Chaps Who Did Taps: Movie Choreography in Iron Man II

Posted on 02 January 2011 by ChloeG

Heps who did steps aren’t stepping any more, they’re doing choreography. It’s Danny Kaye’s lament from White Christmas – all of the fantastic things that dancers used to do that are being replaced with choreography. Thesame is true of movies, though I find myself unconcerned about it at worst, and delighted at best.

Choreography, at its most fundamental, is a transition from improvised performance (either routine or unique) to a performance crafted specifically for a situation or audience and whose specifics are pre-determined and memorized. In partner dance, the idea is that instead of a man leading and a woman following, now she leaps blindly knowing that he will catch her because he knew beforehand that she was going to leap.

In movies, the analogy translates to most anything an actor might do; it is particularly visible in the way that film is evolving to integrate choreography. Compare the old and new versions of a movie, and it jumps out at you: the further apart they were in time, the more dramatic the effect. The old Ocean’s 11 was a slick movie with classy, confident leads and lots of quick handwork that strongly resembled a three-card Monte.

The newOcean’s 11 has the same flavor cast, but the details of the scam are more important than the cunning of the characters. One event rolls into another into another, cause and effect leading to a big reveal to demonstrate just how clever the puppet-master is. The old character-driven, actor-carried suspension of disbelief is hardly extinct (see Jackie Chan), but it is sharing the stage with an increasingly sophisticated magician in the form of choreography. Iron Man poses an intersection of two major strings of choreographic evolution that were at points actually more interesting than the movie itself.

Action sequences are basically as old as film. Black and white slapstick predates the more meaty thriller stuff, and foreign martial arts throws an entire universe of movies feeding into what modern action looks like, but a clear thread emerges in mainline, teenage-boy entertainment over the past twenty years. Fast-paced fight sequences looked like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles twenty years ago. (feel old? ha) Chaotic, personality-driven, and the bad guys tend to line up one at a time to be taken down like bowling pins. Against a backdrop of unremarkable Bond sequences, the mid-nineties Batman enterprise featured athletic women and our favorite muscle-bound dark hero, but the action did not progress muchbeyond trading licks with minions. (I still imagine super-imposed ‘POW’ or ‘BAM’ cartoons in those movies… is that bad?) The Fifth Element made the most progress toward modern fight sequences, but there’s a good shot I was distracted by the costuming.

Then, in 1999, one of my favorite water-shed films of all time, The Matrix, took an evolutionary leap into CG fights, mixing the artistry of martial arts underlying Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with dance choreography and next-generation technology, turning even just the opening sequence into a master centerpiece of the new choreography of brawling. (Do I need to say more about The Matrix? I conclude that the entire movie is self-apparent. As self-appointed movie person, I get to.)

After The Matrix, we had femmes fatale cropping up everywhere. Charlize Theron (Aeon Flux), Milla Jovovich (Ultraviolet, Resident Evil), and Kate Beckinsale (Underworld) all took a crack at it, following almost identically in the footsteps (and costuming) of Carrie-Anne Moss. They moved the same way, allowing only for the specifics of the character’s nature and the actress’ capability. Thencame Mystique. Okay, she was actually before any of the movies trying to be Trinity (though not Trinity herself), but she represented the next step in choreographed fight sequences. Rebecca Romijn couldn’t simultaneously wear clothes and perform the choreography required in her fights with Wolverine in X-Men, and it is in her footsteps that sister character Lady Deathstrike follows.  I could spend considerable talking about the beauty, grace, and profound character of River Tam from Firefly as she made her mark on fight choreography, but I’ll skip down to the point: Iron Man’s Natasha Romanoff.

I’m not a fan of Scarlett Johansson, and it’s with great difficulty that I supplant Mystique as the latest in thechain of torch-bearers for the substitution of choreography for old-fashioned brawling, but I think she’s earned it. This is more than just Trinity doing a half-split off of a motorcycle or Mystique nymphishly dancing around Wolverine as he tries to hit her. I suspect that the effect is at least as much a talented director as it is Ms. Johansson, but Natasha is, as a character, a boxing-ring victor, the epitome of a clear-the-floor assassin. Boggle. I suspect I’m not alone in wishing she weren’t quite so effective (or that she met more substantive resistance), she’s such a marvel to behold.

Actor interaction with other actors is not the only type of choreography that film is developing, though. An interesting observation can be made of actors working with cartoons, though that isn’t particularly prominent in Iron Man. More relevant is the development of a complex choreography between actors and computers.

Movies have had an understandably difficult time keeping appropriate pace with computer technology. It’s hardly impressive to do what any given audience member can accomplish on his personal computer, but anything beyond that bends to the realm of speculation which opens the movie up to being locked into laughable nostalgia once the technology really does pass that in the movie. Start with Hackers – a movie with a cast of reputed computer geniuses battling it out in a technological realm. They talk a lot, then they drum on a keyboard a bunch. The tape-drive robot arm (really? Is it possible those actually existed?) at the local TV station goes nuts. The cast sits in front of a screen of binary code and concludes (smugly) that this is hacker code. It’s too clean to be anything else. Did we believe it at the time? I don’t rightly know – I was introduced to the film too late to do anything but laugh.

The same year (can you believe that was as recent as 1995?), Keanu Reeves starred in Johnny Mnemonic as a data smuggler with a drive in his skull that ‘leaked’ data into his brain when he overloaded it. The idea that I liked out of the story involved VR gloves andgoggles that he used to access a central, universal data bank. Had they invented the internet yet? The virtual-reality world he visits is the picture of technological choreography. Perhaps harder even than acting with a cartoon, Reeves has a 3-D environment including a keyboard that he is interacting with to control his computer and (even if I can’t support the assertion) this movie impressed me that at least a few of the cast didn’t simply drum on a keyboard. (Don’t actors know how to type? Geez… One finger then another, guys.)

Moving forward to The Matrix again, the internet was a solid idea, and data – whole programs – fit on 3.5 inch floppies. Okay, we can overlook that. Air traffic control (so to speak) at Zion were what moved the ball forward. Controllers reclined in a plain white environment, interacting with a 3-D, touch-based control panel. This is to this day still novel enough not to be laughable. An iPhone is a competitive technology, but it’s restricted to simply two dimensions. It’s a shame that the primary actors don’t get to sink their teeth into this interface. It’s the introduction to modern forward-looking technology.

The argument isn’t simply that technology is cool. It is. What is interesting is the complexity of the physical relationship between the character and the computer. Computers obviously became much more common between 1999 and 2010, doing impressive things, including the creation of entire CG environments, but there’s something profound about the choreography between man and computer in Iron Man. The first movie dipped a toe into the idea of a computer that reacts to touch in three dimensions in profoundmanner, but the second movie blew that away. Stark is doing beyond-cutting edge modeling and rendering that responds to the palms of his hands as though through telepathy. I was nothing short of fascinated. I’ve dealt with the fact that he resides inside a suit where he can’t push any buttons and you can hear him talk (or not), and yet it automatically targets and eliminates threats with the appropriate ammunition. That’s just sci-fi. This computer modeling, though, is nothing short of dance.

It seems anti-climactic to simply say that we’ve come a long way. We’ve moved beyond the ability of mere humans or machines to predict or react a situation. Both in action sequence and in computer interface, we’ve reached what can only be premonition – reacting to what you already know is going to happen.

Chicks who did kicks that would stop the show in days that used to be; through the air they keep flying, like a duck that is dying. Instead of dance, it’s choreography.

Bring it on, Hollywood. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Categorized | Commentary, Movies

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