Category Archives: Fight Choreography

When Michelle Yeoh was Indiana Jones — “Magnificent Warriors”

Want to see Michelle Yeoh as Indiana Jones? The burgeoning Hong Kong film industry of the 80s was eager to riff on Western movies and create their own counterparts. “Magnificent Warriors” is five movies in one, which was pretty common for martial arts films of the era. In only her third starring role, Yeoh wears a leather jacket, fights with a whip, carries a satchel, and Spielbergian visuals are visited throughout the film – although the whip gives way to a rope dart pretty quickly.

If that’s not the best use of a barrel in the history of cinema, I’ll eat the first hat that’s volunteered. “Magnificent Warriors” is filled with uniquely Hong Kong visual gags like this. Yeoh plays pilot and arms runner Fok Ming-Ming, who delivers weapons to Chinese villages seeking to protect themselves from an incoming Japanese invasion.

This places “Magnificent Warriors” during the Second Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s, which a non-European view often considers the true beginning of World War 2. Fok is given a mission to contact a Chinese spy and extract Youda, the leader of Kaa Yi, a city in Inner Mongolia. He has vital information that can help the war effort.

Fok will recognize her spy contact by a watch he wears, but the watch itself is intercepted by a clueless gambler who’s a riff on Eli Wallach’s Ugly character from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. See what I mean about five films in one? Misunderstandings ensue, but the ever-increasing team follows through on Youda’s extraction – only to find the Japanese are planning to build a poison gas factory to supply their troops.

“Magnificent Warriors” is a satisfying, cheesy 80s action movie filled with fights and explosions, but if I can break the fun for a moment, this plot point is based in reality. The Japanese invasion of China incorporated chemical and biological weapons, including mustard gas on the front lines, and dropping flea canisters containing bubonic plague on Chinese cities – a dreadful war crime that caused several outbreaks.

This plot point doesn’t villainize the Japanese. It reflects a genocidal reality of that war that informed China’s own cultural and political reactions. That it’s in a Hong Kong movie from 1987 can also be understood to reflect fears of Hong Kong being handed over to China (the handover was negotiated in 1984 and set for 1997, and this reality has dominated much of Hong Kong cinema since the 80s). In other words, Chinese heroes in these films sometimes symbolized Chinese resistance to Japan and sometimes symbolized Hong Kong resistance to China. Often, they did both at once. The film never plays so complicated as all this, but understanding these contexts, and how different audiences see them, helps us recognize the importance of these films as much more than just silly action movies.

You do have to be careful with 80s Hong Kong action cinema. I always grit my teeth a little bit in preparation when sitting down to watch something new. Jackie Chan’s own riffs on Indiana Jones in the “Armour of God” series often included misogynist and racist jokes. (I love the second one for its choreography and physical comedy, but it is deeply problematic.) Thankfully, those jokes and themes aren’t present in “Magnificent Warriors” (or at least the translation I watched), and that’s a relief.

Yeoh’s Fok reminds male characters a few times that she’s their equal and she’s been the one saving them. The worst we get here is other characters recognizing Fok and her spy contact have eyes for each other, and she’s careful to keep track that she saves his life as often as he saves hers. The film never infantilizes Yeoh, pushes her to the side, or fetishizes her heroism (as much of the so-called “Girls with Guns” subgenre did to women heroes to make male audiences feel better). Other characters occasionally question her abilities, and these are treated as opportunities for Fok to embarrass them by pointing out she’s kicked everyone’s asses to that point. Hong Kong action movies were generally more progressive than their Western counterparts of this era, but that’s not saying a whole lot for the 80s. “Magnificent Warriors” isn’t perfect, but it strikes me as standing out in this regard.

There’s aerial combat, spycraft, rooftop chases, fight scenes in raging fire, an extended siege, a surprisingly emotional interlude about resistance to occupation and genocide, and if that’s too heavy, a heaping dose of physical comedy and a fantastic “Who’s on first?”-style sequence about who was right and wrong in a dice game.

The fight choreography is densely packed and frequent, especially considering this was just Yeoh’s third starring role after “Yes, Madam!” and “Royal Warriors”. The stunt work is absolutely incredible.

