From Jackie Chan to John Wick: How to Shoot Action

In Featured, Industry Insights, Joe Campbell by Amanda ValdovinosLeave a Comment

– By Joe Campbell –

If there’s one man who knows how to make action look good, it’s Jackie Chan.

Over the past 40 years, Jackie has perfected the art of shooting action from martial arts fights to car chases to explosions.  He got his start in Chinese Opera, an art that demands rigorous training, marrying acrobatic skill with visual spectacle. When he made the transfer to motion pictures, he brought the skills he’d acquired at drama school with him to put thrilling stunts front and center on the big screen.  Movies such as Drunken Master (1978) and Project A (1983) helped to (almost literally) catapult him into Hong Kong stardom.

But when he made the transition to Hollywood, he found that he was constricted by American filmmaking methods.  US movies may have had bigger budgets and crews, but they didn’t know how to show off the raw martial arts skill Jackie had spent years training for.  American movie stars aren’t typically trained in hand-to-hand combat so they delegate the more dangerous feats to professional stunt doubles. Because of this, directors have to use every trick in the book to make them look like they know what they’re doing.  Through a combination of close-ups, quick cuts, and clever editing, Bruce Willis can make death-defying leaps and Matt Damon becomes a deadly CIA agent.

But Jackie Chan is the real deal, and all those camera tricks that help actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone only serve to obscure Jackie’s skills.  Jackie has no stunt double, and he wants the camera to capture every move he makes so the audience knows it.

As the years have gone by, advances in digital technology helped Hollywood actors accomplish even more impossible feats with increasingly visual clarity, but they still had yet to reach the energy of Jackie’s more kinetic martial arts movies…until John Wick came along.

John Wick is a 2014 action thriller starring Keanu Reeves as an ex-assassin drawn back into the violent world of professional crime after his dog is killed by Russian mobsters.  It quickly grew a following and has spawned two sequels, one in 2017 and the third this past weekend. These movies have been a game changer in American action filmmaking, and they follow a lot of the rules Jackie Chan has lived by his whole career.

Jackie has spent decades surrounding him with a stunt team that understands each other, and all the members are proficient in martial arts.  They are acutely aware of where the camera is and what each member is supposed to do down to the fraction of a second, so when the cameras roll they can perform their moves quickly and accurately.  This is even more important because the camera is often capturing all the action in one wide shot, so there is little room for error.

Grady Hendrix, author and cofounder of the New York Asian Film Festival, told the Criterion Collection in regards to Jackie’s cinematography:

“You achieve motion, speed, rhythm, and power within a scene by editing.  What Jackie does is edits as little as possible within his action scenes because he can establish the rhythm, and the motion, and the power just by what himself and his performers can do.  He’s not hiding anything within the editing.”

When Jackie performs a stunt, he wants you to see that he did that for real, with all the frantic energy he had on set.

Unlike many American action films, the filmmakers behind the John Wick movies opted to keep the camera wider on the action for longer takes.  Because of this, Keanu had to rigorous months of jiu jitsu training to memorize his moves inside and out.  By the time filming began, he was able to fluidly execute his moves for extended periods of time.

Like with Jackie Chan’s movies, Keanu and his stunt team also had to know exactly where the camera was going to be at all times so a kick didn’t land off-center, or a throw didn’t land outside the frame altogether.  He wanted the audience to see exactly what he could do, and the director wanted to help him with that. As John Wick 2 producer Basil Iwanyk said, “Keep the camera on the actors.”

The final thing the John Wick movies have started to share with Jackie Chan is a use of props.  Jackie is famous for his creative fight choreography that incorporates anything he finds lying around him.  Chairs, tables, cars, windows, grocery carts: Jackie will find some way to turn them against his opponents. “Everything is a weapon,” he said in a video on his cinematic stunt techniques.

The first two John Wick movies primarily focus on close hand-to-hand combat incorporating guns, or “gun kata” as it’s often called.  The choreography is beautifully performed and the filmmakers stage it in visually diverse settings, but for the most part it’s variations on similar fighting techniques (there are a few notable exceptions such as when John Wick uses a car as a weapon in John Wick 2).  John Wick 3, however, leans heavily into prop use, letting the characters turn everything into a weapon.

An early scene with throwing knives is one of the most viscerally tense moments in any of the movies because we haven’t seen anything like it yet, and throughout the movie John uses books, horses, belts, and attack dogs in ways you might not expect.  It’s a level of creativity I rarely see in American action films, and it’s just the sort of inventiveness Jackie Chan has employed for years (albeit with less violence).

The director of the John Wick trilogy, Chad Stahelski, has already advanced Hollywood action with his first two movies by borrowing from Asian action techniques, and he has shown with John Wick 3 that he’s willing to evolve, taking further cues from Asian filmmakers (he even cast two martial arts stars from the Indonesian hit The Raid 2 this time around).  As a fan of Jackie Chan’s brand of cleanly shot energetic filmmaking, it’s exciting for me to see US directors adopting his approach.  I just hope more directors will borrow from the John Wick team moving forward as well.

After reading this, if you are interested in checking out more of Jackie Chan’s filmography, some I recommend include: Drunken Master (1978), Police Story (1985), Armour of God (1986), and Rob-B-Hood (2006).


About the Author

Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids.  He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington.  Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante.  Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.

Click here for more articles by Joe.

All Image Credits: Marvel Studios

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