Movie Theory: Anatomy of an Action Scene

While I love video games, I also love movies. And I’ve unilaterally decided that every now and then, when there isn’t anything inspiring me to write an article about games, I’m going to throw in an article about one of my other loves. So I’m going to take a little break from video games today because I want to talk about movies. Specifically, let’s talk movie fight scenes. Some movies do them well. Some movies do them terribly. I’m going to share some of my favorite fight scenes from movies and explain a little bit about why I like them but also what makes them good from a cinematography standpoint.

Warning, there will be spoilers for the movies if you haven’t seen them in these fight scenes. Obviously.

We’ll start with Ramona vs. Roxy from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

The most important thing to pay attention to in this scene is the music. Listen to how the music builds to a crescendo as Roxy and Ramona verbally spar, culminating in a drum beat in the VS screen. That particular musical beat drop really sells the beginning of the fight. The music (appropriately a techno/dub-step-ish mix for a fight in a club) always comes to the forefront when the action is happening on screen but drops to just a drum beat at key points – namely the VS screen and when Ramona gives Roxy a verbal beatdown mid-fight. It’s important to notice this because a good score can elevate a good fight scene to a great one.

Now another thing Edgar Wright does well is keeping the focus on Roxy and Ramona during the fight. There aren’t any major cutaways after the fight starts aside from a joke from Scott/Wallace and then when Ramona pulls Scott into the battle itself. Despite the fact that there are other main characters from the movie in the scene, it doesn’t cut away to their reactions mid-battle or to other sub-plots. We don’t have to see Knives wincing when Scott gets hit or Stephen Stills doing a spit-take at Wallace’s joke. The fight centers on Roxy, Ramona, and Scott and reinforces the fact that the conflict is only between them.

While I love the entire Scott Pilgrim vs. the World movie, this scene ended up being my favorite “action” scene in the movie simply because of how well it’s shot and how Edgar Wright chose to direct it. The composition of the scene (keeping the crowd in the club a part of the scene, but always keeping them out of focus in comparison to the main fighters, for example) really keeps the audience’s attention on the action. It’s creative as well – it uses two weapons that aren’t usually big in action movies (chain whip vs hammer) and also has the girl directing the guy actions during the fight. (I could do without the orgasm finisher, though.) It’s also a personal favorite because this fight is a completely new adaptation – this battle doesn’t really happen at all in the comics but I think the movie ends up better for it.

Next up, let’s talk about the Achilles vs. Hector scene from Troy.

This fight, like the Ramona fight, is great because it focuses on a simple 1v1 fight. The director does a good job of letting the viewer know that there is an audience to the fight, but the audience never disrupts the continuity of the action. Aside from a few establishing shots of the important audience members and their reactions as the fight begins, once the battle is fully under way the director only cuts to reactions when there is a pause or break in the action. This is important – much like you don’t want the television station to cut to commercial right when the quarterback throws the football, you don’t want cuts to disrupt the flow of action in a battle scene – especially an important one. As such, you only get to see the reactions from the citizens of Troy when there’s a significant pause. This keeps the battle continuous and also keeps the attention of the viewer.

The fight also uses a minimalistic audio as the fight progresses, using mostly drum and bass to accentuate the actual fighting on screen. It’s a different stylistic choice from Ramona vs. Roxy, but another example of how the audio can help establish the mood of the fight.

Finally, the direction is very clear, steady, and you always know what’s going on in the fight. It helps that the battle area is an open field – this allows for much simpler directing and framing of the fight. But the most important part of an action sequence is making sure the audience can actually see the action. Lots of films tend to shoot action in the dark – the main reason for this is, of course, to hide stunt doubles and/or make the fight easier to film. It’s also easier to hide CGI in darker atmospheres than lighter ones (compare the Pacific Rim night-time fight vs the daylight shots from the new Pacific Rim 2 trailer, for example) But a broad daylight shot such as this one let’s the audience have a clear view of the battle from start to finish.

Let’s also take a moment to appreciate the significance of this particular fight and the fact that the director paid it the respect it deserved. Achilles vs. Hector is a big moment in mythology and most people who are familiar with Greek mythology know the outcome of the fight. When I saw Troy back in 2004, I went into the theater thinking only one thing: “they better nail the Achilles vs. Hector fight.” While the rest of the movie is questionable, this scene still sticks out in my mind by just how well the director made the fight. Nothing glamorous, nothing too fancy – just a straightforward fight with straightforward direction and a few neat shots. No weird slow-mo or effects or anything either that a lot of blockbusters nowadays feel the need to insert into every fight. It really felt like two skilled warriors going at it.

