4 Things That Every Good Fight Scene Needs (And Why John Wick Nails All of Them)

When I realized I’d spent more time looking for something to watch than it would’ve taken me to watch something, I knew I had a problem. I don’t consider myself to be special in this, certainly not alone, but there are times where I don’t want to start or finish anything. If I’m lucky, I have some vague notion of what might satisfy a need to watch… something. It’s a real problem.

But it’s in those trying times that I cheer myself up by skipping around any streaming platform I’ve still got a working free trial for, jumping around to just find the good scenes. Then, around 2:00 am, I write this column.

I’m Clint Gage, and this is not my attempt at an objective list of the best fight scenes ever. This is just my Timecode Party.

If Keanu Reeves is to be taken seriously, and in this house we do take him very seriously, the fourth chapter of John Wick has me jonesing for a tussle. And if Elton John is to be believed, there’s at least one night of the week that’s very specifically alright for fighting. It should also be noted that I like my fight scenes like I like my back-to-back references; wildly different and 50 years apart. But it turns out that even when picking a bunch of semi-random fight scenes, a pattern begins to emerge. You can see how great fight scenes share more than you think. And just to make sure this John Wick-inspired column keeps its fight scene selections SEMI-random, John Wick is as good a place to start as any.

Stop Number 1 – John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

Timecode: 1:02:12 – 1:05:15

Steaming Service: Peacock

After our favorite force of assassin nature headshots his way out of a labyrinth of Roman catacombs, just when we think he’s strolling back home, he gets hit by a car. The fight scene that follows is a brutal exchange between Wick and Common’s Cassian that I think perfectly encapsulates everything that’s great about the John Wick franchise.

First and most obviously, it’s two actors insanely committed to the choreography. If they’re not completely bought into the process, that means the camera stays farther away, the edit starts getting quicker, all these little filmmaking hacks to hide stunt men begin to show up and turn the grappling into something else, something a little tamer and more familiar. Instead, we see Keanu Reeves and Common just utterly going to town on each other.

Secondly, the reason they’re fighting is spectacular. They’re not rivals or adversaries. They’re colleagues from way back who know the rules as well as they can be known. They’re rules that forced John Wick to kill the woman Cassian was protecting and equally force Cassian to try to kill John Wick. They’re veterans of this game and they’re inflicting so much pain on each other just because duty compels them to do it. It’s that unbreakable, absolute fealty to the High Table is one of the most crucial elements of the Wick franchise, and it’s on perfect display right in the middle of Chapter 2.

And thirdly, the filmmaking is tying it all together. As I said, it’s cut like the anti-Bourne identity, with long takes where the choreography gets to shine. While that’s not unique within the Wick franchise, what’s great about this one is the sound. There’s no music, no stings to punctuate certain moments. It’s as though the movie itself is just getting out of the way to let these two guys hash it out. The only sound we get is the impact of punches. So when they fall down the stairs for, honestly the best way to describe it is, a while, it’s not because stair gags are the most John Wick thing for that moment, it’s because a painful slog of a fist fight in the ancient cobblestone streets of Europe is the most John Wick thing for that moment.

A good fight scene has to be filmed in a way that works with the choreography, so the whole sequence is making a point, which leads us to…

Stop Number 2 – Upgrade (2018)

Timecode: 37:40 – 40:12

Streaming Service: Peacock

Staying with Peacock and another fight scene where the form serves the function in some really incredible ways, you have to love Upgrade. It’s the story of a man who’s been augmented with STEM, a next-gen AI chip that can control his movements, and the first fight scene where Logan Marshall-Green’s Grey lets STEM fully take the wheel… Well, the result is incredible.

Every punch Grey throws, with computerized precision, brings confusion and terror to his face. Green’s performance is a fascinating study in body control. He moves like a robot but emotes like a human. He’s both fighter and bystander all at once and it freaks him out. But while the scene is funny and brutal in equal measure, on top of it all is director Leigh Whannell’s camera. The frame moves to match Grey thanks to a system that paired a phone on the actor’s body to the camera itself, syncing the movement of the camera to the movement of the actor.

The result is one of my all time favorite things that movies can do, which is to put you in the experience of the characters on screen. The programmed, mechanical energy of the scene is an awkward, uncomfortable and wholly unfamiliar way for a camera to move. It puts you in the mindset of a man watching his own body move in the same manner. Grey in this scene is as much an audience member as we are. It’s a pulpy and strange sequence where the dynamic between Grey and STEM is so brazenly absurd, you can’t help but laugh a little. As a near-future sci fi thriller, Upgrade is heightened in its premise already, and the fight scenes take full advantage.

