Debunking Hollywood: Knockout Shot


Today LWON is proud to announce a new intermittent  series, ala TGIPF. Every so often our writers will choose a common trope in movies and television – something based at least loosely in science – and pick it apart. If you have any suggestions for topics, drop them into the comments or send them to @erikvance on Twitter.


There are certain tropes that are so ingrained, so basic in Hollywood that I don’t think anyone has ever thought whether they make any sense – noise in space, cars on two wheels, that kind of thing. My favorite is the knockout punch. I remember the first time I saw Dr. No and Sean Connery knocked out, like, three guys with one swing. Today, it’s not that ridiculous but I always wonder – how easy is it to knock a guy out long enough to pick a lock, find the diamonds, and get out?

Oddly the one that really irritates me is The Incredibles – the part where Elastigirl is breaking into Syndrome’s evil lair and she’s knocking out henchmen left and right. I have no problem with her turning into a human parachute or her son running on water. But I remember seeing a kid get just clonked in Little League by a stray ball and he was out for maybe 10 seconds. Yet Elastigirl knocked out these guys long enough to stuff them in a locker with a flip of her wrist.

shutterstock_118438336So can that happen? It’s implausible, but surprisingly possible.

“If you hit them hard enough and you hit them in the right spot – a lot of it is location, location, location – yeah you can knock them out for ten minutes,” says Dr. Brent Masel, President of the Transitional Learning Center at Galveston, which is loosely tied to University of Texas and treats brain injuries.

Any time you lose consciousness – whether it be for ten seconds or a five-year coma (in essence, a very long knockout) – one of two things has gone wrong. One, something is wrong with both hemispheres of the brain. Masel says that he could pull out practically an entire hemisphere of your brain and, though you’d be upset, you wouldn’t lose consciousness as long as it’s just one side. To black out you need to damage both sides, say in an explosion.

But the second, and more likely for action heroes, is bruising the brain stem. The brain, he says, is like a scoop of ice cream on a cone (the cone is the spine and where the two meet is the stem).

“When people get knocked out, they’ve impacted their brain stem,” Masel says. “It’s a contusion to a part of your brain stem. If it doesn’t  bounce back in that 10 seconds, you have done damage to yourself.”

If you know where to hit someone with a concentrated blow (say the butt of a gun) then you can knock someone out long enough to put in the trunk of a car, like Robert Redford in Sneakers (what? – I liked that movie). But he woke up miles away and thus risked damage to his brain. Worse yet, to take him back home they did it again (true, he sent Ben Kingsley to prison, which was a dick move). If you are out more than a few seconds, your next trip needs to be to the hospital (Masel cautions that just because you didn’t get knocked out doesn’t guarantee you are okay). If you are knocked out for each leg of a car trip, you’ll be in no shape to save Mary McDonnell from gangsters.


But hitting the brain stem isn’t as easy as it looks, especially with a more diffuse hit – like a fist. In that case, Masel says, knock outs only work if you a) cause a big enough concussion to rattle the brain stem or b) snap the person’s head around, thus restricting blood to the brain stem (like whiplash). Both of these are the goal for your average boxer.

So, when Neo kicks the crap out of a roomful of security guards a few of them should have gotten up and wandered off.  The rest, well, if they recover, many will probably never be the same again.

First two photos provided by Shutterstock. The last is from  The Incredibles (2004), ©Pixar Animation Studios.

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8 thoughts on “Debunking Hollywood: Knockout Shot

  1. Great! Now do the breaking of someone’s neck by the two handed twist on the ear region.

  2. But with Neo, it’s all in the security guards heads anyway, since they’re all plugged into the Matrix. How does a psychosomatic injury impact the physical body and then translate back into the virtual reality?

    Maybe, the guards buy into Hollywood too, and believe his fist would knock them out, so they stay out.

    And would they have an actual injury as a result, or even behave as if they have a brain injury? Since most people probably wouldn’t be able to generate a brain injury just because they believed they received one? If they even thought they did? The effects of concussions often come as a surprise to people who get them, in my, limited, experience.

    I’m thinking way too hard about this…

  3. I had a professional fighter show me how they’re taught to knock someone out. It involves smashing your fist (with a hammer fist to be precise) in the back of someone’s neck with all your might, and even then it’s much more likely to stun the opponent than actually knock him out.

    So for an action hero to really knock someone out, it seems like the punch would have to be in a one on one fight, and require nearly superhuman strength to be consistent. Human skulls are just too sturdy for an easy knockout punch to even be possible.

    @Professional Yoyo,

    You actually can do that, but not the way it’s shown in the movies. The head has to be whipped back and all the way around with one hand on the chin and the other on the cheek or temple as quickly as possible. This would only kill someone if it severs the jugulars. But it is very nasty and could paralyze someone.

    Needless to say, this can only be done if you’re extremely strong, have many years of training, and very difficult to pull off even if all the stars align. And again, the result is not instant death. It’s more likely to be very severe spinal trauma.

  4. Interesting point, Greg. When it comes to being knocked out, twisting is also key (restricting blood flow). I know cops are taught to knock people out with a sort of choke hold, but I can’t remember if there is twisting involved.

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