Tom Jolliffe on the genesis of the excessively long action scene…
It has become almost the norm now. The majority of large-scale action blockbusters will have a hugely elaborate, and extremely long set piece in them. In fact some may have several. It used to be that maybe 5-10 minutes at the end of a film there would be a “finale.” In a cinematic landscape controlled largely by Franchise Universe (predominantly Marvel and DC) we now have run-times well in excess of 2 hours and within these lengths, there will be relentless scenes of carnage.
Is it simply that younger audiences now require near constant visual stimulus to counter a shorter attention span? Studios seem to believe so. I recall enjoying the first Avengers film, but by the time the finale had run its course I was shattered. Not in necessarily the best way. It got to a point mid way through the immensely scaled action, where they needed to fit in moments for half a dozen protagonists, with very few pauses for breath, that I was losing interest. As buildings shredded apart, explosions tore through the screen and big green men bounded through the sky, I was beginning to not care. It used to be as a kid that you’d watch an action film and if too long was spent on relaying plot, you’d check your watch. Here I was, as an adult, checking my watch in the middle of the final action scene. Times have changed.
Large scale action isn’t new. However the ease in which you can now create so much visual carnage with CGI, and ever bloating budgets, means that filmmakers are now trying to outdo not only each other, but the previous (or connecting) films in their respective franchises/universes. The rule of sequel is to go bigger than the last film. That’s not a new concept but the landscape of film just so happens to be one that is largely inhabited by sequels, remakes and reboots.
For me a perfect template for the big budget action blockbuster is Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I was there just yesterday, watching the brand spanking new, and just a bit sexy, 3D (4k) re-release. The 3D aspect I could have done without, but it gave me the opportunity to see this on the big screen. It’s thematically relevant, with nicely defined characters, effective (and restrained) humour and importantly, it’s perfectly paced. Pace isn’t just about how quickly you get through exposition. It relates to how you get from minute one to the last. That includes action. You cannot overstay any scene. If you put in a relentless 20 minute action sequence, it doesn’t mean your film is fast paced. In fact you can be a Fast and Furious film and be a film that moves at a snail’s pace, because the action scenes just don’t end when they should. Most great action scenes in of themselves will also tell a story. A beginning, middle and end. Or may come in stages, perhaps levelling up as the sequence progresses. Just as important as the actual carnage, are the breaks. Those pauses to recoup. It’s something modern action is losing the ability to do effectively.
Terminator 2 does this perfectly. All the action is great but take the finale which effectively starts at Cyberdyne. That’s perhaps 30 minutes before the film’s credits roll. It’s a long chunk and it’s full of action but it’s conducted with precision. It’s not just a cobbling together of several overtures. Cameron places the finale into three decipherable stages. Within each stage there’s a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. They are three set pieces which are all worthy, within their own rights of finishing a film. He connects them consummately. They’re big in spectacle and scale and they showcase the beauty of practical, in camera destruction. The time and precision required to get these right means you must be creative. You cannot just pull it out of a computer and re-animate anything at any point which you feel doesn’t fit. CGI offers total freedom, but with that comes a price and that is over-reliance.
So where did the modern trend for excessively long action scenes begin? For me you could point to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Okay let’s face it, at a combined near ten hours for three films, it’s perhaps not merely action scenes that have been affected by the success of Jackson’s trilogy. However in that middle film there is the battle of Helm’s Deep which is huge. It has spectacle of course but it’s a battle to sit through. Even as much as I enjoyed the trilogy, The Two Towers remains my least favourite. In part because it’s this middle chunk of story, so effectively there’s no beginning, or no end. At the same time, that battle scene exhausts to a point of frustration. Okay, there were big battles again in the final part, but you at least felt like there was a conclusion in sight (and they were broken apart a little more). Everything about Jackson and Middle-earth is excessive in truth, particularly the recent Hobbit trilogy.
There are still some effective modern action films, but they manage to get a fine balance. Tom Cruise and the last two Mission: Impossible films did this effectively. Large scale action, impressive set pieces and delivered in clearly defined and ingestible stages. If you look at Mad Max: Fury Road, the film is essentially one long action scene but it’s orchestrated well. Each action chunk is a perpetual crescendo which takes us to a point and then lets us go and allows us to recover for the next one. In terms of purity of spectacle, Fury Road is probably the finest (up with Casino Royale) example since Terminator 2.
When you see the reported budgets of many upcoming tentpole pictures though, you realise that they are likely to be bursting at the seams with action. By the very cost, and where these costs often tend to go, we’re bound to be overwhelmed. Are we being given too much though? Is there any need for a film to cost as much as Avengers: Infinity War is rumoured to cost (some of the sillier suggestions put it close to a billion, but before long a budget may well hit that)? The trouble is, when you spend over 200 million on a film (which is fairly standard now) there’s an expectation to see that on-screen. You probably won’t see that on-screen within a dialogue scene in a simple room set, but you will see it if a city gets ripped apart by comic book villains. When there is so much you want to cram in, even the best exponent of editing would struggle to logically pace a sequence. Even the strongest director with a clear vision, would struggle to stage and separate these sequences into clearly defined acts with progression and build up. Nowadays far too many set pieces turn the notch up to 11 from the outset and keep it there.
Too many gifts are available to the big studio pictures now. However like any great chef, if they’re given a huge selection of the finest and most expensive ingredients with a pressure to fit everything in, it’s going to be tough to make it work. Sometimes you’re left with a gold topped, caviar and truffle soup, cooked with a 50-year-old vintage red. Trouble is it doesn’t fit together. It just makes you feel queasy and makes you wish you could just have a really good omelette instead.