Be it leaping between cranes, crashing expensive sports cars, or one man beating his way through a guarded hallway, everyone loves a good intense practical stunt. But in an age of safety consciousness and rushed deadlines, for every great action sequence, another suffers from choppy editing, shaky camera work and overall poor tone; faults that essentially take you out of the action. But who is to blame for these occurrences? Is it the directors, the fight choreographers or maybe even the editors? One recent film might have the answer, showing just what happens two experienced fight choreographers are given a chance to direct their own feature film.
John Wick (2014) is the directorial debut for renowned fight choreography duo David Leitch and Chad Stahleski, owners of the Hollywood choreography studio 87Eleven Action Design. You might have seen some of their work before, the pair having worked as second unit directors on the likes of the Matrix, 300 and Avengers whilst training any number of Hollywood A-listers over the years. Keanu Reeves, the lead, demanded the pair direct after working with them previously on the Matrix films.
John Wick uses a blend of Judo, Sambo and Isao Okano for its fight scenes, focusing on throws and take-downs whilst keeping shaky camera work to a minimum. The success of the film might well have something to do with Leitch and Stahleski's experience. They really know the secret to a good action sequence. In a time of action films plagued by shaky camera work and chop editing that makes the scene hard to follow, John Wick is a breath of fresh air. It seamlessly blends the action with character development, with a tone that is surreally balanced. The interspersing of deadpan humour lightens some of the brutality, while accentuating it in other regards. John Wick is truly a film rooted in style and has been met with critical acclaim across the board, praised for its distinctive action sequences.
Joe Golby is a professional Freelance actor & fight/stunt specialist who has worked on a variety of independent films. Joe explains one of the reasons for John Wick’s success is the freedom to control the shots and rehearse them well. This leads to a scene that doesn't require the covering up techniques employed by most filmmakers for poorly worked scenes. They knew Keanu’s capabilities and how a fight scene comes together, from the build up to the execution, and so they could craft something that looked great. Those scenes in which Joe is given the most control in his own projects are the ones he believes usually turn out best.
Traditionally the role of the fight choreographer is to practically create the action scenes a director has in mind. The choreographer works closely with the director, offering their expertise along the way, whilst deferring to them for style guides. They will be in charge of training the actors to perform the scenes and organising where stunt doubles are necessary. The success of the final action scene will then often depend not only on the choreographer’s skill, but the creative freedom permitted, skill of the actors and the abilities of the post production editing department, since mostly, once filming is finished; the choreographer’s job is finished.
Joe goes on to say, “While it's rare that I walk into a job without having discussed things in advance with the director, putting us on the same page creatively, it doesn’t always mean the end product is the same. Every director works differently and it's my job to adapt to that; sometimes I have to work action into very specific shots or other restrictions. On other productions often involving larger set pieces, I am granted more freedom to do my thing provided it all fits with the director’s vision.”
The conflict between the director’s vision and the way an action sequence can practically be put together may often result in certain editing liberties being taken. Something John Wick doesn’t suffer from. These take the form of choppy shot changes and shaky camera work to mask the lack of contact or try and create a sense of immediacy. The effectiveness of these techniques is often dependent on the tone of the film in general, but more often than not audiences are becoming less accepting of their use, seeing them as sloppy or irritating.
Although shaky camera work can be a good way to set a more real and involved tone in the scene, when used a lot it becomes irritating as it becomes difficult to focus your attention on one spot. For example I personally disliked much of the Bourne films, because I could never really see what was going on.
The Bourne trilogy is one series where the choreography and editing have not quite matched up. Matt Damon did most of his own stunts in the films and rehearsed the scenes religiously in order to get the best outcome, but in the end was let down by the editing team.
If you watch videos of fight choreographer Jeff Imada, training Matt Damon and Joey Anash on set, their proficiency in the Philipino Kali style stage combat was high, yet when the editing department got a hold of the footage the scenes were unnecessarily chopped up into different camera angles. These changed too often, making the scenes difficult to follow.
Now take a look at the finished product for The Bourne Ultimatum.
Joe offered some insight into why these scenes ended up like they did.
"At the end of the day shaky cam and chop editing are just techniques to create certain effects, and like all techniques they can be used well or used poorly. Sadly many films take it too far. In my opinion if you can't follow the action or it takes you out of the film, then you've failed”.
“My biggest objection is when a production has the time and talent to do otherwise but made the conscious decision not to and people's enjoyment of the film suffers as a result.” says Joe.
So there you have it. Some people may well enjoy these kind of techniques, I personally am mostly against them, only accepting them as necessary in certain scenes. Joe does however encourage audiences to remember not all films are created equally. Comparing films like The Hunger Games that has a cast of relatively young actors to the longer, wider takes of The Raid: Redemption, that had lead actors trained in martial arts since the age of 13 might be a little unfair.
“There are bound to be some differences when you have that disparity in skill level and so there is a need for those editing practices. Many untrained actors look awkward when trying to fake a fight, since they don’t have precise control of their hits, so I understand what Hunger Games did even though they crossed a line” says Joe.
John Wick in the end, is a proof of concept film that shows just how good it can be when you let fight choreographers call the shots. Yes, it uses a few cliches, the premise might almost seem ridiculous, but it is so well crafted and stylishly put together that it comes out as a fantastic piece of entertainment, proving once again, don't mess with a guy's dog. More and more it would seem Hollywood are learning to trust their fight choreographers to deliver the nail biting action scenes audiences’ demand. And with franchises like the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens hiring the martial arts skilled actors from the critically acclaimed Indonesian film Raid: Redemption there may well be hope for the future. In the mean time John Wick 2 is in early development, so you can look forward to seeing some more great action sequences from the directorial duo.