Originally Published 5/17/2016
As a growing lad, the only movies I would watch were action movies. I became pretty closed off to any other genre. For the most part, it was James Bond, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings as they came out. There were of course other titles, but none that I watched as much as the aforementioned. As I got older, I naturally started gravitating toward more violent, gory, and mature movies.
At this point, my dad started pointing out some older titles that I should check out. I found just about all of them truly excellent. While I may not have been able to distinguish what made these movies stand above the rest at the time, I did recognize that there was something more to them. Looking back at those titles and others, these mostly all fell into the same time period: the 80s. We got Terminator, Indiana Jones, Die Hard, Aliens, Lethal Weapon, Mad Max, Rambo, and the two latter Star Wars movies of the original trilogy, just to name a few. While there are still bonafide classics outside of the 80s such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Point Break, both came out not too much later in ’91. Now, one of the great things about these movies is that they still hold up, whether it’s the practical effects of Mad Max and Aliens that ground their otherworldly action or the average-joe heroics of John McClane that have since become cliche, yet still feel organic due to careful character-building. We really haven’t had a stretch of time like this since, when such a high volume of diverse and high-quality action films were coming out. It was truly a golden age of action.
After the last few years, I believe that we may be seeing a second coming.
In order to understand how, we should look at the downfall of the 80s action movie and the 00s. With the advent of CGI (computer-generated imagery), the possibilities of what movie makers could put on the big screen exploded. We saw a terrific, early example of CGI in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Although we hear that the T-1000 is a shapeshifter in the original Terminator, the sequel makes use of CGI to actually show us how its liquid metal is malleable, and that the T-1000 can fix any injury. What was lost on some was the mixture of CGI and practical effects. For example, the scene where the T-1000 walks through iron bars is mostly CGI with some editing trickery, but when the T-1000 comes under fire seconds later, each dent to the cyborg is actually a hand-molded prosthetic applied onto the actor. Later into the decade, we see more and more CGI in big budget blockbusters to the point where it begins to replace practical effects. The most egregious use would go to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, where most of any given scene is comprised of actors in costume, walking around interacting with with nothing in front of a blue screen. The result of this overuse was weightless action, i.e., characters interacting or trading hits with a CGI character. These scenes just don’t convey force, and with technology ever progressing, effects become less believable and more cartoonish as we continue to improve techniques and remaster the films.
Another overdone element of action filmmaking is “shaky cam.” In 1998, Steven Spielberg encapsulated what it was like storming the Omaha Beach on June 4th 1944, and presented it the world with the famous opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. The film used shaky cam, a technique where the the camera is literally shaken in order to create a sense of chaos or urgency. While there are many other effects that contribute to the intensity of this scene – bleaching the film to desaturate the color; 45 degree shutter; filming in 12 frames per second and speeding the frame-rate back up to 24 in order to make the film look like a newsreel instead of a movie – shaky cam was the one big takeaway. While it was difficult to shake around a full-on camera to shoot the film, digital cameras were right around the corner. The main benefit to a digital camera in the very late 1990s and early 2000s was its lightweight design, giving it more mobility, and its ability to film in lower light conditions. Take Danny Boyle’s 28 Day Later, shot on a digital camera (mainly for the grainy picture that helped drive the grittiness of the world) and used shaky cam. While a good number of scenes work, others sadly don’t. The shaking will disrupt the focus of the shot, and some of the faster cuts are sometimes disorientating. This was on Spielberg’s mind for Saving Private Ryan, and the reason that film is literally easier to watch: he keeps the focus on the squad moving up the beach, retaining continuity while still managing to portray utter chaos. It’s also worth noting that shaky cam can be used to hide poor fight choreography, such as with Alex Cross, or to distort and hide violence to keep a PG-13 rating, as with the Hunger Games films.
Lastly, there were many protagonists in the 2000s that were never in danger. It’s weird to put it that way, but follow me. While I personally think superhero movies are the most egregious example of this problem, there are other notable movies that don’t put their character on the brink of losing it all. Whether it’s getting injured or just being inches away from death, watching the protagonist fight his way back up is always a euphoric moment for the audience. Think of the difference between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There are plenty, but I’m thinking of the desert chase scene in Raiders. Indie takes control of a cargo truck with a number of German troops in the back. As Indie fends them off, one makes it up to the front and shoots him in the arm. Now holding his arm, another German swoops into the front of the car, punching the bullet wound and throwing Indie out the windshield. Struggling to keep himself up, inches away from being run over by the truck he’s desperately trying to hold onto, Indie knows to go under the truck towards the back and fight his way up from there.
