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What’s Wrong With Action Movies

Arthur Augustyn, Columnist

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Why is Hollywood so perplexed by the concept of a good action movie these days?

That’s not to say they’re all dead and gone. One of my favorite films from this year (so far) is an Indonesian action film called The Raid. It has everything you need: terrific fight choreography, interesting set-pieces, memorable villains, a basic plotline and an atmosphere that sticks with you. The problem is The Raid has become the exception rather than the norm. The market is flooded with bullshit like Total Recall or Resident Evil: Retribution. On the other end of things is the need to sophisticate action movies such as the most recent James Bond entry (which I wasn’t a fan of). It really shouldn’t be that difficult. I want to take a minute to point out some failures I’m sick of seeing (note: all links are likely NSFW).

Computer Generated Effects replacing practical effects.

The reason CGI was created was so images that were once impossible, are now possible. Bending your back ninety degrees? Not possible without CGI. A man who morphs from liquid metal? Not possible without CGI. Laser beams. Not possible. CGI is not an excuse to be lazy and forget about practical effects which have worked perfectly for the past hundred years.

Practical effects can rotate an entire room, allow actors to jump large distances or create disgusting believable monsters. An action movie hinges on an audience’s ability to suspend disbelief but stay unaware of the fact they are watching a movie. There’s nothing more distracting than watching an obvious CGI-effect on screen. It’s even more distracting when the effect could’ve easily been replaced with a practical one. A major offender of this rule is Indiana Jones: The Crystal Skull. Did we really need a CGI groundhog?

Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark through The Last Crusade was entirely about practical effects. It enhanced the excitement factor knowing that a real person was performing these stunts. You could believe Indy was just a librarian/professor because you always saw a human being doing the crazy maneuvers in the films. Contrast that feeling with watching a movie like Spiderman where there’s absolutely no sense of tension since a very obvious computer program is playing around in entirely digital world. This goes into my next point…

Bad Car Chases.

Car chases are liberating because anyone who drives a car has that urge to put the pedal to the floor and see how fast you can go. The sense of speed administers a level of adrenaline that’s universal to everyone. There’s nothing more exciting (or dangerous) than being in a vehicle going at immense speed. There was a time where car chases consisted of insane stunt drivers who were taught to drive at high speeds and take tight corners without killing themselves, but only barely. A great example of this type car chase is the movie Ronin (Robert De Niro, Jean Reno). Here’s a clip, watch the first minute, I guarantee you’ll feel how fast the cars are going. Make no mistake: the cars are actually going as fast as they look, sometimes nearing over 85MPH down narrow streets.

Compare Ronin to a modern film series that most people associate with fast cars and crazy driving. This scene from Fast Five is admittedly not the best example, but having seen the movie, I feel confident in saying that the entire film is plagued by the same problem. Rather than use the actual speed of the cars to get the tension across, they rely on rapid cuts to mask the fact that all the cars are probably going no faster than 20MPH. You might think I’m exaggerating but watch the clip yourself, the difference is obvious. This is partly because cars are expensive and they don’t want to risk crashing them and rapid-cut editing has become so popular… oh hey a segue.

Rapid-Cut Editing.

Hey guys, I saw Bourne Identity too, can we stop throwing cameras down a flight of stairs whenever we shoot a fight scene? The Bourne series did the rapid cutting for a very specific purpose: Bourne’s fighting style was quick to the point and incredibly brutal. The talented filmmakers behind the series, decided to reflect that style of fighting in the editing of the scenes. Made complete sense and complimented the film very well. Since then, filmmakers have misused the style to mask poor choreography and make action sequences less coherent.

In a fist-fight, you should be able to understand what happened as it happened. If you can’t watch a scene, then recite what happened after it’s over, then you probably couldn’t pay attention after a certain point and hoped as time went on the movie would fill in the details. For example: “Jet Li shot a guy twice, then some stuff happened but I think the bad guy died at one point.” That’s all I could confidently recite from this scene of The Expendables. Maybe I’ve gotten old and most people can follow this scene perfectly, but it’s unnecessary either way. Jet Li and Jason Statham are capable martial artists; they shouldn’t need to use editing as a crutch. Wouldn’t you much rather see them in a scene like this one?

Insistence on “Serious Business.”

By far, my biggest complaint of Skyfall is its attempt to have its cake and eat it too. Some movies can be a fun goofy action flick and a serious drama, but those exceptions can be counted on one hand (outside of Terminator 2 and The Matrix, I can’t think of anything that jumps to mind). Most other times you’ll have to pick one or the other. The difference is First Blood versus Crank. There’s really nothing wrong with being serious, but there is something wrong with goofy movies trying to get me to take them seriously.

Take a movie like the Total Recall remake. At some points of the film they try to make the audience feel bad for the character because of his tortured memory and broken family life (the character has amnesia and his supposed wife tries to kill him). Sorry Total Recall, I stopped taking you seriously when the girl with three boobs showed up. It also didn’t help that by the end of the movie the President of Earth is sucker punching good guys. If you’re going to be goofy, embrace it. Make the president a WWE wrestler, rappel off the side of a building with a hose or give your main character iron fists.

The general problem is action movies felt the need to conform to changing times, when in reality they are the most stable genre. They appeal to multiple cultures, their inherent appeal stems from age-old tricks and they don’t require a whole lot of thought. Year after year the greatest action movies are typically low-budget foreign films. This is likely because foreign markets have less access to CGI effect houses and they cut as much dialog as possible to market internationally. Movies like Ong-Bak, The Raid or Hard Boiled are universally acclaimed. Transformers, Battleship and Sucker Punch are not, and for good reason.

The action genre is supposed to explore those desires that regular audience members will never come close to experiencing. Those desires have always been the same: fast cars, awesome fights and crazy stunts. Not computer programs rendering texture models. Technology should be used to purify an experience. So far all attempts to innovate the genre have only diluted what made it great in the first place. We should stop pretending we want fancy plotlines and expensive budgets and go back to the faithful enjoyment of getting punched in the face.

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