“Magnificent Warriors” is overstuffed and doesn’t all come together in the same way that 80s action movies are almost always overstuffed and don’t all come together. That’s part of its joy. What’s practical is sometimes sacrificed for what’s awesome. How did that jeep suddenly ramp up and take a flying leap? Because it’s awesome. Where did that explosion come from? It’s an 80s movie, the better question is where did that lack of explosion come from? When did Michelle Yeoh find that motorcycle she’s using to lance dudes? Because it’s more awesome than her not finding a motorcycle to not lance dudes.

Once you can accept that and get into its vibe, “Magnificent Warriors” is an immensely fun watch. You can tell why Yeoh was on her way to becoming a movie star. Even if she would take a 5-year break one film later, she never left the top of her game, and has somehow only gotten better and more prolific.

There are a few options to watch “Magnificent Warriors”. You can rent the subtitled version from Amazon for $3, or watch the dubbed version on Roku or Crackle with ads. The trailer below is for the remastered Blu-ray from Eureka! which restores a number of martial arts films and has done incredible work in film preservation.

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Fight Scene Friday — Yukari Oshima

by Gabriel Valdez

Arguably the most successful karate-based martial artist on film, Yukari Oshima ought to be thought of in the same breath as Jackie Chan. So let’s watch the time Chan choreographed Oshima in Outlaw Brothers.

If none of the female-led Hong Kong films of the 80s and 90s were funded as well, or marketed as broadly, as those of the men, Oshima at least stood the test of time. Half-Japanese and half-Chinese, she was able to act in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and – once studios largely closed out the “girls with guns” genre – she shifted into a successful career in Filipino action movies and TV as Cynthia Luster.

Oshima’s foundation is a form of karate called Goju-ryu, or “hard-soft style.” Its technique focuses on blocking with a soft body that can accept blows and striking with a hard form that mixes straight-ahead and indirect, rounded attacks in equal measure. This forces an opponent into the defensive as they have to defend more space.

The end fight of Outlaw Brothers (one of her Hong Kong films) stands out particularly well in Oshima’s career. Paired as she often was opposite Frankie Chan, the two face off – and switch face offs a third of the way through – with Jeff Falcon (armed with a fan) and Mark Houghton (armed with a sword). Jackie Chan served as a guest choreographer for the fight between Oshima and Falcon and in martial arts films, the choreographer often choreographs the camera, too. You can tell Jackie Chan’s style instantly – opponents squared to each other, the camera focusing on 90 degree two shots, 60-degree over-the-shoulder shots of the opposite performer, and close-ups to feature the performer’s expression. The beauty of Jackie Chan’s style is that he choreographs and shoots as if filming a conversation, not a fight.

Directors often stressed Oshima’s gymnastic abilities; she was able to mix strikes, cartwheels, and splits together in a way no other performer could. Of course, this also served the sometimes-exploitative elements of the girls with guns genre as well, but take a look at Book of Heroes (a Taiwanese film) for how choreographers who really let Oshima loose were able to mix her gymnastics skills into her choreography:

Oshima worked often with another performer we’ve featured: Moon Lee, whose style mixed kickboxing and taekwondo into the genre’s more classical kung fu choreographies. Lee’s harder, fast-paced style and knack for stuntwork, paired with Oshima’s softer, more indirect style and gymnastic ability, helped create some of the best – and most unfortunately forgotten – choreographies in martial arts movie history. We’ll feature the two as a pair down the road.

Fight Scene Friday — “Monty Python and The Holy Grail”

It’s important to be reminded of both this scene and this movie every once in a while, and there’s no better time than on the verge of Spring. You…you don’t really want me to analyze this from a choreography perspective, do you? (Actually, in some ways it’s a better representation of medieval sword fighting than a lot of movies, which is kind of sad.)

Since there’s not a whole lot to talk about choreographically this week, if you’re looking for a good breakdown of the struggles and triumphs behind the scenes of Monty Python and The Holy Grail, there’s an in-depth write-up on it over at Fog’s Movie Reviews. He focuses on how the film’s complete lack of budget led to some of its best jokes.

And if you haven’t seen this movie? You really should.

Fight Scene Friday — “Blade 2”

by Gabriel Valdez

Keep your sparkling vampires. I’ll take my Eastern European goth ninjas any day of the week. It’s hard to rank this fight – it looks great and many of the short combination sequences are beautifully laid out, but it’s bookended by lovably atrocious 2002 CGI and interspersed with some of the most useless choreography put to film.

