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Where looks, but not the jabs, could kill

March 19, 2007|Hilary MacGregor | Special to The Times

As I move from preschool to grocery store to a night on the town, I long to dazzle with dangerous glamour, projecting a steely don't-mess-with-me attitude. I want to look as if I could take you down if you set me off in a parking lot.

But I don't really want to hurt anyone. The answer: Stunt-fighting class.

I wanted a place that would allow a neophyte like me to get a serious workout while learning some real moves, without a whit of saber fighting, martial arts or film experience. I found my match at Film Fighting LA. For $30, I could drop in for a two-hour class, no experience necessary.

The class, at Wing Chun Studio, is taught by Robert Goodwin, a master martial artist, fight choreographer and SAG member with credits a mile long. He's coordinated car gags, brawls and sword duels for TV and film. He was one of Christian Bale's martial arts instructors for "Batman Begins" and he trained the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Sunday afternoon stunt class I planned to attend promised a sampler of Hong Kong fighting, Kali stick and knife fighting, and rolls and falls. The description said I would get to spar, sort of, with working actors, stunt fighters and professional wrestlers.

It sounded terrifying, but totally cool.

As soon as I walked into the class -- in an old West L.A. warehouse -- I felt myself slipping into a parallel universe. The studio looked like one in a movie, with tatami-like mats on the floor, bamboo fighting sticks poking out of porcelain vases, Japanese swords mounted on the walls, and a grimacing life-size rubber torso suspended from the ceiling for kicking, hitting and whomping. Goodwin himself seemed to come from central casting. Dressed in loose pants and a T-shirt, his gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, his eyes projecting a Zen-like calm, Goodwin could have just returned from a decade in a Japanese dojo. (Like much of the day, this was an illusion -- he has never studied in Asia.)

Goodwin says he enjoys teaching the principles of martial arts and swordsmanship and applying them to film technique because it engages the yang -- or action -- part of his personality.

"It's doing what I was doing when I was 9 years old with a stick and shield," he said. "Only now I get to do it in costume."

There were seven students including me -- three women and four men. The others were actors and seemed to range from their 20s to their 50s -- though few would reveal their true age.

After a respectful bow to our teacher, we began with a typical athletic warmup of stretching and jogging. Then we got in position to box, and the class turned to film, acting and illusion.

*

Punch and duck

"In real boxing, you hold up your hands like this," said Goodwin, holding his fists up to protect his face from an imaginary opponent. "But this is film, so we want to see your face." He dropped his fists down to shoulder level so he simply looked as if he was ready to fight.

We drilled before the mirror, trying to look fierce and invincible. We followed Goodwin, adding one move to another like dancers. Kick. Jab left. Right. Hook. Bob. "Now add breathing," he said, and we started to grunt and pant like fighters in an alley. Already it was starting to sound real, or at least like a movie soundtrack.

Then we began to drill in the ways of Hong Kong fighting -- a style of combat that is expressed mainly by Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in Hong Kong cinema. It originated as a blend of Shaolin, Wu Shu and Chinese opera fight techniques that have been influenced by fight choreographers such as Chan, Cory Yuen ("The Transporter") and Yuen Wo Ping ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the "Matrix" films) to become what is known as Hong Kong fighting.

We started with the Hong Kong punch. That meant nothing to me, but I was game to try. We lunged across the floor, flinging our arms out to the right side with a guttural "Huh!", then swinging our fists forward at the head of an invisible opponent. Next we learned the blind duck -- a smooth backward dip that allows an opponent's fist to sail safely over your head.

Then we broke into pairs and put the moves together. This was where things began to get scary. As one partner yelled "Huh!" and swung his arm, the other ducked and stepped back. It looked quite dramatic, and if one person moved in the wrong direction or had poor timing ... well, I didn't really want to think about it.

"Jackie Chan's people get hurt if they miss their target cue," Goodwin shouted out to the class. "Get ready." We locked eyes with our partners. "Aim where your partner's head is. Now it's a fist. In the future it will be a baseball bat."

The sparring felt primal and cathartic. By the time Goodwin yelled "Break!" I was sweating.

Next step: Add swords.

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