Friday, December 12, 2014

The Great Scenes: Jason Bourne and Filmdom's Best Fight Scene

Grantland today posted a long piece by Shea Serrano and Jason Concepcion about the greatest movie fighters ever. It's a really cool piece that I recommend everyone check out. Of course, there's no way anyone was going to agree with everything they chose (and omitted) , but it's a very good list with a nice mix of obscure stuff that I'd never seen before. It even highlighted a really cool moment from Jack Reacher, a decent action flick that no one seems to have seen. 

A list like Shea & Jason's is meant to provoke appreciation for its subject, not to be attacked via pointless argument, so before I start doing just that, let's all take a moment to celebrate how cool good movie fights are, and to thank Shea & Jason for reminding us. 

Overall, I don't find myself with too much to argue against. They definitely like Road House a little too much--and let's be honest, anyone that likes Road House likes it a little too much--and they somehow never mention anything featuring Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson, which feels like a tragic oversight. I know sergeants  John McClane and Martin Riggs aren't exactly the most graceful fighters ever to grace the silver screen, but they're the action stars that an entire generation was raised on, so they deserve a shout out. But those quibbles aside, the big gripe I have about the list is the absence of Jason Bourne. He should have been in the top 4 or 5 of Greatest Movie Fighters. 

What almost every fight scene on the Grantland list has in common is that--in some way or another--style trumps reality. Be it the soundtrack guiding our emotional response, long tracking shots, snappy dialogue among the fighters, exaggerated blood and/or sound effects, inventiveness in weapons that defy logic, blind protagonists, Jean-Claude Van Damme laughably screaming, Patrick Swayze ripping someone's throat out (literally!), Uma Thurman yanking out not one, but two eyeballs, Keanu Reeves doing Keanu Reeves things, Jackie Chan guzzling alcohol like he's Popeye power-upping through spinach, or someone backflipping off an elephant, every single one of the fight scenes highlighted in the Grantland column finds a way to deemphasize the possible reality of the situation. They all proactively act as entertainment, and find specific ways to make sure we're entertained beyond just the hitting. 

Okay, now hold that thought while I pretend to be an expert on something I know nothing about. 

Here's the best fight scene from The Bourne Ultimatum, which is the third film in the series and, for my money, the best action movie of the last 10-15 years. 

This is the most realistic fight scene I've ever seen in a film. I know this from my extensive experience in fights to death. (See, I told you I'd pretend to be an expert on something I know nothing about!)

Everything that I mentioned about being in the other fight scenes is completely absent from this one. Nothing jokey or hokey, ridiculous or self-consciously stylistic. The fighters never crack puns, scream dramatically, make cool poses to intimidate one another, or defy all logic of speed/movement/anatomy. There's no music to heighten the drama. It's simply two-and-a-half minutes of two people trying to kill each other with every ounce of savagery, efficiency, and concentration they can muster, and doing a damn effective job of it. No more, no less. 

I'm perfectly aware that there's a lot more editing in this scene, the shots are infinitely shorter, and that probably hides that the actors have a lot less skill than the actors highlighted in the Grantland piece. But the problem with the less-edited clips in the Grantland piece is that the choreography and scene prepping come across much more. We become more aware of the impressiveness of the craft. With the Bourne fight, the idea is that all awareness of absolutely anything in the viewer is eliminated except for the two characters trying to kill each other. It's all we can see, hear, or think about. 

It's also worth noting that Bourne's final disposal of Desh is far less showy and glamorous than any of the other fight scene climaxes. There's no Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. Bourne simply gets his opponent in a hold, and chokes him until he's dead. (Warning: I'm about to play an expert again.) That's how it would be! 

The pretentiousness often associated with critics of any discipline is that we try too hard to not be entertained. All of the fight clips in the Grantland piece are entertaining, and I truly love a lot of them. But they're all less impressive to me than the Bourne fight because the Bourne fight is the only one that isn't trying to entertain me--it's trying to show me truth. And I find that the most entertaining of all. 

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