Village Voice piece

I wrote a piece for this week’s Village Voice, it’s about (hold onto your butts) the current state of action movies. Of course I wasn’t able to be as long-winded as I usually like to, but I think I managed to give a good explanation of my concept of Post-Action (with specific examples), the importance of action geography, how THE EXPENDABLES could be better, the renaissance in DTV (mentioning Florentine and Hyams), and favorite topics like that.

Thank you to film editor Alan Scherstuhl for giving me the opportunity to spread the word to a new audience, and printed on paper I believe. I like paper.

If you’re joining us here after reading the piece please say hi in the comments and stick around or dig through the archives for more detailed discussion of Badass Cinema and other topics.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 21st, 2012 at 11:06 pm and is filed under Blog Post (short for weblog). You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

52 Responses to “Village Voice piece”

  1. Well done, Vern.

  2. Damn, Vern, your brow keeps getting higher by the day. I like the idea that a bunch of snobs and hipsters will pick up the new VOICE to read about that new Mongolian fusion place on Houston and will be affronted by an article written by some guy named Vern extolling the virtues of shit blowing up real good.

  3. Particularly nice craftsmanship here, Vern:

    “Yes, there was a joy in trying to blow up more shit than had ever been blown up before, but there was a story rhythm to it. There was a build, a sense of climax. There was editing and camera placement that allowed you to understand exactly what shit was blowing up, why and where it was blowing up, and who was getting blown up by it.”

  4. Congrats, Vern! Last paragraph got me thinking, what would it take for the pendulum to swing back for clear action to be the standard theatrically? Two or three breakout action movies whose common thread can’t be the source material or star power or marketing gimmick, perhaps while a slew of post-action/shaky-cam spectaculars are bellyflopping? Easy to imagine, tough to bring about …

  5. I think the late-70s to early 90s were a distinct sociological epoch that won’t soon (in the next 20 years at least) recur. I’ve made this observation before, but you’ll note that the superhuman/marquee action hero (Sly, Arnold) and the marquee slasher (Freddy, Jason) were huge during the Reagan era (and periphery) but were petering out by the early-mid 90s and have never really bounced back. I think it was a product of the times: late Cold War, Wall Street greed, pre-PC, serial killer paranoia, Reagan. I can’t put my finger on the zeitgeist’s signature, but it was a zeitgeist.

    You look even at Statham (the closest contemporary analogue), and he is not a guaranteed box office draw. Compare his receipts to Stallone’s or Arnold’s from the 80s and 90s, and he loses even without adjusting for inflation.

    I think there are a number of cultural factors. I think a softening of gender role expectations is a major one. An awakening to the comedic excesses and caricatures of the Reagan era pre-PC male warrior. Unlike in those days, these days we don’t want our heroes larger than life. We want Matt Damon or Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie. Someone who could just as easily be a dramatic actor and whose muscles are nicely toned but not Barry Bonds freakish. Keanu Reeves’s cross-over to action hero with Speed (although, arguably, Bruce, too was a “cross-over” with Die Hard) was perhaps a watershed.

    Stallone and Arnold haven’t been able to recapture their glory days since the early 90s, and I think the 80s action hero was in many ways a product of the Reagan era, pre-PC, pre-emo, etc. We haven’t seen a truly iconic, consistently open-at-#1 bankable action star or slasher in 20 years. I might give an exception for the Saw guy, but I’m not sure he stacks up.

  6. Great work, Vern.

    Copies of this should be sent to all film schools with immediate effect, and links to the article emailed to Greengrass and Bay forthwith.

  7. Jareth Cutestory

    August 22nd, 2012 at 8:48 am

    If you’re joining us here after reading the piece, please read the review for ZOO and the comments it generated. You can thank us later.

  8. Vern, in my city’s alternative paper, the one I found my first apartment in NYC in, the one I still turn to for the Dan Savage column… who is in Seattle also.

    Hey! What’s with the Northwest takeover of my alt paper?


    naw just kidding

  10. I think political correctness is the video that killed action movie’s radio star, it just got to the point where it was just taboo to have movies with big burly guys kicking endless ass and as much as I do love the 90’s, political correctness was a shitty thing it spawned

    I don’t think Columbine helped matters either, I’ve heard that Hollywood made a conscious effort to tone down violence and now with the Aurora Colorado shooting actually happening IN a movie theater I’m sure you can kiss violence goodbye from here on out

    in other words, maybe all this shaky cam and post action business is just a result of the fact that the MPAA just wont let filmmakers show clear depictions of guys getting shot up anymore? (without getting slapped with an NC-17 of course)

    it’s ironic though that as violence in movies got toned down as we entered the 2000’s, violence in video games went up to 11

  11. “I’ve heard that Hollywood made a conscious effort to tone down violence and now with the Aurora Colorado shooting actually happening IN a movie theater I’m sure you can kiss violence goodbye from here on out”

    Remember when Hollywood said after 9/11 that they will never use terrorism as plot device for their popcorn movies again? You see how that worked out.
    In fact it’s always the same. A real life tragedy happens (shooting, war, terrorism) and for a few months start dates get delayed, movie violence get toned down and so on. Then, maybe just a half year leater, Hollywood is doing what it always did best: Showing violence for entertainment purposes.

