Hello Interwebs! Action-filled entertainment ranks among my favourite types of entertainment to watch. Whether it be in film, television, or online shorts, the best action instills a vicarious adrenaline in its audience. But most action scenes don’t do that. In fact– most action scenes suck. Read on to discover why…
NOTE: I’m focusing my attention on films and TV programs of the past 20 years because the following problems remain consistent during this period.
The biggest offense an action sequence can make is breaking my immersion in the story. And that happens way more often than it should. In fact– most of my issues with action scenes flow from this initial concern about immersion/ investment (as you will see later in this article). What do I mean by “breaking immersion” anyway? Well, imagine you’re watching a movie and you’re reasonably invested: you’re liking the story, feeling attached to the characters, and anxiously awaiting the next plot points… and then you get confused and your mind starts to wander as you piece together whatever you’re wondering about. Or worse yet– you become bored and stop caring.
This is often the point of no return. Once you’re distracted from the story on screen at any moment, immersion has officially been broken, and it’s exceptionally hard to regain in full. I don’t know about you– but action sequences break my immersion more than any other kind of scene. And any one of these common faux-pas would be enough to ruin a moment: poor editing (too many cuts, unclear geography), lack of build-up/ resolution, fake-looking special effects (be they practical or digital), and failure to create impact. Unfortunately, your average action movie showcases all of these problems from opening credits to fade out…
Bad editing is the single greatest issue with modern action in film/ TV. Most professionally made movies and TV shows feature well-choreographed sequences in exciting locales… But you’d never know it because the edit is abysmal (see, choppy, unclear, or the visual equivalent of white noise). I, for one, have a hard time appreciating the good elements of a scene when I can’t tell what’s happening! For an extreme example of confusing action, look no further than this infamous clip from Taken 3…
14 cuts in 6 seconds!! Just for jumping over a fence… This here is a perfect showcase of TERRIBLE editing. Now, I don’t want to blame production crews for this problem (not fully, anyway). I get the impression they film the largest action scenes from a variety of angles and piece them together in the editing room. Because Directors and Editors have so much footage to work from, the building-blocks to a great scene are often there. But those blocks get pieced together like a child who refuses to follow instructions on a LEGO set! When put together in this manner, action scenes are more likely to be a confusing mess than a cohesive experience.
Here’s another terrible example from the James Bond film Quantum of Solace:
Because the editing is so choppy, you can hardly tell what’s going on here. Sure, it’s cohesive enough to grant a vague impression of where the characters are and what they’re doing, but not much more. I assume the idea was to replicate the feeling of being in life-or-death situations, where the situation is often confusing and hard to follow in the moment. These movies aren’t real life though. To enjoy action at its fullest potential, an audience needs to understand a scene’s geography, where the characters are moving within that geography, and how each action flows into the next. There’s no flow here. We just see stuff happen and have to figure out the in-between parts for ourselves.
These bad action-movie habits aren’t only perpetrated by James Bond or Taken; they’re in almost every action movie of the past 20 years! And why? Personally– I blame Jason Bourne director Paul Greengrass… The Bourne Supremacy (2004) featured a revolutionary use of “shaky cam” to enhance the hand-to-hand combat. As with almost every unique/ successful thing in Hollywood, creatives learned the wrong lessons from it. Shaky cam became a go-to technique in near every action movie to this day (but, in most cases, a lot worse). Frankly, the technique never worked great, even in that first movie. But you be the judge…
Barring a film’s use of editing– a lot of action doesn’t feel relevant within its context. Action sequences derive much of their impact from their respective build-ups and aftermaths– yet most action scenes fail to deliver on both fronts. The majority of action sequences begin for vague reasons, play out for sheer spectacle, then end with our heroes brushing themselves off and moving on to the next big set-piece. There is no good reason for violence to start, and there’s no consequences which come with its conclusion.
Action sequences ought to take more inspiration from musicals. That’s strange to say, I know, but bare with me… Believe it or not, Musicals operate similarly to action films. In both, musical numbers and action sequences act as cathartic releases of emotion (or bullets, or whatever else) during high points of tension. Musical numbers are an elaborate demonstration of how characters feel in a given moment. The spectacle of song and dance is supposed to be more affecting than characters just talking their problems out. That’s why the most resonant musicals contain a purpose for every song in the story. The sequences communicate new information to the audience and showcase integral moments of relationships. No song is included without good reason. Action ought to be treated similarly.
Here’s a classic example of poor action. The build-up is solid enough: Indiana Jones wanders through a seemingly deserted 1950s town which seems to be populated by mannequins. A nuclear bomb is shown to be on the way and the only ride out of town passes straight by Indy. That’s all good for building tension. But the scene ruins itself when Indy hides in a kitchen fridge for protection from the freaking NUCLEAR BLAST! Let’s say for the sake of argument a lead-lined fridge would be good enough protection for a nuke– there’s no way he wouldn’t have been badly hurt after flying through the sky, landing on the ground, and being rolled over in that metal box.
