by Gabriel Valdez
Fight choreography is often overlooked for its ability to tell stories in ways that differ from the usual visuals of filmmaking. In many countries, martial arts themselves are infused with deeper and more mythological meanings, so why shouldn’t fight choreography on film be able to communicate these same things?
Some films this year really have gone an incredible distance in terms of the emotional storytelling they choose to convey with fight choreography.
Let’s get one thing out of the way and start with what’s not on here, however. Why isn’t “Kingsman: The Secret Service” here? That church sequence alone should get it near the top of the list, right? And while I didn’t like the film, I did think many of its choreographic concepts were technically brilliant. The problem lies in the execution.
If there’s an award that should go to someone on “Kingsman,” it should go to the editors and compositors. Watch the church scene again, if you’ve got the stomach for it (I actually recommend not doing so, but suit yourself). Count how many times a body or object crosses the screen in the extreme foreground. How many times does the camera swing away to other characters?
While the sequence may present itself as a series of unbroken takes, it’s actually composed of dozens of far quicker takes. While the conceptualization of the choreography is brilliant, if brutal, the execution is more simple. It’s what works for what the film wants, but it’s not anything special in terms of the actual fight choreography or by artistic merit. It’s not anything that belongs on a list like the one below.
Be warned, unlike most other awards, the nature of fight scenes often means seeing a spoiler in the form of a big reveal or a character’s death:
THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW.
5. The Dead Lands
Clint Elvy, fight coordinator
Andrew Stehlin, fight coordinator
The first feature film shot entirely in the Maori language, “The Dead Lands” is also the first to choreograph battles using Mau Rakau. This is the indigenous martial art of New Zealand. You may recognize the movements and unique expressions from the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, which performs a traditional Maori war dance before every match.
If the “demon” in the clip above looks familiar, that’s Lawrence Makoare. He played a number of evil creatures in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies, including the orc who goes one-on-one with Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn at the end of “Fellowship.” Makoare brings a controlled abandon to the fight choreography, and gave an overlooked dramatic turn in “The Dead Lands” as well.
4. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Wolfgang Stegemann, fight team & fight trainer
It’s hard to place a choreography like that of “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.” Its presentation is remarkably theatrical for an American action movie. The fight choreography deliberately plays with what you expect, constantly changing expression and mood. The production and set design often become a silent third player in how each fight develops. This consideration lends both a groundedness and a surprising puzzle-solving quality to each fight. The sets aren’t breakaway, made for the viewer to appreciate their destruction. The sets are instead made to feel real, made for the characters to interact with.
This lends a solidity to the fights most films lack. It also allows the director to play with that solidity when he wants to really turn the screws on a character. This is the sort of thing that theatrical plays do with advanced set design. It’s typically not what you expect in a Tom Cruise film. When we talk about how technical elements are used in film, we shouldn’t just talk about the independent qualities they possess. We should talk about how those elements are folded into the film to better create a world and its visual language. In that, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” is remarkable.
3. Kung Fu Killer
Hua Yan, martial arts director
Bun Yuen, martial arts director
“Kung Fu Killer” (aka “Kung Fu Jungle”) isn’t a great film on its story merits. Those trucks in the clip above were driving through the plot holes. Yet on the balance, the film’s fight choreography is varied and wonderfully complex.
The fight scenes make use of the full range of wide-screen presentation, and the language of each fight, the ebb and flow, is communicated through editing on precise movements. This precision helps earlier in the film, when our heroes investigate the murder of martial arts masters. There are particular edits we don’t see in the initial fight. Instead, these are bookmarked in our heads. When Donnie Yen’s Hahou Mo looks at the crime scene, these bookmarked edits are filled in. As he recognizes what happened, so do we. It’s clever, and requires viewers to remember specific movements later on without making us realize that’s what we’re doing.
“Kung Fu Killer” easily boasts the most technically impressive choreography of the year. So why’s it #3? Because there’s more that choreography can do than being technically incredible.
