ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL
This film, which is written and produced by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriquez, takes place in the future gloom of dusty rusty Iron City, the last remnant of human society born out of the Fall, an apocalyptic war that ended the evolution of technology. A man is seen rummaging through garbage that’s raining down from the affluent sky city Zalem. He picks up and then stares at a skull. It’s the graveyard moment when Hamlet pines about death and humanity to the skull of a court jester he loved as a wee lad: “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.”
The man is cybersurgeon Ido, and the skull is a cyborg head he christens Alita (Rosa Salazar). She subsequently grows into a metal-jacketed fighting machine that will become more human than most humans and more android than most androids. She’s the last hope for planet Earth.
What erupts is a high-octane 3-D gala of CGI outrageousness that melds with the heartfelt mission of the anime-eyed Alita as she strugglers to fulfill her human potential while flickering between love for a human and the need to reinvent the deadly cybernetic martial art of panzer kunst that’s hard-wired into her cyberpsyche.
The technology brings to mind one of the reasons Jet Li declined an offer to do Matrix: Reloaded (2003): He was concerned that another actor’s face could be superimposed on his body and thus pirate his kung fu — similar to the way Keanu Reeves’ face was digitally painted onto his stunt double’s body.
As Hamlet said, “Ay, there’s the rub.” The question we face in the 21st century is, How far will CGI go? I don’t know, but I do know that Alita has set a new benchmark.
Months before shooting, Salazar learned snippets of wushu, muay Thai and kung fu — in an Alita-training-in-front-of-a-mirror scene, I noticed eagle claw and wing chun. Her goal was not to master the art of fighting but to develop correct posture, much the same way that non-martial arts actors in Chinese kung fu films were prepped for roles before 1990. Although Salazar did some of her own stunts, the bulk of the action came from nine stunt doubles, including gymnasts, contortionists and taekwondo/shotokan black belt Mickey Facchinello.
All Salazar’s scenes used performance capture (a step above motion capture), which simultaneously digitizes an actor’s body and face with the goal of building a “photo real” entity that can interact with real actors on a photo-real set (as opposed to a green-screen set). That yields a unique blend of live and synthetic action in the same frame.
This technology gives actors who are doing fights a safety net because each movement need not be fast, perfect or precise — being able to miss a target by several feet offers a huge safety margin when wielding weapons. During rehearsals, there’s no need to memorize or practice long single takes. In postproduction, an actor’s power, speed, body flexibility and weapon-wielding viciousness can be manipulated to match any other character’s level.
This is most evident in the hyped scene — which also happens to be Rodriquez’s favorite — in which Alita faces a squad of cyberathletic assassins in an unfriendly game of motorball in which the whiplash camerawork is modeled after race-car films. Watch for Alita’s funny John Wick nod.
Although the opening 40 minutes of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) were poorly shot with fight scenes akin to a local martial arts school using a VHS cam over a weekend, the film, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, became soaked in Black Panther (2018) and Wonder Woman (2017) sensibilities. In short, Captain Marvel transforms from schlock and droll to a flamingly funny rock-and-roll photon blast.
Set in the 1990s, Captain Marvel concerns an Air Force test pilot named Carol Danvers, who is flung into a galactic war involving two alien enemies: the Kree and the shape-shifting Skrull. When Earth becomes the final battlefield, Danvers, now part of an elite Kree fighting force that’s led by Yon-Rogg, teams up with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to avert doomsday by preventing Skrull leader Talos from finding the tesseract energy core from the Avengers.
Before she started shooting, Larson spent nine months on the martial path. That included Month 1 to Month 3 — foundation training before Avengers: Endgame, Month 3 to Month 6 — training during Endgame while shooting 14 to 16 hours a day, and Month 6 to Month 9 specifically for Captain Marvel, including two months of technical stunt and fight work five days a week in addition to three hours a day learning combinations of boxing, kickboxing, judo, wrestling and jiu-jitsu moves.
The small-framed Larson, who had never done strength training, even managed to do 225-pound deadlifts and 400-pound hip thrusts.
When Danvers spars with Yon-Rogg, between dialogue quips the actors do one to two movements per shot in low light, which is captured using quick camera pans and enhanced with incredibly loud sound effects. The result: It’s hard to follow the action. At one point, the view snaps to a wide-angle side shot where the camera tracks them for three seconds. Unlike the wide-angle side shot Finn and Captain Phasma did in The Last Jedi (2017), in Captain Marvel there’s doubt in their movements and it winds up looking choppy and slow.
During Larson’s escape from Kree prison and a chase-bash-run sequence through the ship, she demonstrates one to three fight skills per shot. Even worse, a medium shot snap-pans from behind Larson as she moves from side to side, almost in and out of frame. The camera quickly pans to catch up, and when it looks like it’s about to catch up, she moves in the opposite direction. It’s delayed-response panning as she travels down a hallway, hitting enemies on either side.
When physical fights surrender to CGI, that’s when Captain Marvel’s energy skyrockets. The movie becomes soaked in smash-bash-blast intensity, and we’re treated to the über-power-oozing CGI spectacles we’ve grown to expect in a superhero flick.
Starring the Vietnamese-born and Norway-raised Veronica Ngo — who isn’t schooled in martial arts yet does her own fights and most of her stunts — this Vietnamese movie is a violently beautiful and physically demanding kick-bam-thank-you-ma’am beatfest. Phuang (Ngo) sets out to rescue her kidnapped daughter from organ traffickers headed by the psychotic Queenpin (disturbingly played by Tran Thanh Hoa).
To accomplish that goal, she must rely on a series of super-intense vovinam techniques.
Director Le Van Kiet has a good eye for shooting the fight scenes. He uses fluid camera tracking that circles, rises, dips and slithers near the ground to follow each martial move. The camera is like a cobra capturing the intent and path of its prey before moving in for the kill. Using medium shots that zoom in and out guarantees that the audience can clearly see the power, speed and emotional purpose behind each technique. The byproduct is that we also can appreciate the effort and hard work of the actors who did their own fights.
Although sometimes called the Vietnamese Michelle Yeoh, in Furie, Ngo exhibits a way of moving and a take-no-crap-from-anyone demeanor that mirrors Angela Mao Ying’s role in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973). Furthermore, all the big fights are shot differently — which keeps the look and feel fresh.
The three main fights showcase Ngo’s dedication to the craft: the chase scene that follows the kidnappers through alleys, on a motorbike and on a long-tail motorboat; the scene in which Phuang finds her child and faces Queenpin for the first time and then gets pulverized; and the scene on the train where fights take place inside and on the roof.
And there’s the violent round two with Queenpin, not to mention the finale involving guards armed with machine guns. Although the Queenpin bout unfolds in a claustrophobic space and uses tightly shot knife and empty-hand skills, everything flows smoothly. There’s no choppy editing whatsoever. Plus, it’s emotionally charged, especially when the desperate mother is battling to save her child.
The finale has two long unedited takes using John Wick–style shoot-flip-punch-shoot-body-kick-shoot-grapple choreography. The weaving camera clearly captures everything without losing the rhythm of the fight. It’s pure combative magic without a wand.
Dr. Craig D. Reid’s book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors is available at blackbeltmag.com/store.