Realism, like anything, can be taken to extremes in film, but it’s become obvious that what separates many of the best action scenes from their cheesy counterparts is some level of believability; that goes for everything from large-scale, Helms Deep-like war scenes to the latest fisticuffs playing out between our favorite MCU heroes and their forgettable villains.
With the recent gushing over the (mostly) practical stunts featured in standout 2015 films such as Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, I thought I’d throw in my two cents on some irksome trends plaguing modern fight scenes. While I’m no longer aiming to ply my trade in the UFC’s famed Octagon, I do have an extensive background in martial arts and over 30 full contact fights to my credit. In short, I’m a fight nerd – which is to say, I’m a fight snob. So gather around, and listen up.
1. Overly Choreographed Fight Scenes
Films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Jet Li’s Hero put the art in martial arts, but not every movie need feature brilliantly filmed – and exceedingly fantastical – moves in their fight scenes. If you’re going for a gritty, realistic fight scene, or even a fun one between super-powered beings, too much polish rubs off much of the initial sheen and threatens to expose the rough chalk beneath.
Even Ronda Rousey, by far the most dominant fighter on the planet right now, got pretty damn sloppy in her latest 34-second domination of overmatched Brazilian challenger Bethe Correia, taking several hard shots in a phone booth brawl en route to another quick stoppage win. If you want us to feel the tension of a fight scene between two highly skilled combatants, don’t be afraid to embrace the chaos. Fights are messy, and even the best of the best rarely come out unscathed.
Got It Wrong: The Dark Knight Rises
Much as it was hyped up, the second-act showdown between Batman and Bane in TDKR has to be one of the most disappointing fight scenes I’ve ever seen. Not only is it short and choppy, but the supposed skill on display is so bad as to be almost laughable. We’re supposed to buy Bruce Wayne as a highly skilled ninja assassin when his entire fighting style seems to consist of loading up on haymakers and throwing poorly-timed elbows from close range?
What happened to the lithe, tactical Batman that used speed, cunning and the element of surprise in his fights? How about a master of martial arts employing an actual martial art to defeat a slightly larger body builder who fights with the rough skill of a strip club bouncer?
Got It Right: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Opinions vary on which of the MCU’s extensive library is the best overall film, but I’ll plant the flag right here and now that the freeway fight from The Winter Soldier stands alone atop the mountain as being without equal in all of comic book moviedom.
In this hard-hitting fight scene, the Russo brothers managed to film two superhuman weapons in a tense, violent fight that emphasized skill, daring and the aforementioned chaos that would have any experienced fighter nodding appreciatively. When Bucky Barnes introduces a knife to the proceedings, Steve Rogers modifies his style immediately. The choreography is so fantastic here because it feels totally natural to the situation at hand, as if Rogers and Barnes are learning on the go, which is exactly how a real fight feels.
2. Lack of Fakes and Feints
If you have anything higher than a 50% striking accuracy in the UFC, you’re doing something very right. If you believe the movies, it’s a lot harder to miss a punch or kick than it is to land one, even against supposedly skilled, moving targets.
Now, if your opponent is a mall cop and you know what you’re doing, you shouldn’t have much trouble placing your punches, but against a skilled adversary, both parties will aim to minimize risk while maximizing reward. Setting up strikes requires timing, patience and no small degree of gamesmanship, which is why fakes and feints are key.
Got It Wrong: Daredevil (Netflix)
Before you bust out the pitchforks, let me just say that Daredevil got plenty right when it comes to staging effective fight scenes, exceeding much of what we’ve seen out of the MCU on screen. Still, for a guy with a radar sense, incredible reflexes and an extensive martial arts background, Matt Murdock sure does get straight to the point, foregoing any sort of probing offense and opting instead of an all-out blitz most of the time.
Granted, Murdock wins his fights, but perhaps being a little more patient would save him a few trips to the Night Nurse.
Got It Right: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
I unabashedly loved Rogue Nation; everything from the stunts to the cinematography was top notch, but perhaps the biggest surprise of the film for me came in the final act, when Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust used real cunning and skill to take out the Bone Doctor in a surprisingly realistic knife fight in semidarkness.
Faust used some crazy acrobatics to deliver the killing blow to her much larger opponent, but up until that point, it was all speed, agility and threatening feints with her blade that got her opponent’s respect and helped set up the killing combo. What’s even better about this scene is the fact that said opponent clearly knew his way around a knife fight as well, his initial bullishness giving way to healthy caution as the cuts began piling up.
