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 Gameshelmer 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.
What makes the fight scene from The Princess Bridework 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.
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.
We’re going to start a new Friday tradition here: Fight Scene Friday. Every Friday, a new fight scene to help start your weekend.
Er, best not to think of the example that sets.
To start: one of the best fight scenes ever put to film, from Jackie Chan’s 1984 film Wheels on Meals. That’s not mistranslated – after production company Golden Harvest suffered two big flops whose English titles started with the letter ‘M’, they demanded the film change its name. Instead of renaming Meals on Wheels, however, the wheels and meals switched places.
Wheels on Mealsfits the often lighthearted nature of the film, though, and the film turned out to be a success. The plot in one line? Thomas (Jackie Chan) runs a food coach with his brother in Barcelona, Spain, but gets involved in an increasingly convoluted plot involving heiresses, gangs, and a kidnapping.
Why Barcelona? Unlike today, when foreign productions jump through hoops in order to film in China, 1980s and 90s Hong Kong martial arts productions shot anywhere but – especially in Europe. The idea was to prove themselves equal to the globe-trotting adventures James Bond and Indiana Jones were having for Britain and the United States. It was also a way to appeal to foreign audiences and to introduce Chinese audiences to wonders from elsewhere in the world.
This fight scene involves the legendary Chan and one of his favorite nemeses, Benny “the Jet” Urquidez, whose background in competitive kickboxing and karate contrasted to Chan’s looser stunt and kung fu training. Urquidez explodes from a tight core, while Chan is famous for his flow and reaction. Urquidez is also shorter than Chan (5’6″ compared to 5’9″). This wasn’t often the case when villains were cast opposite Chan, especially as Chan developed an underdog comedic style that demanded visually imposing villains. Here, it all helps allow for an incredibly fast, no-frills choreography between the two.
One of the most famous details from this fight is a kick by Urquidez that blows out the flames on several candles. The original shot was meant to continue watching through the flames – Urquidez’s kick was simply so fast that it blew out the candles. They wisely decided to keep the detail.
If you’ve got quick eyes, you’ll notice two slightly jarring cuts in this video – the Chan-Urquidez fight is spliced together in the movie with another sequence involving separate characters. That other sequence is removed here and it lets you enjoy the Chan and Urquidez face-off uninterrupted.
Enjoy! We’ll continue featuring a new fight scene every Friday, sneaking in some choreography notes and a little film history where we can.
P.S. Vanessa Tottle has asked me to add a note that Jackie Chan was really hot in the 80s.