One thing that’s always important in any action movie especially those of the martial arts variety is the quality of the fight scenes. In most films the story is always the main draw in captivating the audience, but you can’t deny how a good fight scene can make or break a movie. Over the years we’ve seen some incredible fight scenes over the years ranging from James Bond battling Red Grant in “From Russia With Love” to more modern fighting scenes like Jet Li in “Fist of Legend” or Neo and Agent Smith duking it out in “The Matrix”.
In the past twelve years we’ve seen a lot of American based productions feature a heavy emphasis on martial arts action, no doubt inspired by the success that “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” had. Sometimes we see fight scenes that are good such as “Casino Royale” but just like any good thing we often get a series of bad and somewhat uninspired fight scenes that at times are beyond comprehension in how poorly executed they are. But one man who has made quite a name for himself in the realm of action/martial arts cinema nerds is Larnell Stovall. An accomplished martial artist and stunt performer, Larnell has quickly become one of the go to guys in the movie industry for those looking for fight scenes that are intricate, raw, and entirely original in every possible way.
Making a notable debut due to his work in Undisputed 2, Larnell has quickly gone on to work on a variety of high profile projects the latest of which is Mortal Kombat: Legacy. Servicing as the Fight Choreographer of the series, Larnell has managed to provide some short but memorable fight scenes in MK: Legacy despite having a very short shooting schedule.
Larnell was nice enough to spend a few minutes to chat with me as we discussed his work in Mortal Kombat: Legacy and what his thoughts are on the quality of fight scenes in both Western and Eastern cinema these days.
Ian: A lot of people may be familiar with your work as an action choreographer in films like Undisputed 3, so how exactly did you get into the business and become the amazing fight choreographer that you are today?
Larnell: I started as a stunt guy in 2000, due to lack of consistent work and too much time on my hands I created a short “Steel” around 2005. It won a few awards, 1 being best fight choreography. The place I was training at “8711 Action Design” which consists of some of the best choreographers/action directors in the world took notice of me. BTW I am a loooong way from being an amazing choreography, I’m a newbie to this and still have so much to learn.
Ian: A lot of the projects you’ve worked on have all featured some simply stellar fight scenes that are by far some of the best we’ve seen in recent years. As a fight choreographer and a martial arts practitioner/fan, what are your thoughts on the status of martial arts/action films in North America and Asia? Over the years we’ve seen major Hollywood films try to come up with inventive fight scenes but outside of everyone copying The Matrix a few years ago we’ve mostly just had a long string of films that may have good choreography (Batman: Begins, Quantum of Solace) but has quick edit cuts that just ruin everything. On the other hand, films in Asia like the Wushu films of Jet Li and even Donny Yen to an extent seem to still have a core of featuring extravagant wire stunts that while cool looking, honestly is the same stuff we’ve seen for decades. So do you think that those involved in the Western and Eastern action communities need to step their game and evolve a bit or is it just a case of refining certain things?
Larnell: We all need to step our game up in every aspect from the way we create our fight scenes, to the power we are given on set and in post. When we sit with directors we give our vision, excellent previs of the fights and we try to do our best on set with the crew, DP and the time we are allotted. There are many great choreographers in North America, J.J. Perry, Chad Stahelski, Brad Allen, Jon Valera and many upcoming guys Sam Hargrave, Aaron Toney etc. Most of the time due to not having any influence in the editing room our fights are chopped to bits or cropped in too tight or there are too many cuts done on singular moves. In the end America is still playing catch up to what we are seeing in the films from Asis, but we are getting there and the talent I just mentioned will be the ones to bring it to that level and then some! Those guys are the stars and studs of Action Films and Choreography, they need the recognition also so the world outside of the martial arts community knows who’s behind some of the best recent martial arts movies/action films.
Ian: When it comes to action movies I always think that fight scenes can in a way be a bit under appreciated by audiences since they don’t realize how much time and work may go into choreographing a four minute fight scene, whether it consists of two ninjas battling it out or two prison inmates fighting in a ring. Can you go into what sort of process you take when laying out a fight scene and in general what past films or people have really inspired you a lot as a fight choreographer?