3. Winging and Telegraphing
If fakes and feints are something more directors and stunt coordinators should include in their fight scenes, then their polar opposites should never make the first take. Telegraphing a move is exactly what it sounds like – giving away what you’re about to do by making it too obvious and aggressive. Henchmen are most guilty of this, and I frankly don’t have the patience for it anymore. But if you’re trying to get me to buy into a lead character’s fighting prowess, I’d better not be able to guess every move he’s going to make before he makes it.
Got It Wrong: Furious 7
The Fast and Furious franchise abandoned realism from the word go, but even a franchise as goofy as this one should respect its audience (okay, itself then) enough to keep some consistency. Furious 7 sets up Jason Statham (character name?) as a highly skilled martial arts badass … who goes on to fight two draws with two juiced-up muscleheads in the Rock and Vin Diesel, both of whom spend almost as time explaining where they’re going to attack next as they do actually completing the swing. The crowbar fight atop the parking garage at the end is particularly laughable.
Got It Right: The Raid (Both Times)
The Raid movies may be slightly guilty of Martial Misstep #1 from time to time, but the fights feature such large crowds and such fantastic action that it’s an easy thing to forgive. Oh, and the faceless minions that Iko Uwais’s Rama takes out didn’t get the memo, but if you want a hero that cuts straight to the chase, Rama certainly takes the cake, taking down endless swarms of enemies with direct, brutal techniques.
When Rama runs out of punches and kicks, he mixes things up in refreshingly Jackie Chan fashion, using whatever’s handy to get the job done and get it done quickly, whether it involves slashing, stabbing, smashing or breaking.
4. No Can Defend
It is often said in football that defense wins championships. The same could be said for fights, and that concept carries over into the best action film fight scenes. The aforementioned fakes and feints can fall into both the offensive and defensive camps, depending on your perspective, but we rarely see a hero who values a good old fashioned cage block, opting instead to test out his or her damage soaking abilities, which should be the last resort.
Got It Wrong: Wolverine (all of his appearances)
I get the fact that Wolverine’s mutant power is his accelerated healing factor; it’s something the character and Hugh Jackman’s various directors have been painfully careful to remind us of through his myriad film appearances over the years. But isn’t Wolverine supposed to be one of the most skilled fighters in the world?
If so, why does he get punked so often by less-than-stellar opposition? In almost every fight Wolverine has, he sustains enough damage – be it in the form of bullet holes, stab wounds or burning – to kill any other hero. Are we to believe that someone who spent a huge portion of his life learning the ways of martial arts never felt like avoiding the unnecessary pain that comes from allowing yourself to be shot and stabbed on a daily basis?
Got It Right: Mad Max: Fury Road
Particularly the early fight scene between Max and Furiosa, which beautifully blends physical comedy with tension and a healthy degree of violent chaos. When Furiosa sees her chance, she takes it, swinging a wrench for Max’s head with everything she’s got. The only thing that saves him – and later her – from death or serious injury is a frantic and animal-like defense, picking up car doors and loose tools when available and settling for good old blocks and wrist control when things really get desperate.
5. Recoil Impact
This one’s a bit tougher to describe, in that, you may not know it if you see it, but you’ll certainly know if you don’t.
Throwing strikes, whether armed or unarmed, isn’t free. By that I mean there is always a physical toll associated with landing on an opponent. Ideally, the reward of landing the strike outweighs the recoil associated with it, but more and more modern movies are making the mistake of foregoing impact in favor of CGI. Its presence isn’t always obvious, but its absence is easy to spot.
Got It Wrong: The Hobbit Trilogy
Peter Jackson’s second foray into Middle-earth has plenty of problems, but one of the worst offenses is one that many filmgoers might not have been aware of on an initial viewing, at least not consciously. By foregoing the original trilogy’s use of practical effects in favor of more CGI enemies and green screen battles, the fights have no urgency and no sense of weight or reality to them, making it all look rather much like a video game cut scene rather than an actual battle to the death.
A particularly notable example of this occurs during the race through the goblin tunnels in An Unexpected Journey, during which the thirteen dwarves (and Gandalf) send literal hordes of cartoon goblins souring over cliffs and chasms with nary a touch of sword or staff.
Got It Right: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
There are many memorable battle scenes scattered throughout Jackson’s first foray into Middle Earth, but the easiest way to compare their effectiveness with those of the Hobbit is to look no further than the Battle of Moria from The Fellowship of the Ring. Before the CGI troll enters the scene, the Fellowship is forced to fight a fast-paced, visceral battle against a wave of orcs and goblins, with the camera swooping in and out, ducking blades and arrows along with our heroes.