    Think about it. What was (one of) the most successful franchise(s) of the last decade? Fucking SAW! If the American horror movie can go return to the hard R rating of the 80’s*, I think the action movie can and will too. The commercial success of both EXPENDABLES shows that the audience is there!

    *Yeah, you can say it’s even harder than back then, but you have to remember that all those Freddy and Jason movies pretty much pushed the limit of its time, just like SAW did during the 00’s.

  12. Yeah, I don’t think PC was ever actually a thing. People talked about it, but pretty much only as an excuse to rebel against it and be just as offensive as they ever were. What killed classic action was irony. Instead of seeing ridiculous badassery as awesome, people started seeing it as hilarious. Now if you want to do an old school one-man-army type movie, you have two choices: 1. Make a Rodriguez-style homage/parody; 2. Grit it the fuck up and siphon all the fun out of it and make a BOURNE-style thriller . You can’t just play it straight anymore.

  13. Congrats Vern! cool article too, funny last paragraph.

  14. I’m just not convinced that theatrical market is that big. Look here, you’ve crammed together people with combined lifetime earnings of…I don’t know, a ton, and the most they can muster domestically is just shy of $30…like, half what Bourne 3 opened up at? I’m not treating that as index of quality, I’m just saying, there’s a reason that they’re not releasing most JCVD flicks theatrically. Doesn’t make financial sense. Straight to DVD makes financial sense.

    Look at the numbers for Jason Statham. Transporter 3’s TOTAL DOMESTIC BOX OFFICE was $32mil. Expendables 2 opened at about the same as what True Lies did, except it’s 20 years later (inflation). I know there’s all kinds of complicating factors these days w/ foreign box office, etc. But I’m just saying: the box office demand for these kinds of movies is nowhere near what it used to be. If it was, you can be sure that studios would be cranking out these films and releasing them theatrically. They’re not doing this for charity.

  15. I’m really hoping that EXPENDABLES II represents a turning point, with it’s weird awkward shifts from ironic to earnest. It’s a movie that seems to be straining towards being a real movie, but occasionally second-guessing itself and sticking in a bunch of self-conscious ironic crap. i think we can all agree which strategy worked better, so maybe it’s a shift in the right direction. Certainly, both BULLET TO THE HEAD and LAST STAND look like they’re trying to be real, genuine action films which allow the characters to *make* jokes, rather than *be* jokes.

  16. Regarding the convo… I think what changed things, at least in America, is just the shift in Hollywood where ‘action films’ and ‘event movies’ merged into one monster. T2 feels like when that really happened, but maybe the Rambo movies and Beverly Hills Cop laid the groundwork too.

    I mean, a lot of Arnold’s movies in the 80s were not huge budgeted and they weren’t necessarily huge at the box office either (they did well but they were never the highest grossers of the year). They were sort of niche ‘man movies’. An action movie meant something more pure back then, but these days its messier. If you look in recent years, the biggest movies every year contain action filmmaking of some kind, but they are all different genres. In the 80s, even immediately after star wars, that was not the case. In 1987, 4 of the 5 top grossing movies of the year were THREE MEN AND A BABY, MOONSTRUCK, FATAL ATTRACTION and GOOD MORNING VIETNAM.

    Someone smarter than me can connect the dots better, but I really think this is the key to the sea change. The cultural importance of the action movie as we knew it in the 80s diminished when you could get ‘action’ everywhere, even if its mostly the bad kind. Event movies have ruled the roost for years now, and so the model for a lot of action filmmaking becomes whatever the recent successful event movies are.

    Of course there’s still a lot of the 80s style action movies being made in terms of budget, setting and ambition (many of statham’s movies are made in that idiom), it’s just that the action in them is usually incompetently shot. The Michael Bay trickle-down influence seems to be really deeply felt in this area. Being able to compose ‘cool’ and flashy images is apparently much more important to getting hired than having a real understanding of clear visual storytelling. Why aim for good when you can settle for cool? Cool’s easy for cinema-unsophisticated financiers to understand, moreso than the language of filmmaking.

  17. I think Majestyk is onto something with irony and “meta.” ’93 and ’94 gave us Last Action Hero and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Here, you’re seeing the leading action star and the leading slasher go self-referential. At this point, both are heading for rough waters. The Nightmare films pretty much lie dormant for a decade before one last Expendables-esque high-concept hurrah. Arnold scores a hit the next year w/ True Lies but the post-Last Action Hero trajectory is pretty clear.

    In many ways, DTV offers aging action stars the equivalent of what touring offers past-their-(popularity)-prime rock bands.

    I’m not suggesting that this is a perfect, linear model into which every film/actor/character can be shoehorned. But the early-to-mid-90s does feel like the birth of meta in big budget film, and in many cases it emerges in larger-than-life characters (Arnold, Freddy) realizing just how ridiculous and/or formulaic they’ve gotten and so forced to try something more radical.

