Fight scenes are important. They are the raison d’etre of the martial arts film. Prior to the kung fu invasion, the John Wayne-style slugfest was a Western staple. A John Wayne fight involves the leisurely cocking of Wayne’s humongous fist followed by an enormous round house punch that sends the recipient ass-over-teakettle, knocking down chairs and smashing tables.
Real fight scenes are messy, incoherent affairs that usually end with the protagonists rolling on the ground. John Huston understood this. The barroom brawl in Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the most realistic fight scenes ever filmed. When Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt confront crooked jobber Barton MacLane, MacLane lulls them into a false sense of security before sucker-clobbering Holt with a liquor bottle. It’s a knock-down, drag-out fight with the protagonists rolling on the floor.
Audiences crave action, not necessarily verisimilitude. Thus, when the kung fu invasion began with Five Fingers of Death, the American audience was gobsmacked by the elegant fight choreography. It may not have been realistic but it was certainly entertaining. When Bruce Lee hit a few years later, the audience instinctively sensed that this was the real deal and a thousand dojos bloomed. Bruce Lee’s fighting technique looked brutally realistic and elegant. Of course Bruce tailored his fights for the camera and would not have used such showy techniques in real life, but people have used them, to good effect.
Steven Seagal has also developed a unique cinematic style based on aikido. A Seagal fight looks brutal, elegant, and realistic. Before Seagal became a star, he served as fight choreographer on John Frankenheimer’s overlooked masterpiece, The Challenge, starring Scott Glenn and Toshiro Mifune. The Challenge has finally been issued on DVD.
There have always been martial arts films, including a long tradition of Japanese samurai movies going back to the twenties. James Cagney was a black belt in judo which he showcases in Blood on the Sun, perhaps the first American martial arts film. But film being film, fights appeared that are impossible in real life. Look at the Matrix. Kung fu films split between the realistic fighting of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, and fanciful “wire fu,” in which the actors hang from wires to give the illusion of flight. Nothing wrong with it. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an excellent example.
Jackie Chan developed his own style using found objects and slapstick humor. His fights are the result of hours of preparation and endless rehearsal. Don’t try this at home, folks! Of course you can always pick up a chair and brain your opponent.
Robert Clouse, who directed Enter the Dragon, got the job largely because of his work on Darker Than Amber, based on John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novel. When Terry (William Smith) attacks Travis (Rod Taylor,) the fight is spontaneous. Clouse told the actors to make it brutal, and he filmed it. It is among the most realistic fights on film.
The audience does not want to see extreme close-ups of a hand hitting a jaw. Not in movies, not in comics. The audience wants to see the action unfold in a dynamic and realistic manner. The story-teller must hold his camera steady and let the figures move