Truly epic well made action movies are a thing of beauty. A blend of fun heroes we can root for, cool villains that entertain, and a simple narrative to hang the mayhem on. These films excite and surprise us, and pulse to a beat that sadly very few directors seems to understand. Because for every decent action film we get, there seems to be ten others that fail miserably. Promising high-octane thrills, but delivering incomprehensible firework shows.
Great action movies have a kind of cool rhythm. A steady beat like you’d find in a catchy piece of music, or a well choreographed dance sequence. A bad action director puts you on stage with the dancers, while shaking your head violently in order to ‘put you in the action.’ A good director asks you to take your seat in the theater and enjoy the show. Allowing you full view of the performance, and gives the dancers the freedom to move and properly showcase their skills.
That being said, here are some recent wins and fails, along with some pseudo analysis to back up my opinion! Agree? Disagree? Feel free to leave your polite comment at the bottom of the page.
Win: John Wick
Directed by two former stuntmen, David Leitch and Chad Stahelskiand, and starring Keanu Reeves, no stranger to great action movies. John Wick delivers a simple yet effective revenge story, and sets up a fun world for its characters to exist in. One with a code of conduct, hallowed ground, and even its own currency. The film’s nightclub scene provides us with a great example of how action is properly filmed. Note the shot to action ratio. It’s almost ¾ rhythm (waltz) 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3!
Fail: Brick Mansions
The English language remake of the excellent French action film, District B13 – Brick Mansions provides us with a lot of great examples of bad action direction. Again, note the shot to action ratio in this scene as Paul Walker and Parkour creator, David Belle fight over their truck.
See what I’m getting at with the shot to action ratio? John Wick has Keanu perform several actions in each shot before we cut to another angle, and yet another set of actions. With Mr. Wick dispatching yet another henchman with a precise shot to the pumpkin! Brick Mansions on the other hand has the shot to action ratio closer to 1:1, making the scene hard to follow as our viewing angle on the action keeps changing.
Win: The Matrix
With a story concept that’s computer controlled totalitarian society meets Kung Fu, The Matrix scores on so many levels. And like me, you probably shouted ‘holy s#@!’ the first time you saw Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne battle. Which opens with 12 individual actions in the first smooth steady shot! Note, the camera is pulled back, allowing us to see everything, which lets us appreciate all the training the cast had complete with legendary fight coordinator, Yuen Woo-ping.
A muddled narrative, and even worse action direction. Elysium’s shaky close-ups during the excessively cut up footage makes the action almost incomprehensible. Compare this sample battle in Elysium with the above footage from The Matrix. 3 shots, 3 actions – 1 shot, 12 actions!
Win: The Raid: Redemption & The Raid 2
In The Raid: Redemption, writer, director, editor, Gareth Evans scores with his simply structured and superbly choreographed action epic. In The Raid 2, the Everton* supporter hits the back of the net again, and proves he’s capable of more than just well shot action. All I can say is, I can’t wait for his hat-trick! Just keep ‘em coming Gareth, because you’re my shining light, my new John Woo!
One of the many highlights from The Raid 2 was this car chase/fight, and this awesome shot looking down through the top a car, as Iko Uwais beats the snot out of the other passengers!
Fail: A Good Day to Die Hard.
The last Die Hard movie pretty much killed the franchise off for good, and ended up on a lot of movie bloggers top 10 worst films of 2013. With over the top cartoonish action sequences, and Bruce Willis phoning in his performance. It was actually distressing to watch the franchise take this direction. Especially since the first Die Hard movie would easily represent an epic action movie win!
Die Hard 5’s over the top car chase scene is edited to death. This tiny 6 second sample has 8 different shots as John McClain drives his SUV off a bridge and down to the freeway below.
So there you have it. Just a few choice examples of epic wins and fails within the action movie genre. Of course there are many more films I could mention, but I’ll leave that up to you. What action movies would you recommend? Which movies should we avoid?