Larnell: When approaching a fight, I think about what the director wants first of all due to its his vision. If he asks what would I do then the candy shop of creativity opens up more with possibilities, yet I will keep it within the context of the story. Inspiration comes from many place for me, Donnie Yen continues to be an inspiration due to he took time off, came back and reinvented himself and delivered some of his best work ever withSPL/Killzone, Flashpoint and Ip Man. I look to my peers also due to they will be honest with me if I am on the right track, so my true friends who criticize my work are very helpful as I move forward with creating and tweaking fights before filming them.
Ian: One of your most recent projects that has earned a lot of acclaim is Mortal Kombat: Legacy. You served as the Fight Choreographer on MK: Legacy along with being an Associated Producer. Can you just talk a bit about how you became attached with the sudden MK live-action resurgence through Kevin Tancharoen’s MK: Rebirth short film and the subsequent mega hit that is Mortal Kombat: Legacy?
Larnell: Last year a good friend of mine J.J. Perry was contacted by Kevin T. I was referred by J.J. to Kevin due to he was busy on a huge film, Kevin and I met, discussed his vision for rebirth and the rest was history. Thanks J.J. lol… see you on the feature film!!
Ian: Now a lot of your previous projects have had fight scenes that have mainly revolved around normal people fighting one another as opposed to Mortal Kombat which has ninjas and cyborgs battling. Was jumping into the fantasy based world of MK: Legacy something you were really looking forward to since it allowed you to perhaps try things out from an action perspective you may not have been able or allowed to do before?
Larnell: It was exciting with it being MK and all, but due to this was a webisode we were limited in budget, time and what spfx could be done. Now when it came to the action, I stuck with my same formula by trying to keep it gritty, visible etc. and only using powers where they would have the most impact.
Ian: When I spoke to Mortal Kombat: Legacy director Kevin Tancharoen he mentioned how you were a real fan of the MK series and that knowledge helped you a lot when it came to the fight scenes. So just how entrenched in the MK world and video games are you? Do you sometimes play the games and appreciate them thanks to your interest in martial arts or were you in deep when the series first premiered back in the day?
Larnell: I’m a HUGE MK fan, from the games, to the 1st movie, to even the MK TV. series “Konquest”. Here’s a funny story, I remember auditions for MK Konquest at a martial arts tournament called “The Battle of Atlanta” around 98/99 and John Medlen was the stunt coordinator. I drove to ATL from N.O. just to drop off my VHS tape to him due to me tearing my ACL two weeks before the audition. So it’s surreal that I am doing the Choreography for Legacy and possibly the feature film!! I play the game(s) often, I even enjoyed MK vs DC for what it was, BUT the new MK game is insane and addictive! They knocked the new one out the park.
Ian: Since you were familiar with the MK video games, did you perhaps find it difficult to come up with fight scenes in MK: Legacy that stayed true to the core of the characters like certain signature moves while still being something that could be accomplished given the somewhat hectic filming schedule the series had?
Larnell: I tried to do as many signature moves as I can without them being cheesy, Kevin will tell you I had so many ideas but it came down to time and budget.
Ian: This may be a tough question since you obviously invested a lot of time and energy in MK: Legacy, but which fight scene really stood out the most for you either because of how it came out in the end or because of how much fun it was to put together? And on the flipside of that, was there a fight scene that you wish you had a few extra hours or maybe a couple of days to flesh out but couldn’t because of the budget and time limitations?
Larnell: My gut feeling tells me the Sub Zero and Scorpion fight will do well but I think the best fight might be the Cyrax and Sektor episode. Not only because you have robots kicking ass and doing martial arts moves BUT it’s my favorite due to having the most time to film and tweak those fights. I wish I had more time with the Jax and Kano fight, also the Kitana/Mileena fight; both of those fights were chopped apart on set at the last minute due to time constraints. I’ll be honest I had maybe two hours to film those fights from beginning to end.. yes, 2hrs.. grrrrrr!!! This happened in “Rebirth” also, that fight scene was only 60% of the fight that was rehearsed and we shot that in 4hrs. I promise more time will be dedicated to the fights for the feature film or if we do a 2nd season and they have me back.
