Something happened to Hollywood fight scenes after the release of Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity starring Matt Damon. Overnight, the sequences involved more cuts, shakier camera work, often even dimmer lighting in order to convey a heightened element of violence and chaos (as well as to hide the fact the actors couldn’t reasonably pull off the choreography). It’s to the point where more often than not, audiences experience sensory overload, and all the intended effects are lost on them.
Before you raise those pitchforks and torches, yes — I will acknowledge the underlying issue here actually involves the trend wherein other directors failed to replicate what Liman achieved. It’s just harder to convey all that in a single headline. Plus, let’s face it… you clicked. And yes — I will acknowledge key exceptions exist, usually involving stuntmen turned directors Chad Stahelski and Derek Kolstad (John Wick, Atomic Blonde, etc.), perhaps an instalment of Kingsmen, plus all the lovely stuff they’re doing outside of the entire Hollywood system.
The antithesis of this new school approach to action cinema, however, is actually best represented by none other than Jackie Chan. There’s a very good reason why after all these years, people are visually drawn to a classic JC flick as opposed to rubbing their eyes and reaching for a Panadol. Or cringing at the fact a director who doesn’t know what the fuck they’re doing somehow managed to butcher what should’ve objectively been an awesome spectacle featuring two very capable actors with bona fide martial arts experience; instead, being handed an incredibly generic seven-minute ordeal.
As outlined by the ever-insightful video essay channel, Every Frame A Painting, the principles of good action-comedy – and a good action scene in general – are as follows:
- Start with a DISADVANTAGE
- Use the ENVIRONMENT
- Be CLEAR in your shots
- Action / Reaction in the SAME frame
- Do as many TAKES as necessary
- Let the audience feel the RHYTHM
- In editing, TWO good hits = ONE great hit
- PAIN is humanising
- Earn your FINISH
Watch the explanation for how The Bourne Identity led to a lack of clarity in Hollywood fight scenes above, the anatomy of a good fight scene below – and for those of you interested in delving deeper vis-a-vis the evolution of fight scenes as revealed by the Bourne trilogy, check out the No Film School breakdown here.