From Mav: We often watch action movies and talk about how realistic or unrealistic the fights are. Everyone always says “oh, I love John Wick. The action is so realistic!” No it’s not! In real life, fights are really kind of boring. At least most people would probably think they are. In real life a bar fight last for about thirty seconds. You get about three or four thudding punches and then one guy tackles the other to the ground and they sort of hug awkwardly as they try to choke each other until a bouncer comes and peels them apart and kicks them both out. Then people talk about it for two minutes and say stuff like “holy shit, did you see that? That shit was nuts!” And then they go back to drinking their beer and trying to pick up the cute girl at the end of the bar and pretty much forget about the fight. And the next day the only thing anyone remembers is that a couple of dumbasses had a fight at the club last night, and no one really recalls or cares about specifics. They think they liked it, but really… there was a bunch of nothing. That’s it.
Movies aren’t like that. In movies, fights are epic. They’re acrobatic. Everyone knows Kung Fu! Like it doesn’t matter who you are. If you grew up in a dojo, you know Kung Fu. If you trained in the US army, you know Kung Fu. If you had fight training uploaded to your brain by magic or a computer… Kung Fu! If you’re a space ranger or an archaeology professor, Kung fu! If you were a part of a random street gang in Chicago… Kung Fu! The only way you don’t know Kung Fu, is if you are some big huge brick of a man who can just soak up fifty punches to the face, like they’re spitballs… and then really if you’re that guy, then you’re just kinda walking the Earth waiting for some other guy who knows enough Kung Fu to come by and finally kick your ass. And I’m not talking about real Kung Fu. This is movie Kung Fu. It’s all about being flashy. People bounce off walls, dodge bullets and back flip between visible lasers. In the movies, to know Kung Fu is to become super heroic and damn near immortal.
At least, that’s how it works sometimes. The other alternative is to go in the complete opposite direction. Fights are visceral and bloody. There’s gore. The human body contains roughly 347 pints of blood and can lose up to 346 of them before it suffers any adverse effects. This is the domain of John McLane, John Wick, John Connor, John Rambo and Jon Snow. In fact, maybe the secret here is just being named John, Maybe it’s John Fu! With John Fu, the spectacle isn’t miraculous displays of athleticism; instead it’s all about the display of effects trauma on the human body. This isn’t reality. It’s hyperreality. Can we evoke a visceral reaction from the viewer by subjecting them to as much visual display of trauma as possible? It’s why mutilation style body horror like the Saw movies works. John Fu is about taking that trauma out of horror and transmuting it to the action genre while retaining as much of the “gut” reaction (pun intended, but regretted) as possible.
In either case, it’s all about spectacle. Real fights are often either very short, or very long but methodical. Even for professional fighters, such as in MMA events or Greco Roman wrestling, the action is so slow and close quarters that common viewers who don’t understand the nuance of what’s going on often find it boring. In events like boxing or karate tournaments, the rules are set to keep the action fast paced and upright as much for the enjoyment of the crowd as it is for the safety of the combatants. Fencing is entertaining purely because you’re only allowed to use very specific swords in very limited ways. You can totally pull three minutes of entertainment out of a sport where two guys are forced to use blunt swords, limited to a six foot field, and can only strike certain areas or the body whit certain parts of the sword. In a real sword fight, you just sort of try to behead or skewer the other guy as quickly as possible and hope it doesn’t happen to you first.
On the other hand, professional wrestling is all about flash and visual spectacle. The fighting that occurs in pro wrestling is fast paced and visual. There are ropes to bounce off of. People flip or throw each other through the air. Pro-wrestlers seem almost superhuman, often even more so than their movie counterparts. In real life the power of a punch is governed by a very simple mathematical equation: Force = Mass x Acceleration. This is basic physics. In pro-wrestling the more spectacular something is, the more it hurts. If a body flips, while traveling through the air, it cause more damage to the body it connects with. The more flips, the more pain. This even works outside of the acrobatic moves. The more machinations and gyrations Dusty Rhodes went through (Flip, Flop and Fly), the more his bionic elbow hurt his opponent. See, he was storing up potential energy in his body to be released through the strike. That’s just wrestling science! And as a fan and former participant (yes dammit, I really was a wrestler once). I believe it. Just as surely as I believe that “Parts Unknown” is an actual place.
Meron Langsner studies the phenomenon of the added believability in impractical action in his dissertation and upcoming book. He calls the phenomenon the “Impossible Body” and argues that the difference between believability and reality is key in the depiction of violence on stage or screen. That is the spectacle of the violence is more enjoyable when the human body is “outside the bounds of Newtonian mechanics.”
I would argue that this actually extends beyond violence to any physical act. We don’t want to watch real sex in porn. Real sex is gross and disgusting and no one would do it if it didn’t feel so amazing. We want to see exciting sex in porn. Awkward positions. Loud orgasms. Props! Even something as great as sex just needs to be improved for entertainment value. In real life race car driving is super exciting… and the worst thing that can happen is two car crash and people die. Real race car drivers train to avoid that as much as possible But if you put it on the big screen, there needs to be constant danger of this. A movie about race car driving where no one crashes and dies…. is a really bad movie.
We want to discuss the impossible body on Vox Popcast. We’ll hopefully be joined by Meron Langsner (who not only is an academic and fight choreographer but was actually my karate sensei at one point) and my former wrestling tag team partner (who is way better and more famous than me), Impact tag champion, DJ Z. What are your thoughts? What makes violence or action believable? What makes you want crazy Kung Fu in one movie and more grounded “John Fu” in another? How do you relate what is and isn’t “good violence” visually? What are your other thoughts? Or do you have anything else interesting to add? Let us know and we can talk about it on the show (or even ask you to come on and talk about it with us).