As in many of director Guillermo Del Toro’s action movies, there’s about four parts meaningless flourish, one part effective move, but you know what? These movies usually concern immortal supernatural beings hacking away at each other. Who am I to question their flourishy martial arts? Most of written mythology is more concerned with boasting, too.

It’s fun to watch, and that’s what matters. Just don’t try to count the number of openings missed, and never try catching a sword blade between your shins like Blade does.

Del Toro initially wanted nothing to do with the sequel to Stephen Norrington’s first Blade, but – as Del Toro details in his collection of behind-the-scenes material Cabinet of Curiosities:

“I mean, literally, my agent at the time called me and said, ‘Do you want to make Blade II?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do Blade II.’ And he said, ‘Do you ever want to do Hellboy?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, if you want to do Hellboy, you gotta do Blade II, because no one’s going to hire you to do Hellboy based on Mimic or Cronos.’ And he was absolutely right.”

This was also fresh off a spectacularly failed pitch for I Am Legend. The long-in-gestation remake had Arnold Schwarzenegger attached at the time. Del Toro was a long-shot to direct and he was fairly certain he lost any consideration when he told producers that Schwarzenegger was completely wrong for the project. That movie wouldn’t end up getting off the ground until 2007, and was eventually directed by current Hunger Games helmer Francis Lawrence and starred Will Smith.

Del Toro would eventually direct Blade II – the high point for the franchise – with a unique attitude. Anything having to do with the character Blade, he left to Snipes. Del Toro wouldn’t mess with anything Snipes wanted to try; he would just stay out of the actor’s way. Everything else was Del Toro’s domain, which explains the lightproof, leather-and-lycra steampunk costumes with adjustable goggles and an inventive, demonesque take on a new supervampire. Now, go enjoy yourself some 2002 CGI.

Fight Scene Friday — “Zatoichi Challenged”

by Gabriel Valdez

Too often, we think the purpose of a fight is to best our opponent, to dominate, to prove we’re better. To win a fight best, however, is to not have to have it in the first place. There are times when it’s unavoidable, as in this scene from Zatoichi Challenged, but we have this idea that backing down, that begging, that reasoning is a cowardly option.

Zatoichi, the blind swordsman played by Shintaro Katsu in 26 films and a TV series, is not a samurai. He is legally restricted from carrying a katana. He carries a cane sword which breaks regularly. The character’s name is Ichi, his blindness at the time (in both the movie’s Edo Period and 1960s Japan) was considered a mental inferiority, and his rank within the society of the blind is the lowest possible: Zato. He is essentially a homeless wanderer.

Ichi often uses his place in society to linger and listen in on plots, villains barely even noticing someone who they consider inferior. He almost always ends up helping civilians who are being chased by gangsters or the government – often, there’s little difference between the two.

Japanese filmmaking after World War 2 was shaped by a cultural shame and self-judgment for blindly following Imperial edict into war, and – like many films of the time – it used historical drama to reflect on and criticize the attitudes that led them into unnecessary wars.

That brings us to Zatoichi Challenged and one of the most beautiful sword fights ever put to film. I can’t analyze the choreography as I often do because the sword styles at play are very different from what I’ve been trained in, but everything in the scene – the music, the sound, the franchise’s trademark underrated art design – frames this moment. Besides, it doesn’t rely on Ichi being the better swordsman, it relies on his being the better human being.

Half the fights you face, you don’t win because you’re the better fighter. You win because you’re the better thinker, or the better diplomat, or the better actor, or the better comedian. You win because you can defuse the tension, or reframe the worth of a fight, or find that one unexpected response that makes someone else hesitate. And occasionally, very occasionally, you can win a fight in the most legendary of ways – you can be the better person. Don’t get me wrong, it’s risky. It won’t always be your smartest option, but the fights you do win that way? You will not ever have to fight them again.

By the way, The Criterion Collection has made their remastered editions of all the Zatoichi movies available for free on Hulu. I can’t recommend them highly enough. (If they come up out of order, they’re all marked sequentially.) They are thrilling, they are touching, and they are an absolutely essential piece of cinematic history.

Fight Scene Friday — “The Grandmaster”

by Gabriel Valdez

Ziyi Zhang. Much shade is thrown her way. “She’s a dancer by training,” goes one criticism, which conveniently ignores the by-now years of martial arts training she’s undergone with masters most of us could only dream of tutoring under.

