Q&A: Stage Fighting

Hi! I’ve seen you analyze movie characters’ fighting styles on this blog before, can you do a post like this on Eliot Spencer from the show Leverage?

Not really, because there’s not much to say. Christian Kane used a fairly normal mix of stage fighting techniques when he was playing Eliot. This isn’t a real style. There’s no combat application. To someone with hand to hand training, it’s just kind of “there.”

Having said that, stage fighting is a real thing, though the “fighting,” part is a bit of a misnomer. These are choreographed techniques designed to allow actors to present the illusion of combat with minimal risk.

Stage fighting isn’t foolproof, and a number of techniques require both participants to work together to avoid injury. Which isn’t the same thing as saying it’s effective, it’s not.

Also, this fool someone who knows what they’re looking at. Even when Leverage’s stunt choreographer is tightening stuff up to make it look cleaner, it’s immediately recognizable. Again, the idea is for something that looks like a martial art, but isn’t actually one. It needs to look like your actors are attacking one another, when they’re not.

The big tell for stage fighting is also what makes it fairly useless in combat. It’s easy to follow. Stage fighting looks good, it has clear movements, especially in the outline. This does two things, it lets the audience know what’s going on, and it lets the actors know what’s happening. As we’ve said, for actual combat, this is a huge liability. You do not want your opponent to know what you’re doing. Stage fighting does that.

There is some potential application for stage fighting in a con job. If two of the con artists are working together, this can convince a mark that the sympathetic con is in real jeopardy. This works on some marks, with a story about how the con artist is being harassed and attacked, and they just need some money to get a loan shark’s heavies off of them. (I can’t remember Leverage ever using this specific approach.) There’s similar tradecraft applications, to convince someone that an individual is under threat. That said, this entire approach requires witnesses who don’t know what to look for, so it’s already very situational, and lends itself more to con jobs than to espionage.

Worth knowing, this isn’t cinematic trickery, it’s slight of hand, and works in person. I suspect, because it originated on stage, rather than on film. Also, part of the reason it tends towards large movements, because the audience in the mid rows needs to be able to follow the action. It falls apart if the audience is combat literate, but a minority of the general population, and most martial artists are willing to wave it off, because actual hand-to-hand is dangerous.

The result is a bit like firing blanks. It’ll look and sound good if you don’t know what to expect, but if you know what should happen, you know something’s off. It’s not as dangerous, but it’s not completely safe.

Eliot mostly exists to provide some spectacle to a series that could otherwise devolve into a lot of head and shoulders talking shots. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. For most con artists and thieves, combat is a failure state, so it’s something they need to work to avoid at all costs, but here’s a character that specifically exists to operate in that state. It defuses some of the tension.


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