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K.O! Oxbow's Eugene Robinson On Cinematic Fight Scenes
Eugene S. Robinson , November 4th, 2015 13:03

Ahead of tomorrow's article on the best cinematic fight scenes, Eugene Robinson takes time out to consider what elements go toward making a truly memorable cinematic punch up.

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Eugene Robinson, frontman of Oxbow, author and expert in the fistic arts, looks back through cinema history and asks what it is that makes a truly great fight scene. Come back tomorrow as a selection of our writers ask themselves that same question and provide some great examples of cinematic throw downs.

There was a great LACK in cinematic depictions of life in the early days of film. Partially as a result of Hollywood trying to repudiate its outlaw past and largely as a result of the restrictive Hays Code, couples slept in separate beds, gun shot wounds didn’t bleed, no one cursed and fisticuffs thrown during fights were fictional events that happened in the air and were accompanied by exaggerated pratfalls post-punch.

In other words: bullshit.

However, the first time you see bullshit it probably strikes you as much less bullshitty than it does years later. And years later, years after Peckinpah’s slow-mo ballet of bullets and blood and a pendulum that’s swung us all over the spectrum of aggression, when you want to actually judge the effectiveness of what you’re seeing on the screen vis a vis violence, how do you do it and who do you turn to to help you do it?

You ask a professional. And I am that professional. Not so much a bad ass, even if the years fighting and learning how to fight would argue against that, but much more a student of the emotional states that accompany the hand turning into the fist and any and all things that follow. I am more than glad to help, and help in a way that arm chair tourists wouldn’t be able to. I might be wrong and I AM the one who in a lead up to a fight really and truly actually said, “You’re cruising for a bruising”, an event that caused all in attendance to pause for the briefest of moments while we considered whether or not that was pure po-mo genius or purely po-mo stupidity. However, I DO know something about fighting AND bullshit so, forthwith, a great guide to precisely, exactly what makes a great movie fight scene.

AN EMOTIONAL BASIS FOR SAID FIGHT.

A casus belli always helps. Don’t know if you’ve ever been to a prostitute but even in that exchange of goods and services for cash, participants spend a portion of their time placing what they’re doing in context. Similarly with a weak or non-existent cause for a movie fight scene what do you have? Outside of context-free violence? Well, nothing really. But you give a Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs systematic abuse by the locals culminating with the rape of his wife (ah, oops… a much-too-late spoiler alert) and you’ve got an audience who not only believes in the necessity of the almost sure to ensue violence but an entire mise-en scene that supports it. So much so that you really BELIEVE in 5’6” Hoffman’s God’s angry man routine.

So now that you’ve set the scene and everyone is cued up and tuned up, what makes it work to the tune of cinematic greatness?

FOCUS ON THE FUCKED UP.

We’re already tied into the emotional state of the actor/aggressor and the reality of it is: it’s the acted upon/soon-to-be-injured that let us measure the active effects of whatever vengeance we’re interested in seeing play out when we see the former kick the ass of the latter. In the movies the punched fly up in the air, stagger, sometimes even jerking, to the floor in a samba of some kind of bullshit. So called bullshit since that’s not the way it plays out in real life. At all.

In real life each and every time I’ve hit someone in the face, though they all come to me looking differently, they all end up looking the same: surprised. Because even if you’ve been told you’re going to be hit in the face you don’t really ever expect you’re going to get hit in the face. So fear-based surprise and, if the person is still conscious, pain-based surprise, which quickly mutates when the subject slips into shock and, if they’re an unschooled fighter, starts to do the dance of the dying fly. That is: ineffective spasmodic fight impulses using the wrong motor skills for the wrong reasons. 

What do I mean? Watch De Niro in Raging Bull. Not only do we know in real life that during the filming people were getting ribs broken. We also know that the obsessively detailed De Niro put in the hours necessary to be able to do so. People who were hit, did in real life what people do when they are hit. They get hurt. And they look surprised that they got hurt. Scorsese, probably not a fighter himself, got this. You already knew what De Niro as Jake LaMotta was feeling. The effects of it on the hapless? Now that was the money shot. 

BAD EXAMPLES OF THIS: Any fight scene with SETH ROGEN.

  SPEED.

