What is the purpose behind using a fight in film? Is it to look cool, be technically slick, and generate hype and high reviews? While a well-done fight will hopefully create those byproducts effortlessly, the answer is a simple “no.” At their core, film fights tell stories. They demonstrate a character’s finesse or lack thereof. They externalize what a character is internally wrestling with. They draw attention to desperation and power dynamics between protagonist and antagonist/contagonists. At the very least, they can show how utterly incompetent a character is at conflict. One tool which assists in telling stories through fights is the use of the fight gag.
You might already be familiar with the visual “gags” used in comedy. Perhaps Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton’s antics come to mind? Jackie Chan was the first to utilize the comedy gag within film fights, creating a unique and lasting style. Not everyone would think to use a ladder in a fight! The purpose of a fight gag is two-fold. First, think of a gag as an obstacle which forces your character to react or adjust to the new circumstance. It could be as simple as changing up weapons during a fight as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did to 007 shenanigans aboard a moving train. Secondly, a gag distinguishes a fight and sets it apart from every other fight set in an alley or warehouse. In Birth of the Dragon, one of the most unique gags is as simple as the dynamic itself between the characters of Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man (the choreography in this film is amazing). In some cases the gag is the environment used. This is known as environmental cinematography. In the case of The Hitman’s Bodyguard, the use of a hardware store is the gag (really, this whole movie is just an excuse for awesome gags. Some involve boats. Don’t try them at home).
Approach the production of more complex gags by filming them through doable bits. Extensive action sequences, particularly complex gags, can be broken down into their individual parts/movements to ensure that every punch or stab gets the bite on screen that it deserves. Decide how you want the movement of the fight to be perceived. Will it be difficult to follow (chaos cinematography) or easy to track (classical action style)? Orient the viewer to all playable gags before the fight begins, or play off of environmental tropes (i.e. this is a kitchen, there will be a frying pan or griddle involved). Perhaps have the character walk the environment or casually establish potential weapons/props in the background of shots/through inserts.
Next, step through the fight movements. Does a prop smash in this bit? Consider filming that bit separately to get it just right (have multiple smashprops on hand for multiple takes). As with the whole film, fight sequences, especially those involving complex gags, don’t have to be filmed in order. Want a master angle? Collaborate with your fight coordinator to ensure the gag is readable during those particular bits from that particular angle. After all, there was nothing random, from the preproduction clear to the final fight editing, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The more you preplan and prep, the smoother your gags and sequences will be. Make sure to take into account your stunt person’s skill-level and perhaps tailor-make sequences around his/her strengths. Do they naturally like to, say, “flip out?” Let them. Do they like to “kick it?” Awesome. Happy stunt person, happy fight sequence, happy director, happy audience. I expect that you’re all intelligent adults who will approach filming and coordinating gags safely and within your skill/comfort level! If you approach gags with an eye for story first, the cool factor will follow. Happy fighting!