Another criticism reminds us she’s no Michelle Yeoh, as if there can only be one female movie martial artist at a time. And, for that matter, if we’re talking purely practical martial arts skill, Jackie Chan’s no Michelle Yeoh either.

I often hear: she couldn’t actually win that fight. Well, this is probably true for half of movie martial artists. I’m not going to judge which ones could and which ones couldn’t, and that includes Zhang, but if that’s your schtick I’m pretty sure at least half the people who fly in kung fu movies can’t really do that either.

The simple reality is that Zhang is one of the best movie martial artists working today, and she fuses dance with martial arts to realize a balletic choreographic style that is relatively new in much the same way Jackie Chan’s fusion of stuntwork and martial arts once was. Being such a unique talent allows directors to frame their stories around her.

One such film was The Grandmaster, which I ranked as the second best film of 2013. The Grandmaster tells the tale of Ip Man, the Chines historical figure and cultural hero who would later go on to train martial arts cinema’s formative light: Bruce Lee.

Most recountings of Ip Man are mythologized to an egregious extent, but that’s what every culture (including ours) tends to do with historical figures. There are a few things that are intriguing about The Grandmaster‘s retelling, however:

First off, this is director Wong Kar-wai’s only real entry into martial arts cinema. He tends to make movies about love, alternating frame stories, and crime melodrama. His movies are utterly beautiful, almost like moving paintings, as you can see from the scene above.

Secondly, while The Grandmaster as a title seems to refer to Ip Man, the narrative leads you to believe that the grandmaster being spoken about is Ziyi Zhang’s character, Gong Er. She has even defeated Ip Man in a contest of kung fu. She is a woman, however, and so cannot inherit the traditions or certifications of a Chinese martial arts school. Because of China’s attitude toward women, the style her family practiced dies with her, while Ip Man’s style is free to live on through him. In this way, The Grandmaster is an absolutely searing refutation of gender politics in China, and a portrayal of all that’s been lost through China’s focus on patriarchy, privileging men while devaluing women, and focusing on the birth of sons over daughters.

In the scene above, midway through the film, Gong Er confronts Ma San, who has murdered her father and stolen the school’s certifications – and therefore the right to continue teaching the style – for himself.

What’s unique about the choreography is the use of slow motion to focus on the precision of hand movements. Most schools of kung fu focus on rhythm through a precision of hand movements, arm placements, and accompanying steps. The position of a hand can dictate the entire attitude of a movement. By slowing the choreography down, we’re able to see the intentions of key strikes, where they hit and miss. It translates the intention behind each move and how each character shifts attitude in order to counter the other’s. It’s derided by some American critics for being too focused on aesthetic, but the truth is the fight is communicated in terms of each character’s internal strategy better than most full-speed fights.

It stands not just on its scenery and art design, not just on the unique aspects Zhang brings to choreography, but as a fight that plainly communicates how moves are strung together according to this particular martial arts philosophy.

And it’s just one of several such scenes that make The Grandmaster one of the most unique and important martial arts movies ever made.

Fight Scene Friday — “The Hunted”

by Gabriel Valdez

The video I’m featuring today is not currently embedding properly. Please watch it on YouTube here.

The only reason Liam Neeson still has an action career is because no one’s employed Tommy Lee Jones to chase him down yet. You could run a day-long marathon of films featuring Jones chasing down fugitives from the law: The Fugitive, sequel U.S. Marshals, two Men in Black movies, The Hunted, The Missing, No Country for Old Men, and In the Valley of Elah.

What’s most impressive about that list is that all these movies are good to great, and you can see Jones becoming a more dynamic and human actor as he ages (In the Valley of Elah may be his finest single performance).

The plot of The Hunted is fairly basic – Benicio Del Toro plays Hallam, a special forces operative convinced that the government is trying to kill him for what he knows about secret operations. He hides out in the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest and begins murdering anyone who comes near, including a pair of hunters. This brings the FBI in, who realize they’re outmatched and recruit the man who trained Hallam (Jones’s Bonham) to help track him down.

The Hunted is the least of Jones’s tracker films, still worth watching but surprising in its traditional structure since it comes from director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, Sorceror). Yet it’s also the movie where Jones finally got to throw down in extended fight scenes and take on his fugitive one-on-one. The knife fight above is absolutely brutal, and one of the better ones ever put to film.

