Action sequences in big movies boast top end stunt work and visual effects – but they also come with little in the way of narrative surprise.
During the promotional tour for his first Aquaman movie, I distinctly recall an interview that director James Wan gave an interview a few months ahead of its release teasing the film’s fight scenes. He talked about the work going into them, bring to my mind a similar interview George Lucas had once given ahead of the release of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith. The thrust of said conversations was that a lot of work was going to be put into said fight scenes, and we should prepare to be impressed.
The problem, though, is that as impressive or otherwise we found those fight scenes, it was hard in both cases to find much drama in them. Simply because – to my eyes – they had no real peril to them. In both films, even before the scrapping began in earnest, we knew who was going to win. That the film and story had set this up as a big confrontation, but it felt like watching a football match when somebody had already told you the score. It’s hard to build up much in the way of stakes for a scene when the outcome has long since been pre-ordained.
And this is a long festering problem in the world of blockbuster cinema: we always know who’s going to win. When was the last time watching a film that cost $100m+ that you didn’t?
Even the occasional moment where the outcome of a film fight scene goes against the grain, a promotional campaign has often teased to death that someone might die who you’re not expecting, and the clickbait churners have amplified it in line with their role as an annexe to the respective PR department.
It’s one of the by-products I’m finding of franchise cinema, of the need for no movie of size to be standalone, that the third act battle is becoming pretty much redundant. Going spoiler light, I remember watching Black Widow – a film with its moments, to be clear, and one I enjoyed – as it just went back to more special effects and homogenous action for its finale, and sighing with disappointment. But it’s not alone there. Big film after big film is at its least interesting in its final throes.
I do think there are broader questions with movie action scenes too. Netflix infamously spent nearly $200m on bringing Gal Gadot, Ryan Reynolds and Dwayne Johnson together for last year’s action thriller Red Notice, but it had the least interesting action sequences I can recently remember in a film of that ilk. Shooting under pandemic rules didn’t help, but still: the editing, the way sequences were shot, the lack of any real impact or weight all made the action feel mechanical to me, rather than organic. The old ‘whammo’ theory at work, even.
My former colleague Ryan Lambie put his finger on it, where he pointed out that if Jackie Chan had been in any of those Red Notice sequences, you’d have felt a lot more. That Chan worked hard to make his action count, to see the impact of every punch and kick, and to make it interesting to watch. Red Notice felt like it did action because that’s what an expensive film is supposed to have.
There are exceptions to this of course. I knew in the end who was going to prevail in Gareth Evans’ stunning The Raid, but in that case it made no difference, because what I was watching was so visceral and jaw-dropping. Evans’ fight scenes are something else.
Likewise, take a look at George Miller’s 2015 classic Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that should have had a lasting influence on how action films are made, but instead has become an anomaly. Miller and his stunt team – and the stories are wonderfully told in Kyle Buchanan’s new oral history book of the film – built momentum and an absolute sense of danger in their action chases and battles. Culminating, you might recall, in people dangling on huge poles trying to smash their way into a fast-moving vehicle, and fighting on the go.
To see the Fast & Furious films taking not a jot of influence from Fury Road and even attempting to respond to the challenge thrown down there I’d suggest is to their detriment. Mind you, that’s the franchise where the number of hits Jason Statham and Vin Diesel could take from each other was infamously mandated in their contract for Fast & Furious 7. Still, it’s the feeling of more of the same being enough that’s the disappointment.
The irony is that the films that break away from the formula are getting talked about and noticed. One of the reasons that last year’s Nobody, starring Bob Odenkirk, felt so fresh was – aside from the identity of its action star – a genuinely wonderfully choreographed and cinematic battle on a bus near the start of the film.
In truth, the outcome wasn’t in doubt there, but I still felt surprise and a sense of drama watching it. Plus, it was brilliant blockbuster entertainment. I’d suggest the same of the early major fight scene in Shang-Chi & The Legend Of The Ten Rings, and it does a little lead me to wonder if it’s easier to weight the best fight moments to the first half of the film. After all, there’s no need to set up a happy ending there or send a villain packing. There’s still just a little ambiguity built in, given that a third act to the story is yet to come.
But I look at something like the John Wick saga, that’s tried to make its action as visceral as possible, and I trace how action develops in a franchise. The first John Wick was lean, cut to the bone, and the action utterly crunched. It did in the sequels too, but also the movies – and I like them – got baggier, and began to have to carry franchise weight, that wasn’t there at the start. The third film I enjoyed, but it’s the first – where the stakes were less clear and the outcomes less certain – that’s the one I go back to.
I love action cinema. I love an action scene that sets up stakes and character, and delivers actual impact. But I don’t think it’s enough to buy in some very skilled stunt performers and a boatload of special effects, and glue them together in a final act if the narrative is as clear as day. I read, but don’t have it confirmed, that directors of some big films are joining up with action sequences already identified and starting to be built. It’s almost as if they need to be predictable so as to fit the way a modern movie of size is put together. Thing is, I think it’s selling a lot of brilliant stunt work short, and not always helping the films. And just a few more times, watching a blockbuster fight scene, I wouldn’t mind being taken by surprise…
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