-cut is still present and this ultimately lets down its committed performers. Think about how tons more brutal this movie could’ve been if McQuoid simply held the frame longer, or turned on a few light bulbs. (Darker doesn’t always mean grittier.)

Again, this isn’t something exclusive to Mortal Kombat. Mile 22, which features Raid star Iko Uwais and boasts a similar action-packed role only to let him down in the edit. The man can THROW. DOWN. It’s staggering to me how director Peter Berg doesn’t want to show Iko’s physical prowess, and proceeds to undermine his own performer through rampant editing. To be clear, it’s not editing in general that bothers me. It’s HOW fight scenes are edited.

It’s a curious thing to me how studios and filmmakers are eager to cast international talent but seem so lost on how to use them. They try to solve this in the editing as if frenetic jump cuts can juice up a fight somehow. Unless you’re Paul Greengrass (or someone trying to copy Paul Greengrass), frenetic editing gets in the way of coherence. When you have dedicated performers throwing themselves all over the place for the sake of a fight scene, this is like taking the life out of their performance. The fight, then, starts to feel like it’s beside the point.

This is all subjective btw, a matter of preference, different strokes for different folks, etc. My thing is, if cinema is a visual medium then why is there so much effort put into NOT seeing a fight?

When you can comprehend every punch and kick thrown, the experience of watching a fight truly feels visceral like you’re in the ring with them, not ringside. Take the climactic showdown in The Night Comes For Us, which pits Joe Taslim against Iko Uwais. The shots are much longer with Taslim and Uwais tripling the amount of moves per shot in comparison to Mortal Kombat.

At one point, Uwais throws a combo of 20 punches straight out of a video game before a cut happens. (I could be wrong, Iko moves too fucking fast for me to count.) It’s a lot of visual information to process, and the film allows us to process ALL OF IT – the hits, the impact, the brutality. And when the cuts happen, it’s in rhythm with the action, not interrupting the flow of it. This is even more impressive because a lot of the camerawork in The Night Comes For Us is handheld and the cuts are seamless to the movement.

So if a movie like The Raid made Joe Taslim and Iko Uwais seem like martial arts gods, then stuff like Mortal Kombat and Mile 22 effectively make them mortal again. I have a problem with this because they can CLEARLY perform multiple moves without cutting. They’re that good and that legit at what they do. This goes for Hiroyuki Sanada as well. Even in a movie like Avengers: Endgame, which completely fucking wastes him, still allows Sanada to perform action in a (seemingly) unbroken take.

One has to wonder: why is it so hard to create coherent fight scenes? This bugs me because this was something that Jackie Chan solved 26 YEARS AGO. (The defunct YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting has a most excellent essay on Jackie Chan.)

Perhaps invoking Jackie Chan is unfair as his stunt chops are the stuff of filmmaking legend— influential to the point that revisiting Police Story is like seeing where modern action cinema got its ideas from. Off the top of my head, I can spot Fast Five, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and Bad Boys II or literally anything Michael Bay has ever done.

Jackie Chan understood that worthwhile action was something people paid to see, and moreover, that an actor’s physical expressions were as essential as lines of dialogue. So if dialogue is something we ought to hear, then all-out fight scenes are something we need to see.

The finale in Police Story puts modern fight scenes to shame. It’s fast-paced yet legible, brutal but entertaining. The camera and subsequent cuts are contained within the space. We see Jackie’s moves, we see the bad guys flailing and getting beat, and especially Jackie himself getting beat. This runs counter to the philosophies of Mark Wahlberg, Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, and Jason Statham, actors whom are so intent on being invincible to the point of being superheroes minus the cape. The only way they can win is by being tougher, meaner, or hit 1000x harder than their opponent. Jackie Chan, on the other hand, just gets creative.

He leaps over rails, kicks a guy down an escalator, or uses a clothing rack to disarm his opponents. Just watching him and the other actors perform this is pure adrenaline-pumping spectacle all on its own, no CGI or camera tricks necessary. But the most surprising part about Police Story’s finale? It’s not about Jackie Chan beating up the bad guys. It’s about getting the brief case full of evidence. The magic of his fight scenes is that they often double as white-knuckle chase scenes. Like a violent game of tag or keep away. There are other things and other characters at stake over punching someone’s teeth out.

