I watch a lot of action movies. They’re good, clean fun and usually well plotted. And I have an in-built reality sense which lets me understand that the actor who receives a theatrical gunshot, a crippling blow to the face, or decapitation isn’t really injured, that it’s all done with stop-action, fake blood, and moulage.1 I believe most people who watch these movies have this same sense, because—given the amount blood and gore that goes up every day on big screens and small—people would otherwise not become so quiet when they encounter an actual dead body or horrific accident in real life, or watch a documentary where the soldiers fall down and are really, really, you feel it in your bones, dead.2
Still, I know a bit about real life. I studied karate at the university and have kept up with it over the years. I’ve sparred, taken the occasional and unexpected full-force blow, and also handled both cutting-edge weapons and firearms. As a writer of both science fiction and general fiction, I maintain a professional interest in physics, the laws of motion, and the consequences of real actions. So I can tell you that almost every time you watch a movie fight, you are being told a pattern of subtle lies. I don’t know where and how they started, but by now these lies have become so ingrained in the art form that, to reverse them and show the way a firefight or a fistfight really happens, would seem strange and “false” to the average moviegoer.
Machine Guns vs. Pistols
Perhaps the most obvious and unsubtle lie hides the relative accuracy and effectiveness of a machine gun versus a handgun.
The hero always has a pistol. Whether it’s a revolver or a semi-automatic, it still shoots one bullet for one trigger pull. Depending on the model or the magazine capacity, it goes empty in six, seven, or ten, or seventeen rounds, and then the hero has to reload—unless the film is such a fantasy that you’re not supposed to keep count and neither is the hero. The villain or his henchmen always have machine guns. They might be machine pistols, but the principle is the same: one trigger pull unleashes a stream of bullets. And it’s a rare break in the action that you see anyone carrying a spare magazine or inserting it into the weapon.
The choice of weapon is not the lie, because usually the hero is walking into the villain’s fortress or lair while pretending to be engaged in some other business—think of James Bond calling on Goldfinger or Blofeld. Because he’s a secret agent, the hero has to conceal his weapon somewhere under his street clothes.3 The villain’s henchpeople, however, are usually on site with ready access to the weapons locker, so they can grab a large and bulky machine gun at their leisure when the mayhem begins.
No, the lie is that, even with the ability to apply 800 or 1,000 rounds per minute to the target, the henchperson can never hit the hero. Yes, the old Thompson submachine guns, because of rotation of the mass of ammunition in the circular magazine, tended to pull to one side, and the muzzle would rise with the recoil of each round fired. But these effects are controllable in the hands of someone skilled with the weapon. Machine guns are not as accurate as a rifle, say, but they still can put most of the bullets where you want them at a range of 50 feet or so.
The other part of the lie is that the hero with a pistol can hit whatever he aims at—usually with a careless, offhand shot from the hip or shoulder. He can selectively take down the henchpeople with a dead-center shot and only “wing” the villain, so that he’s alive for later questioning and the denouement of the story.
Of course, the hero is a better person than the henchpeople. He or she is presumed to be more skilled and practiced. We want him, or her, to win. And for reasons of plotting, the movie has to show her, or him, to be in desperate trouble without inflicting serious, artery-tearing, muscle-rending, life-ending wounds to the body every five or ten minutes. That’s why the men with the machine guns tend to hit everything else in sight: the ground, the flowerpots on the balcony, the fence in the foreground, and the walls and windows in the background. Exploding scenery is proof that something’s being hit.
But still, if Angelina Jolie had a dollar for every time she was shot at without effect … Oh! Well, never mind.
There’s a good reason people reach for the machine gun, despite its weight, its comparative awkwardness, and its distressing tendency to run out of ammunition quickly if you don’t fire in short, well-controlled bursts. It’s a devastating weapon. If one bullet can put you down, five or ten arriving in the same place in the space of a second or two can tear you apart. The machine gun is not necessarily the weapon of choice in all situations, but it’s a mean choice with serious intent.
If someone ever aims one at you, best be advised to stand still and put your hands up. You might duck the first bullet, but the next five will certainly catch you.
The other lie you see in the movies has also become so ingrained that most people take it for granted: the actual dynamics of hand-to-hand fighting. Now, not being a frequenter of the bars in certain neighborhoods, I actually haven’t had a stand-up fistfight since the fifth grade. But as noted above, I’ve studied Isshinryu karate and have given and received my share of kicks to the body. So, without having broken my nose, I know a thing or two about fighting.4
The classic punch from every fight scene in the movies is the roundhouse punch. John Wayne used it a lot. “Hit ya? I’m not gonna to hit ya,” he says as he draws his right fist ’way down somewhere back behind his leg. And then, “Oh, hell …” and he lets fly a haymaker that connects with the villain’s jaw and knocks him back three paces.
In the real world, the minute that arm draws back and the shoulder goes down, an alert fighter knows to either create space by stepping back or launch a counter—a punch to the ribs, kick to the solar plexus, or whatever comes in handy—the second that shoulder starts to come back up. Don’t worry, you’ll have a whole half a second to do something useful before the roundhouse punch arrives. And since Wayne is burbling on about hitting you or not hitting you or whatever, you’d have to be sound asleep not to know that some kind of violence is about to ensue.
