Story and Photos by Michael Janich
Movies create powerful images that shape our perception of reality. Well-made films—especially those based on historical events—can be exceptionally powerful, because they can manipulate our understanding of those events and how we believe they actually occurred.
Although most people capable of independent thought know that Hollywood takes a lot of “literary license” in the expression of its art. For serious students of self-defense, separating fact from movie-based fantasy should be a conscious and continuous effort.
For the record, I enjoy action movies as much as the next guy. I also truly appreciate the athleticism and skill of a well-choreographed fight scene and do my best, while watching, to suspend disbelief and enjoy it for what it is: entertainment. I do not, however, try to “learn” self-defense tactics from movies. That’s not what they’re for, and trying to make them satisfy that role is a dangerous way to approach personal-protection training.
One of the most glaring examples of the difference between reality and fantasy is the combative use of knives. To understand just how wide this rift can be, let’s explore some key differences between movie knife fighting and the realistic defensive use of knives.
When people talk about the use of knives as weapons, they often use the term “knife fight.” That term, in and of itself, is misleading, as it clearly conjures up visions of two people—both armed with knives—purposely fighting each other.
In a movie, such a confrontation is no problem. The writer just needs to craft the script, so both the hero and the villain end up with—or purposely choose—knives as their preferred weapons for their climactic fight scene. Unlike actual self-defense, where the defender is targeted as a victim, has a legitimate fear of death or serious injury, and must defend himself with a lethal weapon, in the movies, both combatants also just “choose” to engage in mutual combat.
Like a handgun, a knife is a lethal weapon. Drawing that weapon is justified only when you are in fear of death or grievous bodily injury. What generates that fear? Typically, it’s an attacker armed with his own lethal weapon, demonstrating the clear intent and ability to use it. The type of deadly weapon he has doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a viable threat.
According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) Special Report titled “Weapon Use and Violent Crime,” during the period 1993-2001 “about 26% (or an annual average of 2.3 million) of the estimated 8.9 million violent crimes in the United States were committed by offenders armed with guns, knives, or objects used as weapons.
“Firearm violence accounted for 10% of all violent crimes; about 6% were committed with a knife or other sharp object such as scissors, ice pick, or broken bottle; 4% with blunt objects such as a brick, bat, or bottle; and 5% were committed with unspecified/ ”other” objects used as weapons.”
The report also revealed that 73% of all the assaults committed during this period were simple assaults, involving unarmed attackers.
If we “do the math” with the statistics above and consider that only 6% of attacks involved edged/pointed weapons, the odds of ever getting into a stereotypical “knife fight” are pretty slim. If we add to that the 4% of assaults that used blunt-impact weapons and the 5% that employed other unspecified weapons, the knife is still only “applicable” to about 15% of all violent assaults.
The bottom line is that, without a screenwriter forcing you into a “knife fight,” it’s probably not going to happen. If you were attacked by someone armed with a knife and chose to use a knife to defend yourself, sadly, the movies are the last place to look for practical self-defense tactics.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of typical Hollywood knife fights and see why.
Many movie fight scenes would have us believe that, as soon as you put a knife in your hand, the fight revolves almost completely around it. One wonderfully absurd example of this is the knife fight in the movie Time Cop between Jean-Claude Van Damme and James Lew:
As soon as the assassin, Lew, draws his knife, you see Van Damme first look wantonly across the room to the filet knife on the kitchen counter – reinforcing the mistaken idea of a “mutual” knife fight. Instead, he disarms the scene’s second assassin and uses his knife against Lew’s two blades.
Ridiculously, Van Damme and Lew then engage in a “miniature sword fight,” banging short blades together to generate the compulsory “ting, ting, ting” sounds of clashing steel that typify a Hollywood knife fight.
When Lew finally breaks that pattern, to cut Van Damme across the leg, the cut is extremely shallow, to allow the rest of the implausible action to continue. A few flying kicks, a Taser with retractable prongs, and the signature Van Damme splits later, justice prevails.
Just because knives don’t actually make contact doesn’t mean that Hollywood has to refrain from using the sound effects of blade-on-blade contact. Like the hammer-cocking sounds that magically occur when characters simply point guns at other people, creative sound effects and quick camera moves can turn lots of meaningless movement into supposedly compelling “action.”
