Choreography is a Physical Story

I just watched The Raid: Redemption (and I thought colons were only used for sequels, silly me!) which is a film that was hyped in martial arts cinema, and fits in the sub-genre of “Take The Castle”.

It’s a fun genre. Troy is an excellent example: fortified city, army within besieged by an army without. The invaders use a ploy to get inside. Lots of killing to get to the king or champion. Then, usually, the invaders sack the city but their leader dies.

Other examples and spins of “Take the Castle”:

  • Die Hard (a nice reversal where Maclaine is the Hector role)
  • The Protector (with Ong Bak’s Tony Jaa)
  • Rapid Fire (with Brandon Lee, a one-two punch of invasions)
  • The upcoming Judge Dredd

Back to The Raid. There are some amazing fight sequences in this, and the final fight is an improbably 7.5 minutes long. I’ve been thinking of using it to teach martial arts techniques because they use practically everything in this two-on-one match to the death.

The problem, as is often the case, is story.

I’m not criticizing the overall plot of the film, which is ridiculous. Because you can play along with a crazy premise, and even forgive bad dialogue once in a while. That is our widest view: the whole film.

  • Introduction: who are the parties and what is their conflict?
  • Main Action: what tactics are used to achieve their goals?
  • Conclusion: who is successful?

A short film may only have one main action, but a feature has several changes and complications along the way. My job is not to teach you screenwriting, though, so I’ll shut up about things I don’t know about.

The important part is that every scene in a movie should have the same elements. As an actor, you should break down a scene into an introduction (where are you coming from? Why are you there?), main action (what tactics will you use in this scene to achieve your goal?) and conclusion (showing your success or failure, and getting to the next scene).

As a fighter, break down your confrontation in the same way.

  • How do you feel at the start of the fight? What is your goal? Are you surprised by the violence erupting, or are you the instigator? Why?
  • What tactics do you use to win? How do you deal with pain? Do you change your strategy as you learn about your opponent?
  • What’s your situation at the end, alive but wounded? Triumphant? Apologetic?

The fun part is that you can and should use this breakdown for smaller sections as well. Consider each phrase or sequence of your fight (or scene) as having those divisions.

And to properly show any single move for the audience, break it down into: preparation – action – reaction.

In the case of the slap, raise the hand high in preparation and to cue your partner, then the main slapping action, then your reaction at the end.

Sadly, many fight scenes that incorporate hundreds of moves and creative uses of space take no time to design the story of the fight. The Raid has police mindlessly murdering dozens of criminals at a time. Criminals are given an incentive at the start to attack the police, and none of them second-guess that. And that incredibly long and expertly fought climactic fight just has all three men jumping back up every time they are slammed into concrete, kicked in the spine and have joints popped.

I don’t need realism. I just want a story. Without story, it’s just a demo.


David McCormick Head of Stage Combat at Academie Duello and certified Instructor with Fight Directors Canada. Head of Bartitsu at Academie Duello, the longest continuously running Bartitsu program in the world.
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