Is there a scene like this in Crystal Skull? There’s a jungle scene in which Indie is almost effortlessly jumping from truck to truck throwing Germans off, and Shia LaBeouf is swinging on vines with monkeys. There’s also the scene where Indie hides in a fridge and survives a nuclear explosion despite being thrown hundreds of feet and having been exposed to some serious radiation. Indiana Jones walks off from both scenes without a scratch. How can an action movie be exciting if the main character cannot die? Even the writers of Superman thought he needed a weakness in order to add some threat.
While I put shaky cam on the list of misused action-movie tricks, it also deserves credit for making today’s action truly great again. One of the better examples of shaky digital cam is Michael Mann’s Collateral, specifically in a scene in which Tom Cruise as hitman Vincent is making his 4th hit of the night in a densely populated club. The camera follows Vincent through the crowd, dispatching guards in his way. The shaky cam helps drive the claustrophobic nature of the scene as Vincent bumps through the club. Or we have Paul Greengrass’s Bourne Ultimatum. In an attempt to stop a hitman, Jason Bourne is sprinting way through homes and leaping through windows. The shake is part the rush to save a friend, and part desperately trying to navigate a narrow setting that was never meant to be the stage of a chase. As we see in these two scenes, when shaky cam is done right, it amplifies the urgency of the scene and makes for an even more immersive experience.
The next element is crucial to creating a believable hero. While stunt doubles are common practice, names like Tom Cruise always do their own stunts. Whether it’s driving a racecar for Days of Thunder or letting a plunging knife stop less than a centimeter away from his eye in Mission Impossible 2, the action is so much more believable when the actor does it him/herself. Cruise isn’t alone in this: Keanu Reeves is also known for rigorous training in preparation for roles. Before The Matrix, he did his best to cram a lifetime of Kung Fu training and weapons training in four mouth. I don’t think anyone can truly say that Reeves wasn’t The One while watching The Matrix.
Something that wasn’t even attempted until years later is the implicit storytelling of Cloverfield. On the surface, the movie appears to be a simple survival horror film with an off-screen monster and small, grasshopper-like creatures terrorizing the city, but by picking apart the glimpses we see of TV footage or paying close attention to a marine giving orders, we can discover a wealth of lore and knowledge about this particular cinematic world that isn’t at all obvious. All kinds of fascinating bits of information lurk just out of frame. For example, there is a satellite is reported to fall out of orbit. This, it’s assumed, is what awoke the Cloverfield monster, and can actually be seen in the film’s final flashback. If you also saw its belated sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane, you may have also caught that John Goodman’s character used to work on satellites, and know how much more interesting this makes the series.
Let’s jump to recent years now.
Let’s jump to recent years now.
I. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is the earliest movie in this golden age. While it doesn’t hold up after the initial viewing (the pacing is off and the villain is weak), the action is stellar. What more can I add to the circlejerk that is the Burj Khalifa scene? Its authenticity is nail-biting, with Tom Cruise willing to hang off the side of a building 150 stories up, especially compared to a movie like The Walk that uses CGI to put Joseph Gordon-Levitt on top of the World Trade Center. Obviously, they couldn’t actually shoot the movie using the World Trade Center, but you see my point – there is something about a real actor performing real stunts that can’t be replicated with CGI. The other standout moment would be Ghost Protocol’s sandstorm scene. Ethan Hunt using his GPS to check for the location of nuclear launch codes is very reminiscent of the motion tracker from Alien. Seeing that you’re getting closer to the target without showing the target, and to cap the scene off with Hunt crashing his car into Hendrick’s, is the situation from Alien in reverse. It comes together marvelously. The most impressive part of all of this is how the franchise fixed the problems I had with Ghost Protocol, and one-upped every scene with follow-up Rogue Nation.
II. Zero Dark Thirty
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Zero Dark Thirty, a film that exercises the notion of ‘less is more’ to convey a real-life situation. While the opening waterboarding scene is permanently burned into my memory, the film’s truly iconic set piece is its finale: the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound. The fly-in features a slow and looming score that trails the helicopters after Seal Team Six touches down. The scene is almost completely devoid of sound apart from a faint whisper between troops here and there. The silence builds tension, and in many ways, is the tension, until we finally hear gunfire and a breach charge. Then, the contrast is jarring and powerful.
III. John Wick
Jump ahead another few years and we get John Wick, which I was sure must have been based on a comic after my first viewing due to the subtle world-building and the apparent lack of backstory. With two former stuntmen helming the film, you would expect the action to be good, but what we got was excellence. It starts with Keanu Reeves as our title character, an actor we know does all of his own stunts. The fight choreography is impressively paired with the camera work: for the most part, we get wide and long shots that really showcase the stunt work. While we also have a bit of shaky cam, it’s not used as a gimmick to artificially enhance the action – instead, the camera follows Reeves in tighter and tighter situations in order to keep the focus of the shot preserved. Take the nightclub scene: Wick is battling his way up to the balcony, whipping back and forth between henchmen, while the camera follows his attention. He runs out of ammo mid-fight and leaves him on the ground while he reloads. The camera becomes stationary in order to portray a little frustration. He loads the gun. Shoots the guy. Wick and the camera run into the next room.
