Creating cool fight scenes has never been easier in the current age of filmmaking. Special effects have evolved to the point where the eye can rarely discriminate between what is real and what isn’t, while choreography is much more sophisticated than it was in the past, and there’s no shortage of cash to throw at action films to get everything done just right. So with all of these advances going in modern film’s favor, why aren’t more fight scenes memorable?
Rumors swirled around the Toronto International Film Festival as Eastern Promises debuted in 2007, with word that director David Cronenberg had introduced perhaps the most perplexing fight scene into the collective consciousness of movie fans everywhere. No, I’m not referencing the opening to the film, where a graphic throat-slashing takes place, but a brutal knife fight that takes place later on. A film ostensibly about the transgressions that mark the life of criminals and the bubbles they live inside, Eastern Promises surprised festival-goers by setting a standard for cinematic fighting in the aughts.
The scene begins with a slow pan into a London bathhouse where Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is sitting with only a towel to defend himself when two rival gangsters appear before him. Both men are quite large, and intent on killing Nikolai with the knives in their possession. As the scene unfolded, my mind was rendered blank with fear. There is nothing glorious about Nikolai’s fighting style, it’s nothing like the slow motion swordplay that Mortensen excelled with as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. He’s fighting like a scared animal, tiring after evading each stab of the blade, but managing to succeed in killing both of them.
How a treatise on gangsters inadvertently produced one of cinema’s most memorable fight scenes is anyone’s guess, but employing David Cronenberg is probably a start.
David Cronenberg’s career began with low-cost horror films in the 1970s, pairing the grotesque horrors of the body with the disturbed actions of the mind, creating a subgenre of thinking man horror. This pivotal moment in Eastern Promises is certainly one of the most subtle in Cronenberg’s oeuvre — especially when compared to James Woods using a gaping hole in his stomach as a VCR — but the scene is no less effective for its simplicity. A stabbing wouldn’t surpass the grotesque (and over the top) moments of body horror Cronenberg made famous in The Brood, Videodrome, or Scanners, but the relatability of it makes the fear all the more palpable.
Being that completely vulnerable when under attack immediately connects the audience with Nikolai’s predicament. Cold steel and flesh juxtaposed against one another on a large screen forces a shudder out of each viewer. In a way, it recalls another famous scene involving a naked protagonist: the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The suspense doesn’t come from gore, just sheer intensity and fantastic directorial choices.
Many filmmakers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on movies centered around lavish combat sequences, yet none have done what Cronenberg has. Even years later, exceptional hand-to-hand combat scenes in films like The Grandmaster and The Raid have a hard time matching up to Eastern Promises in terms of audience captivation. There is a dance-like quality to those films that elevates fighting into something truly beautiful, but for all of the awe that could be had, it doesn’t touch audiences in a way that the naked vulnerability of Viggo Mortensen does. Movie fans just don’t see those kinds of stakes that often — and they likely won’t again.
— Colin Biggs