Let’s talk about action sequences.
There’s a tendency these days to equate THINGS HAPPENING FAST with ACTION! If you boil down an action sequence there seems to be a pretty clear criteria:
- People running/jumping/doing crazy things with their body – physical action
- Guns or some kind of weapon
- Fast editing
- Fast moving camera
You can have any combination of the above list and basically you’ll have an action sequence.
The problem is, it’s completely mindless. That doesn’t mean you “turn your brain off” in the way we usually use the phrase. “Turning your brain off” usually means you can pop in a movie and relax. Ie. movies have become a stress-reliever, a way to unwind that doesn’t require a bunch of cognitive activity.
There’s nothing wrong with watching a movie to relax. I do that all the time. But there’s a misunderstanding involving the phrase that has led to blatant laziness on behalf of action movie directors, who can now rely on cinematic shorthand to merely get by instead of creating an engaging movie.
In other words, there’s a reason Spielberg is the king and nobody else is, and it has nothing to do with his “style” or his ability to get astonishing performances from people. Spielberg knows how to create action that is compelling, immediate, and involving.
Of course, this opens a whole debate about what that means exactly. I’m not going to argue that your favourite action movie isn’t any of the above adjectives because it’s not directed by Spielberg. Au contrair mon ami. (because obviously I speak French)
In fact, let’s look at one of Hollywood’s biggest action movie directors. Someone who, on an analytical basis, should be hated by nearly every audience member, and yet he succeeds enormously because he too is able to ground his action in the drama of the scene.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Christopher Nolan.
On a technical basis, THE DARK KNIGHT is kind of a disaster. So is INCEPTION, for that matter. But both are absolute masterpieces that I will defend with all my might in a debate.
See, Nolan’s style usually involves the following:
- things happening for no particular reason
- disastrous continuity
- people showing up out of nowhere and suddenly getting involved (and usually saving the day)
By technical standards, Nolan is a terrible action director (even his critics will usually praise him for other talents though).
And that just displays the misunderstanding I want to highlight. Nolan knows the same thing Spielberg does, which is that if you ground the psychology of the action in the drama of the scene/entire movie, and engage the audience in the immediacy of the action by using clear stakes and straightforward cause + effect, none of the other things matter.
After all, THE DARK KNIGHT contains more plot holes than a Saskatchewan highway (for my non-Canadian friends, Saskatchewan has the worst roads in the world, I don’t even care where you come from). Google “The Dark Knight plot holes” or something along those lines and take cover because you’re in for one hell of an internet argument.
Let’s back up a bit.
Michael Bay is usually pretty reviled as a director, despite his popularity. I would say that Bay has established his own corner in the movie universe by now and can do whatever he wants, but the point remains that usually people think he’s pretty bad. If nothing else, he’s a guilty pleasure. Again, nothing wrong with that.
So why don’t we hold other directors to the same standard? How come other bad action directors get away with making the same regurgitative crap action, but are praised as excellent filmmakers?
Let’s take a look at Nolan’s second feature, the ever underrated/overrated-at-the-same-time MEMENTO.
MEMENTO is not an action film, far from it. The one action scene (unless there’s more that I’ve forgotten about) there is isn’t even a very good sequence. However, it does serve as a phenomenal manual of sorts for how to make good action. Here’s a short clip:
We start out with Leonard (Guy Pierce) running. Why is he running?
Well if you’ve watched the movie, you know what’s going on, but if you haven’t… that’s actually good, because it makes it even easier for me to describe why this is the perfect how-to manual for directing effective action scenes.
So Leonard is running and he asks himself, well, “what am I doing?”
Usually you won’t use voiceover, of course, but here it asks the exact question a director should ask at the start of every action beat.
What is this character doing?
What is that character doing?
And so on.
As an audience, we’re going to be constantly asking ourselves this question. Not out loud or anything, not even cognitively, just in our subconscious, we’re going to be trying to figure out what is happening.
Often times action movies throw us into the middle of action without any real explanation other than SOMETHING EXPLODED, RUN! But that’s not really a satisfying answer. We think it is because we’re used to seeing it, but it isn’t. We don’t actually know why we should run, or which direction we should run in, or if we should run towards the explosion to see if someone is hurt, or if we should call our loved ones, or if we should stop and do pushups and eat sushi (maybe not that). We just don’t know.
So what happens next?
Leonard answers the exact question he had just asked.
He looks, and sees some other guy (he doesn’t know who at this point) and assumes…
“I’m chasing this guy.”
And then we see him do exactly that. He chases that guy.
So far we have:
- Leonard is running but doesn’t know why
- He figures out why he is running
- He takes action based on his understanding of what is happening
We can follow that. Easy peasy lemon squeezey. It doesn’t take a genius to keep up.
Nolan could have finished the scene here by either having Leonard catch his victim, or fail to do so.
Instead he flips the scene with a classic reversal.
Leonard runs out into the open in order to try catch his prey. Instead, the other man sees his opportunity and starts chasing Leonard. Crap.
“No… he’s chasing me.”
