What makes a good movie fight scene? We break down the critical elements.
A good movie fight scene can make a film great. Unfortunately though, they’re rarer than you’d expect. More often than not, action sequences fall short of being mind-blowing, even if they do involve minds being blown up.
So we’ve created a conclusive list of the 9 essential things required to make a good movie fight scene for everyone in Hollywood to read. (Does anyone know anyone in Hollywood?)
1 – Clear and simple cinematography.
Have you ever been watching a fight scene and thought, “Wow, I wish I could see what’s happening?”. I don’t know if I’m just watching the wrong movies, but it happens to me way too much.
Too often fight scenes are filmed with tight, frenetic close ups. You get a sense of the disorientation, but not a true sense of the action.
Cool fights rely on one thing: The fight. So what’s the best way to show this? In my expert film-making experience (I made a short film about animal zombies in year 10), to make a good movie fight scene, artsy-fartsy camera angles are unnecessary. We want to watch people beat the shit out of each other. Just fix a camera position and let us indulge in our animalistic primitivity, sheesh.
2 – The action must develop the plot.
A key principle of screen writing is that every single moment of a film should serve a purpose. If a joke is just there to be funny but doesn’t reveal anything about a character or the narrative, it’s a shit joke. And that applies to fight scenes.
A good movie fight scene can’t just be a random fight designed to light up the film with a little action. It needs to be there for a reason.
Let’s use The Matrix as an example. Morpheus takes Neo to the oracle to determine if he is The One or not. On their way back, they are ambushed by agents, setting up a series of action sequences that necessarily flow from each other in a simple story line: They are ambushed, Morpheus is captured, Neo and Trinity return to rescue him. It is a simple, effective and clear narrative. We understand the characters’ goal (to rescue Morpheus) and we understand the necessity of confrontation in order to reach that goal. The fights here are critical to the movie’s progression.
3 – A little comedy never hurt nobody.
Action is funny; at least it can be. In The Avengers, the script is littered with one liners and comedic moments. The action however is serious as fuck. There is no reason why an awesome movie fight scene can’t be made even more awesomer (it’s a word if I say it is) with a slight shift in tone to humour.
Check out how the legendary Quentin Tarantino uses visual comedy in this little moment of action in Django Unchained.
4 – An arc.
Like everything in film, good movie fight scenes require an arc. There needs to be a story within the few minutes of action. It starts with a relative equilibrium, rises to a climax, and resolves at the end.
The arc can be built through the intensity of the fighting, the amount of people fighting, and the introduction of weapons, amongst other exciting things.
5 – Big fancy guns aren’t necessary.
If a movie is relying on a crazy gun to make the action good, it probably isn’t a good movie and should be shot with that gun.
Sometimes you see characters in films discussing the power of a weapon before its use. They say how dangerous it is and how much damage it could cause. This is simply a ploy so that when it gets whipped out later in the film, the audience will be like “Holy fuck, look how dangerous it is and how much damage it could cause.”
The thing is though, the gun is merely a distraction from the lack of an engaging fight. If a movie choreographs a fight scene really well, weapons may not be necessary at all.
6 – That being said, sometimes big fancy guns are cool as fuck.
Yes I know, you don’t need to quote me. Let me clarify: If awesome weapons can be introduced to an already awesome fight, it can just make the whole action sequence better.
The reality is, people find machine guns and knife throwing to be gripping viewing. So if we have a massive melee, everyone punching and kicking each other with fantastic choreography and someone pulls out a big knife and starts chopping people, that could be great.
7 – The odds of the fight must be stacked against the hero.
There is nothing heroic in defeating a weaker opponent, and there isn’t much exciting about it either. When the protagonist begins to fight, the audience needs to believe they are in for a challenge. Be it a stronger villain or a massive group of angry enemies, they need to have a mountain to climb ahead of them.
Sorry to reference Tarantino again (I’m not sorry at all, he’s the greatest), but check out this visual from Kill Bill. Any normal person would think The Bride stands no chance (even though it’s Hollywood and obviously she’ll win). Automatically we become engaged in the protagonist’s seemingly impossible challenge.
8 – Realistic fighting
This sounds obvious; of course we want the fighting to look realistic. The issue is, sometimes it just looks, well… shit.
A main reason for this is that most actors have no stunt training. Obviously for parts stunt workers will fill in. But a lot of the time, actors try their best to perform the fights themselves. Sometimes though this can look just slightly off.
Also, we want to watch fights we can imagine. Now I’m not saying I can imagine myself triple roundhouse kicking a 6 foot 5 terrorist in the face. But I’d like to still believe it possible for some seriously talented and trained person to do it. Which brings me to…
9 – Awesome fighting
Yes, the fighting must look Badass with a capital B. The best example I can think of for this is The Raid. If you haven’t seen it, The Raid is an Indonesian action film with some of the best movie fight scenes I’ve ever seen.
The protagonist is a highly trained special forces officer, so his fight moves are believable (reference point 8), and he rarely uses a weapon at all, relying on the funkiest fist, elbow and leg combinations I have ever seen (reference point 5).
Put simply, this is fight choreography done at its best. It is believable, and it is fucking awesome.
I probably could have just left an attachment to The Raid film instead of writing this whole how to make a good movie fight scene article, but whatever, I didn’t. Fight me.