In Polite Society, writer-director Nida Manzoor creates an action film in which fights have emotion as well as muscle. When Ria (Priya Kansara), a teenager with dreams of becoming a stunt woman, learns that her sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), has chosen to marry Salim (Akshay Khanna), she fights to get her sister back. Masterfully mixing genres and styles, Manzoor lets the high-flying antics of martial arts movies help narrate her comedy of manners.
Working with stunt coordinator Crispin Layfield and fight choreographer Rob Lock, Manzoor created a series of jaw-dropping fight sequences that chronicle Ria’s struggle to get her sister back. “The action in the film really represents what it feels like to be a teenage girl and how it can feel so painful and violent,” Manzoor explains in the production notes.
“Because Ria wants to be a stuntwoman, she obviously had to be trained in various forms of martial arts,” Layfield also recounts in the production notes. “We used a lot of Keysi, which is very close hand combat, and then we had kickboxing, karate, and all sorts of other styles.”
Kansara’s intense preparation in strength training, gymnastics, and wirework not only allowed her to carry off the film’s intricate martial arts moves but also provided her the flexibility to show a teenager also failing in her fights. Indeed, Kansara’s sometimes comic struggle to overcome her limitations brings a new dimension to the action. IndieWire writes, “Big laughs, zippy editing, and incredible fight sequences recommend the film, but it’s the profound emotion at its heart that makes it truly special.”
To celebrate Polite Society’s use of fight scenes to tell its story, we’re showcasing four other films in which the action packs a real emotional punch.
In Hanna, Joe Wright creates a modern-day fairy tale of a young girl named Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) trained by her father (Eric Bana) in the deep woods of Finland to become an unstoppable assassin. Jeff Imada, the legendary fight coordinator behind the Bourne films, trained Ronan to fight like Hanna. “I incorporated martial arts kicks, aerobic exercises, and basic boxing and grappling moves into our training,” Imada recounts in the production notes. “She's utterly believable as both an assassin as well as a vulnerable innocent thrust into the big bad world for the first time,” IGN writes. Ronan’s poignant performance transforms the thriller into a deeply moving coming-of-age story as well. Birth. Movies. Death. writes, “Hanna is the sort of movie that gives you faith in action films as not just ass-kicking or fun rides but as actual cinema, movies that have stories and characters.”
In David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI-6 agent sent to Berlin to recover a stolen list of active operatives in the days leading up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Negotiating double crosses, crumbling alliances, and deadly traps at every step, Broughton shifts into full-on assault mode. As Leitch explains to Screenrant, “We set out to do something with a female protagonist who we didn’t have to make any excuses for.” Theron used her extensive background in ballet to give her fight choreography both a poetic and primal reality. “She wanted the action in the movie to be visceral and real and have consequences,” Leitch told GQ. One of those consequences is her becoming a new type of action star. ScreenCrush agrees that "Charlize Theron is the hero we need right now.”
In The Northman, Robert Eggers crafts an epic Viking tale of revenge centered around a young prince, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), who dedicates his life to killing the man who murdered his father (Ethan Hawke). To recreate the period’s brutal reality, the director worked with historical martial arts experts who had “come up with a fighting technique that you haven’t seen in a film before,” Eggers told The Hollywood Reporter. To heighten the sense of reality, Eggers filmed the combat in long takes that connected the warriors’ violent actions with their horrific results. For Vanity Fair, “Eggers’s action sequences are swift and brutal, filled with the crunch of life extinguished and tossed into the bone pile of time.” Ironically, the more arcane the action appears, the more relevant it becomes. “I made a movie based on Icelandic sagas that sometimes reads like 80s action movies,” Eggers explains in an exclusive interview with Focus Features. “I don't want to be glorifying violence personally, but there are scenes of extreme violence in capturing a culture who adores violence.”
In Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright puts his fan-boy spin on Hollywood action films, “achieving through parody what most films in the genre can't accomplish straight,” writes the AV Club. When London top cop Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is demoted to the sleepy town of Sanford, a series of strange deaths begin to occur. Insistent on getting to the bottom of what is happening, Angel teams up with the bumbling Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) and discovers that the pastoral English countryside is as rife with villains as your big-budget Hollywood cop flick. As WatchMojo points out, “In its final act, the film gives into all the action clichés it previously mocked…The lone hero riding a horse, mindless explosions, old people getting injured.” Wright’s satire is so on target that Men’s Health named it—even without its laughs—as one of the 36 best action movies ever made.