Now let’s pivot a bit to a different kind of fight – a big ol’ monster fight. King Kong vs. the Dinos in Peter Jackson’s King Kong from 2005.

I’m not a huge monster movie fan – I prefer quick, dextrous fights to large, lumbering fights that go through buildings. But when they’re done right they can be very entertaining. This is probably my favorite giant vs. giant fight out of any movie and it’s mostly down to Peter Jackson’s direction and how the fight is shot.

During the entire sequence, you switch between the perspective of Naomi Watts’ character (Ann Darrow) and a more broad overview of the entire fight. What makes this a well directed scene for one is that switching between the two never feels off or out of place – nor does it detract from the action or confuse you as to what’s going on. Whenever we close in on Ann, she’s usually in some sort of danger (the dino is about to snack on her or she’s being tossed between King Kong’s hands and feet) and usually a somewhat extended shot as opposed to a quick cut. Take for example when King Kong turns in a circle to avoid the dino snapping at Ann – the camera tracks Ann for the duration of the snapping before cutting to a wider shot when King Kong counterattacks the beast.

As the sequence progresses, you as the viewer are never puzzled or confused as to the positioning of Kong, the dinos, or Ann. The scene is a full progression from 3v1 in the forest, to 2v1 in the vines, to a final 1v1 at the bottom of the ravine in the plains. It’s done almost deliberately – as Kong kills each dino, there’s a location change and a natural progression. Where the dinosaurs are in relation to King Kong and Ann matters and the camera work keeps the fight from turning into a jumbled mess.

Finally, pay attention to the music. Much like in the Ramona vs. Roxy fight, there are very clear musical cues that accentuate the action and make it better. The crescendo that builds up to the third dinosaur entering the fray (and kicking off the full action sequence) – the music stopping and allowing tension to build up when Ann is swinging in the vines and defenseless – and then finally the final swell when Ann chooses to actually retreat towards King Kong at the end. This musical cue is very important because it’s the first time in the movie Ann doesn’t run away from and fear Kong, but actually looks to him for protection. It gives Kong his big damn hero moment complete with musical accompaniment.

Now compare this action sequence to the climactic battle in the more recent Kong: Skull Island. Watch how different it is. There’s no tracking of position or comparative shots. The positioning of Kong, the skullcrawler, and the humans/boat are all out of wack and it’s never clear where they are in relation to each other. Pay specific attention to Brie Larson’s character – she pops in to shoot the flare at the skullcrawler, but the battle geography is so poorly established her “heroic moment” is completely undermined by the fact that you’re going “wait, where the hell did she shoot from?” She’s never in the same shot as the Skullcrawler, so it’s impossible to tell where she is in relation to…well, anything. It’s worse even later when Kong throws the skullcrawler in a random direction and hits her because, again, the geography of the battle makes no sense. There’s a near 360 shot of Kong as he frees himself from the shipwreck, but neither the skullcrawler or the boat are in the shot – so what is he roaring at? How far away are they? Why does the skullcrawler run after a tiny human while the boat is shooting at him?

These kind of directing choices are what differentiates a well directed action scene from a badly directed one. Continuity is important in keeping the flow of the movie – Peter Jackson does it well in King Kong. The director of Kong: Skull Island…did it poorly.

Swinging back to more typical fight scenes, let’s switch over to a Hong Kong action film – called SPL in China but Kill Zone over in the U.S. (Warning, this fight has the most blood/violent imagery of all the scenes.)

I’m not going to write a long description for this one, mostly because I haven’t actually ever watched this movie in its entirety – just this fight scene. (I was looking up cool martial arts scenes on YouTube one night, okay?) But this particular scene is a great example of showing off pure technical skill. It’s also well directed and isn’t confusing to the viewer.

The camera is far enough away that you can see all the action and what both fighters are doing. When it zooms in, it’s only for brief moments to give clarity as to what’s happening, as opposed to obfuscation. This is important because the fight is supposed to be brutal and real, and due to the director not shying away from hits the audience feels the brutality in the fight.

