Cobra Kai's Fight Choreography and Oners: From Snake Oil to Well Oiled, Part II
Dr. Craig's Martial Arts Movie Lounge
In S2, the first fight that reveals a sparkling moment, perhaps a portent of what's to come, was the short Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) vs. Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) duel during the Coyote Creek sequences in Episode 7 (E7). Prior to that, fights lacked intent (no one looked like they were trying to hit anyone), stalwart hand postures were still absent, too many frail jumping front and outside crescent kicks were thrown (unless shot correctly, they're weak looking on-camera skills), fights mostly had 1-2 telegraphed techniques per shot using low-lit, medium and close-up angles, and the choreography was repetitive.
E7's Miguel/Hawk fight was the first fight featuring unique choreography that used doubles for fanciful moves and catchy stunts during the combat. This was made possible because there was a sense that the actors had finally reached the we finally got it level. Each move looked and felt powerful with a measurable change in the UMPH! Factor. This snake oil to well-oiled barrier was finally breaking. I knew E10 would be magical.
One of the coolest fight choreography gags in film is the oner. When I worked on a 1981 Taiwan TV show, doing 1+ minute single shots during fights were normal, where a hero could be replaced by two differing skilled stuntmen during the shot. It's called a Texas Switch, originating from early American westerns where a double would be punched over a saloon bar and the star hiding behind the bar would stand up as if he got hit.
The first choreography method I learned in Taiwan was that each skill (block, punch, kick, etc.) was delivered with a yell. We'd slowly practice fights with slow yells, then as the yells sped up, so did each fight movement. The same is true for weapons.
The best pure (no cheats or switches) martial oners are: Tony Jaa's Tom Yum Goong (2005), Alain Moussi's Jiu Jitsu (2020) and Tak Sakaguchi's Crazy Samurai: 400 vs 1 (2020). For serials, Daredevil is noted for doing increasingly better oners in each of its three seasons. S3 is known for a 10-minute single shot that had four oner fights of 100, 22, 20 and 10 seconds within the scene. Look for the well hidden second Texas Switch.
Other cheats can include a camera pan or tilt to an innocuous area on set, and within a single frame from that area, an edit point can be inserted, now it's two shots. Another cheat is if after hitting someone out of the frame, the camera zooms in on the striker, while off screen, they switch the person who just got hit. Injured heroes who are bashed into walls can lengthen the oner by slowly recovering from pain, which gives the actor time to prepare for the next steps. If a hero's long hair covers the face, a pan away and return sees the hair pulled back like with Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde (2017).
The 77-second oner within the final fight in S2, E10 is audaciously astonishing and focuses on three main bouts: Sam vs. Tory (Peyton List); Miguel vs. Robby (Tanner Buchanan); Hawk vs. whoever; and a wacky appearance by Stingray. Bodies and strikes smashing against the school's metal lockers add new dimensions to the duels' tension and emotion. By using the yelling technique, exaggerated telegraphed skills are delivered quicker as this timing mechanism creates a sharp sense of power in each strike and block, which makes the battle boil with chaos and danger. The camera fascinatingly and smoothly rolls and weaves around the stars.
As the brawl continues, it's stoutly obvious that every actors' martial skills have graduated to a new level: they snap their front kicks; the fights are more creative because they can insert doubles to do flashier moves knowing the actors' martial levels sells the believability of the advanced skills; and each actor looks more comfortable doing fights.
S2 put down a fight gauntlet for S3. Since fans are more privy on the inner workings of fight and camera choreography, we've become exacting, demanding and expecting. As a choreographer, these challenges are exciting and fulfilling. Complacency is the weakness. Hollywood says don't fix it if it ain't broke, I've learned fix it before it breaks.
The weapon sequences in Cobra Kai, need some fixing. Weapon fights are tough to do, including for legit martial artists, so for Ralph Macchio and the lasses using weapons, the difficulties are evident, thus learning poses and spinning into frame and freezing in them, is essential. Nix the nunchakus, creating novel fights that look good beyond fancy twirling, which gets old fast, is hard. I have nightmares they'll try double weapon in S4. Yet with the Covid break, I'm hopeful everyone has improved their martial trades.
The E10 party crashing, 122-second oner, on a technical level was more difficult than S2's by the sheer increased number of actors doing multilevel fights in multiple rooms. The camera circles around so we can see action in the foreground and in the background in up to four different room within the same shot. Beautiful transitions occur as stuntmen fly into a Christmas tree, smash into a wall or slide a long distance across the floor on their back, all creating cues for the next stage of action. Even the bumbling Demetri (Gianni Decenzio) pulls his awkward weight. Yet of note, for the first time, Sam's beginning fight pose is so good that it fervently sets up the mood of the oner.