This training sequence from earlier in the film helps describe the kind of fight choreography we’ll see later on. It provides emotional background on Hallam, but also acts as a primer to make sure we’ll keep up with what each fighter’s trying to do in the later fight:

The climactic fight does have its weak points, though. As you watch Jones tumble down a waterfall, you’ll realize just how far visual effects have come in 12 years. In terms of the choreography, filmmaking in the 1990s and early 2000s demanded egregious pauses in combat for reaction shots, as well as close-ups of hits and misses. Action films since then, in great part due to the success of The Bourne trilogy, have shifted further toward uninterrupted combat in the service of reality. Since we’ve also drifted away from having reliable action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, reaction shots and close-ups have evaporated and audiences are trusted to keep up without these breaks.

Additionally, where exertion used to be stressed in our violence, we now focus on the mechanical aspects of it, often to the exclusion of emotion. Neither of these portrayals is particularly accurate, and the idea that there’s a best “type” of fighter or a superior “attitude” to possess is a gross oversimplification.

These shifts in the tone of our fight scenes reflect more what’s popular in the portrayal of action; they reflect changing tastes in filmmaking. Fight sequences that feel more realistic aren’t always actually more realistic. Just as pausing in combat demanded sacrifice in the mechanics of the action 12 years ago, a purely mechanical scene demands sacrifices in the thought and emotion that takes place in a real fight. It’s important to remember that each approach sacrifices an aspect of reality when we discuss fight choreography and how action scenes are filmed.

By the way, we selected yesterday the Best Fight Choreography of 2014 and the Best Stuntwork of 2014. If you haven’t yet, check them out.

The Best Fight Choreography of 2014

John Wick Keanu

by Vanessa Tottle & Gabriel Valdez

You know what fight choreography is, we know what fight choreography is. Let’s just dive right in.

Oh, and we should warn you that unlike our other Best of 2014 articles, since fight scenes usually involve a big reveal or someone’s death:


They won’t play without you clicking on them, but just be aware of the above if you do.


Chris Carnel, fight coordinator
James Young, fight choreographer

This has stunts and fight choreography across the board – car chases (although the more outlandish stuff is CG), knife fights, wire-assists – you name it, it was in the Captain America sequel.

It was a really good year for practical choreography on film, and Captain America includes much more practical work than any other Marvel film. That blending also requires a great deal of creativity on the part of the stunt and fight coordinators, who wanted something less cartoonish and more immediate and brutal.

(Read the review)


Jonathan Eusebio, Jon Valera, fight coordinators

Are you going to eat those mashed potatoes?

No, I’m saving them for later.

This is the attitude that permeates the creative fight choreography of John Wick. Gun fu has been around for a while, but what Keanu Reeves practices is closer to gun jutsu. He controls the nearest threat with his body, saving him for later, and deals with the furthest one or two or three. It’s completely counter-intuitive and could only work in movies, but it is downright beautiful to watch.

It completely undermines your expectations of how a fight’s going to proceed and using Keanu Reeves as its dancer, John Wick gives us martial arts movements according to a ballet philosophy.

The clip above is the conclusion to a sequence that sees Reeves fight his way through several floors of a club. Each floor has its own dance music, and the pace of the choreography changes according to each genre – slowed down and deliberate in the new age spa, frenzied and tense on the dubstep dance floor.

It’s exceptionally clever, and that’s even before mentioning the fight between Reeves and Adrianne Palicki a few scenes later, which begins like a dance and ends like a brawl.

(Read the review)


Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, fight choreographers

Here is one of the most overlooked movies of 2014, a martial arts film that you could take every action scene out of and still be left with a compelling gang drama. And yet, those action scenes are some of the best ever filmed.

Director Gareth Evans leaves the fight scenes to his choreographers, who also play a lead and supporting character, but he still insists on using long takes that hit certain marks. The fight scenes to him are opportunities to communicate emotion in a way that’s removed from traditional storytelling. They’re filled with visual beats that lay their characters raw in a way that’s shielded during dramatic scenes.

In this clip, for instance, we already know that Hammer Girl is deaf, but when her sunglasses are knocked from her face, it’s revealed that she only has one eye. We stay on this for only a split-second, nothing is mentioned, and the fight doesn’t stop. It’s a heart-wrenching realization that suggests a whole other film’s worth of story, told in a moment, and that turns the end of a henchwoman from one character’s triumph into another’s tragedy.

