That time of year again…
It’s that time of year again! What time of year? Thanksgiving? Christmas? No. Football season. To be honest, I cannot say it’s something I really look forward to. I’m not the biggest sports person. But I don’t hate sports either. Far from it. What I do appreciate about them is that they create a venue for wholesome cooperation and competition. I also appreciate the very structured, merit-based system of personal metrics that athletes adhere to. How many homeruns have they batted in…how many touchdowns have they made…how many hoops or goals have they scored? What kinds of maneuvers did they proficiently execute in their high dive or gymnastic performances?
More than anything, though, I suppose, I appreciate the choreography of sports. The choreography of sports is not too different from the choreography of actual dance or even martial arts. Watch a high-octane action thriller close enough and you’ll see all the “plays” or “moves” at work!
Consider the John Wick franchise. Everyone’s favorite- Keanu Reeves- plays John Wick. Who is John Wick? He’s a man who’s a great fighter…and he knows how to use a gun. Also, someone killed his dog, so he goes on the warpath. Who does he fight? As far as viewers are concerned, we don’t really know, and we don’t really care…just so long as they are the “bad guys.” I know…there are of course ugly real-world consequences to this kind of thinking in aggregate. But, given that action movies are all “smoke and mirrors”, let’s just take a moment to appreciate the “warped aesthetic” of beautifully choreographed action violence.
The Dance of Bullets
We’ll use the museum fight scene from John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) as an example. In a large marble atrium, classical music plays. The large crowd of mingling patrons then part to each side. Wick appears. He stares down one of the “bad guys.” At the drop of a hat (so to speak), he unleashes the pistol from his coat pocket and fires off at least six or seven separate shots (all in varying directions). The results are bloody and precise. The orchestral score (a variant of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” it appears) drives forward the action.
One of the many suited bad guys approaches Wick. Wick swiftly parries the man’s arm to the side, locks him in a full-body embrace, and then flips him over. He squeezes the bad guy’s pistol from his grip before unloading it on a few more cronies and then reloading the pistol with a new clip. The camera (placed in front of Reeves, moving in reverse) tracks Wick as he scrambles across the museum. Wick stays crouched over…gun at the ready.
Wick unloads his pistol on a few more bad guys. He narrowly avoids bullets by seeking cover behind various columns (the bullets ricochet off nearby surfaces). Wick shoulder-rolls his way down a stairwell into a spacious gallery with sculptures, and he resumes fighting. Once again, Wick clutches another bad guy by the forearm and sweeps/flips him over onto his back, wresting his gun from him in the process and using him as a human shield. The gunplay continues. Wick hurls a pistol at a bad guy, temporarily confusing him, and then resumes navigating his way through the museum. His fighting skills are a mixture of kung fu, ballistics, and heightened situational awareness. Reeves gave us the new term “Gun-fu” for his franchise.
This is but one of many impressive fight scenes across film and television. For other recommendations- watch Ip Man (2010), Jet Li’s Fearless (2006), Enter the Dragon (1973), the Bourne, Mission: Impossible, and Bond franchises, Troy (2004), or Game of Thrones (2011-2019). Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) brilliantly employs balletic, high-wire sparring, and, well…how could we possibly forget anything by the famous martial artist, Jackie Chan? Van Damme, Statham, Willis, Schwarzenegger, Stallone…whatever else you may think of the action genre and its usual stars, you cannot deny its stylistic, adrenalizing appeal!
Now let’s shift gears for a moment. We’ll transition from the choreographic aesthetics of action films back to the choreographic aesthetics of sports films. So many choices. For baseball we could choose Field of Dreams (1989), Eight Men Out (1988), or The Pride of the Yankees (1942). We could choose Any Given Sunday (1999), Friday Night Lights (2006-2011), Remember the Titans (2000), or Rudy (1993) for football movies. Caddy Shack (1980) and Happy Gilmore (1996) are two of the greatest golf-related comedies, and King Richard (2021), with Will Smith, covered the success stories of the Williams sisters.
The Dance of Gloves
Remember the Titans (2000) hits close to home for me (literally), so I wanted to choose it, but as far as impressive sports scenes go, let’s stick to what is arguably one of the greatest boxing movies of all time—Rocky (1976). Raging Bull (1980) and The Fighter (2010) are close honorable mentions. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) steps into the ring. The referee rings the bell. Rocky squares off against Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Each throws their jabs, crosses, and hooks.
They go fifteen rounds sustaining various injuries, including blows to the head and swollen eyes. Rocky’s trainers need to cut his eyelid to restore his vision, and Creed- struggling to breathe, suffers internal bleeding and a broken rib. Creed has superior skills but Rocky is perseverant, can easily absorb punches, and doggedly refuses to go down. The bell rings, the two embrace each other and promise each other no further rematch. George Jergens (Thayer David), though, ultimately declares Creed the winner. Rocky embraces Adrian (Talia Shire).
