I recently came upon the following video:
It talks about "rhythm" and sequencing in fight scenes. There's a great quote around 4:25 that speaks of "the audience doesn't know the rhythm's there until it's not there."
I started to pay attention to this in some martial arts films and you can't help but notice it more once you are looking for it. Instead of "rhythm" what I like to think of it is "sequences of action" in a single film take. When a performer isn't good or the director is trying to save money on takes, very rarely will "sequences of action" be done in a single take. In other words, will only a single punch or kick happen in a video take before they cut away to a different angle? Or will multiple kicks/punches occur within a single take in a sequence of a choreographed fight?
Lets start by looking at a bad fight scene. This scene in The Medallion, a pretty terrible Jackie Chan film, with Claire Forlani in a pretty awful fight.
Very rarely is more than a single punch or kick ever done in a take. One punch or kick is done, then they director cuts to a different angle. Only at 41 seconds into the video do they even bother to sequence about 3 kicks together in a take and at about 46 seconds there are two kicks in the take.
In contrast, lets take a look at a fight that is perhaps a gold standard of excellence, the Michelle Yeoh vs Zhang Ziyi fight in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
This fight is wonderful. Throughout the fight you see sequences of multiple thrusts & blocks of a sword in a single take. The overhead sequences at 1:02 in the video is particularly wonderful. I counted about 15 actions (attacks/parrys/blocks) sequenced together in a single take as the actresses move across the floor.
It's interesting to look at Jackie Chan fights that were directed in Hong Kong vs. America. In the first fight scene in Rush Hour, we get this very meh fight sequence.
Again, you can see that most of the takes contain a single punch or action. Only at about 1:05 do they bother to sequence about 2 attacks in a single shot and a few multiple actions in a shot around 1:20.
In contrast, I think of this incredible fight from First Strike
There are many sequences of 3-4 actions in a single take which give the fight a much better rhythm. The chair sequence at 1:06 is particularly wonderful. Does Jackie Chan really need to jump over a chair, duck a chair thrown, and catch one in a single take? No. But it adds something special to the scene.
Likewise with the ladder sequence. You could probably forgive Jackie Chan for only doing a single attack or block with a ladder given its hefty weight. However, at 3:38 he actually launches an attack with the ladder opening up and bothers to block two further attacks in a single take. That's the kind of thing that makes these fights far more special.
While looking at martial arts fights on YouTube, I thought I'd bring up one particularly awesome scene. It's the elevator fight scene from Ip Man 3.
Once they exit the elevator, there are sequences of 5+ punches/blocks/kicks in a single take. The overhead shot at 1:54 is particularly amazing. I count 15 actions that take place as the actors move down the stairs, around the hallway, and end with one actor getting kicked down the next batch of stairs. All in a single take.
Finally, just to show that it doesn't take trained martial artists in Hong Kong to do good fights, lets take a look at this Neo vs. Agent Smith fight in the Matrix.
To my knowledge, neither actor is actually trained in martial arts. But with some good choreography and good editing and willingness from the director, you can sequence many punches/blocks into a single take and get a much better fight scene out of it.
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