Thursday, October 23, 2008

Action sequences the way they should be done: Movies

I hate 'em. All the hyper-fast editing,--jiggling camera--"can't tell what the heck is going on" style of action/fight scenes that have infected movies in recent years. It's not fun to watch. It's not exciting. It's not suspenseful. It's not cinematic. It's just mindless chaos. And, yes, I'm looking at you-- Jason Bourne films and Batman Begins and Transformers.

Action movies don't have to be that way. It is possible to choreograph and film a fist fight or a gun battle in such a way so that the audience can follow (and become immersed in) the action. They can be done with skill and artistry, thus providing the viewer with a sense of danger and excitement while still carrying the plot along in a logical manner.

Gee whiz, it's not like it's an impossible skill to for a competent filmmaker to master. It's been done for decades. Look at nearly any fight scene from a 1940s-era B movie (the final gun fight in Dick Tracy vs. Gruesome or the chase/fist fight scene in Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood) and you'll see what I mean. You can follow the flow of the action--you know where all the characters are in relation to one another--you understand the tactics they are employing. These scenes are an integral part of the overall fun of these films.

And, of course, there's all the A movies with great action scenes. Stagecoach, the original King Kong, Ben Hur, Sgt. York. The action sequences in each of these movies are extraordinary--true works of cinema art. And a large part of why these scenes work so well is that they are choreographed in such a way that we never have any trouble at all understanding what is going on.

Can you imagine the chariot race in Ben Hur filmed & edited in the modern style, with split-second edits and a camera that jiggles more than an epileptic kangaroo on a defective rollar coaster ride? On second thought--don't imagine it. That way lies madness.

But, if I may, I'm going to jump ahead a few more years to 1967 & 1970 respectively to look at a couple of movies that take particular care to set up and execute their final battle scenes properly.

The Dirty Dozen (1967) may be the ultimate Guy Movie. A maverick army officer is told to train 12 convicts (all doing time for violent crime) for a very dangerous mission behind enemy lines. They are to parachute into occupied France the night before D-Day and attack a chateau used by German general officers as a retreat. Basically, they are kill as many high-ranking officers as possible, then get away anyways they can.

Most of the movie involves the training of the Dirty Dozen, but the finale (the attack on the chateau) takes up the last 40 minutes or so of the fim.

And about half of that time involves the men sneaking into position. They first have to knife a few sentries and commandeer a staff car. Two men set up a machine gun at a crossroads to hold off the nearby German army units that will inevitably arrive after the shooting starts. Two others--dressed in German uniforms--enter the chateau, later using a grappling hook and rope to sneak some of the others up to the second floor. A man climbs to the roof to sabotage the radio antenna, but his foot crashes through the rooftop and he gets stuck. Inside the chateau, a insane member of the group begins to act particularly unstable at an inconvenient moment...

It's good movie-making on several levels. First of all, it's suspenseful. The Dozen have to kill or avoid guards and remain undetected while getting into position for their final attack. If anything goes wrong, they are all likely to get killed. Skillfully filmed by director Robert Aldritch, the sneaking around sequence does not slow the movie down or bore the viewer. Rather, it helps build up our emotions in such a way as to make the final battle that much more satisfying to watch.

Most importantly, when the fighting does start, all that preparation helps us to follow the action. We know the geography of the chateau and its outer grounds. We know where the characters are in relation to each other. We know what each of them is doing and why they are doing it. We are able to keep track of who is still alive and who has been killed. The finale of The Dirty Dozen, eventually culminating around one character's desperate race to drop live grenades down air shafts and get the heck out of there before everything blows up, is one of the classic action sequences of all time.

Kelly's Heroes (1970) is another great World War II film. This one involves a small, elite armored infantry unit in France. They capture a German officer and learn about a town miles behind enemy lines that contains 16 million dollars in gold.

As one character states, robbing a bank behind enemy lines could possibly be the perfect crime. But before they loot the bank, they'll need to do something about the German soldiers--and the three Tiger tanks--guarding the place.

As we did with The Dirty Dozen, we'll rather unfairly leave aside comments about great characters and dialogue that combined with an anti-authority attitude that help make both these movies so good. Instead, we'll concentrate on how well the movie does in taking the time to set up the final battle scene.

The unit (along with a Sherman tank) reach the town. Several characters sneak in and take position in a bell tower, where they can see pretty much the entire place. We can also see everything from their point-of-view and hear them radio in a report to the others, which gives us a clear understanding of the tactical situation. Meanwhile, the commander of the Sherman tank explains how the only weak spot on a Tiger tank is its rear armor--another key piece of information we need to follow the ensuing action.

The rest of the unit sneaks into town. As in the other movie, they must knife a sentry and avoid detection. They use the ringing bell in the tower and the sound of the Tigers warming up their engines to sneak their own tank into town and get it into position. A machine gun is set up outside what is presumed to be the main German barracks. One of the guys in the bell tower gets out his sniper rifle and picks his targets. An explosive charge is set at a key point.

Once again, none of this is boring. It works for the exact same reason the comparable scene in The Dirty Dozen works. It sets us up emotionally for the final battle, as well as making sure we understand the tactical situation. When the fighting starts, we always know exactly what is going on.

These are the sort of movies that modern filmmakers really need to pay more attention to. These are prime examples of how to properly present an action sequence. They didn't make us want to throw up from motion sickness--instead, they actually entertained us.

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