IV. Edge of Tomorrow (a.k.a. Live. Die. Repeat.)
Next is a different kind of action movie: Edge of Tomorrow, or Live. Die. Repeat., as it was later rebranded due to weak box-office results. Earlier I said that invincible heroes aren’t interesting, but this movie turns that on its head. After Cage’s blood mixes the blood of a creature known as an Alpha, Cage now endlessly relives a D-Day style battle that resets with his death. There doesn’t seem to be any stakes through the first act, because there really isn’t. So instead of treating itself very seriously, we have a death montage that is almost slapstick in its construction. When Cage loses this ability after a blood transfusion, the movie changes. After watching Cage become a badass through trial and error, we are now thrust into a situation in which he has no idea what will come next and won’t have a second chance. Something that a lot of action movies are afraid of showing is fear itself. In the final act, Cage is terrified of what’s around the corner, but he has his training to carry his mission to completion.
V. Mad Max: Fury Road
This wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about Mad Max: Fury Road, a film I’m still not surprised was up for Best Picture at the Oscars. The story takes a backseat to the action, and my God is it beautiful. If you were to watch it for the first time, having heard nothing about it, you would ask yourself, “how did they make this look so real?” The simple answer is that it is real, and so the film is proof that practical effects still stand high above CGI. Director George Miller was adamant about keeping the CGI to a minimum. While it’s present, it’s used mainly to hide safety equipment and to produce a monster sandstorm that takes up all of two-minutes of Fury Road’s runtime. Everything else is done practically, with real stunt work, real explosions, and real flipping cars. These extremely dangerous stunts are performed on stationary rigs and layered onto footage of high-speed pursuit. What also makes the world feel more real and lived-in are contextual clues that hint at untouched lore. For instance, the way Max is used as a blood bag for the half-lifes and tattooed with his blood type and other medical information is a bit of detail we’re simply handed and expected to understand through context.
VI. The Revenant
Lastly, in my opinion, the best action in a movie in the past five years belongs to The Revenant. Alejandro González Iñárritu took the long and close takes of his Best Picture-winning Birdman into this film, the best example being the opening Native American attack. From the moment we see a naked man walk into camp, his back full of arrows, we are treated to one long take as the camera searches the horizon and the treeline. We hear an ominous whooshing sound that is soon revealed to be flaming arrows overhead, and as the camera pans down, we get a shot of an arrow hitting a man in the face, Then hell breaks loose. The take is easily 30 seconds, maybe longer. Throughout this scene, the camera stays close, capturing every gruesome deaths and making for a visceral experience. There is also the infamous bear scene, where the camera acts more as an extension of Hugh Glass. While out scouting, Glass hears something rustling. The camera locks on that position just like him and his rifle. We see cubs. As the camera comes off them and onto Glass, we hear louder, approaching rustling, and without stopping, the camera moves across Glass’s face and over his shoulder just as he glances over it. Glass swings around to catch the bear, but the bear throws Glass to the ground. Now with the camera locked on Glass’s face, we only see the bear again when it’s clawing at his back. We lose sight of the bear when it’s no longer on top of him. Glass rolls over, catches a glimpse of the bear, turns his attention to his rifle, and grabs it. As Glass aims at the bear, we notice that it’s closer than just a moment ago. He takes the shot, but the bear continues to maul him. This time around, Glass gets swiped in the neck, and tries to hold it closed as the camera moves up for a look at the wound. It tracks Glass’s hand down to his knife as he repeatedly stabs the bear. The bear gets another good few hits before Glass loses consciousness and falls down the incline. The camera doesn’t follow Glass it just watches him tumble away, the bear rolling after him. That whole scene is a continuous shot. If you’ve seen it, you know how intense it is, but you have to remember it’s not the subject matter that carries the scene. The meticulous directing puts you into Hugh Glass’s moccasins and the claws into your back.
The movies I’ve talked about here are just a few of the standout action films of today, but there are plenty more to recommend: Sicario, Skyfall, The Raid 1 and 2, and Kingsman: The Secret Service almost made it onto this list, but to avoid repetition, I’ll let you discover them for yourself. Is there a reason we’re seeing this now? Is it that there are more movies coming out than ever before and reaching audiences further and further away? Is the advancement of technology helping us put more and more on screen? Or is filmmaking just better now, less restricted and more inclusive than ever before? I believe these are all contributing factors to the second golden age of action. It’s a damn good time to be a fan of action.