A Lexicon of Fight, Part 2: Against All Odds

2009 Feb 18

Check out Part 1: Battle Carnage.

Against All Odds are situations where one or more named characters are fighting a group of nameless characters. By all rights, they should be dispatched easily by the larger group, but that’s not usually what happens. Against All Odds fights can be subdivided into the following components:

  • Foreplay,
  • Spotlights, and
  • Mook Rotation.

Not all of these are present in all fights, but, often, stronger and more narrative fights — such as those choreographed by Yuen Wooping — contain all these elements.

Here’s a few example fights we can talk about:

  1. Ninja fight from Mortal Kombat (from about 4:00-5:00 in this clip)
  2. Dojo fight from Fist of Legend (from the beginning until about 2:15)
  3. Vampire Chateau fight from the Matrix Reloaded (same choreographer as Fist of Legend, Yuen Wooping)
  4. The Death of Ga-Nam from Musa (the ground fight happens between about 2:00 and 5:20)
  5. Bar fight from Rumble in the Bronx (starts as a Showdown but turns into a mook fight around 0:55)

You could also throw in the bar fight from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or the open field battle with those bizarre spear-shield guys in House of Flying Daggers.

Now, one might be tempted to look at fight #4 and say, “How is that not Battle Carnage?” There are guys on horses and most of the other fights in Musa are Battle Carnage. What makes this a mook battle? My sense is this: Against All Odds happens within a clear sense of location and unity between the efforts of characters on both sides. In fight #4, you have a sense that the combat is happening in a single location, even though that doesn’t really make sense (how does Ga-Nam manage to join the fight before its over, since he’s running from the fortress?). Also, the three protagonist characters are clearly working together against the Mongol mooks. The slave and the general even do that back-to-back thing, signaling their allied intentions for the first time in the entire movie. In constrast, the other examples of Battle Carnage are usually montages of different locations and characters. Part of what makes Battle Carnage chaotic is the sense that things are happening all over the place. That said, there’s not always a clear distinction between fight types. These are categories that I’m making up to help spur discussion about fights; they don’t actually exist.

Getting into the meat of things, Foreplay can vary quite a bit in Against All Odds fights and sets the tone of the encounter. In fight #1, the characters consider the ninjas to be an annoyance, not anything scary. However, the second group of ninjas that arrive at the end of the fight seem to pose more of a threat. In fights #2 & #3, Chen Zhen and Neo are very confident that they will beat the shit out of everyone in the room. However, in fight #4, the three protagonists dash off to fight the Mongols fully intending to perish. In fight #5, however, Jackie — though clearly a badass — actually seems unsure of the outcome, as if he’s sincerely worried that the swarm of mooks is going to beat them to a pulp. That’s a standard trait of the better Jackie Chan films — Jackie is always freaking out — and is really effective in gaining the audience’s sympathy and engagement. “Oh no, Jackie! Look out!” In fact, I would argue that the Vampire Chateau fight, like all of the Neo fights in the Matrix sequels, actually loses a lot of punch because there’s never any doubt that Neo St. Übermensch is going to triumph, without a scratch even. Compared to the anxiety that builds up whenever anyone else is fighting agents — including sub-Über Neo in the first film — the contrast is pretty clear.

Individual spotlights in Against All Odds aren’t much different from individual spotlights in Battle Carnage, so I’ll skip those, even though they probably make up 1/2 to 2/3 of most Against All Odds fights. Mook fights are generally chances for the protagonists to show off, so they’re in the spotlight a lot. In fights where there’s more than one protagonist you also get shared spotlights. You also have these in Battle Carnage, but I forgot to mention them. The back-to-back thing I mentioned above is one, as is Johnny Blaze throwing that final ninja into Sonya’s closeline. Shared spotlights reaffirm or establish a relationship between characters during a fight. These will be even more important in Showdowns, where the relationship between the fighters is even more important.

Mook Rotation is how Against All Odds fights maintain freshness and excitement when you’re basically showing one to three people beating the shit out of 50 others in quick succession. In order to make this interesting for 1-3 minutes worth of action (and 3 minutes is a long fight, actually), you have to rotate your mooks and there are a few different ways to do this.

  • Show different mooks stepping up or more mooks arriving (Crazy 88s fight in Kill Bill Part 1; also fights #2 and #5)
  • Show some mooks or a protagonist getting hurt, focusing on the pain or injury (this happens a bunch in fight #2, showing the mooks clutching their shins or nuts)
  • Show the mooks switching tactics (grabbing weapons off the wall in fight #3; in fight #2, the types of moves the karate students use change in more subtle ways, check it out; in fight #5, every mook has a new tactic)
  • Have the fight change location, which in turn causes the fighters to change tactics (fight #3 has this all over the place, as does fight #5)

2 Responses to “A Lexicon of Fight, Part 2: Against All Odds”

  1. John Harper Says:

    You have excellent taste in fight scenes, sir.

  2. And maybe this is obvious, but this sort of thing seems like a useful tool for Mist-Robed Gate.

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