The Death of the American Action Scene

At some point in recent years, Hollywood stopped producing good action scenes. CGI has surmounted stunt work, editing has trumped choreography, and action is almost an afterthought. Instead, we get a mess of coverage that batters the viewer instead of thrilling him or her. That doesn’t mean America hasn’t released the occasional good film that contains solid action in the past few years—Skyfall is a masterpiece with some really good action set pieces, but it’s also a British co-production with a great action pedigree—but as a robust, imaginative dedicated genre that doesn’t contain superheroes, the action film has gone quietly into the night. There are no action films on par with Die Hard, The Matrix, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day coming out of America these days. These films had imaginative actions scenes that utilized cutting edge technology, but used that technology to serve and complement the ideas of the director and the physical action being captured on camera.

Hollywood today does not believe that action on a human level is exciting, that a man punching another man, or a woman leaping through a window, is in itself thrilling. It seems to believe that excitement is the product of impactful editing and towering spectacle. Studios believe that a battle is exciting not if it’s well choreographed but rather if it’s massive and full of destruction. Of course, a film’s form can generate excitement, but things seem to have gone to the point that the process of planning, choreographing, and executing an actual action scene is an afterthought. Instead the idea seems to be to shoot the hero punching a few times and then add and arrange the rest in post.

It would appear American directors have lost the ability to shoot action competently. And as a whole, the adrenal impact of a film has shifted to focusing on the amplitude of the action instead of how interesting it is, on the overwhelming destruction of a moment, not something personal that drives forward the narrative in imaginative ways. Hollywood has lost the art of the action scene. The films of Marvel Studios best exemplify this, and even though there are some Hollywood outliers like Edge of Tomorrow that contain fascinating action sequences, hope for the action scene seems to lie abroad in Asia.

Marvel Studios’ Ambivalence Towards Action

Much of the devolution of the action scene has to do with the prevalence of the superhero film in modern Hollywood. Superhero films are action movies by default. They follow around superpowered individuals who fight evil quite literally with their fists. The last 30 minutes of most every superhero movie consists of a massive action showdown, set in a densely populated metropolitan area more often than not. And yet, despite the fact that superhero movies are stuffed to the gills with action, they rarely have exciting action scenes.

Looking at the two big superhero movies from 2014, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, both films have merely competent action scenes. Guardians of the Galaxy gets by on the charm of its characters. Its action scenes are stiff, having to be broken up with irreverent quips because the action couldn’t stand on its own. Captain America at least attempts to bring the action down to a relatable scale. The two best action moments in the film are set in closed environments. One has Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) cornered in his SUV, attempting to flee pursuers by utilizing honest-to-God driving abilities, and the other has Captain America (Chris Evans) dispatching an elevator full of traitorous S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Both are exciting because they don’t entirely rely on spectacle to excite the viewer. However, both scenes succumb to over-editing, to that familiar jumble of shaky-cam shots and thunderous sound design. Both of these Marvel movies rely on amplitude, both in their editing and in their choreography, and not on finesse in their action scenes.

All of the Marvel movies are lacking in compelling action. There have been 10 Marvel movies so far and not one of them has ended with a compelling battle between the hero and the villain. Iron Man ends with two metallic beings smashing against each other on highways and rooftops. The Avengers relies on digital camera swoops and endless hordes of CGI beasties for its final showdown. Iron Man 3 wisely takes Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) out of the suit for the finale, but then it has to have dozens of remotely operated suits flying about doing the fighting for him. The best action in all the films is found in Captain America: The First Avenger, and that’s mostly due to Joe Johnston’s classical filmmaking talents. Johnston actually believes in clean editing and visual momentum in his camerawork. He favours wide shots and clear camera set-ups with smooth movement that captures the energy of what’s happening on screen, but doesn’t shorthand it. He doesn’t simply shoot everything in close-up and edit later. He follows the Steven Spielberg tradition of dynamic camera work shooting dynamic action.

My point is that none of these immensely popular action movies do anything inventive with their action scenes. And I don’t mean to pick on Marvel specifically. They’re certainly not the only films guilty of overlooking the action. But as the most popular modern blockbusters, they’re the best indicators of a trend in cinema.

CGI + Shaky-cam = Action

The trend is that CGI spectacle has supplanted action choreography in the modern Hollywood action film and anything that’s not CGI is a shaky mess. The digital artist is now more important than the stunt coordinator. The editor is more necessary to action scenes than the cinematographer. One of this year’s better action films, Godzilla, is all about the size of the action, not its inventiveness. It makes its human characters nothing more than ants observing god-like beings doing battle. It keeps the perspective restricted to the point of view of the ant, however, so that something as simple as one monster punching another is given spectacular impact. But there’s nothing especially inventive to the action here. The monsters merely bash each other. Same with last year’s Pacific Rim. What makes these films more successful than much of their brethren is that they entirely embrace the obsession with bigness and large-scale destruction in the modern action film. They’re all about size and scale.