Ian: Mortal Kombat: Legacy has a nice collection of the memorable MK characters we all love but there are a few key ones missing in action. If we’re lucky enough to see MK: Legacy be picked up for a 2nd series or grow into something bigger like a TV series, which MK character would you want to see make the leap into the series, either because you’re a fan or because or due to the potential they have to be in a cool fight scene?
Larnell: Kenshi!!! C’mon a blind ninja with Jedi like powers.. how cool is that? I can guarantee you a great fight scene there regardless of budget due to his powers don’t involve CGI too much. Also I’m looking forward to Kabal and Kun Lao, I have a lot of great ideas there for those characters. Night Wolf could be cool too due to his powers, knives and that axe!
Ian: A lot of accomplished action choreographers such as yourself eventually make the leap to become a full-time Director. So with that being said do you have any interest in hopping into the chair of a Director and if so, what sort of projects would you want to tackle in terms of their tone? Would you want to do more gritty stuff like Undisputed or perhaps things that have more of a fantasy edge like Mortal Kombat: Legacy or Bunraku?
Larnell: Its funny you mentioned this due to I was just approached recently to direct a film. Whenever I decide to throw my hat into that arena I will probably stick with what I know best then hopefully expand to other genres. They will all have action just some might not be so heavy on the martial arts.
Ian: These days the amount of talented folks such as yourself is a bit rare since full-on martial arts action films are a bit in short order. But even if the business/genre isn’t as booming as it once was, which performer or performers are you still impressed by today and would like to work with in the future?’
Larnell: I would love to work with Wu Jing, Sammo Hung, Iko (Merantu) and continue to work with guys like Michael Jai White and Scott Adkins. Due to Universal Soldier 4, I will have the opportunity to choreograph Dolph Lundgren and Van Damme, hopefully the fights come together smoothly. We need more females too, I think Samantha Tjhia who played Kitana has a lot of potential as an action actress, Zoe Bell is great also, and we need more of them from all races, if you are out there and are GOOD!! drop me a line onFacebook or Twitter.
Ian: A lot of action choreographers are known for certain things like Yuen Woo- Ping’s trademark being his sometimes intricate scenes involving blocking or heavy use of wire techniques. What would you want to be known for as your career continues or once you decide to step out from the entertainment industry?
Larnell: Feels weird even having my name in the same paragraph as Master Ping. I simply want to continue to deliver the best action I possibly can with the creativity that God has blessed me with. Regardless if it’s a $100 million or a $3 million dollar budget, I want to people to feel they did not waste their time or money watching the fights I created. I’ll always try to hit a home run in terms of quality and something new.. sometimes I might strike out, but I will keep swinging!!
Ian: What upcoming projects can we expect to see your work in next that you can reveal at this time?
Larnell: I’m up for some big projects now so we will see how that goes. I’m currently filming Universal Soldier: A New Dimension with Scott Adkins as the lead. Hopefully we will get the green light soon to start Mortal Kombat the movie or a season 2 before then. My name is being thrown around for the “Last Dragon Remake” but I think that is a long ways off. My dream project would be to choreograph “Black Panther” for marvel, huge fan of that character.
Larnell may still be early in his career as a fight choreographer, but his work in the Undisputed films and MK: Legacy is evident that he knows his stuff and can bring the goods. Despite having a lot of time and budgetary restraints, Larnell has provided some fight scenes that while they may not be four minute long sprawling epics, have all maintained a unique identity and style that not only showcases the skills of the actors but have been thoroughly entertaining and thankfully have been devoid of the dreaded shaky cam that plagues other fight scenes.
The future for Larnell looks incredibly bright and hopefully he can continue to inject some originality in the projects he tackles, whether it’s the continuation of Mortal Kombat or something entirely different.
Huge thanks to Larnell for taking the time out to participate in the interview and if you haven’t seen Undisputed 3, then do yourself a favor and check it out since the film is incredibly awesome.
Article originally published May 13, 2011