Tom Jolliffe looks at ten action movies blessed with stunning cinematography…
There are great action movies and there is great cinematography. Not always, but occasionally, the two meet in the middle and we get an action film that also looks especially incredible.
In general, the action genre may go for a more neutral palette, to maintain some sense of grounding. The genre doesn’t typically allow for fanciful colour and lighting quite like you may get in the horror genre for example. Throwing in a dose of sci-fi alongside the action does also allow for more artistic cinematographic flourishes and sometimes the filmmaker will look to add a more artistically minded look to the picture, even when there isn’t a genre blend.
If you’ve seen the vast array of movie-themed Instagram sites devoted to beautiful cinematography or colour breakdowns, you may well see a select minority of action films in comparison to some other genres, but those do certainly stand out. Here are ten beautifully shot action movies…
Maybe it’s a feminine gaze across the bromance machismo plotting of Point Break that gives it an unusually evocative gloss. Kathryn Bigelow certainly had an eye that had touches of James Cameron, but with her own unique flair.
Point Break isn’t just concerned with a standard coat of cinematographic paint by numbers. It’s shot in widescreen, capturing the waves beautifully as surfers glide through the waters. There’s a tendency to linger on Keanu Reeves looking boyishly handsome, or Patrick Swayze being ruggedly charismatic. It’s the kind of romantic gaze usually reserved for female parts, and in these films that’s usually the two-dimensional love interest with her top off. Not so here in a film with overt homo-erotic undertones.
Point Break just looks absolutely stunning from start to finish, with visceral action scenes, dazzling surf and sky diving scenes and a popping colourful display of the L.A setting. Kudos to Bigelow and cinematographer Donald Peterson. Mark Isham’s score is a perfectly dreamy accompaniment.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
There is one key reason why many of the films on this list are on this list. It’s shooting on film. With a few exceptions, dependent on the skill of cinematographers, film just looks better than digital. It captures a certain quality that feels like a movie. It fills gaps our eyes can’t catch, that digital might pick up, and additionally in the modern tool kit for cinematography, so much is changed in post, where some films can have a look that’s been predominantly created in grading.
Terminator 2, pre-digital, also happened to have groundbreaking use of CGI with the iconic T1000 villain, but it was used sparingly. Additionally, Cameron et al made very sure that the lighting from on set was matched by the CGI on screen. Terminator 2, often coloured with a blue palette looks crisp, gorgeously steely and always impeccably framed in widescreen. The set pieces also have huge scope and scale, utilising that frame space perfectly and really accentuating the bold stunt work and pyrotechnics on display.
Shooting everything on sets and locations is another reason why, as a whole, Terminator 2 feels so impactful and impressive compared to modern action films which can have entire sequences shot in green screen studios and the entirety of the set and props, created with CGI.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Keanu again. The John Wick franchise has done what too few modern action films do, and create something that feels like it has a distinct visual look. It doesn’t feel like it’s come from a production line to match similar products. They all look great but as the series has doubled down with each film, so too has the visual scope. Dan Laustsen came in for the second film and has remained, creating a beautiful world soaked in rain, neon and striking colour. It looks stunning and the whole world feels inherently John Wick (Chad Stahelski, Derek Kolstad and Keanu Reeves have certainly taken great care in world-building).
Among great production and set design that perfectly complements the lighting, the Wick franchise is crammed with memorable locations that are shot beautifully. In the third film alone we have the usual neon dazzles of the city, striking desert vistas and lots of glass and mirrors to make a great finale set piece. It perfectly captures a movie look, using digital film as a creative tool, rather than a time-saving crutch.
Brotherhood of the Wolf
A sweeping French period epic that’s got touches of horror, fantasy and martial arts action… it could only be Brotherhood of the Wolf. Christophe Gans has always approached the genre with an eye on beautiful composition (see also Crying Freeman). Teaming up with Dan Laustsen, the combination of director and DP creates some gorgeous imagery which utilises seasonal shifts beautifully as well as the elements.
We get lashing rain, wet mud, fire, and snow. We get stark palettes and warm palettes, de-saturation and then deep contrast. Gorgeous sets and costumes also add to the visual razzmatazz. I’ll also maintain that Monica Bellucci, who makes a scene-stealing, appearance is a cinematographer’s dream, making every frame mesmeric.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s dazzling neo-noir takes a whole heap of inspiration from the stunningly shot thriller work of Michael Mann, with an added dash of vehicular action and punctuations of violence, Drive is a dazzling odyssey.