Leonard gains a new understanding of what is going on, and acts on the new understanding.
He turns and runs away. The other man fires (danger!) and narrowly misses.
This creates the illusion of threat. (If you’re wondering why I said illusion, it’s because the bullet isn’t going to magically travel off the screen and hit you in your theatre seats, do try and separate fantasy from reality.)
So Leonard REACTS (realizing he was wrong about what is happening) and then PRO-ACTS (runs the other way).
As a result, he saves his own life.
Let’s break this down into a minute second by second analysis:
- Leonard is running but we don’t know why.
- Leonard takes stock of the situation (so do we)
- Leonard sees another guy running
- Leonard assumes he is chasing him – at this point, we then assume the same, which contributes to…
- Leonard runs towards the other guy
- The other guy sees Leonard getting near and aims for a shot
- Leonard realizes his mistake (we tense up – oh no, Leonard might get shot)
- Leonard turns and runs the other way
- The other man fires, narrowly missing Leonard (we breathe a sigh of relief)
We have CAUSE + EFFECT each minute step of the way. There is never any confusion about what is happening. Because of this, Nolan involves us in Leonard’s plight, prevents us from getting confused, engages our emotions, and makes us forget that we are watching a film.
That’s good directing.
On a technical level, the scene works fine but it’s no masterpiece. After all, it only really involves two of the 5 criteria for an action film (by the way, I made this criteria up to prove a point, there is no such criteria that actually exists, but it might as well). People running… and the involvement of weapons. The other man’s appearance doesn’t count as someone randomly showing up because Leonard sees him before he becomes involved, okay? We all clear? There’s no insane editing, the camera isn’t moving particularly fast. It’s simple.
Simplicity works. Spielberg knows this. Watch literally any scene from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and you’ll see the same use of CAUSE + EFFECT, simplicity, stakes, emotional involvement, and clear action as I demonstrated with MEMENTO.
And yet we still have so many action films that fail to use any of these techniques, instead relying on the illusion of things happening really quickly to equate action.
Look, meaningless action is fine, but it isn’t involving.
The fact is, we don’t go to the movies to turn off our brains. We actually go to turn them on. What we really mean when we say we want to “stop thinking” is “we want to stop thinking about a particular thing.”
Anyone who’s gone through a breakup knows the best way to stop thinking about your ex isn’t to stop thinking, it’s to think about something else.
So when a movie provides you with nothing to think about… ie. no clear stakes, no understanding of the action, no emotional involvement… that frees up our minds to think about the exact things we’re trying to avoid. It’s ineffective.
Instead, if the movie can involve us, we get caught up in the drama onscreen and can forget our problems. This is the KEY ELEMENT to Hollywood’s success with the blockbuster and yet, somehow, we’ve lost that in recent years.
Now, I will admit that I am oversimplifying action scenes a little bit in my breakdown, but that just shows how simple they can be in order to work.
To add complexity, you just add more of these things happening. Like spinning plates – each plate is simply ONE plate on ONE… stick? What are those things called? There just happens to be a lot of spinning plates.
THAT’S what makes it seem complex. In reality, each element of the movie can be boiled down to simple aspects of cause + effect, building up to create a mosaic of an action sequence that can involve us exponentially with each subsequent additional plate.
This is basically what a director does:
Now, it’s not easy. To give you a bit of an appreciation of how difficult it can be, just take a look at my last list, the breakdown of elements in that Memento clip.
9 Bullet Points. And I could have added another few.
The clip is 20 seconds long. That’s 2 seconds per element.
That’s a lot of work.
For 20 seconds. Try making a 2 hour movie. That’s 7200 seconds, which is 3600 Bullet Point Beats.
You try balance 3600 beats in a single movie that all have to contribute to a cohesive whole.
And action scenes are the most straightforward. With action you (usually) don’t have to worry about the following scenario:
John likes Sally but Sally saw him talking to Katy and Sally knows that Katy knows that Sally likes John but John doesn’t know that Sally likes John but he does know that Sally tells Katy everything and he thinks Katy likes him so if he can figure out if Katy likes him because she actually does like him or because she’s jealous of Sally then he can avoid the awkwardness of talking to Sally because John doesn’t want Katy to know he likes Sally because she will tell Sally…
Does your head hurt as much as mine does? There’s no action involved in that. If there was it’d go something like this:
John likes Sally but Ned punched him so they get into a fight and John saves the day but Sally doesn’t like violent guys so John’s an asshole and Sally goes out with some random nerd who probably deserves her way more.
John likes Sally so he shoots the aliens and kisses Sally.
You know, to make Sally into a caricature instead of a real person with an actual brain… ugh… sorry, I got carried away. That’s a different topic.
So I don’t want to bash action directors who aren’t Nolan or Spielberg because they probably are trying so damn hard to be even half decent, and hey, if they’re having fun, all the power to them.
But as an audience, I think it’s time we start trying to understand what makes good action sequences stand out from bad action sequences and raise the bar a little bit.
Now, go shoot them aliens!
Or maybe you should talk to them first and see if they’re peaceful because, you know, intergalactic politics and such.