Top

film

Stories

 

Action Movies Don't Have to Suck

A lament for lost carnage—and coherence

Remember how action movies used to be? The good old-fashioned American (but often European-accented) ones from the '80s and '90s, the type paid tribute to (but not necessarily re-created) in the Expendables movies? No offense to your Iron Men and your Jason Bournes, but I miss movies like Die Hard, First Blood, Commando, Predator, and their more martial-arts-oriented cousins Bloodsport and Out for Justice. These were lowbrow, often low budget, their action focused on stunt work and fight choreography. Their stakes were pretty personal: rescuing a hostage, avenging a death, blowing up that alien that has been skinning guys out in the jungles of Val Verde. Their stars were chosen more for screen presence (and sometimes fighting skill) than for traditional ideas of acting talent. And they were a bonding ritual for brothers and buddies and dads taking the kids to R-rated movies to seem cooler than Mom.

Well, things change: The audience that once flocked to Lethal Weapon sequels and Dolph Lundgren vehicles has just spent another summer feeding on a diet of superhero and fantasy cinema full of cartoonish PG-13 action largely created on computers. The digital effects that were so impressive in Terminator 2: Judgment Day have evolved and left behind that same movie's timeless truck, motorcycle, and helicopter stunts. At the time, T2 seemed bombastic and excessive; now its emphasis on characters and storytelling impact seems quaint. Yes, there was a joy in trying to blow up more shit than had ever been blown up before, but there was a story rhythm to it. There was a build, a sense of climax. There was editing and camera placement that allowed you to understand exactly what shit was blowing up, why and where it was blowing up, and who was getting blown up by it.

Traditionally, in the best action scenes, we are swept into the movement and dragged along by the speed, but we also understand what we're looking at. Think of Bruce Willis leaping off the building with a fire hose tied around his waist, Steven Seagal bluntly subduing a bunch of thugs in an alley even though they're the ones with the bat, Arnold Schwarzenegger hurtling through the air as the Predator's ship self-destructs. These scenes depict destructive acts, but they celebrate the grace of trained bodies in actual motion. Jackie Chan's fight scenes are often compared to dance numbers, John Woo's shoot-outs to ballets.

These days, action scenes are more like tripping and rolling down a hill. Simon West and Michael Bay popularized shorter cuts and more angles, often shot close up and without establishing important visual information like where the characters are in relation to one another or in which direction they're moving. More recently, the popularity of the Bourne sequels directed by Paul Greengrass unleashed the menace of the "shaky cam"—chases and fights shot messily on deliberately wobbly handheld cameras to give the impression of documentary realism—even though real footage shot by war journalists is often less messy.

Greengrass can sometimes make the style decipherable by ensuring that important visual cues (faces, fronts of vehicles) do make it into the frame, but his imitators are not always as careful. Even Jason Statham, today's only big-screen brand-name action specialist, has been swept up in the close-up shaky style that has dominated since around 2005. Note the drop in fight coherence between Transporters 2 and 3. Imagine a Gene Kelly dance sequence or the "Thriller" video shot in this style. You'd have no idea if Kelly could really tap or which one of those zombies was Michael Jackson.

As these styles became popular among directors and tolerated by audiences, we moved into what I call the Post-Action Era. Movies like Salt, Taken, Quantum of Solace, Gamer, The Grey, and Warrior have the kinds of plots that used to be written to string together fights and chases, but the action is so muddled and incoherent it might as well be left out.

I liked all but one of these movies on some level, but they could be vastly improved with action scenes that are well planned out and properly covered. Warrior is a satisfyingly formulaic sports drama with three great lead performances, but it revolves entirely around a mixed-martial-arts tournament where little fighting is clearly visible on-screen. There are shots seemingly designed to make you feel like you're in the crowd with a tall dude in front of you, and you can't see anything through that goddamn cage. Then it cuts to the facial expressions of people watching a TV and enjoying a better view than yours. They never did that shit in Kickboxer!

Even the attempted genre revival The Expendables is disappointingly Post-Action. A fight between Lundgren and Jet Li barely registers their fighting styles or 11-inch height difference. Filming a tussle with Steve Austin, Stallone was injured so seriously he had to have a metal plate put in his neck, but you mostly see the backs of their heads as they roll around in the dark and swing their fists. The fake fight was more dangerous on set than it seems on-screen. (Part 2 is less shaky but still puts Jet Li in bulky clothes and shoots him from waist to eyebrow.)

1
 
2
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
41 comments
actionmoviefreak
actionmoviefreak

"Old-school action has emerged from its coma & is retraining itself." Hallelujah to that! @Expendables2 gets it right: "focused on stunt work & fight choreography"

bobby
bobby

The extreme closeup/short chop editing is nothing but a cheat dragged over from 90s and 00s music videos.  Actors don't need to train as much, punches thrown as hard, cars driven as fast, or choreography be as precise.  Its a headache inducing cop out and should die a quick death.... but it won't.  Because it's easy, cheap, and younger audiences are used to half paying attention anyways, so they don't care.