On the other hand, the only Hollywood film this year that uses shaky-cam action interestingly is Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow. Not only does the Saving Private Ryan-inspired camerawork make sense as the film consists of a D-Day like amphibious invasion, but the film is also meant to be a commentary on the repetitive aspects of modern combat and video game aesthetics. Modern video games like the Call of Duty series are all about reproducing the “shell-shocked” experience of modern warfare. The first-person view in those games is so shaky and hyperkinetic, it’s a wonder more gamers don’t develop motion sickness. And most Hollywood films take this route too. Ever since Saving Private Ryan introduced the shaky-cam battle aesthetic and The Bourne Supremacy popularized it, studios have believed that the impact of an action scene is directly proportional to its “realism,” and by realism, they mean its borderline incoherence. Thus, Edge of Tomorrow works this very aesthetic into the thematic preoccupations of the film, and is successful in doing so.

But for the most part, Hollywood filmmakers rely on shaky cam or the digital camera to supply impact where there’s no imagination. Movies like the RoboCop remake and 300: Rise of an Empire resemble video games in their action scenes, and not in the creative way Edge of Tomorrow does. Like most action films, they just want to bludgeon the viewer into sensory submission.

Asia Is the Gold Standard

Luckily, good action does still exist in the world. It’s just not Hollywood that’s supplying it. There has been no action film in the current decade as effective in its action scenes as 2012’s Drug War from Johnnie To, who is the undisputed master of the modern action film. In my review of Guardians of the Galaxy, I wondered “how good a superhero film could be if the director could compose the action as well as Johnnie To or Yeun Woo-ping do in their films?” I then went on to say that “Hong Kong filmmakers rely on longer takes and complex choreography for their action scenes. Not just whiz-bang cutting. That’s why 15 years out we remember The Matrix’s action scenes, but not the action in Iron Man 3 barely a year after its release.” Hollywood may be where the big money is, but big money doesn’t buy imagination. At the moment Asian cinema is accomplishing the most interesting and imaginative things in action with budgets a fraction of the size.

Aside from the aforementioned Drug War, the most impactful action film of the current decade has to be Gareth Evans’s The Raid: Redemption. (To clarify, Evans is a Welsh director but he works primarily in Indonesia with an Indonesian cast and crew.) The Raid lacked elegance in its storyline (it merely forces characters into a closed environment and unleashes them on each other), but its action was spectacular. It introduced the cinematic world to pencak silat, a high-impact Indonesian martial art, as well as the physically adroit martial arts superstar, Iko Uwais. The action scenes in The Raid weren’t just about watching Uwais physically dismantle opponents. They also skillfully set up the geographical environment of the high rise building. Each floor became an obstacle course of sorts for Uwais to take advantage of. It takes immense skill to set up an environment that we understand the dimensions of and then have a skilled performer utilize the environment in a creative way that enhances his own abilities and heightens the impact of the action on screen. It’s a matter of the performers, the planning, and the design interacting in an exciting way that the cinematography and the editing convey to the audience. It accomplishes a little thing called filmmaking. You may have heard of it despite its absence in many popular productions.

This past year saw the release of The Raid 2: Berandal, which amplified the carnage considerably. The film’s plot spiralled out into ambitious but often redundant gangster drama (if Evans were as good at the dramatic moments as he is with the action scenes, he’d be a real force to reckon with), but the action scenes were marvelous. A final confrontation between Uwais’s Rama and The Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman) plays out for 10 minutes, as Rama and the Assassin use every item in a restaurant kitchen in their attempts to kill each other. It’s an exhilarating sequence that’s almost physically draining for the viewer. Throughout the scene, Evans uses shaky camera work and extended takes to amplify the action, but here is a case where the technique complements and enhances instead of merely determining the content. Pencak silat is an extremely violent martial art, focused on dismantling opponents through blows to joints and soft tissue. Evans wisely chose to rely on close-ups and handheld camera to convey the ferocity of the action and the target of their blows, while retaining the geographical orientation of the room.

If Hollywood filmmakers could learn to be as inventive and adroit as Gareth Evans or Johnnie To, there could be a resurgence of imagination in the American action film. But as it stands at the moment, Hollywood is stuck in the mental space of believing shaky-cam equates excitement. It believes that the only reason people go to the movies is to see giant things blow up. Sadly, as long as Transformers films continue to make billions of dollars at the box office, studios have no reason to rethink their conclusions, even if it seems like no viewers actually enjoy the deafening action of these kind of films. (In all honestly, if you do enjoy the new action, leave a comment. I’d like to meet someone who actually does.)

Action in American films used to be an art form. Directors like Michael Mann and John McTiernan understood how to keep the camera further back from the action to watch the fireworks unfold. They knew how to move the camera through a firefight to convey the energy of the violence. They knew that an action scene was more than just noise and high velocity, that the camera couldn’t just be doing something exciting, but that it had to be capturing something exciting too. American directors used to know how to shoot action. Sadly, these men aren’t working much anymore and there aren’t any other Hollywood directors capable enough to replace them. Maybe one day soon there’ll be a new group of American directors who hearken back to the classics, learn from their Asian counterparts, and bring some vitality back to the American action film. But at the moment the American action scene seems dead. It blew everything up too big and killed itself in the process.