This is where modern fight scenes run themselves into the ground. The only goal is to break their opponent’s jaw (which can be insanely thrilling in the case of The Night Comes For Us). When it’s the only avenue they have – or when they try to do to much while doing it – the fight weirdly can start to feel lifeless, pointless. This says a lot about modern action films that struggle to create thrilling fight sequences. Because Mark Wahlberg will grab a bigger gun, or Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel’s muscles will bulge through their skin-tight shirts, etc. It’s stuff we’ve seen plenty of in films they’ve done before, so the spectacle rings hollow by the 10th or 11th installment.

The solutions are the same in modern American fight scenes, while the solutions for Jackie Chan vary in an entertaining number of ways.

Sometimes, he uses the environment. Take this playground fight in Police Story 2 which is perhaps the best metaphor for Jackie Chan’s work as stunt director. Every fight scene becomes his playground, mining visual gags that couldn’t be found elsewhere, and relying on a committed stunt crew to risk taking the hits.

And the fights feel legitimately bruising. There are no obstructions in front of the camera nor are the actors shot in curious shadow to hide that it’s a stunt double. There’s nowhere to hide or cheat. Here, it’s a nighttime exterior but the scene is exceptionally lit (ALL of Jackie Chan’s fight scenes are) so we see the actors performing the moves themselves and taking the falls. The numerous, numerous falls. Sometimes a shot lingers on their faces aching in pain. It’s enough to remind us that Jackie and his crew are doing this stuff in camera and thus blurring the line between what’s real and what’s fake.

Jackie Chan’s fights are so thrilling not just because we can see everything at all times, but because his characters always start at the bottom. He’s outnumbered, the bad guys have weapons, and Jackie is unarmed and taken by surprise. He has to fight his way to the top every single time, and in the frenzy he grabs anything within reach— things we don’t expect to be useful but then become bona fide action props that ought to belong in a museum.

He’s fought with a bamboo staff to fend off an axe gang.

He’s fought with refrigerators and skis.

He’s fought with A GODDAMN LADDER.

The solution in the Fast & Furious movies is meaner, more intense stares. For Jackie, it’s anything at his disposal. It’s fun and wildly imaginative on par with the CGI spectacle we see in comic book movies. Except this is live-action and it’s done for real. And all three movies were done in the ’90s.

I grew up watching these movies so perhaps I was ruined from the get-go. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized I was watching next-level action cinema. Jackie Chan, too, was eventually sought after by Hollywood, but his American work pales in comparison to what he already accomplished in Hong Kong. Little else before or since then has come close.

The modern action crop isn’t all bad as we see with Joe Taslim and Iko Uwais. Stateside, we’ve got guys like Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise whom fully understand that sometimes you need to be outmatched or outgunned to make a fight entertaining—that it’s cinematic to kick some ass AND get your own ass kicked. But these action stars feel like a dying breed as big budget movies only seem to afford more green screens, not the time to train or rehearse or stage spectacular fight scenes.

Now, I’m not asking for modern masterpieces or “better than Jackie Chan.” I’m asking for coherence; I’m asking why can’t we see these fights in full panoramic awesomeness when actors trained their asses off to perform it. I firmly believe there are better versions of the fights in Mortal Kombat, but they’re all on the cutting room floor.


2 thoughts on “The Problem with Today’s Fight Scenes

  1. Couldn’t agree more, the overediting has been a problem for a while now. It kills great action scenes like the Winter Soldier knife fight scene, which would’ve been so much better without a cut every 2 seconds. Hollywood has much to learn from Asian action cinema. That said, I still love Mortal Kombat (unabashedly biased, haha)!

    1. Haha I don’t blame ya! No regrets seeing MK in theaters. Admittedly this is me being nitpicky, which is easier to do when watching clips out of context. But it’s so typical of Hollywood to throw CGI or camera tricks in modern action films while Asian cinema just put capable performers in front of the camera and said “action!”

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