The most important part of this scene though…is that it just feels “cool.” When you’re watching this, you’re watching two skilled martial artists fight – and it’s about their abilities and not cool editing tricks or neat camera flourishes. The director keeps it tight in on the action and simple which is what’s needed for a skill-based showcase. And of course, like all the other fights I’ve showcased, it never cuts away from the action at hand to anything else. The focus is on the action and only the action.

Finally, we’ll end with probably one of my top five favorite action sequences of all-time: the bathroom fight from Edgar Wright’s The World’s End (it’s no coincidence that Edgar Wright showed up twice in this list and he’s one of my favorite directors).

This fight combines a little bit of everything that I’ve talked about so far. There’s a great set-up with the music in the background clearly building up to the start of the fight at the beginning. It’s creative – it’s five men vs. five robots in a small space. There aren’t any cutaways – from start to finish the movie never leaves the bathroom while the fight is going on. It’s well-lit so you always see what’s going on. The audience is always aware of the positioning of all the combatants – despite the fact that there are 10 total people in the fight, it’s never confusing as to what’s going on or where each of the protagonists are compared to each other or the antagonists.

The little touches and attention to detail are what make this action sequence for me. For example, right before the fight starts, you see O-Man (Martin Freeman’s character on the far left) unbuttoning his blazer. This allows him to slide out of it later in the fight when he’s pinned against the wall. The head that is left on the floor by the urinals is slipped on at the end by the last robot standing. Then there’s also the fact that comedy is inserted into the fight without breaking the flow of the action – from “There’s someone in here!” as the stall gets broken down, to Gary (Simon Pegg) shouting for Andy’s (Nick Frost) approval and then getting immediately grabbed. Andy’s use of WWE wrestling moves as he fights is especially great – and, for that matter, simply the fact that each of the crew has a different fighting style. I’m particularly a fan of Pete’s “hide in the stall”-fu.

I could watch this scene over and over and over again and not get tired. I’ve probably watched it like fifteen times just while writing up this piece. It’s just done so…well. It’s basically one continuous shot after the fight starts (although with obvious actual cuts when the camera moves fast from one protagonist to another) and yet it always feels like everyone is always fighting and occupied. While in some action sequences with multiple people you lose track of some across time and wonder “what, were they taking a smoke break while the other guys are getting beat up?” – this scene in particular you always know where each of the five protagonists are and you also never feel like they’re “forgotten” or twiddling their thumbs. Even at the beginning when the camera focuses on Pete crawling through the fight to the bathroom stall, you can actually tell where each of the other four are in respect to him as he crawls – and the scene follows up on that continuity as it progresses.

I just love this scene, alright? If anybody ever asks me what makes a good action scene, I can always just point to this one. It has everything I consider entertaining in a fight sequence while also being very well directed.

So there you have it. I’ll leave you with one last fight scene – it’s from another Donnie Yen movie called Flashpoint and is another pretty awesome technical skill showcase. Watch it with everything I’ve talked about in mind and you’ll know why I consider it a great action sequence.

Until next time – when I promise to talk about video games again.

2 thoughts on “Movie Theory: Anatomy of an Action Scene

  1. I didn’t like King Kong much and never bothered to rewatch it, so you’ve made me appreciate that fight scene a lot more. And man, they really tease that jaw break at the end, huh? They knew the audience was waiting for it.

    That fight in The World’s End is the only fight in this post that cannot sell itself on impressive martial arts or CGI spectacle. There are some CGI gags, but the scene would work fine without them. Instead, it has to be interesting by its humor, drama, and cleverness (including the camera work). Edgar Wright is of course skilled with all three. Also, all of the actions make sense for the characters–nothing happens JUST to set up a gag or cool visual.

    Finally, shoutout to Flashpoint for ending the big epic final showdown with a choke. MMA is everywhere now, but this was 2007, and in a Chinese martial arts film. Shoutout even further back to Lethal Weapon doing it in ’87, but I can’t think of any in between.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Apparently the end of the King Kong fight in the 1v1 is actually a near shot-for-shot remake of the King Kong vs T-Rex fight from the original 1933 movie – right down to the jaw break finisher. It’s a pretty neat little homage – guess that’s something to put in the useless trivia bank.

      And that’s actually a really good point about the World’s End fight. What sells the entire sequence is the creativity of the fight and camera work instead of actual impressive technical fighting skill or fun, explosive CGI. It also helps to add weight to the scene to keep it more grounded in reality – well, as grounded as fighting robots can be anyway.


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