The film erupts into fifth gear at the opening, setting the tone for what lies ahead: popping vibrant colours, lots of neon and a perfectly complementary retro soundtrack for atmosphere. Refn also likes to linger on Ryan Gosling’s mostly stoic protagonist and accentuate his enigmatic persona. We want to know more, we get suggestions about it, but only ever to a point. It’s a visually resplendent film.
Look. I’ll say it. Keanu Reeves has done some stunning-looking action films. Tinged with green whilst in the simulated world, The Matrix has some stunning frames within it. The opening 40 minutes in particular, and I’ll maintain that everything up until the red pill, is masterpiece film-making (the rest in the original is certainly exceptional still).
There’s just something about the neo-noir mystery aspect of the opening sections, front-loaded with rain-soaked streets and red/blue neons permeating the green frames. Everything beyond still looks great, from the grey-blue of the real world to the broadening colours once Neo is self-aware. We get lots of gorgeous wide shots, most notable in the action, eye-catching slow motion and the groundbreaking bullet time effects.
Aside from having unsurpassable action sequences, Hard Boiled was also a great display of John Woo’s great eye for visuals. This is a film, even still lacking in a decent Blu-ray transfer, which still looks impeccable. There’s so much action, often leaving the scenery with a misty haze and the lighting is great. As you’d expect from John Woo cinema too, it beautifully frames the actors and particularly in those moments where we need to read the stoicism of their faces to uncover the complex emotions within.
With the kind of tidy-up and perhaps 4k restoration this one richly deserves, I can only imagine just how much more dazzling this could still look. Most action films can’t compete with the stunts and pyrotechnics on display here, but neither can they compete with the calibre of the leads, the emotional punch and the glorious cinematography.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
The entire Mad Max franchise looks glorious. The raw indie spirit of the micro-budget original was visceral and dynamic, even if the sparse rural settings weren’t quite as eye-catching as the full-on baron post-apocalyptic desert of the follow-ups. Still, there’s just something about the gritty, dusty, sun-scorched and muggy feeling evoked by The Road Warrior.
Mad Max: Fury Road flames with golds and teals but it almost feels too pretty. A graphic novel brought to life. I like the dirty simplicity and grimness of the Road Warrior. Dean Semler’s composition and George Miller’s visionary visual scope perfectly combine to make this low-budget and lithe action classic feel huge in scope. Neverendingly barren vistas are cut through by tarmac roads which could fry eggs. The wide establishes for the relentless vehicular chaos of the final act are stunning, as is the aerial photography. Miller makes the thunderous chases feel chaotic, nauseating but gripping.
Akira Kurosawa revolutionised the action genre. He cultivated a style that many would follow with the Westerns of the late 50s and early 60s. The action films of the day essentially. Ironically Kurosawa was heavily inspired by early period films about the wild west but sought to inject his own sense of style. Kurosawa cinema is made of well-framed and well-blocked compositions. When it comes to action he had a way of shooting and cutting sequences which were way ahead of the time. It’s hard to pick a definitive Kurosawa film, and his shift into scope in the 60s expanded the width of his frames wonderfully.
Seven Samurai is arguably the greatest action film of all time. Each frame has so much texture and he brings the settings to life vividly, particularly in rain-soaked muddy battlefields, capturing the vulnerability of the small village the Samurai defend. Kurosawa doesn’t just beautifully capture the terrain and sets of his film, but most pertinently his actors, and the expressive emotional range of Toshiro Mifune, in particular, is wonderfully lensed in this film.
A great Queen soundtrack, a Michael Kamen score, and some stunning settings deserve some great cinematography. Action fantasy Highlander is certainly gifted that. A visionary director bringing his MTV sensibilities and the kind of reckless stylistic bravado you’d expect from an Aussie, delivers unique visuals, lashings of style and sensational transitions. Russell Mulcahy certainly attracted the ire of producers for some of his unconventional creative choices, but they would ultimately benefit a film as iconic for its visual flourish as it is for its Queen soundtrack.
Whether it’s the beautiful Scottish settings of the past, or the grimy streets of New York (littered with ample neon and street light ambience), Highlander gives every time period its own unique feeling. Christopher Lambert, whether by virtue of vision problems or not, could stare into forever and is filmed adoringly. He’s enigmatic and soulful, making one forget the achingly bad Scottish accent. Mulcahy just knows how to film his actors and he adorns suitable menace upon every frame that Clancy Brown strides into as The Kurgan, and indeed the peacocking Sean Connery, usually in an amazing costume.
Highlander is special and truly unique. Certainly a product of its time, but it’s also an example of a film near impossible to remake. If anyone could create something worthwhile it would certainly be Chad Stahelski, who is attached to the latest attempted revival.
What’s the most visually dazzling action movies you’ve seen? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.