George Chrysostomou asks whether we’ve started to settle for mediocre action pieces…
The action film will forever be in its heyday, for conflict drives any narrative forward – especially when that conflict results in a showdown between two or more characters. Audiences will forever be drawn to the cinema to witness larger than life sequences, explosions and fisticuffs. Action of course comes in all sorts of forms, whether that’s an old western shootout, a superhero showdown or a kung fu brawl. Certainly, cinema has created some iconic action heroes and TV has often taken its air time to produce some quality choreographed fight sequences.
But, what sets these significant action pieces apart from the groan worthy cinematic beat-downs that we have all sat through at one time? Are we actually settling for mediocre action pieces and rewarding them with our attention? This feature will attempt to tackle these questions for mainstream cinema and TV.
Character Driven Conflict
Conflict is, as I mentioned what drives a narrative forward. However, that conflict can only be produced by two or more opposing sides, battling out for their own desires. The only way to produce truly compelling action, with clear stakes and an obvious purpose, is through character work. An action set piece should either move towards a character’s goal or tell you something about the characters themselves.
If you were to watch a Jackie Chan action sequence from Drunken Master, you’d immediately understand the character. John Wick‘s beloved action sequences play upon his history as a mercenary and bring him closer to his goal of revenge. Even in a large blockbuster such as Rogue One, the one action sequence that truly stands out is that of the villainous and infamous Darth Vader; the sequence becoming a highlight of the movie, his dominance proclaiming loud and clear why the galaxy fears the Empire and its Dark Lord.
Action therefore often fails when character moments and clear goals are not set out throughout the piece. Transformers is often given criticism for how mind numbing it is to watch. You cannot often identify one Transformer from another in their action sequences, with the goal of their fighting often becoming lost upon the audience. The same could be said for The Hobbit franchise, where little effort was made to identify each dwarf and allow audiences to sympathise with them. Their characters needed to be more developed than just ‘they’re the good guys,’ so their CGI action sequences fell flat once formed.
Choreographed To Perfection
Choreography is another crucial element to an action showdown. Strong choreography will produce an action film to remember, with CGI enhancing elements but the true strength lying within practical stunts and fight scenes. Hand to hand combat should especially be produced practically with John Wick and Jason Bourne showing the results of this. Mad Max: Fury Road, perhaps one of the best action films of this century, was famous for the efforts it went to in order to provide practical sequences. With the correct choreography the tone of an action scene can be shifted greater. Look to Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz and The World’s End for remarkable comedy action pacing.
Marvel’s Iron Fist suffered from poor choreography in comparison; The Dark Knight trilogy for all its strengths sometimes comes under fire for mediocre action choreography; this is not aided especially by Batman Begins, with a consistent use of shaky cam, making it difficult to track what is happening. However, character work saved this from disappointment, something that cannot be said for Iron Fist.
Action set pieces create an opportunity for stylised imagery which live in cinematic history as being iconic. Game of Thrones often sets out to provide us with a unique perspective of medieval style battles, the Battle of the Bastards particularly one to note for its imagery (Jon Snow crushed in the middle of enemies and allies alike). Edgar Wright pops up again for his unique take in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, perhaps the only film to truly master video-game style graphics and imagery. Japanese works such as Hero often draw upon colour in order to craft beautiful imagery and CGI can often be used for this, in works such as The Matrix, to produce truly unique visuals. Even shows like Arrow keep in mind their source material, often trying to recreate comic book panels in their work.
On the other hand, you could come across a director like Zack Snyder whom perhaps takes this idea too far. More style than substance his works, although beautiful to look at, lack the character development needed to make the imagery more powerful in conjunction. In short, a character in one of these iconic frames should be the centre point of the imagery, with their motivations becoming clear in that one shot.
So Are We Settling?
I believe only an audience member can answer that for themselves. Everyone perceives a show or character differently to everyone else. The action therefore may fall flat for one whilst becoming nail-biting for another. It’s about perspective and oftentimes execution. Choreography, character work, and imagery,really drive action set pieces and therefore the narrative forward; perhaps we’re only settling if an action piece features none of these.