Have you ever watched an action scene and had no idea what was going on besides the fact that it is a fight scene? You probably only heard the sound effects of the blows connecting but not visually. There are many current action films where action scenes are confusing and frankly, it has bothered me for a while. Anne Billson, a writer and Film critic for The Guardian, states that “Hollywood has forgotten the art of filming combat.” In her article, she talks about the problem with action films and how fight scenes just end up looking clunky. The writer makes a good analogy for why people go to see action films by comparing dancing to fighting: “You don’t watch Top Hat or Swing Time for the plot or dialogue; you watch them for the dancing,” meaning that you go watch an action film for the fights and stunt. If the fight inside the action scene is terrible then you are just going to be disappointed.
One of the reasons why action scenes can be incoherent at times is that “few Hollywood actors are trained in martial arts.” There are only a few actors in Hollywood that actually know how to “fight” and do their own action sequence and stunts. Keanu Reeves, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, and Tom Cruise are examples of this. When actors do their own fight scenes it doesn’t require the camera to move around and “mask” the action, which allows the audience to see the full scene. When the camera moves behind an actor, it is to hide the fact that it is a body double or to make it seem as if the blow connects. Even Jackie Chan says this in an interview by saying “In American movies there is a lot of movement. When the camera angle movement, the actors, they don’t know how to fight.”
Jackie Chan even goes deeper on this in an interview with IndieWire. Jackie Chan acknowledges that martial arts in action films are difficult to shoot. Jackie Chan categorizes stars that are in action films into two categories: actor action star and action star. An action star is basically anyone that can do their own fight sequence and stunts. “Liam Neeson, for instance is not an action star, but they can use a small shot and make him become an action star” (Chan). Jackie Chan categorizes Liam Neeson as an actor action star because although Liam Neeson is an actor, he doesn’t have a strong background knowledge that other action stars do. By using these “small” shots and “easy” action, even actors who do not know how to fight can make it seem like they can but this just ends up hiding the action. Jackie Chan also uses Matt Damon’s role in The Bourne Identity as an example. “They can use a camera and, its so good! And, even I see it and I’m like, ‘Wow! Matt Damon can fight that good’!” (Chan).
I want to use the movie, John Wick as an example for a good fight scene. The action is clear in the scene and the camera isn’t forced to swing around or go behind the actor to hide the fact that he can’t fight. The scene itself is coherent it is easy to see what is going on in the scene. Keanu Reeves knows how to fight and goes through intense training in order to make the scene itself good.
An example of a bad fight scene is the final fight scene in Taken 2. The camera moves around so many times in the scene that it is hard to see the action itself. All we see are the hands hitting each other for less than a second before the camera moves. The fight scene itself is incoherent and it is hard to see who is even hitting who. All you hear are the sound effects of the scene and not a full view of the action itself. This goes back to what Jackie Chan has said: Liam Neeson is a star but he is not an action star. The editing and camera movement makes him seem like one.
Making a good action scene isn’t easy as it takes time to practice for it and requires the actor to put themselves in injury prone positions. If you can edit the scene to make it look like there is a fight, then it is faster than shooting the scene over and over again until you hit perfection. This not only saves time but also money as well. This also allows actors who have never starred in an action film to look like an action star: “But, in America they’re so good! They’re so clever! They can use special effects and computer graphics to make everybody become an action star” (Chan). Next time you watch an action movie count how many times the camera moves during an action scene just for fun. You might be surprised by the number.