Something happened to Hollywood fight scenes shortly after the release of Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity starring Matt Damon. Overnight, the sequences involved more cuts, shakier camera work, and often even dimmer lighting in order to convey a heightened element of violence and chaos… as well as hide the fact the actors featured 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 the pitchforks and torches, 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. But the antithesis of this new school approach to action cinema is actually represented by none other than the action-comedy GOAT, 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 has somehow managed to butcher what should have objectively been an awesome spectacle, featuring two very capable actors with bona fide martial arts experience (instead, handing in a 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 humanizing
- Earn your FINISH
Watch the explanation for what Hollywood fight scenes get wrong above – and for those of you interested in delving deeper vis-a-vis the evolution of fight scenes as revealed by the Bourne series, check out the No Film School article here.