X2: X-MEN UNITED is one of my favorite action movies. In fact, of its few flaws I would say that its biggest misstep is setting up such high expectations for the third installment – an abomination that I choose not to discuss here. Now, while the film has many strengths, there is one particular scene that has stuck with me since I first saw the movie in 2003.
For those who haven’t seen the movie (yet), I’ll give you some setup – sorry, but spoilers are necessary for this so this is your official warning. The band of mutated humans, calling themselves “X-Men” has stormed the stronghold of the villain, who is planning on killing all of the mutants on Earth. Wolverine, whose mutation allows him to heal from almost any wound instantly and has subsequently had his entire skeleton grafted with an indestructible metal, finally confronts the villain (Striker) near the finale of the film. Striker leaves Wolverine alone to fight his bodyguard – who is Lady Deathstrike, but is never called by name in the movie. This is the entrance to the scene in question.
The following fight scene is well choreographed, leaving for great moments like the reveal that Deathstrike can also regenerate and has an adamantium skeleton – just like Wolverine. But the choreography is not what captivated me about this scene. It’s how the director, Bryan Singer, uses the camera to put the audience into the fight (and especially because he doesn’t rely on fast editing to make the scene intense). When Lady Deathstrike rushes Wolverine, the camera quickly pushes in on a cable system, stopping and backing away with the actors as they meet and Wolverine stabs her. Every single action in this sequence is perfectly highlighted in a way that allows for powerful ups and down in the action, while never once feeling chaotic and confusing. You always know where the actors are and what is happening. This is because the action dictates the camera movement.
Compare this to a scene from, say, GLADIATOR (which is a great movie), and you simply do not get the same feeling.
Could you describe everything that happens to those fighters? Could you keep track of how many times they cut during each attack? Was there any story being told with that fight? Now, you may argue that the point of that GLADIATOR scene was not to tell a story, but to demonstrate that Maximus is a bad-ass fighter. And that’s true. But it still demonstrates the difference in emotion when watching the scene.
In this regard, I think of the X2 fight scene as kind of a Pixar short. There is so much information and emotion given to the audience in the 2.5 minute scene, with only one single line of dialogue. This is something I think of when I plan out a fight scene. I try to reduce the amount of cutting I will need to do and I always, always, always let the action direct the camera. Sometimes this leads to odd looks, but it always works out in the the end (see: the camera roll during the final fight in “The Legend of the Dragon Sword”
And if you’re lucky like me, you’ll have the opportunity to work with a fight choreographer that makes this job easy.