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FIGHTING WITH CAVILL AND ROBBIE
Confession: I was a Kung Fu junkie. If you don't believe me, I can show you my official Jackie Chan Fan Club ID card. I once bought tickets to every showing of Rumble in the Bronx in a single day. I can boast over 200 Hong Kong films under my belt. My obsession never went as far as actually trying to learn Kung Fu, owing to my extreme lack of coordination. Instead, I read books and articles about the stars and built up a solid library of 1970's gems.
I've since moved on to other things (I'm a fickle fangirl), but something that's always stuck with me from that time is the stark difference between the way Hollywood shoots an action scene and the way they do it in Hong Kong. Trust me, once you see it, you can't unsee it. Hollywood is learning, though. Two notable examples that caught my eye recently are Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn and the Netflix show The Witcher.
It used to be that in your standard Hollywood hand-to-hand melee, the camera would be tight in on the action. They were generally poorly choreographed and chaotic. It was nearly impossible to follow individual blows and blocks. In a Hong Kong production, the camera was pulled back to frame full-body action. Fights were choreographed with a distinctive rhythm Janet Jackson would have envied. Jackie Chan has long been well-known for incorporating unconventional weapons during a fight. Pretty much any mundane object within arms reach was a potential weapon. It makes the fights exciting and unpredictable.
Hollywood directors picked up on that style. After all, Jackie Chan is likely the richest, most well-known actor in the world. He and his colleagues must have been doing something right. So, they got wise and either hired Chinese choreographers or learned from them. I should say, some of them got wise.
The popular Netflix version of The Witcher (it was a novel by Andrzej Sapkowski, a video game, and soon an animated series) already had a built-in fanbase when it came out. Admittedly, I initially watched because I couldn't peel my eyes off of Henry Cavill. I was annoyed that Yennefer had to be physically transformed to be validated. It was irritating that Geralt had to screw every female he came across. The dialogue was less than impressive. However, the fight choreography was gorgeous.
Much of the awesomeness of the fight scenes in The Witcher can be credited to Wolfgang Stegemann. If you've seen The Witcher, it likely won't have been the first time you've seen Stegemann's work. The German-born stuntman and actor also lent his choreographing talents to Men In Black: International, The Mummy, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Jumanji: the Next Level, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, and much much more. In the Witcher, he's the one responsible for the now-famous Blaviken fight. I'm not going to go into that one, since I don't want spoilers, but check out the video link below to get more detail if you want. Choreographing is not all that he does. Stegemann's also had his hand in stunts, special effects, production, editing, and acting. Reportedly, season two of The Witcher will not feature Stegemann's work. The new season will have Thomas Hacikoglu as lead fight coordinator, who worked closely with Stegemann on the first season.
While I'm making fangirl confessions, I might as well also share that I love Batman. Not so much the man, but the world of Gotham City in general. I'm more of a Marvel girl, with that one DC exception. Like a lot of folks, I'm in it for the villains; they're so much more imaginative than the billionaire playboy. Maybe you can imagine how disappointed I was when I saw Suicide Squad. I've been told the director's cut makes up for the lousy theatrical release, but I can't quite see how that will make the dialogue less-predictable. I have seen few movies where I could actually tell you what each character would say before they said it - word for word. I could go on about Suicide Squad, but that's another rant for another time.
Batman: The Animated Series was something I watched religiously. That's where Harley got her start, but she was far from the scantily-clad sex object she was portrayed as in Suicide Squad. Harley was covered head to toe in a red and black jester's outfit, complete with mask. It was her fantastic blend of innocence and criminal insanity I loved. The Halloween and fan cons after Suicide Squad were a nightmare; everywhere a Deadpool or "slutty" Harley Quinn.
Margot Robbie has completely redeemed herself as Harley Quinn with the new movie. Aside from the fact that it's uniquely feminist superhero story, it was well shot, well-directed, and the fight scenes were inspired. Inspired, as it turns out, by Jackie Chan. For more on that, check out the Inverse link.
For the fights in Birds of Prey, director Cathy Yan teamed up with the studio 87eleven. That studio was behind the action in Atomic Blonde, John Wick, and The Wolverine. From the studio, stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio and fight supervisor Jon Valera helped Yan craft the very Chan-like action, utilizing on-hand objects to kick ass. I think the glitter gun is probably my favorite, even though Harley brought that with her. The movie culminates in a funhouse fight in probably the coolest funhouse I've ever seen.
What's great about the action in Birds of Prey is that it's all very in-character for the actors involved. Harley is a happy-go-lucky gal who likes to have fun and falls afoul of Gotham's underworld creeps when her relationship with The Joker is kaput. Her moves in a fight are very glittery, colorful, fun, and a bit brutal. Rosie Perez plays Gotham City cop, Renee Montoya, who's a bit of a throwback to an old Kojak or Hill Street Blues episode. She's got a completely different stature and vibe. Her moves in Birds of Prey are almost military. The tallest character, The Huntress, is played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She's a crossbow-wielding introvert who's not as good at personal relations as she is a shooting bad guys.
When a movie does well - and if it really doesn't - it's usually the director and the stars who get all the attention. In these two instances, however, the fight choreography grabbed my attention, enticing me to learn more about the people behind it. The hard physical and mental work that goes into stunt work and fighting rarely get the recognition it deserves outside of the martial arts and stunt circles. So, I hope that if you've seen The Witcher or Birds of Prey, that you'll watch them again with an eye toward the grace of a good fight. If you haven't, at least watch them for the action if not to drool unabashedly over Henry Cavill's magnificent thighs.
As always, don't take my word for it. Check these resources:
'Birds of Prey's best fight scene was fueled by Jackie Chan, The Raid 2, and cocaine' (Inverse)
Henry Cavill Breaks Down The Blaviken Fight Scene Shot by Shot (YouTube)
*image by Pat Loika via Flickr
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