You’ve heard jackasses describe fights post-facto and inevitably someone will say, “It happened so fast…” In actual fact your sense of time starts to slip all over the place. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the fortune/misfortune of having seen a video of yourself street-fighting but the first thing you notice is that your sense of time based on having been there is very different from what you’re seeing on screen. And whether you feel like things are moving really fast or really slow, which sometimes happens, what you witness when you see it on film is REAL time. Films attempt to recreate this feeling in real time and in doing so either succeed or fail; to the degree that they’re either good fakes or bad fakes. But make no mistake they’re all fakes and the biggest mistake they make when making it for film is doing it too well. 

Real fights are sloppy, messy and, even between well matched pros, sometimes clumsy. With speeds that vary largely depending on where victory slips and slides. 

What the hell do I mean? Mike Tyson and Robert Downey Jr. in 1999’s Black And White. This was a great film dust up. Mostly because lots of the movie was improv’d and this made something as real as it gets. Lesson learned: Mike Tyson doesn’t think homosexual come-ons are all that cool or funny. Like professional MMA fighter, now retired, Chael Sonnen said about appearing in the cage with former light heavyweight UFC champ Jon Bones Jones, “It was like being in there with a bear.” Bears are very fast. Until they’re not. Good movie fights figure out that this is what makes real fights so exciting and do that.

  SOUND.

Fuck your foley artists. Fuck hitting meat to approximate the sounds of fist hitting flesh. That’s not really what it sounds like. The meat that foley artists hit is largely inert, unless they’re doing stuff I don’t know about. In real life when you’re hitting something it’s not so inert. Not at first, at least. It’s moving, running, pleading for mercy or its mother, or in the worst case trying to hit you back. Which puts the meat hitting sound somewhere deeper in the mix of all of the other sounds you’ll hear and all the other sounds you’ll hear add up to a chaotic soundscape of animal activity and jungle hate.

What it sounds like for real? Actually nothing that’s really been caught well on film. But try some early Wu Tang audio skits. They perfectly captured the chaos and the kind of random weirdness you’ll hear in a real fight scene. No wonder the RZA was tapped by Jarmusch and Tarantino for precisely those reasons.

PHYSICALITY.

Sorry to have to do this because I did love the movie so, but Uma Thurman, while great in Pulp Fiction, and even not so bad in Kill Bill, was not believable for a second as a seasoned martial artist, making her fight scenes, while sort of cinematically entertaining, the kind of thing that would drive a real fighter accustomed to real fights to distraction. Maybe six more months of prep or something would have sorted it out, but she wasn’t ready for prime fight time.

Completely unlike Scarlett Johansson or whoever stunted for her in her Avengers/Iron Man appearances. Fluid in the service of fucking you up and gentle until it was time for everything to get broken, this is precisely what a pro fighter realizes and brings to life when they fight: let’s call it a fight economy where strength, speed and emotional intent all meet. A kind of funk you can’t fake.

I really don’t want to be that kind of movie guy who calls bullshit on the entire process of willing suspension of disbelief – “Oh right! A man who can fly JUST using a cape because he’s from another PLANET?!? Oh, please!” – but I am perfectly OK being the kind of guy who can just sit back and enjoy a representation of reality that’s close to the reality that I know to be real. I mean that’s what they’re selling and ostensibly what we are buying as well, right?

EUGENE S. ROBINSON is the author of Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Ass Kicking But Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked For Asking (which is technically BANNED in the UK by its publisher Harper Collins), as well as A Long Slow Screw, his play The Inimitable Sounds Of Love: A Threesome In Four Acts (Southern UK Publishing) and numerous articles about everything from collections thugs to Dean Martin. He also sings for OXBOW and is Deputy Editor at OZY.COM

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tony m
Nov 4, 2015 6:46pm

I love Raging Bull but I find the boxing scenes to be as cheesy as Rocky - hands always held at chest level with constant headshots knocking the opponent's head back. In real boxing fighters tend to have a high guard and the fights are 95% defense, 5% actual digs [source: what I reckon]. For me THE best/most realistic fight scene is - ironically - Stallone in First Blood when he escapes from the police station: lots of groin kicks, the throat grab with knee to groin/eye rake, Thai elbows... Proper RBSD/close quarter shit. Looking forard to tomorrows article :-)

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Eugene
Nov 4, 2015 7:18pm

In reply to tony m:

yeah, true....but my pick was informed by how I know DeNiro prepped for this movie/role....and I wasn't just talking about stuff in the ring....the street fight scenes too....but Mel "Jews" Gibson doing BJJ in Lethal Weapon was good too....I'll need to revisit First Blood though...

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