Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Great Fights: Roy Scheider vs. James Wing Woo

Marathon Man (1976)
Things start out great for Scheider in this one.  An American spy and diamond courier for a Nazi war criminal, living it up in the City of Lights and enjoying a mimosa, shirtless, on the balcony of his AWESOME hotel room within full view of the Eiffel Tower.  Doesn't get much better than this.

Oh hey, look at that!  A parade!  Man, what a day!  Good thing there's not a Chinese assassin, also in the employ of the shady syndicate you work for, who's ready to leap out at you from behind those curtains to garrote you to death for...


Quick reflexes aside, Roy doesn't appear to be faring too well against the assassin.  Mr. Woo looks pretty well pleased with himself as he draws first blood while at the same time effectively handicapping his victim. 

Amazingly, Scheider manages to flip Woo over into a table and deliver a powerful karate chop with his damaged hand, reeling back in pain when he realizes that wasn't the greatest idea in the world.  Woo recovers quickly, regains his footing and rushes Scheider.  They struggle for several seconds until Woo is thrown off and Scheider makes for the door.

Woo decides to start using the garrote as piano wire mini-nunchucks and advances, swinging the thing in the air a few times, inches from Scheider's face. 

Scheider weaves and dodges, all the time hunching down and working his way backwards until he sees his opening and springs forward into a grapple.

Things wind down quickly from there as Scheider pulls out a few tricks from his days on the J.V. wresting squad and gets behind Woo, knocking him down and taking the high ground.  One killer instinct and the deft application of several pounds of pressure later, and Woo is no more.

Scheider's left with a useless hand for the rest of the movie and a bad feeling that his organization's pet nazi might not be so tame afterall.

But I guess things could have been worse.

The morning ruined, all that's left to do is call in a syndicate cleaner and finish off a few more mimosas.

The fight scene takes place within the first thirty minutes of the movie and the whole thing barely lasts five minutes, but before it's over you get the sense that things are definitely not what they seem and are only going to get worse.  The sense of paranoia starts building early and is sustained throughout most of the running time, which is no mean feat.  For a movie that is, in effect, a made-to-order, big-budget, Hollywood star vehicle, Marathon Man remains just as taut a thriller as it must have been when it came out.

In a supplemental interview, Roy Scheider remembers coming to the set one morning to find two stunt-men flailing around the set, rehearsing what looked like an old-school, very stagey looking fight.  One that wouldn't have appeared out of place in a John Wayne movie a few decades earlier.  He approached director Arthur Schlesinger and explained how there's no way these two characters would fight like that.  Both of them, spys with martial arts training, opening themselves up like that and taking giant, barroom brawl swings at each other?  Why not keep things tight and tense?  The fight should be all about what these guys DON'T do.  Keep it simple and quick.  And the audience will have no idea what to expect for the rest of the movie.

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