Watch Your Head: An Ode To Action Cinema’s Wince-Inducing Head-Whacking Scenes

Welcome to Yippee-Ki-YAY, a regular column that celebrates action cinema in all its glory. This edition looks at the cinematic art of heads hitting objects as characters fall to the floor.

In a movie, a punch or kick is delivered with fury or flamboyance. It is a choreographed ballet of violence requiring many things to go right to sell the gag. Something little, however, can make a simple fight into a wince-inducing giggle. Over recent years, it’s been the movie fight where a character whacks their head on the way down. Whether it is the back of a head clipping a tabletop or bar, catching the edge of a door jam, or a full-fledged face-plant, these finishing touches help make a fight. No flat-backed falls or pirouette crumble. A person’s head whacking an object on the way down is something that humans can relate to and share a typical response when seeing: a whiplash-like cringe that adds immeasurably to the thrill of the film.

Accidentally hitting your head on the underside of a table or clipping a car door on the way in are exploited by cinematic fight punctuations. We have all done it, some more than others. This human flinching instinct is what makes a cinematic head smacks so effective. Perhaps one of the best examples of the head-versus-object is 2015’s low-budget Hong Kong homage actioner Unlucky Stars. Featuring Sam Hargrave, the stunt-performer-turned-director of Netflix’s Extraction, the Unlucky Stars closing fight scene sees Hargrave’s head thump into a steel pipe not once, but twice. Kicked into the head-height pipe, Hargrave slams into and off of the industrial fitting before falling to the ground. It is the hitting of the head, hard, which sells the gag. Hargrave’s use of head-versus-object returns in Extraction when Chris Hemsworth’s hero lead sends foes careening into any number of immovable objects. Attempting to find the origins of this little touch to modern fight scenes is Sisyphean. But we find the DNA in some of the fight choreography coming out of Asia, exemplified by the Hong Kong cinema of Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan.

Never ones to shy away from selling a fight, Chan and Hung’s films are masterpieces of harm to everyone and everything. Hung’s Millionaires Express and Chan’s Police Story films exemplify what happens when bodies collide with furniture. Shelves, ladders, and railings become obstacles or blocks that catch the heroes or their foes in mid-flight or mid-fall. Yes, a bad guy might have just been punched, a painful enough experience. But as they tumble backwards, their head or a limb might collide with an immovable object for extra oomph. This meeting of the soft with the rigid then found its way into Western filmmaking.

The term “Western” prompts the examination of another type of cinema fight — the barroom brawl. The barroom brawl seeded American action films from their beginnings. Since cowboy pictures were de rigeur for many years, the prototypical cowboy brawl was all Americans got. Long swinging haymakers and balsa wood chairs being broken over stooped stunt performers typified generations of fight scenes. Think of 1952’s The Quiet Man, where John Wayne dukes it out with Victor McLaglen in a scene that sprawls across homes, streets, and fields. In a way, the cowboy brawl became a caricature of itself with every new picture, whether they were set in the Old West or not. However, the arrival of martial arts-centred fight choreography changed how stunt performers and actors interacted with each other and their environment.

Chair breaks and flat-backed crashes through tabletops were still there, but everything, including the kitchen sink, became part of the fight choreography. Fights that embrace the set, rather than being set within, are where this “newer” type of cinematic combat comes into its own. In some films or television shows, selling a punch is more than just a head snap and blood packet in the teeth. Now it is “hitting” your head on the way down. Ranging from 2012’s Haywire to Netflix’s Punisher series, stunt performers are catching their head on their way down, and the results are wince-inducing. Of course, these are as safe as they can be made and often just visual tricks or camera angles, but they are still jarring when seen at speed. Actors perform the stunts and fights, but the ability to plan out a fight scene starts with the fight/action choreographer’s eye and imagination. Born from the tradition of fight cinema from the likes of Hung and others, fight scenes are now guided or constructed by people like Jude Poyer, Iko Uwais, Hargrave, or Jonathan Eusebio. They embrace the notion that a fall sometimes is better when it’s interrupted by a sharp collision with furniture.

Former MMA fighter Gina Carano takes on Channing Tatum in a nasty fight in Haywire‘s opening minutes. As Tatum’s character is polished off, he falls into a bar stool. Except, this is his head smacking into the stainless-steel pillar beneath the vinyl covered top. A quick edit and a perfect sound effect make this head-ringing punctuation effective. Known for his break-out performance in The Raid, Iko Uwais fights henchmen in a club in 2018’s The Night Comes for Us. Uwais finishes a knife-wielding ruffian with a flurry of hits that force the performer back. With a bell-like ring, the stunt performer smacks the back of his head against a pole. The use of narrow or confined spaces means the actors and stunt performers pinball around each other and the set, such as in episode one of Gangs of London. Actor Sope Dirisu turns a pub into a bloodbath in a violent scene that features kicks, punches, and creative use of a dart. When Dirisu’s character, Elliot, finishes a brawler, he sends the man face-first into the floor. With legs flipping, the performer’s fall is gut turning. A viewer may have fallen face first in their life, but this kind of violent action takes what a spectator knows and amplifies it with hyper-realization.

Indeed, there are plenty of examples to be found in action films from every decade, but right now, we are in a renaissance of film fighting. Next time you watch a brawl, look for the little flourishes, the touches in choreography that make you wince. Appreciate the time and effort that goes into every good fight scene, especially those allowed to breathe and create beats not interrupted by a blizzard of edits. Pay attention, especially, to those times a stunt performer goes down and clips a piece of furniture on the way to the floor. Most importantly, watch your head.

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