 

* I'm heading back to my front porch now to yell at some kids walking on my lawn*

.

.

petelee
petelee

I work with a bunch of stunt guys and filmmakers in the Bay Area who are working to rectify the exact problem you've specified. We just made a film called Death Grip that combines Korean, Hong Kong, and 80s American sensibilities - here's a little taste for anyone who wishes to check it out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TuWMnZugFzU

InFluEnza1918
InFluEnza1918

@SamWitwer Except for the newest one the Bourne trilogy is top-notch.

VirulentViper
VirulentViper

@SamWitwer Action movies kinda suck. Witwer movies are amazing.

samwitwerfans
samwitwerfans

@SamWitwer so what you are saying is you're a chic flick kinda guy?

swirlOsquirrel
swirlOsquirrel

@SamWitwer No matter the genre, solid writing is what actors, directors, set designers, camera peeps & editors build upon. #BasicDramaRules

beckyb731
beckyb731

@SamWitwer So disappointed you aren't going to be at Dragon*Con this year. What about New York Comic Con?

swirlOsquirrel
swirlOsquirrel

@SamWitwer Here's a thought - how about we try dramaturgy? U know, support directors, actors, & yes WRITERS who make this stuff? #JustSayin

Chris_mk
Chris_mk

@SamWitwer Ummm... aside from being a sequel!

Chris_mk
Chris_mk

@SamWitwer What about the last Mission Impossible film, that was cool and new!

rachaelcurtis
rachaelcurtis

@SamWitwer I couldn't help but notice how that article didn't comment on The Matrix. The first movie. Because the other two don't exist.

swirlOsquirrel
swirlOsquirrel

@SamWitwer But they killed all the writers in Hollywood, then wonder why they spend a gazillion on FX and still the movie blows chunks.

swirlOsquirrel
swirlOsquirrel

@SamWitwer Yeah, those movies had a little something we writers like 2 call "coherent plot" & "good dialogue" & generally just good WRITING.

Chaz_CB
Chaz_CB

@SamWitwer we knew what ya meant. #secondtweetnotneeded

Guvnah
Guvnah

Post-Action movies make me sad.  Long live the tripod, and especially the steadicam.  

 

Vern's right about Universal Soldier: Regeneration.  It's bloody great.  

DarrenBaker
DarrenBaker

@outlawvern Excellent, excellent piece.

jonnyabomb
jonnyabomb

@outlawvern Congratulations, brother!

kamshafiq
kamshafiq

@davefranklin @outlawvern @studiesincrap My mate accepted Expendables 2 to be terrible with, 'It was never going to be good, was it?' Urgh

ladonnapietra
ladonnapietra

@M_Morse @outlawvern I approve of all of this.

davefranklin
davefranklin

@kamshafiq yeah I mean, I thought it was okay, but so much wrong with it. Also like that Vern acknowledges that Greengrass’s technique works

kamshafiq
kamshafiq

@davefranklin I enjoyed BourneLegacy, but really missed the Greengrass style when it came to the action scenes.

kamshafiq
kamshafiq

@davefranklin I thought too many shots of the big guys firing their guns, then cutting to random baddies getting hit by the bullets.

kamshafiq
kamshafiq

@rossatron2910 @davefranklin Give it a go, its good.

davefranklin
davefranklin

@kamshafiq @Rossatron2910 it’s like Bourne with a bit more Michael Clayton. Fine by me.

Rossatron2910
Rossatron2910

@davefranklin @kamshafiq May give it a go then. After 'Expendables 2' lol. I have loyalty to Arnie. I have to.

davefranklin
davefranklin

@Rossatron2910 @kamshafiq also it may not be the best one but it’s so similar to the others that hating it seems ridiculous to me

kamshafiq
kamshafiq

@rossatron2910 @davefranklin It didn't zip along at the same pace as the others, but its a worthy companion piece.

davefranklin
davefranklin

@Rossatron2910 @kamshafiq critics are split on. Quite a lot like it. It’s really good I think.

Rossatron2910
Rossatron2910

@davefranklin @kamshafiq Is 'Bourne Legacy' any good? It's getting slated by critics.

kamshafiq
kamshafiq

@davefranklin Maybe Rowdy Herrington is available for Expendables 3? Or Mel Gibson who is an amazing action director.

davefranklin
davefranklin

@kamshafiq yeah you’re right but he’s too good for Expendables, would be a huge step down for him haha

kamshafiq
kamshafiq

@davefranklin I'd love to see Gareth Evans direct Expendables - his action in the raid is some of the best I've seen in a long time.

davefranklin
davefranklin

@kamshafiq LOVE that scene. Also the lab massacre, chillingly done.

kamshafiq
kamshafiq

@davefranklin The attempted assassination of Weisz was really well done.

davefranklin
davefranklin

@kamshafiq I only really missed him in that last bike chase, which was average.

 

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!

Movie Trailers

Loading...