No real fighter telegraphs his intentions by drawing back for a punch, and yet the roundhouse has been a staple of movies and television since before I was born.
The second mistake is hitting anyone in the face with your bare knuckles. There must be some atavistic instinct to damage or destroy the personality—represented as being situated in the human face—that guides this choice. But if the purpose of a punch is to render the opponent unable to fight by knocking him unconscious, the face is the last place you want to hit.
Unconsciousness comes when the brain is accelerated against the inside of the skull by the impact of the blow, resulting in concussion. A blow to the forehead, temple, or any other part of the skull would be effective here, because the force of the blow is immediately transferred to the braincase. The face, on the other hand, is protected and cushioned by nose cartilage, eye sockets and cheekbones, sinus cavities, lots of movable and breakable little teeth, and the hinge of the jaw. All of these features act like the crumple zones of a modern sedan to absorb and redirect the shock of the blow. In addition, the hard parts—the teeth and jawbone under a thin layer of muscle and skin—will almost certainly hurt your unprotected knuckles. Proper fighting requires that you hit the opponent in places and ways that render him unable to respond. Hitting him in the face is almost always a bad idea.5
So far, I’ve been concentrating on untrained fighters or those using western-style techniques based on boxing. But you also see impossible bloopers when the fighting style comes from the mysterious East.
Popular in martial arts movies is the roundhouse kick, which like the roundhouse punch starts somewhere “back there” and proceeds with a full-body, 360-degree turn to land a foot somewhere near the opponent’s head. The same physics apply to the kick as to the punch: if your foot has to travel seven or eight feet in a wide, sideways arc, your opponent has time to see the attack, interpret it, prepare for it, and counter it. Such kicks are impossible to land unless your opponent is either drugged or tied to a chair.6
Similarly useless is the flying side kick, where you launch yourself from across the room, take two or three steps, leap into the air, and proceed with your foot stuck out in a static kick.7 During my karate training, our sensei showed a movie clip from the national karate championships of that year, back when Chuck Norris was in competition. Someone launched a flying side kick at Norris’s head. With all the time in the world, he took a half-step to the side and threw a short block against his opponent’s outstretched leg. The attacker spun sideways, tumbled, and fell on the mat in a heap.
If all these fighting techniques are so pointless, why are they still shown in movie fights? Because these fights are meant to be watched by a third party—you in the audience—rather than to be won or lost.
A real fight is short, sharp, and too soon over.8 The punches come from the level of the belt, never involve the shoulder, travel the shortest possible distance, and end in the solar plexus or ribs, too fast for the opponent to react. ’Way too fast for the audience to see what’s coming, enjoy their anticipation of the blow, and have their expectations fulfilled by the graphic result. If the studio filmed a real fight, audience members would get confused and would constantly be asking each other, “Huh? What happened? Why is that man on his knees gasping for breath?” And so, for the sake of good storytelling, the hero always telegraphs his punches and spins around in elaborate, kicks worthy of the ballet. And the henchmen always shoot up the scenery to show how the hero is in so much danger. It makes for a good action movie.
Just don’t try any of this the next time you’re on the street in a rough neighborhood.
1. Sorry, that’s a technical term, meaning horrific and realistic-looking injuries made out of molded rubber and lots of makeup.
2. And maybe this reality sense has simply grown up in me and my generation, from a childhood where fountaining blood and exploding guts were not a necessary part of the storytelling. I saw plenty of cowboys get shot, clutch their stomachs, fall forward, and roll on their backs to show not a mark or a smear of blood. It was called acting—and we let our imaginations supply the visual consequences.
3. For the purposes of discussion, we’ll assume the hero is male. Female heroes are common, too, although in these types of movies they usually have fewer clothing options for concealing a high-powered pistol or a weapon of any kind.
4. As my lapel button says: “I don’t like violence, but I’m very good at it.”
5. Not to mention the fact that the eyes are located in the center of the face. Sight is the main sense used in a fight, so it’s best to target areas where your opponent won’t immediately see the blow coming.
6. Isshinryu karate is noted for its compact, direct, in-line movements. I remember a sparring match we once had with students from another dojo, where one of theirs launched a perfectly executed roundhouse kick. Our contestant easily ducked under the flying foot and returned a straight kick that won the point. The other side claimed that their man should have won because his roundhouse kick should have landed. “Yes, except our man ducked,” we said. “Well,” they replied, “that’s only because he had no choice but to duck to avoid the kick. Otherwise, it would have gone in.” You just can’t teach some people.
And please don’t get me started on the Brazilian martial art known as capoeira, where people dance around on their hands and perform roundhouse kicks with their feet. It’s graceful, lovely, inventive … and falls apart with one solid block and counter.
7. I guess the intention is to put all of your mass and a lot of kinetic energy behind the kick.
8. Probably the most realistic physical action—at least to my eye—was in Liam Neeson’s movie Taken: immediate response, short moves, straight lines, and not a word spoken.