2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Stephen Oyoung, sword trainer
Chloe Bruce, Adam J. Bernard, Gyula Toth, choreography
You’re going to have to take my word for it, since any unlicensed clips of the film online (including the most spoiler-iffic) are erased by Disney as fast as they’re put up. What “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” does right is present the control with which a fighter does (or doesn’t) fight. We see Finn get beaten multiple times, so his choreography is elementary, but full of recoveries. Constantly losing yet also narrowly surviving in believable ways walks a very fine line. That means his fighting style is too tight, too closed, the scope of his engagement too narrow.
For Kylo Ren’s choreography, we need to see someone thoroughly trained yet who lacks the discipline to adhere to that training. His choreography is built from powerful attacks that close distance quickly. Sometimes he’s controlled and sometimes he lashes out. In sword work, the more relentless you are, the more vulnerabilities you risk. It’s a choreography that defines Ren’s character as well as any other aspect of the film does.
Enter Rey’s choreography, which is built for defense and counter-attack. It’s built from stances and positions that close and then open again, attacks that rise and then fall. This gives her choreography the feel of breathing. It’s a naturalistic choreography. The body closes to focus and present less of a window for an opponent. When switching from defense to counter, the body opens back up again in its full breadth, offering a more complete window to attack your opponent.
Combined with Kylo Ren’s tendency to lash out, their choreography turns into something of a meditation. The assault of anger, of lashing out, the breathing in to contain, the breathing out to release. Overly complex choreography (see: the prequels) is ditched in favor of choreography that communicates. It’s why that last fight is so utterly beautiful. Light sabers in a dark wood as the snow falls doesn’t need help being beautiful, yes. And yet that choreography speaks to what we feel in the theater as we hold our breath, what we feel in our lives when panic strikes. It feels like the assault of fear, and the response of calm, the loss of control against the acknowledgment there is no control. It echoes some of your worst days and some of your best. It feels like the world closing in on you, and then letting yourself be a part of that world anyway.
It feels like breathing, and it lets us know we’ve been in this fight ourselves. We know what it’s like, what its emotional steps are, how it takes place in the mind, and how it feels when the fear and anger and breathing and calm all course through our bodies in a complicated mixture. The fight we see on-screen is beautiful. That we can all recognize its meaning in ourselves makes it meaningful. That’s what choreography can accomplish.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Richard Norton, fight coordinator
Greg van Borssum, principal fight choreographer / weapons advisor
It would take something truly and uniquely special to beat that out. And yet, there really is nothing else this year that compares to “Mad Max: Fury Road.” When I talk about fight choreography, I talk about the visual language it creates as part of a film. Fight scenes are often treated like set pieces, and they can be visual delights in this way. Yet a truly good fight scene is like a truly good dialogue scene. From when it starts to when it ends, something has changed for every character involved.
In no film is that more true this year than “Mad Max: Fury Road.” What makes the film so incredibly unique is that its dialogue scenes don’t really evolve the characters’ relationships to each other. They let us get to know them better, and give us better windows into their internal worlds, but it’s through the action that “Mad Max: Fury Road” tells its story. The relationships of these characters evolve through fist fights and gun fights and car chases, and it takes a rare marriage of all parts of choreography to make this happen. What are all the parts? That’s conception, that’s the base choreography, that’s how it interacts with the set around it, how costume informs what’s happening, how the stuntpeople and the actors work in concert for consistent performances, and how the editing and music can communicate a remarkable number of emotional beats inside of it all.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” develops such a complete choreographic language that there are moments toward the end of the film that become less about action in a story, and more about the physical embodiment of myth. In that rare a feat, it makes it feel like the choreography itself is some demonstration in our minds, something that we imagine as we’re told a story and then arises from us as interpreters of that story. No film in a long time has better used fight choreography simply to tell the story.
Read the rest of our 2016 Awards:
Where did we get our awesome images? Both “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” images are from Forbes’ “No, Rey…Is Not A Mary Sure” article, and the “Mad Max: Fury Road” image is from Nerdist’s “The Subtle Triumph of Furiosa’s Prosthetic Arm.” Both are highly recommended.