Why does this one look so much better than a similar scene constructed more than a decade later? Because the actors were facing actual stunt men in makeup and costumes, making the action real, believable, and, by extension, timeless.
Speaking of recoil, get too much of it upside the dome, but not enough to put you to sleep, and you’re liable to be rocked. Granted, this is a difficult and somewhat subtle element of concussive fighting to inject into fight scenes, but it would be nice to see from time to time. Most movie and TV fights play to extremes; characters either absorb untold levels of force to the brain region, or they go out like a candle in the breeze at the slightest provocation. It’s refreshing to see the rare fight scene that deals with the moderately concussed combatant, a commonality in many actual fights.
Got It Wrong: The Avengers
This is as nit-picky as it comes, but as I said in the intro, I’m nothing if not a fight snob, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Joss Whedon and company off the hook for one of the more goofy-ass “rocked” scenes in recent memory. This one occurs just before the end of the decent little fight between Black Widow and Hawkeye, when Natasha Romanoff slams Clint Barton’s head off a railing, prompting him to calmly and somewhat sleepily question his whereabouts and her presence as the effects of the concussion force Loki’s mind control out of his consciousness.
It’s a decidedly movie-like fight dazing, and it’s completely ridiculous. The last thing you’re doing when you’re rocked in a fight – truly concussed – is questioning your surroundings. Instincts take over completely. Sure, you’re confused as hell; you may not even remember what shot rocked you in the first place, but your immediate priority is shelling up and defending that brain from oncoming damage, not adopting a starry-eyed gaze and reading from a script.
Got It Right: Daredevil (Netflix)
Am I allowed to put the same show in the Wrong and Right categories? I just did.
I have my issues with the fighting style Matt Murdock employs in his Netflix series, but I’ll give credit where it’s due, and the showrunners went to great lengths to emphasize just what it feels like for even someone as badass as Daredevil to get knocked around in an alley. Murdock absorbs quite a few blows in the New York night, and all of them take their toll, making him woozy and punch drunk, albeit still dangerous, which is much more realistic than you might think.
Do a quick Google search of MMA come-from-behind wins, and you’ll see what I mean.
7. Phantom Knockouts
I can forgive action movies and even Avengers for not bothering with the subtleties of moderate concussions, but one of the most annoying trends in the realm of the fight scene is the phantom KO, and virtually everyone is guilty of it.
Knockouts do happen, on the street and in the ring, but they’re far from the norm the movies make them out to be. Most movie knockouts involve one-strike masterpieces that literally leave the victims snoring in an alleyway for the better part of an hour. In actuality, knockouts look a hell of a lot more vicious, victims often twitching with their eyes open as their consciousness takes the 30 seconds to two minutes to reboot.
Got It Wrong: Ant-Man
The phantom knockout quotient was so high in Marvel’s latest offering that it took me out of the movie completely on several occasions, not the least of which involves Michael Pena’s character sleeping a trained security officer for what felt like an hour during the climactic heist. I get that it’s being played for comedy, but in a movie where several characters, Scott Lang and Darren Cross included, absorb unexpected haymakers and rub their sore jaws with a chuckle, it feels unnecessarily dumb.
Got It Right: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Winter Soldier‘s second appearance on this list is owed to a stellar opening scene, in which Cap takes on Batroc (played by former UFC champ Georges St-Pierre) in a fight that lasts as long as Cap wants it to. What I loved more than the back-and-forth choreography of this scene is that fact that it takes a few huge shots, including two knockdowns, from the super soldier before the very mortal Batroc is put to sleep. What’s more, Batroc is up and running not two minutes after a devastating elbow puts him down for the count.
Perhaps the fight coordinators got a few tips by having a real world champion on set during filming.
If there’s one thing more annoying than instaknockouts in the movies, it’s instakills.
The ridiculous action movies of the ’80s took a lot of flak for demonstrating nearly invincible action heroes whose ability to withstand grievous injuries was rivaled only by their ability to dispatch foes with as much ease as they absorbed bullets. Honestly, if you look into any real-life accounts from war, or watch actual fights, the former is a lot more likely than the latter; the human body is capable of withstanding copious amounts of abuse, which is why I groan when a knife to the abdomen renders a henchman dead before he hits the ground.
Got It Wrong: Inception (and other Christopher Nolan films)
I get that much of the action in Inception takes place in the realm of the subconscious. Be that as it may, the film sets up pretty clear rules, and those rules mirror the real world, even if they bend them. Pain, as they say, is in the mind.