A perfect example of this is the final fight scene of Under Siege:
After the allegedly highly trained government operative, played by Tommy Lee Jones, inexplicably wanders too close to hero Steven Seagal, while holding him at gunpoint (all while amateurishly gripping the wrist of his extended gun hand with his support hand), Seagal disarms the HK P7 with a kick and draws his Gerber Mark II. Jones grabs a butcher knife and both men launch into a flurry of churning hands, complete with swishing noises and sounds of clashing steel, that have nothing to do with the blades actually making contact.
To remind us that Seagal is the hero, we get occasional ultra-close-up shots of his blade superficially whittling away at select targets, but never causing any substantial damage.
Ultimately, they close and grab each other’s wrists. Seagal suffers a minor cut across the eyebrow, to convince us that he’s actually mortal, before clamping the butcher knife – edge-in – between his teeth so he can gouge Lee’s eye and stab him through the skull to kill him. Yeah, right…
One of the most famous celluloid knife fights was the epic battle between Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio del Toro in The Hunted:
Since the technical advisor for this film was a renowned practitioner of Filipino martial arts, one would hope for some practical, realistic knife action. Sadly, Hollywood’s love of dragging things out for dramatic effect won out over pragmatism—and accuracy.
In the very first move of the fight, Jones’ knife hand is extended toward del Toro, with the inside of his wrist facing forward. Del Toro bypasses the inside of the wrist—which would have instantly crippled the hand and ended the fight (and the movie)—and instead reaches under to cut the back of Jones’ hand.
After clashing and grappling, del Toro suffers a deep cut to his arm. Logically, he lets the blood run down into his palm so he can throw it into Jones’ eyes to blind him momentarily. Instead of taking advantage of that momentary blindness to kill Jones, del Toro vanishes for a bit.
When the fight resumes, they again grapple and del Toro manages to deflect Jones’ flint-knapped blade into a boulder and trap Jones’ arm for a moment. Again, rather than taking the opportunity to finish the fight by stabbing him in the base of the skull, or other prime target, he hammers down on Jones’ hand to break the blade of his knife.
After a bit more standing grappling, del Toro lingers for quite some time with his blade pressed against the back of Jones’ hand, which Jones is using to protect his neck. While a quick draw cut and immediate forward thrust could have resulted in a mortal wound, he instead cuts the back of the hand and breaks contact.
Several opportunities for thrusts to the abdomen are then ignored in favor of shallow cuts, and a perfect opening for a finishing thrust to the torso, neck, or armpit is overlooked to thrust through the upper arm.
Fortunately, when Jones pulls the knife out of his own arm and thrusts it into del Toro’s abdomen, the result is a sudden, dramatic, and immediate end to the fight. “Good guy” thrusts always work far better than “bad guy” thrusts, because that’s the way the script reads.
Most rational people would never willfully engage in a fight with lethal weapons, if they didn’t have to. If you are forced to defend yourself with a knife, against an unavoidable threat of lethal force, it would be because your attacker is also armed with a contact-distance weapon. Otherwise, the knife would be an inappropriate tool for the job.
The longer you allow your attacker to try to kill you, the more likely he will be successful. As such, you should focus on tactics that emphasize quickly disabling your assailant by destroying key mechanical functions—like his ability to grip and wield his weapon.
Movies are often described as a means of “escaping reality” for a little while. That’s great and can be an enjoyable and entertaining mental break. You might even use carefully selected situational elements of a movie as a basis for self-defense training scenarios. However, don’t mistake entertainment for instruction or dramatic action for reasonable, self-defense-focused tactics. K&G
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Martial Blade Conceptswww.MartialBladeConcepts.com
If you have to play with knives, everything you do should be deliberate and intent on ending the confrontation immediately and with extreme prejudice. If you are to the point when a knife is necessary for your – or your family’s – defense, every move has to count.
Nine-year veteran of the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, Michael Janich also served a 3-year tour at the National Security Agency. Highly decorated, Michael is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute and served around the world in intelligence and investigative capacities for many years. Utilizing his extensive training in various martial arts and military/LE combatives, he established Paladin Press’ Video Production Department in 1994, running all aspects of video production for 10 years – personally recruiting some of Paladin’s most popular authors and being selected to work with the late Col. Rex Applegate as the producer of his landmark instructional videos on handgun point shooting. Published book and magazine author, Michael has been featured on various television programs and designed knives for many different knife companies throughout the industry. Michael is the founder and lead instructor of his signature knife defense program, Martial Blade Concepts.
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