Five TV shows with better action scenes than most movies

After far too many years of shaky cam fight scenes with chop shop editing, John Wick (2014) got a lot of credit—and rightly so—for…

By: Carolyn Lee Adams | 4 years ago
Five TV shows with better action scenes than most movies
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After far too many years of shaky cam fight scenes with chop shop editing, John Wick (2014) got a lot of credit—and rightly so—for grounding action movies back into practical effects. But relying on highly trained stunt workers to sell fight scenes was not restricted to the big screen. Several TV shows, including some prior to John Wick, invested in creating combat with impressive fight choreography.

1. Daredevil (2015-2018) – Like a lot of Netflix shows, Daredevil didn’t get a long run, but it managed to pack a lot of action into those three years. Drew Goddard and Steven S. DeKnight developed the show and worked as its showrunners. Both men wrote for OG hand-to-hand combat show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Most famously, Daredevil offered up a five minute one-shot fight scene in the second episode. A true one-shot take, without any cuts, the scene was choreographed by stunt coordinator Philip J Silvera in two short days, unlike the weeks a feature film would take on a such a project. Hidden into the choreography are several “Texas Switches,” where lead actor Charlie Cox and his primary stunt double Chris Brewster trade places. There were 105 fighting beats the actors and stunt doubles needed to land, and on the 7th take they nailed it.

2. Vikings (2013-2020) – The first scripted drama produced by The History Channel, Vikings presents an amalgamation of historical figures and real events, compressing them into a very, very violent narrative. Vikings offers up one-on-one combat, small battles, large battles, battles at sea, and castle sieges, with choreography always intent on showing just how bloody and brutal the Dark Ages really were. The stars of the show are dedicated to that realism. In the series’ climactic one-on-one fight scene between Lagertha (played by Katheryn Winnick) and White Hair (played by Kieran O’Reilly) no stunt doubles were used. Despite freezing temperatures and muddy terrain, both actors felt their real life exhaustion would benefit the show. Kathryn Winnick is an accomplished martial artist, and as the series progressed producers increasingly utilized her skills.

3. Black Sails (2014-2017) – Like Vikings, Black Sails made use of real life people and events, telling the story of the pirate life just as it went into decline. For example, in real life the character of Jack Rackham designed the classic Jolly Roger “skull and crossbone” pirate flag. Also like Vikings, the very violent Black Sails portrayed not just hand-to-hand combat but large scale battles. And like Daredevil, stunt coordinator Franz Spilhaus was given precious little time to pull off feature film-scale set pieces. Producers gave him two weeks notice that they wanted to film an amphibious assault on a ship—in a single take. In the end, 60 stunt performers were involved and 52 mortars that had to be reset with each take. After four days of rehearsal the cast and crew got it right on the 6th take.

4. Banshee (2013-2016) – One of the most innovative stunt coordinators working today, Marcus Young, pushed the envelope of just what good fight choreography should look like on Banshee. Set in small town Pennsylvania, Banshee was never going to have epic battles, instead, the show specialized in making smaller fights feel as real as possible. Unusual for a TV show, Banshee had a fitness department where each actor worked out with a personal trainer. Young worked closely with the performers as they developed their skill sets, and choreographed the fights around their abilities. Although occasionally rushed, more often than not, Young had the opportunity to work with writers and producers to make sure the action made sense for the story and for the characters. The result of all this attention to detail was a fight sensibility that continues to impact television and feature films.

It is also interesting to note that UFC fighter Todd Duffee played a small role in one of the episodes.

5. Arrow (2012-2020) – Out of all of the CW’s action-oriented shows, Arrow offers the most ambitious fight choreography. Stunt coordinator James “Bam Bam” Bamford has had a long and successful career in the stunt world, working first as a stunt double, often for high profile characters such as Mulder on X-Files. His career evolved to include producing, director and stunt coordinating. When he began work on Arrow his leading man told him straight off the bat, “I’ve never punched anybody in my life.” With no martial arts training whatsoever, Stephen Amell was put to work. Bamford chose Arnis, a weapons-based Filipino martial art, for Amell to study. He felt the style would improve Amell’s timing and allow him to keep up with Bamford’s preferred choreography, adding, “One of the things I don’t like about combat on television is that they use old-school, John Wayne-style timing – whereas I like to introduce half beat style timing.”

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Carolyn Lee Adams
Carolyn Lee Adams

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