I’ve been enjoying the Marvel suite of shows on Netflix: Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and their team up in the Defenders. One of the things I’ve liked, particularly in Daredevil and again in Defenders, is some of the fight choreography and cinematography. In Daredevil episode 2 “Cut Man”, there’s this sweeping fight scene in a hallway. A door is kicked out, half-crumpled and in the way, and as the camera sweeps up and down the hallway in a seemingly continuous shot, Daredevil (he’s wounded—and winded) trades staggering blows with foes while working around, and sometimes using, the fallen door. It was innovative and new. It wasn’t just foes squaring off in a wide alley with the same old off-the-shelf fight moves. It was something I hadn’t seen.
Throwback to 1999 and Episode 1, the Phantom Menace. Say what you will, but Ray Park brought fresh breath to the Jedi fight scenes, executing the flips, twirls, and tricks that are now standard in Jedi/Sith battles across all the Star Wars media. Before that, we had just Ben, Luke, and Vader facing off in one-dimensional hack and slash. I read somewhere that Ray Park told Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor to actually try and hit him with their lightsabers, and he put all the drama and flourish into his defense. I’m sure much of it was not improvised, and again, say what you will about the rest of the film, but that choreography, with John Williams’ Duel of the Fates cranking up the intensity, made for a fresh fight scene.
And then in Mad Max: Fury Road, the fight scene that made it for me, more than all the other way-the-hell-over-the-top road rage clashes (although those were awesome), was the three-way brawl between Furiosa, Max, and Nux, with Max handcuffed to Nux via a long chain that went through a car door. The choreographers worked in all their motives: Max wants Furiosa’s truck. Furiosa wants those guys gone. Nux wants to be free of Max. Max defends against Nux. All of this happens while two of their arms are restrained through the chain and car door, which then become fight props. Oh, and Furiosa had removed her prosthetic arm to give her stump some relief, so she’s fighting one and a half handed. I cannot do this fight scene justice. You just have to see it.
What all three of these examples have in common was their innovation. None of them were just two brutes slugging it out, or little more than a martial arts exhibition. They incorporated the combatants’ surroundings, they stayed true to their motives, and they were new. They showed us something we hadn’t seen before, and so instead of tired, obligatory fisticuffs that daisy-chained a story together, the fight scenes themselves moved the story and revealed the characters.
And of course, I’m scratching my head trying to figure out how to apply this principle to my own writing. The Togahan world has a lot of detail, backstory, motive and violence, but with every confrontation, I remind myself that it can’t just be “the thing you’ve seen before”. It should be true to the players. It should use the surroundings. It should move the story, and not just bridge two talking scenes. Successful or not, that’s my goal.
What other movie (or book) fight scenes did you think were new and innovative? What made them so? Tell me your thoughts.