Slick Moves: Queer Fight Choreography in The Transporter

Curator's Note

There’s something queer about Corey Yuen’s fight choreography in this scene from The Transporter (2002). By “queer,” I primarily refer to this choreography’s counternormativity – its imaginative, unusual, and critical approaches to the action genre’s same-sex brawl – and the political readings that such slick moves make possible.

Yuen’s inventive choice to add oil to the proceedings literally destabilizes this fight, and in so doing, upends conventional masculinity. Hard-men tumble and flail, gracelessly scrambling to adapt to a changed environment where muscle, swagger, and sheer numbers are no longer enough. Only Jason Statham’s character, Frank, has the wherewithal to think his way out of a rough situation: through the cunning use of footwear, his masculinity-with-a-difference ensures stability and victory.

Though most fights in the action genre rely on the exchange of punches and kicks from an asexual distance, Yuen’s choreography, which features prolonged touch and lingering bodily contact, further unsettles orthodox masculinity. Yuen refigures the physical relationship between combatants, and frequently choreographs Frank locked in an embrace with one assailant while he fights others. This, coupled with Frank’s code-of-honor refusal to simply kill those who get in his way, suggests a sort of queer intimacy or tenderness absent from most cinematic violence.

The Transporter’s queer choreography is, of course, augmented by the homoerotic aspects of its mise en scène: Statham’s oil-slicked torso, the pulsing techno soundtrack common to gay porn, etc. I contend, however, that though sometimes they intersect, queer fight choreography is something different than choreography that merely provides gay spectatorial pleasures. Fight choreography can offer more than just spectacle (or eye-candy) – it can contribute substantively to a film’s theme.

Yuen’s innovative choreography repeatedly throws masculinity off-balance. I choose to read it as quietly subversive, especially in a PG-13 film aimed at a teenage boy audience. What kind of potential, I wonder, might queer fight choreography hold for films (like the X-Men series, for example) with more ambitious and explicit queer political agendas?

Comments

Dana Heller's picture

Wow, that's a fascinating

Wow, that’s a fascinating piece, Zachary. Very queer, indeed. And what better proof that proper footwear really does make all the difference?

Seriously, though, as I was watching the clip I was reminded of one of the dances from Season 3 of SYTYCD, Mia Michael’s “Two Princes.” (I’m sure Kelli will remember this one.) As the finals approached, the format broke from standard heterosexual coupling as the remaining two men and two women were paired up to dance with one another. I found both dances—in term of narrative and movement—to be steeped in homoerotic possibility. But Danny and Neil’s performance of “Two Princes” offered something far more complex, I thought, in terms of same-sex choreography and “quietly” subversive masculine performance. The level of intimacy and the ambivalence of physical contact was palpable and passionate. But even more, there was a tenderness about it that, unlike the infantalized affections conveyed in the women’s dance, could apparently find expression only through the mise-en-scène of the boy-on-boy fight.

So Zachary’s piece has me thinking about the ways in which figh choreography and what we would conventionally recognize as “dance” choreography interface in media constructions of the masculine body, whether implicitly or explicitly coded as “queer.” Does Dance Studies acknowledge fight movement and martial arts (or films as varied as WEST SIDE STORY, FIGHT CLUB and CROUCHING TIGER) as part of their charge in terms of research? How does “the fight” inform the dancing male body in American culture?

Anna Beatrice Scott's picture

Wow! No more camp

Wow! No more camp trace—full out queered eye and choreography. Thanks for this. At Riverside we do consider fight scenes choreography and had a veritable love fest with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. This particular clip, shows a clumsy piece of choreography, which is redundant given the elements included to help the hero escape. Did someone say Brian Boitano? Really, the allusion to figure skating and greco-roman wrestling all at once is really laying it on thick, but you have to to get maximum pleasure, right? I would have liked to have seen more diagonal vectors in this piece of choreography or perhaps more arcs. Is there a queer trajectory? Not just the manner in which the grappling is achieved—I loved that the hero wins by being the submissive bottom and redirects the force of his assailants by appearing to give in/give it up—but also the placement of bodies in space and coverage of the floor. Chorus line puns I suppose are a queering of the fight scene, but if the characters are not allowed to express pleasure in the battle when it is queered, then why bother. I’m thinking about how Jackie Chan—though a “yellowed up coon” gets to enjoy the sensations of his body in battle. What if our hero had enjoyed the calamity of the full body oil as much as he enjoyed putting on his pedals/ice skates? What if his assailants had a reverse shot in which they marveled at his fleet-footedness as he managed to mince and stride at the same time? I loved this clip, can you tell?

Kelli Kilgore's picture

Great clip and interesting

Great clip and interesting discussion. You bring up a point that has always amazed me in regards to what main stream audiences deem as “acceptable” male on male interaction. Homoerotic undertones are often ignored as you stated when buried under “manly” acts. It reminds me of the surprisingly “acceptable” physicality in the sports world. Spectators rarely question a pat on the bottom of one team mate to another. In a very testosterone filled activity it is excused as male bonding. I had not before made the parallel to action film fight scenes.

I notice that often times it is the perspective of the viewer that dictates whether the sexual undertones are detected. Dana, I remember the Two Princes routine you are referring to from SYTYCD and I remember my initial reaction being that I could have seen a similar display in a gay club. Maybe it was the music or the machismo that bordered on a catty fight between two drag queens and possibly the irritating clapping sequence, set to a house beat, that Danny directs at Neil as part of the duel but my interpretation of the piece was very different from my counterparts who may not have been exposed to similar types of gay social interaction. They didn’t get it nor could they see it. Even Nigel, one of the judges, praised the dance for showcasing men as men. I think the sexual intensity that some noticed was overlooked by others because again it was disguised in a “fight scene” and that whether intentional or not made it more palatable.

Jane Desmond's picture

Zachary, I loved this clip

Zachary, I loved this clip too and have been thinking about it over the last few days. Dana is right, footwear really _does_ make all the difference! But seriously, one of my favorite moments in this choreography, a sort of punctum, is the moment when one of the opponents slides headfirst across the oil-slick floor directly toward the sitting hero’s crotch, which the hero actively and decisively exposes(makes visually available dead on to the camera) by strongly sweeping his legs open. The slider’s arms reach out in front of his missile body, and just as they nearly touch the hero’s crotch, he is roundly boxed on the ears by those open legs now scissoring swiftly closed, just at the last minute. The slick, the slide, the offer, the reach, the withdrawal of object of desire and the resulting swift punishment (cost of the enjoyment of that moment which simultaneously allows it to be public?)…encapsulates for me in that one moment so much of the whole staging in this queer piece of choreography and many of the strands of all we’ve been discussing here.

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