In the case of both scenes/sequences, we can break them down into individual moves. Let’s focus on the latter in terms of boxing. A boxer sticks to about six separate punches- the jab (1), cross (2), lead hook (3), rear hook (4), lead uppercut (5), and rear uppercut (6). All even numbers are right-handed punches, while all odd numbers are left-handed punches. A “1-2” would be a “jab-cross,” a “3-4” would be a “lead hook-rear hook,” and a “5-6” would be a “lead uppercut-rear uppercut.”
When performing a “jab,” a boxer will land the blow with their index & middle knuckles, turn their fist so the palm faces down, point their toes in the same direction as their chest, keep their head straight, tuck their chin, and they will not pivot their lead foot.1 A boxer performing a “cross” will maintain most of the same physicality as the “jab,” except they’ll keep their lead foot flat, pivot their rear foot, rotate their rear leg, and keep their weight centered.1
The boxer will shift back their weight, bend their striking arm at their elbow (90 degrees), and maintain their punch at shoulder level when performing a “lead hook.”1 The lead foot will pivot.1 A “rear hook” involves performing the exact same latter strike on the opposite side, all while keeping the lead hand on the face and the lead elbow tucked into the side.1 The “lead” and “rear” uppercuts involve the boxer centering their weight, keeping their chin tucked, bending their striking arm at the elbow, and grounding or pivoting their feet as necessary.1 Both “uppercuts” strike from below.
As far as defense goes, the boxer can side-step, pivot, or move laterally away from or towards their opponent. They can block, parry, or roll punches with body parts like their shoulders, and they can also slip away from various strikes (dipping and/or displacing their head and body away from the blows). The sport is complex, but one can easily track an athlete’s performance. It’s all measurable, and there is a great engagement to be found in deconstructing a sport or other recreational, physical enterprise. Think of how many moves, for instance, there are to yoga and core (abdominal) exercises.
This past year I took on the Chinese martial arts enterprise of Kempo. Like the other striking disciplines (Kung Fu, Karate, Taekwon Do), one can measure their growth and competency as a fighter by climbing a ladder of different belts (white, yellow, orange, purple, green, blue, and black). It takes years, though.
Kempo is a very deliberate and precise set of techniques that follow a very well-structured curriculum. Like other martial arts, the skills boil down to several categories: stances, leg movements, kicks, blocks, strikes, and other elements of physicality. Someone can perform an inward, outward, or star-oriented block at the level of their torso, above their shoulders/heads, or below their waist. They can kick with the ball, heel, or side of the foot in any given direction (forward, backwards, diagonal, sideways). A fighter can strike upwards, downwards, or at the level of one’s chin or chest. Sometimes the palm is the best striking surface, while at other times a closed fist is.
A Dance of Self-Defense
At the end of the day, how should one best defend themselves? The starting answer is always to avoid a physical fight if possible. If not, there are numerous rules of thumb. Depending on the kind of altercation, one should maintain a great distance and a small surface area that your opponent cannot reach. Sometimes it’s better to close the distance though and give no room for your opponent to operate. Always try to stay on your feet though, keep your legs bent, and aggress upon someone only when necessary.
From there, a Kempoko can string together a seemingly infinite number of moves (kempos). Moves give way to different combinations of moves (katas). While there are different styles of moves, there really are objectively better or worse ways of performing them. Examples include how well someone maintains a straight spine, moves their shoulders or hips, aligns their elbows or knees with other body parts, and pivots or turns when performing a given movement.
I maintain a similar philosophy of the steady and definable approach when it comes to playing the piano or guitar. First you begin with single notes or rhythmic patterns. You strum or play with one hand…then the other…then both. After that, you perform the song repeatedly to the tick-tock sound of a metronome at various speeds. Use this method effectively and you can play anything from Chopin, Beethoven, or Rachmaninoff to Eric Clapton, Prince, or Queen.
One can find the very beauty and elegance of choreography across numerous disciplines- physical or otherwise. When done expertly, choreography makes for great scenes in action and sports films, but a lot of that hinges upon how the shots are constructed and then later edited and arranged. In real-life, the process is far slower. Like martial arts or music, it usually involves hundreds- if not thousands- of hours of repetition (see Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour” rule). But it is structured and defined, and one can steadily map their progress. Not every element of life is like that.
Qualia vs. Structure
There aren’t metrics or mapping points one can establish as easily when dealing with something like romance or even parenthood. Sure, a mother or father can track when their child crawls, walks, learns to ride a bike, writes his/her name, uses the toilet, or gets a driver’s license, but a lot of the process likely occurs through jagged leaps and bounds. Same thing goes for the former. When or how exactly does a person know if they’re in love or ready to get married, for instance? There are no specific metrics…only a strong, mutual sense of intuition.
For many people, that unquantifiable, intuitive realm of experience and living works delightfully. They successfully land all their “leaps of faith,” and, if they don’t, they maintain a strong sense of buoyancy. For others, though, “leaps of faith” aren’t enough. A structured set of movements and principles is a guiding necessity. But, when the movements are successful, the principles are well-integrated, and the “choreography” is complete, the results can seem the same. This is both the case on the big/small screen and in real-life.