When you think about the distinctive ingredients of Americana, the elements that comprise what we think about when we think of what makes America so…American, it’s easy to recite the clichéd short-list: mom, apple pie, convertibles, rock and roll, McDonalds, sexual repression, colonialism, enhanced interrogations, et cetera.
But really, when you get down to it, we are all about violence. And, to a large degree, violence sort of encompasses all of the things listed above (the violence we do to others, the violence we do to the environment, the violence we do to ourselves–inherent in the desires we succumb to as well as deny, which are epitomized by most religions). But our religion is violence, and our cathedral has long been the silver screen. So we celebrate our addiction to violence in ways less brutal but more calculated than the barbaric Gladiator spectacles of yesteryear (we weren’t Americans yet): by perfecting what has become a universal aesthetic, the movie fight scene. Kind of like porn movie plots are a delivery device for the fucking, action movie plots are often a disposable fulcrum for the fighting.
The actual art of choreographed violence is serious business, literally and figuratively (i.e., in terms of time and money spent, and revenue generated) and really should not be blithely dismissed. There are books written, there are even movies made about the making of movies. So let the academics and darkened room disciples ruminate and pontificate; it’s much more enjoyable to make fun of the ritual that constitutes an entire industry. And it’s certainly a hell of a lot more satisfying to consider the sinister art of the bad fight scene, the dark cousin of the painstakingly crafted celluloid ballet. The bad fight scene, a semi-retarded pas de deux, has evolved into its own special status: it is an indispensable aspect of our culture. Thank God.
To appreciate the curious magic of the laughably bad, it’s helpful to first consider the unassailably good. I don’t know many serious film critics (or fans) who would deny that our nimble brethren from Asia have come closest to elevating the serious fight scene to unprecedented levels of artistry. Two recent examples, each featuring the obligatory one-man vs. the crowd sequence appear in Chan Wook Park’s Old Boy and Prachya Pinkaew’s Tom-Yum-Goong.
Exhibit A: Dae Su (the great Choi Min-Sik) drops the hammer (pun intended) on a bunch of hoods. Improbable, over-the-top, outstanding!
Exhibit B: the jaw-dropping Tony Jaa’s instant classic (already immortal) one-take (!!) fight scene, which took over a month to prepare and rehearse. The result is unedited (!!!) perfection, using the fifth take. Respect!
As kind of an antidote, it’s instructive to appreciate Martin Scorsese’s integrity. His dedication to authenticity depicts an epic fight scene that actually plays out the way fights usually look in real life: sloppy, uneven, embarrassing. This is a clinic, made indelible by De Niro and Joey “The Mook”:
And as an intermission, or delicious palette cleanser, let’s appreciate the sine qua non of campy superhero fight scenes (which obliges us to turn to the ultimate in camp, the caped crusader played by the marvelous Adam West): this is the all-in battle royale, a brawl that involves all the assorted players (skip to the three-minute mark if you can’t stand the suspense). Three words: “Bon voyage pussy!” Holy blissful extravagance, Batman! (Much, much more on Batman, and camp, here.)
Speaking of camp: does it get any better (worse) than Patrick Swayze? This scene has so much homoerotic energy it almost sucks its own dick. You can fear the mullets while simultaneously contemplating who’s gayer: Swayze, (the great) Ben Gazzara (“Can somebody geta drink around here?”) or the dude with pool cue? Are you kidding me? In very un-American fashion, embedding is disabled but you can enjoy a full ten minutes worth of “highlights” here.
Of course, the only cat who could challenge Swayze for the crown is Rob Lowe. First up, an epic romp with Andrew McCarthy (doing his finest work, which isn’t saying much) from the so-bad-it’s-great Class (two words: Jacqueline Bisset). Skip ahead to the 5.23 mark for the fight, but you can watch the whole thing to appreciate John Cusak in his first movie role. Recognize!
But this is child’s play compared to Youngblood(which gets you a young(er) Swayze and Keanu Reeves, demonstrating that at no time in his career could he act), a cheesefest that reaches almost offensive levels of connect-the-dots corniness. The bromance battling the testosterone here is officially off the charts; the movie itself is one long fight scene between gay yearning and feel-good Hollywood onanism.
Of course, for both fight scenes and hockey, it’s all about the Hanson brothers and Slap Shot (six words: “I’m listening to the fucking song!):
Don’t think I’m going to sleep on Stallone. Any number of his movies could be considered (duh) but for the all-time camp, how you can top the over-the-top invocation of boxing and pro wrestling? Enter a relatively young Hulk Hogan as Thunderlips, the ultimate male. (Incidentally, Rocky III would be on the short list of all-time homo-erotic films. It may be in the top three alongside Road House and Top Gun.)
Now we’re approaching that elevated plane also known as the truth. Male gymnist? Check. Pommel horse? Check. Gayness off the charts? Big check. The only remaining question being, can you handle this truth? Let’s see:
But let’s stop screwing around and get to the glory. The scene, and I mean the scene, where all the elements (camp, over-the-top pyrotechnics, implausibility, bad (and good) acting, and wrestling) come together, are made manifest in John Carpenter’s They Live. A six minute fight scene. S.I.X. M.I.N.U.T.E.S. And this isn’t just a gratuitous scrap; the end of the world as we know it as at stake (“Put on the glasses!”), with hero Roddy Piper (formerly “Rowdy” Roddy Piper of World Wrestling Federation fame) and not-yet-convinced good guy Keith David sorting things out in an alley. The sequence allegedly took over three weeks to rehearse, and it’s one for the ages.
So what do you get, where else is there to go, when you have a scene like the one above, that parodies virtually every aspect of the entire history of fight scenes? You have a scene that parodies that scene. Enter Ernie the Giant Chicken, the recurring character from Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy. (The scene below is an appetizer; here is the main course.)
What else is there left to say? Why not tie it all together with the only genius who actually is capable of intermingling all of these elements into his own work. Martial arts inspired reggae? Lee Scratch Perry has it covered.
So what did I miss? Let me know what fight scene (good, bad, ugly or hopefully, all of these) you would put into the pantheon. Peace!