It was the fight scenes.
Yep, something so simple that should have easily been handled was what bugged me the most. Having been a fan of martial arts cinema for a number of years you can not help but get used to seeing action choreographed, shot and edited in a certain way. You get so used to it in fact that when you see a bad fight scene it gets to you more then it really should but that's not a bad thing because it then allows us to look at certain movies in a more fair and objective way. I know the risks I'm probably taking by posting this. I've seen the horror stories of critics receiving death threats for anyone who says anything remotely negative about Nolan and his Batman films. I for one I'm not afraid of these people. They're simply cowards and if anyone reading this feels compelled to threaten my life for sharing my thoughts then by all means.
That aside, I'm hoping this article will allow me to articulate my issues with the film's fight scenes.
From day one when Nolan signed on to direct Batman Begins he was determined to tell the story in a less fantastical and more grounded way. He wasn't interested in any of the overt theatrics the character had been subject to in the previous cinematic versions. Whether or not Nolan achieved that is ultimately up to the viewer but I for one liked Nolan's take on the whole mythology. He made it accessible, he made it different and more importantly he made it successful which is quite an achievement given where Batman had been left with the last film Batman & Robin directed by Joel Schumacher. He made Batman a viable and profitable brand again. Bale brought some much needed humanity to the role of Bruce Wayne and you can see this is a role that's important to him through out the three films. This fell perfectly in tune with Nolan's determination to tell a realistic Batman story which is odd as each film have hugely dramatic action set pieces to give it that extra Summer Blockbuster edge.
Now, you see, that's all well and good but there was always one aspect of the films I never warmed to. The fight scenes. Batman Begins had fights which were horribly shot and badly edited so it was difficult to see what was happening. I've had many people (Some well meaning but others very condescending) tell me that it looks more real. No, it shows a director who lacks imagination on how to shoot it so does in a way that's basically a cheat. Now from what I could see the fight choreography itself wasn't too bad especially when you consider the fact they had three different people working on them. That seems excessive but for a Hollywood movie where time is money I can understand the need for more people to handle it.
Now with The Dark Knight we didn't get much in terms of hand to hand fighting but it was filmed a little better but this is when the choreography started to work against the tone of the films. The fighting method used is the Keysi Fighting Method. A style of fighting that utilizes elbow strikes, close range grappling and striking. In the first two films of the series this style works because the action is filmed in such a choppy and awkward fashion. You see Batman throw an elbow, you see the bad guy go down. Now when we enter The Dark Knight Rises, things don't look as effective anymore. The first thing you'll notice is that it's actually shot and edited in a competent way. You can see everyone perform their techniques clearly and you see the impact, or lack there of, for the most part and it's here that the Keysi Fight Method no longer works at all.
When you pull the camera back and you show just how the Keysi Fighting Method is used in a fight, it looks weak and ineffective. I'm not saying in a real situation it wouldn't be. The method had some nasty techniques so I imagine it would be quite the opposite. From a film making perspective though, shooting it in such a way loses some of the style's ferocity and impact which I admit the fights in the previous films did have in spite of how they were filmed and edited. I feel with Nolan shooting in this new way should have made him realise that re-examining Batman's fighting style would have worked in his favor.
The fights should portray Batman as the ultimate fighter that he is. A man who is versed in so many fighting styles that he can easily and effectively take down his opponents in a single move but in the finished product it looks exactly like what it is. An actor in a costume awkwardly throwing elbows because the suit doesn't give him full flexibility. He barely even throws a good looking kick. While that may not be part of the core style, throwing a few side kicks and even a flying kick would have looked great and would have fit right in with Nolan's cinematic vision. Tom Hardy fairs a little bit better. His fighting style is more down and dirty and relies heavily on brutal head butts and vicious punching combinations. I was excited when it came for both Bane and The Caped Crusader to duke it out for the first time but the end result just came off so weak and I hate to use this word but..well...lazy.
I know in film's like this time is always a factor but I felt the people involved should have come up with something better then Batman trying to throw a few limp punches and Bane tossing him around. There's even a key moment lifted directly from the comic books that should have been a big dramatic moment but what we end up with just for me didn't work. The fights lacked any kind of drama or impact. Bane is a violent, sadistic, cruel character and while some of that sadism and cruelty did come through in Tom Hardy's acting, The violent nature of the character sadly did not. People were concerned that Tom would never be able to top Heath Ledger's performance of The Joker. I don't want to compare them because their respective characters are completely different but after The Dark Knight Rises, Ledger is still the top villain in my book.
Toward the end we get to see our two adversaries clash once more. A large portion of the run time builds this up as something that's going to be incredibly, epic, violent and hugely dramatic but their fight is just as pathetic and lazy as what's come before. I found it frustrating and disappointing as being such a huge fan of the character, I feel he deserves better then this. One thing I will say however is Anne Hathaway's fight scenes as Catwoman are treated much better except it seems she inherited The Dark Knight's terrible filming and editing problems. Also she didn't get enough to do in terms of fighting. Her moves were great and very much in keeping with how Catwoman fights in the comic books but you can have an amazing fight scene on your hands with perfect choreography but if you don't know how to film it then you're gonna screw yourself one way or the other.
The Dark Knight Rises is a film that gets so many things right that something as fundamental as fight choreography should have been a no brainer but it seems even an auteur like Christopher Nolan struggles to grasp what makes a good fight scene. Soon we'll be seeing a new version of The World's Greatest Detective and I hope that when we do, they hire an action director who can create some breath taking action scenes that do the character justice. Until then, I'll stick with the animated series from the 90's.