Jun 27, 2010

There's more to it than calling "action!"

"Good action is harder than it looks. This remains true even as the available technology makes it look a little too easy. And as with 3-D and other fast-evolving visual tricks, the more there is — the bigger the fireballs, the more extensive the make-believe damage to architecture, machinery and virtual human bodies — the less impact it has. And impact is, ultimately what movie action aims to convey, as if sight and sound could combine into a physical experience." — A O Scott
I would go further. Action is not just harder than it looks — it's one of the hardest things to do in cinema. The number of director who can shoot an action sequence is a tiny fraction of the directors who make a living shooting action movies. The success rate is roughly the what you might expect if you told every living director to start making musicals, or murder mysteries set in the world of ballet. The difficult thing is not letting the difficult stuff crowd out the simple stuff. It's no good having six cars detonate if the audience doesn't know where they are in relation to the hero: how many steps from disaster he is. It's amazing how few directors remember to convey this basic information — to keep their narrative instincts ticking along within the frame, keep their action threatening. Spielberg does it without thinking; same with Cameron. Walter Hill, John Carpenter — yes, yes, yes. Peter Jackson is okay. Nolan is okay (in the Dark Knight anyway; Batman Begins not so much). John Woo is too busy admiring himself. Sam Raimi is so-so. Tim Burton is straight-out abymsal. Almost everyone else — McG, Michael Bay, both Sctt brothers although Tony is worse than Ridley — is in the obfuscation business. They throw fireballs and flying glass at us in the hope we won't notice how weak their establishing shots are. They crave chaos as a cover. Their action is quite literally bullshit. They give off the flop sweat of a bad liar. And yet here is one of the ironies of Hollywood: these are the very men with reputations as action directors. They are praised for the one thing they cannot do. That's the way of the world: draw attention to your flaws, and then market those flaws as virtues.

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