This is how the film constantly communicates an anti-violence message through some of the most brutal fight choreography ever put in a movie. That’s not to say The Raid 2 doesn’t like cinematic violence. To the contrary, it basks in it, but it uses this to create a message about real-world violence and corruption in Indonesian politics.

We could talk about Iko Uwais’s tight body control and efficient movement, Yayan Ruhian’s loose, wildly animalistic performance, and how every character in the film fights completely differently, but in the end, Evans uses the choreography not as an attraction, but as one more storytelling tool to convey emotion and fill the world of his story in with detail. It has fight scenes that will make you cry. How many films can say that?

What makes the fight choreography in The Raid 2 special isn’t just the insane technical level required of the performers, it’s that the choreography itself tells vignettes inside the bigger story. The narrative doesn’t stop while we watch the fighting. As in dance, the story condenses and intensifies.

We’re always talking about how filmmakers need to invent new “cinematic language” for technical elements on film. The Raid 2 invents brand new language for fight scenes and how they can be used. It’s a rare instance when a film does that this successfully.

(Read the review)

In the lead-up to the Oscars, we’ve named several Best of 2014 Awards, with a special focus on categories the Oscars don’t include:

The Best Stuntwork of 2014

The Best 3-D of 2014

The Best Diversity of 2014

The Best Original Score of 2014

The Best Soundtrack of 2014

The Most Thankless Role of 2014

Fight Scene Friday — “The Princess Bride”

by Gabriel Valdez

What makes the fight scene from The Princess Bride work so well? The most important bit is that we’re not supposed to take it seriously. Early in the film, Inigo Montoya faces off against…we’ll just call him the Dread Pirate Roberts for those who haven’t seen the movie yet. It’s not a battle of swords so much as it’s a battle of dialogue and movie cliches.

Fight scenes build tension by continuing to escalate. This is why the hero almost always loses the first half of the fight – to escalate the drama and remind us that the stakes aren’t victory and loss, but life and death. It’s why fist fights break into sword fights that end in gun fights, or why kickboxing matches result in entire bars being destroyed, or why a hero faces off against increasingly skilled opponents rather than fighting the toughest one first. Fight scenes tell their stories through escalation.

The Princess Bride is a comedy. How do you escalate the dramatic tension in a comedic fight scene? Death, blood, and destruction is tense, not funny, but if you don’t have increasing stakes, your scene lies flat.

As in any fight scene, you have to communicate to the audience the level of talent each fighter has at the beginning. The Spanish fighter Inigo (Mandy Patinkin) delivers an opening salvo. Then the masked pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) delivers the same return salvo. Because it’s a comedy, they even switch staging and framing between the two salvos. They’re testing each other out, but visually, this tells us they’re at a fairly equal level.

The choreography at the beginning isn’t complicated. It’s deliberately made to feel rote and effortless. The combat isn’t in the swords at this point – the two men are still fighting each other with dialogue, each letting the other know just how knowledgeable a fencer he is.

What’s exceptionally clever here is that they quote historical fencing masters and their techniques. In a movie about a fantasy world, they’re trumpeting their real-world knowledge. As for how much they emulate those techniques as they quote them, I can’t say – I’m not a fencer.

The scene continues to escalate – it’s soon revealed that Inigo, fighting left-handed this entire time, isn’t really left-handed. He switches hands and bests Roberts for a moment. Then Roberts counters not with a move, but with a realization of his own – he’s not left-handed either.

Inigo loses his sword. He loses his balance when leaping off the staircase for it. Roberts throws his own sword down and performs a backflip to get it.

Roberts is winning, but his victory hasn’t had anything to do with swordplay for the last minute. He’s winning according to movie cliché and gymnastics. By the time the fight really begins in earnest and the moves start to matter, more than two minutes into the scene, we’re already aware who’s going to win. Writer William Goldman’s dialogue tells us:

Inigo: Who are you?

Roberts: No one of consequence.

Inigo: I must know.

Roberts: Get used to disappointment.

Inigo: ‘Kay.

The stunts tell us: even as Inigo clambers onto a rock, the scene’s lone wire-assisted stunt – Roberts leaping atop it – communicates who the superior combatant is. Blink and you’ll miss it – it’s a rock any of us could easily jump atop, but – like the gymnast’s move – the wire assist suggests to us that Roberts is just that much more talented.