I’ll admit, I have fun watching this scene but it’s not technically good. Indiana Jones’ action is traditionally exciting because Indy always escapes from death at the last second by a combination of wits and good luck. The stakes always feel real, and Indy’s gambits for survival seem genuine and earned within their context. Also– those action scenes don’t stretch their audience’s suspension of disbelief quite so thin. Because the danger is so high, Indy faces no consequences for his death-defying solution, and the aftermath of the action is undeniably goofy, this sequence is more likely to invite groans than investment in the movie’s story. You’re left wondering “what was the point of that scene?” Take it out and the movie doesn’t change. Action has to matter to impact its audience.
***Spoilers for Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith***
NOTE: THIS IS ONLY THE END OF THE BATTLE, BUT IS GOOD ENOUGH TO UNDERSTAND THE POINT
Compare the Indiana Jones clip to another action movie of the mid-2000s (also a George-Lucas-created story continuing a decades-old franchise). The Anakin/ Obi-Wan duel from Revenge of the Sith is not a perfect action scene, but it is one of the most emotional sequences in Star Wars. The sequence features a great buildup with a battle of ideology (not shown in the above clip), and ends in a life-altering status-quo for both characters. This action has meaning. It’s cool to see the lava and the flips and the swordplay but, at its core, we’re seeing the development of a tragic rift between brothers.
The subject matter is relatable (many families have been torn apart for various reasons), the stakes couldn’t be higher (the future of the galaxy is at stake), and neither combatant comes out unscathed. Anakin is left with permanent physical injuries, and Obi-Wan is left with deep emotional scars from his perceived failure as a teacher. Whatever you think of the action itself, it’s an important means to an end for the story. It had to happen for the movie to reach a natural conclusion.
Over-reliance on Special Effects
A common mistake which ultimately ruins action is when films rely too heavily on CGI effects. Film fans have been whining about this topic for 20 years. I’m a film fan, so I figure: why shouldn’t I whine a little too? Computer generated imagery is often cheaper and less time-consuming than building sets from scratch, and using practical costumes/ makeup. And the spectacle used to be mind-blowing! CGI allowed filmmakers to create worlds and settings which were never possible a few decades ago. But the novelty has worn off.
Now CGI is, at best, a tool to enhance in-camera action and– at worst– actively awful and distracting. Bad CGI might not be such a problem today if its relative simplicity hadn’t made a generation of filmmakers lazy about their work. Hollywood (and even independent film, to an extent) has adopted the unfortunate mentality of fixing all of a film’s flaws in post-production… But, the more CGI which must be incorporated into a film, the less time visual effects artists have to make that CGI convincing.
***Spoilers for Transformers: Dark of the Moon***
This live-action film series was based on the popular 80s cartoon. They should have just kept it animated. It’s basically an animated film anyway– just worse-looking. These characters are undeserved in a medium which cannot do them justice. As it stands– this scene just looks like pieces of metal junk flying at each other. In its existence between the imaginative heights of a cartoon and life-like realism, the final product loses what makes both modes of entertainment special (namely: escapism not bound by reality and a reasonable sense of grounding in our world, respectively).
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) is one of the best action movies ever made! And you know one of the things which makes it stand out? Practical effects. Those are real cars, and real actors doing real stunts. Even if the film-making wasn’t masterful, that stuff will never age badly. I want to make clear that I’m not anti-CGI. I’d be shocked if the scene you just watched was 100% real. But any fake aspects of this scene blend in because they’re A) surrounded by so much reality and B) sparse enough that visual effects artists could afford the time to release seamless work.
Feel the Hurt
For an action scene to leave a lasting impression, it must make its audience feel the hurt. Every punch needs to look painful, every fall should knock the wind out of someone, and extended combat ought to leave combatants exhausted. In live action, characters can’t just do crazy things and come away unscathed. Even in superhero fare, where everything is fantastical, the fights need to have impact! If characters don’t look hurt, then the action appears fake; and when the action seems fake, the audience thinks about how fake the situation is; and when the audience ponders the fake nature of the plot, their immersion is broken (circling back to that idea, now)!
***Spoilers for Episode 5 of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier***
NOTE: This is a slightly chopped up version of the scene. But the original wasn’t much better…
A few powerful people smash their fists on each other for a few minutes, and I feel nothing while watching. It’s supposed to be a major point in the story, but the scene is boring. Worse yet– it feels like a super intense sparring session rather than a legitimate fight. The characters get knocked around, but do they hurt? No. Not that I can see. A few scrapes, maybe. But Sam takes a punch to the face from a super soldier and it doesn’t even leave a mark! Any one of the hits he received should have taken him down for the count. OK– John gets his arm broken in the end. I’ll give the scene some credit there. Still, a shocking ending doesn’t make the preceding fight good.
I want to close out this section by showing you a PERFECT fight. It’s immersive, easy to comprehend, continues the story in a meaningful way, relies on practical effects, and carries a sense of realism. Matt Murdock (the man in black) is a badass, yet he clearly exerts himself. He’s not some god-among-men (he’s a Devil actually). He can be hurt, and he gets tired the longer he fights. Henchmen aren’t easily dispatched like in most entertainment. In fact– they get up once knocked down! I almost never see that in action scenes. Importantly: this fight looks brutal and painful. Every hit is measured and impactful. And I must note the scene’s instantly iconic filmmaking: the Daredevil crew dared to show us the whole fight with clear framing and perfect flow so that we could understand what was happening. *Chef’s kiss*
What’s the worst action sequence you’ve ever seen? Do you find bad action as boring as I do? If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!
Till next time