23 May 2011

Great film duels - Duel One

I recently watched several K-1 kickboxing fights on YouTube, a sport that until then I had only the slightest familiarity with. Being a fan of martial arts films, I was struck by how different real life hand-to-hand combat is from the stylised action seen on screen. The real thing is far more inelegant; strikes are erratic and tend to come in staccato bursts in between periods of cautious feints and footwork. When a punch or kick does connect, it looks – and sounds – rather underwhelming. There is no exaggerated ‘thwack’ courtesy of the sound effects department to emphasise the blow’s impact. Strikes rarely land clean and sharp; they glance, slide, wobble, buckle and bounce. There’s a lot more sweat.

Real fighters also tend to avoid executing fancy moves. It’s a strategic choice – complicated techniques have a higher risk of failure, which can expose a fighter to a counterattack, and they are tiring when used too often. Real life bouts can be rather conservative affairs, especially when compared with their spectacular counterparts in movies.

For all their simulated violence, movie fights are more akin to dancing artforms than combat sports. For one thing, they’re choreographed, just like ballet or theatrical dance routines. There is an emphasis on rhythm, music, aesthetic appeal and narrative. Since the audience knows that no one is actually getting hurt, movie fights can be viewed with the same expectations as one would have of, for example, a ballet performance. The beauty of the fight and the storytelling purpose it serves take precedence over questions of who is the better fighter.

With this in mind, I’m starting a series of posts celebrating the artform of film fights, specifically duels. I chose duels because there’s something primal about one-on-one combat, and also because duels serve as a comparison with combat sports. I have chosen duels featuring weapons, because, well, they’re cooler.

Of course, my selection is a purely subjective exercise in martial arts film geekery. No doubt there are some who will question my choices. I’m aware of the many jaw-dropping quality swordfights in cinema, but since I don’t intend to post several hundred entries on film duels, I’m going to limit myself to just five examples. Each is taken from a specific genre: A swords-and-sandals film, a full CGI film, a sci-fi film, an anime, and a kung-fu (or rather wuxia) film. All five duels represent, for me, some of the best film combat choreography in the history of the moving picture. I hope you enjoy their artistry as much as I do.

Achilles vs Hector (Troy)

The film had mixed reviews, but I was (and still am) impressed with the costume designs and fight choreography. Brad Pitt’s Achilles really conveyed the martial prowess of the fabled warrior, cutting down Trojans with grace, agility and a terrifying ferocity. Much to the wrath of Iliad purists, the screenwriters and choreographers took creative liberties with the depiction of Achilles’s legendary duel with the Trojan prince Hector. I prefer to appreciate the film duel on its own merits, canonical or not.

Achilles’s agility and haughtiness are on show in the fight. This duel contains, to my knowledge, a rare example of non-Asian spear fighting. It’s interesting to see how the choreographers interpreted the way a Greek spear was wielded in single combat. That and the large shields give this duel a distinctive flavour.

The best fight scenes have an element of character exposition. We read in the body language of Achilles his contempt for Hector. We glimpse the not unremarkable skill of Hector when he manages to cut the hitherto untouchable Achilles. We feel that Hector was truly a great warrior – both in arm and heart – and thus consider it an injustice that a mere man, no matter his skill, was matched against a virtual god of war. Brave Hector stood no chance against the dancing, dodging Achilles.


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