Fighting is not a thing we actually see out in the world very often, certainly not expertly crafted encounters like the ones we’re used to seeing on screen. So I love it when fight scenes lean into the absurdity of it all, and have a little fun. And nobody ever had quite so good a time as…

Stop Number 3 – Fist of Fury (1972)

Timecode: 16:24

Streaming Service: Paramount+

We can’t really go any further without acknowledging Bruce Lee. The Dragon is, of course, the badass from which most modern badassery is derived, especially the cocky, undefeated swagger he brought to every frame of film that was lucky enough to capture him. There’s a scene early in 1972’s Fist of Fury, starting with the way he struts into the rival dojo, that’s nine consecutive minutes of ass-kicking that doesn’t end until he makes them literally eat words. Lee takes out a room full of prideful black belts in their own house and, in spite of being crazy outnumbered, he barely breaks a sweat.

But the reason I’m adding Fist of Fury to my Timecode Party is how much fun it is. There’s revenge at play here, and a group of people that think they’ve got the measure of Lee who find out quickly and painfully that they in fact do not. There’s an extended foot smashing sequence where Lee rolls around on the ground playing whack-a-mole with a set of nunchucks and black belts toes. The cool is laced with silly in exactly the right proportion and the result is, like in Upgrade, an emotional distance wide enough to enjoy the violence we’re seeing on screen.

The other side of this coin, and I think an honorable mention of a stop in my Timecode Party, is back over on Peacock with Donnie Yen in Ip Man. At 57:00, the set-up is the same as Fist of Fury: Donnie Yen’s Ip is there seeking revenge. He charges into a Japanese general’s fighting ring and just obliterates 10 guys. There is just enough excess to heighten the bloodbath, with limbs bending at impossible angles and opponents getting flipped dramatically to the ground. What Ip is doing in this scene is, for sure, fantasy, but the reason he’s there is darker, the revenge much weightier.

They’re both incredible achievements in martial arts cinema, both built on a one-versus-many mission of vengeance, but while Ip Man makes an impact with the drama of the moment, Bruce Lee and Fist of Fury lands with a swaggering punch to the solar plexus that, frankly, lends itself much better to a context-free Timecode Party.

The point here is, Bruce Lee helped popularize a brand of martial arts film that excelled at being a cocky, strutting blast and thanks to fights like his in Fist of Fury, I look for a little bit of bonkers in every fight scene I enjoy.

Stop Number 3 – Godzilla vs. Kong

Timecode: 1:22:25

Streaming Service: HBO Max

Speaking of bonkers, the climactic act of Godzilla vs. Kong is almost obscene. It’s literally soaked in neon, King Kong has a goddamn magical axe and then they team up to fight an enormous robot. What else do you need? Mostly, I decided to end it here because it’s as far in the opposite direction as you can get from where we started with John Wick: Chapter 2, but also I love this scene because it so clearly does not give a damn and the proof is all right there on the street.

Just a few years earlier a fuss was made over the collateral damage in Man of Steel, so much so that big disaster movies for a time made a point to move their act three showdowns to uninhabited islands or “oh thank god it’s the business district and everybody’s at lunch. Those buildings are empty.” But Godzilla vs. Kong goes out of its way to highlight how many people are still running for cover at every stage of this fight scene. It’s to the point where I start to think, “why the hell has it taken you so long to get out of there?”

The recent run of the Godzilla franchise has had problems when it comes to the human characters moving the plot along from ground level. Where they have never had a problem is escalating the monster on monster violence from one movie to the next along with accompanying buildings collapsing in major metropolitan areas.

That, of course, is all an issue of scale but there’s always an element of destruction that’s satisfying to see in a good fight scene. In John Wick Chapter 2, it’s just half a dozen cars getting their windows shot out simply for being parked nearby. It can be as small as feeding a poster to the guys you just beat up, or as massive as leveling Hong Kong, but I need my fight scene omelets to break some eggs.

Party’s Over

John Wick has set another bar for other filmmakers to strive for, but the formula for a great fight scene has been around for years. If you find yourself bouncing around, scrubbing through action movies looking for the juicy bits, you can probably see it in all your favorites. Show me committed actors, solid filmmaking choices working in conjunction with the choreography and a healthy dose of heightened reality so we can wrap our real world brains around fake movie fighting, and I’ll show you a Timecode Party worthy fight scene.

Let me know what your Timecode Party would look like in the comments!

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