By the time the fight climaxes, we already know who wins. In this way, the fight removes the biggest consequence at the point most fights would be pressing it as hard as they could. This lets the fight pull off sight gags and be goofy without ever feeling cheap. Anything at this point is extra: between-the-legs swordfighting, throwing a sword up and catching it seconds later, referencing an earlier moment with a sequence where both fighters quickly switch hands. The Princess Bride is trolling other fight scenes by this point.

The best of Bill Tomlinson’s choreography only starts once the fight’s already been decided. The excitement originates from escalation, like in any fight, but then The Princess Bride breaks that escalation. The audience’s enjoyment – like much of the film – comes from how fun it is to be in on the joke.

To communicate this through choreography is exceptionally difficult. There’s no Jackie Chan level stunt here and while the choreography is a bit underrated (especially in its ambidextrous elements), it’s hardly exceptional from a technical standpoint. But there are few fights that are this successful in timing their comedy elements inside a film and breaking the audience’s expectations outside of it. From writing and directing through to choreography and performance, it’s a great fight scene because it understands the rules well enough to continuously subvert them. And never forget the editor (in this case Robert Leighton), the unsung hero of nearly every fight scene and comedy. The timing is as much Leighton’s success here as it is Elwes’s and Patinkin’s.

And if you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, for god’s sake, go watch it.

Fight Scene Friday — “Iron Angels 2”

by Gabriel Valdez

Female martial artists have rarely had the opportunities of their male counterparts. Even when Hong Kong saw the rise of the profitable “girls with guns” genre, producers treated these like exploitation films. Women performed martial arts, yes, but they were also trotted around in various states of undress and often needed last-minute rescuing from the male lead. There was also a certain brutality toward women in the fights that wasn’t always shown toward the men.

The Iron Angels series, also known as Fighting Madam, Angel, or Midnight Angels, exemplified the best and worst traits of the genre. It established the genre as viable on a bigger scale while introducing defining female martial artists like Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima to many martial arts fans in the West who hadn’t seen their smaller, earlier films. When the first film proved successful, however, its 1988 sequel backseated the women in favor of focusing on the exploits of Nathan Chan.

It is noteworthy that this sequel was co-directed by Raymond Leung and Teresa Woo. Women (as in the U.S.) rarely direct in Hong Kong or Chinese cinema, but Woo was a writer/director who enjoyed brief success.

We’ll focus on that sequel here, but I’ll feature a great fight from the original down the road. I want to focus on Moon Lee today because her choreography reflects the blending of kung fu, taekwondo, and kickboxing that was taking place in Hong Kong cinema at the time. Jackie Chan had originally infused kung fu films with his zeal for risky stunts. For years, he had also been bringing in foreign martial artists in order to vary up his choreography and the skills of the opponents he faced.

What Jackie Chan did, everyone did. This blending of styles was becoming very popular and what we think of as older, more rigid “kung fu” choreographies could become repetitive to audiences on their own. Moon Lee was one of the best – male or female – in terms of shifting into choreographies heavily informed by stunt work and non-traditional, “post-modern” martial arts.

The best fight in the entire Iron Angels franchise takes place between Moon Lee and fight choreographer Yuen Tak. It’s a condensed, no-frills fight where the two go toe-to-toe after she beats the snot out of his Lieutenant. (You’ll also see Elaine Lui there right at the end.)

It’s a shame Moon Lee and her contemporaries are rarely thought of in the same way that Chan, Jet Li, or Donnie Yen are. They were just as skilled, but no one with influence was interested enough in pushing female-led films.

This didn’t really begin to happen until Jackie Chan saw Michelle Yeoh practicing choreography for his 1992 film Supercop, and he delayed production to have the entire film rewritten with her as his co-lead. And, as we know, what Jackie Chan did, everyone did. That’s not to say things are at all equal today, but a lot changed thanks to Yeoh pushing the boundaries with her talents and Chan realizing what he’d overlooked for so many years.

Moon Lee’s film career was finishing up by this point, though she would continue to enjoy success on television. Within the parameters of what the industry allowed at the time, her career was massively successful. It’s just a shame that this still means we rarely think of her today. In the fight scene above, you can see why we should.