What annoys me about Nolan’s forays into action – both Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy are guilty of this – is the ease with which faceless baddies get taken out, be it with bullets, knives or fisticuffs, with nary a drop of blood spilled. When Arthur, Cobb and Eames take out a veritable army without any undue stress, it calls back the worst aspects of the action extravaganzas from the decades previous.
Got It Right: John Wick
John Wick takes out an army of faceless enemies. He also kills them close to instantly.
But he shoots them in the head, and they bleed.
Those are two very small aspects of these quick, brutal fights that the filmmakers took pains to make abundantly clear. Wick is a hitman; he’s not messing around, and when the bad guys stay down, it’s because there’s a bullet wedged in the soft matter between their ears.
I can buy that.
9. Limitless Stamina
I like it when an action movie – silly or serious – shows me a hero that gets tired. It goes a long way toward building tension, continuing to suspend disbelief despite elevating stakes and action, and allows the audience to feel as though the hero has earned each and every moment of life from that point forward. In short, fighting is very, very tiring, and it should look that way on screen.
Got It Wrong: 300: Rise of an Empire
300: Rise of an Empire got a couple of very perky things right, but it got plenty more wrong, not the least of which was introducing us to an Athenian commander, Themistocles, who is ridiculed by the Spartans for his relative lack of fighting skill – only to take out more Persian warriors than we ever saw Leonidas do eight years prior.
What really annoyed me about it, aside from the fact that it contradicts the ground rules that the movie lays out for itself, is that Themistocles spends about a half hour in the film’s finale carving up enemies in fast, flowing fights without taking a breath.
The first 300 film may have been over the top, but at least the Spartans took breaks between battles.
Got It Right: Aragorn
I’m not going to give Peter Jackson credit for Viggo Mortensen’s incredible physical performance in the Lord of the Rings. If you’re looking for an actor who truly embraces the grind when it comes to fight scenes, look no further than in Viggo’s portrayal of the returning King of Gondor.
There are many excellent examples of Aragorn’s prowess throughout the series, but my personal favorite is the ending duel with the Uruk-hai leader Lurtz from The Fellowship of the Ring. Aragorn is overmatched physically, and he’s just spent the better part of the afternoon battling Lurtz’s lackies – and it shows. Aragorn comes to the fight half-drained, and it only gets worse for him when the final brawl touches down in Amon Hen.
You truly believe Aragorn is fighting exhausted because Viggo is fighting exhausted. This is one of the best fight scenes ever put to film – swords or otherwise – and it deserves a re-watch if it’s been a while for you.
10. Ground Fighting
Ask any local Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor and he’ll tell you that anywhere from 80 to 99% of fights end up on the ground. The actual number varies, but I’ll tell you from first-hand experience, that range isn’t at all far off the mark.
Why, then, are there almost no notable ground fights in modern movies?
Because they’re hard for audiences to understand. Grappling requires just as much skill to get good at as high-level striking, and if it’s not skillful, it resembles an awkward wrestling match when audiences would rather watch a barroom brawl.
Got It Wrong: Everyone?
Seriously. It’s tough to narrow down the choices when so few filmmakers actually attempt extended ground fights.
Got It Right: Haywire
The 2012 Gina Carano action film Haywire is something of an underrated cult classic. It’s not a great film, but it’s a pretty damn good one, and while Carano’s acting chops are merely serviceable, her fighting prowess is never in doubt, as she does all of her own stunts and injects some needed realism into the short fight scenes scattered throughout the movie.
Whether she’s taking out Channing Tatum in a highway diner or strangling Michael Fassbender in a dim hotel room, Carano utilizes her grappling expertise in a way that is both appetizing to watch and shockingly effective, especially when it comes to staging realistic fights between a woman and larger, stronger and well-trained men.
Carano has been MIA as a major film presence for a little while, but it looks like her heir apparent in MMA, Ronda Rousey, is poised to make an even bigger run than her predecessor in the world of film.
Previously by Steven Kelliher
“10 Reasons Why TV is a Better Venue for the X-Men Than Film”
“13 Times Character Deaths Pissed People off Rather than Adding Gravitas”
“The 10 Nerdiest MMA Fighters and How They’d Take You Out”
“6 DBZisms Dragon Ball Super Should Keep Intact (and 6 They Should Leave on Planet Namek)”
“7 Movie Action Scenes So Badass They Make You Giddy”
“8 Spider-Mannerisms Peter Parker Must Carry Into the Marvel Cinematic Universe”
“The 9 Greatest Years in the Life of Studio Ghibli”
“8 Fantasy Book Series You Should Check out if You Love Game of Thrones”
“The 10 Best Video Game Cinematic Trailers (for Terrible Games) of All Time”