Living in an increasingly “screen culture”, many people “learn” about violence from the movies. They know that these are choreographed scenes so don’t necessarily equate them with real violence but movies might be their primary source of “knowledge”.
Some movies can be well choreographed. Movies like The Raid, the Jason Bourne Series, the Daniel Craig James Bond films, some Jason Statham films, The Punisher series, A History of Violence – to name a few – are well done. Others like Gymkata, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, display impressive athleticism and skill but cannot be described as “realistic. (Gymkata’s hero – played by Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas – once happened upon a structure resembling a pommel horse and used it to kick away numerous attackers. Check Youtube if you don’t believe me!). By the way, I enjoyed Crouching Tiger.
There certainly is a wide range of quality and it is rare that a movie accurately portrays real violence. Here some general differences between movie violence and real violence.
Distance. Many fights and attacks are at a very close distance. It is difficult, however, to capture the various infighting strikes (elbows, knees, etc..) on camera. Medium and long distances are more camera-friendly, allowing the viewer to see the strikes, blocks, counters, etc…
Rhythm. Attacks can come in flurries. Very rapid, from various directions. In short, very difficult to see. Even the most skilled will miss or not see some of the strikes coming. Filmmakers want audiences to see the strikes coming so fight choreography tends to involve more predictable rhythms that are easier to track.
Multiple Attackers. In many fight scenes, multiple assailants attack the hero one at a time. Real attackers are not so polite as to “wait their turn.”
Resilience. How much punishment can one person take? It depends. Some people can take a lot of punishment and keep fighting. Others fold quickly. In movies, there are times when the hero simply knocks a person out with one of two strikes. This is possible but in many real-life situations, it will take more. Conversely, movies tend to embellish how much punishment the hero can take. They keep going after being hit in the head with pipes, taking repeated knees to the head, devastating hook to the jaw or temple. There are limits to what even the most resilient (and heroic) can take. Terminators excluded, of course.
Time. Many fights end quickly. The fighters are striking, grabbing, throwing, at 100% capacity. They cannot sustain this for a long time. Real fights that last more than a minute are the exception.
Chaos. Real violence is chaos. Screams, limbs flailing. Overwhelming. Most fight scenes allow the viewer to see the strikes, counters, etc… Real violence, especially in close quarters is a blur.
Movies are made to entertain us and they are not obligated to offer true representations of real violence. The choreography for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, for example, is stunning and fits the style of the movie and the goals of the film-makers.
There is, however, a significant difference between the cinema and the streets. Self-defense training needs to prepare you for the latter.