    Now meta, irony, and self-reference themselves are starting to feel a bit played out.

  18. I like meta, irony, and self-reference, but I agree it’s getting to be overdone

  19. Great job, Vern! Your explication of Post-Action is long overdue for exposure to a bigger crowd. This is your guest track on the major label soundtrack of journalism after years of recording for an indie label (outlawvern.com). Hopefully it won’t fall on deaf ears.

  20. Great article and as always a interesting discussion.

    I’m not sure if I agree completely with the theory of Post-Action.

    I can easily understand the frustration if somebody films a great martial arts scene in a way that you can’t tell who has done what. In a martial arts film it’s all about the body control, the movement. You’re a impressed observer, you just want to watch this fight from the best perspective.

    But if we’re talking about action scenes in general I would argue that many of today’s action scenes are more expressionistic, visually and sensually more thrilling than those of their predecessors of the 80s and 90s.

    I think for example that BOURNE SUPREMACY is a fantastic action movie with one of the best car chases and terrific fight scenes. As long as it’s not a movie about martial arts I don’t think it’s the most important thing to see every move clearly. Sometimes it’s much more exciting to feel the impact, to feel like a part of the action instead watching it from a distant point of view.

    The pre title car chase of QUANTUM OF SOLACE as well as the first fight scene with the double agent are highly memorable and felt pretty intensive for me when I saw them on the cinema screen. The later action scenes were not shot and edited as well, but the car chase in the beginning impressed me more than any of these static car chases we had to endure in the 80’s and 90’s.

    I even don’t think they are using new methods to achieve these effects. Just look at the editing from Peter Hunt in the Bond movies or the shaky cam in FRENCH CONNECTION I and II. Those films feel fresh today, something you can’t say about many American mainstream action movies from the 80s and early 90s.

  21. Another thought: I’m surprised that the ridiculous action films of the 80s are now the all-time action reference.

    If you watch movies like FRENCH CONNECTION, THE WILD BUNCH or THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and then something like COMMANDO, isn’t that similar to watching TRANSFORMERS II after DIE HARD?

  22. I don’t know. I don’t think Commando holds up as Oscar-calibre cinema, there’s just an air of goofiness and fun mixed in there. Bay’s films aren’t funny or cute or anything. They simply have no soul or imagination or substance. They are like trying to create a full-length film from a Cindy Crawford Pepsi commercial or Aerosmith Get a Grip-era music video.

    The broken-neck guy “napping.” “I let him go.” All the great sleazy and wonderful character actors from the 80s. Commando was fun. And Schwarzennegers little one liners were actually fresh and cool and just funny as hell. The problem is that all Schwarzenegger seems to be capable of now is going back to that same well, like Yakov Smirnoff doing his old material in Branson. Just sad.

    Bottom line though, I take umbrage to any effort to analogize Commando to Transformers II.

  23. I would seriously like to see Dolph get more character actor work on the big screen. I think he is extremely talented, has a really distinctive look, and is able to be serious and stoic or just have that crazy off-kilter glint that we’ve seen in Expendables and UniSol.

    He was arguably the highlight of part 1, and from what I’m hearing, he is a substantial highlight of part 2.

  24. Andreas – but in the French Connection and the previous Bond movies I never had to wait until the next scene to see who got out of the car to figure out whether I just saw James Bond go off a cliff or the other other guy. That’s exactly what happened to me in Quantum of Solace. I hope to watch it again soon but my experience watching that the first time (admittedly pretty close up on a large screen, the opposite of how movies are now designed to be watched) was man, that sounded like it must’ve been an exciting car chase and shootout there. I wish I could tell for sure based on the imagery provided.

    I understand your point about impressionistic action, which I believe is why Nolan uses that style for his Batman fights, and I think in some cases it works. You’re supposed to be in the shoes of the people who have no clue what the fuck just happened, some bat guy just came in and there was loud noises. Unfortunately I think this choice which could occasionally be a strong one has become the standard way to do all action scenes now.

    A good non martial arts example might be John Woo’s Hard Boiled. Modern shootouts seem to lean toward the “you’re stuck in the chaos of battle and don’t really know where the shots are fired from” approach, which I think has been used well in things ranging from Saving Private Ryan to Miami Vice. But how many of these give you anything close to the thrill of what Woo did? Is this only because he goes so far in his violence? I think it’s partly because of the way he choreographs and presents it. Nobody could sit through even 1/3 of the epic hospital shootout if it was done in a Quantum of Solace style. It would be unbearable instead of exhilarating.

    Thanks for the discussion, I appreciate the disagreement.

  25. Vern’s opinion of TUMOUR OF SOLACE, imean, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, completly mirrors my opinion of that movie. No other movie has made me hate the shaky cam so much as it. James Bond movies used to set trends in action movies, they were the ones who showed the way. To see one Bond movie be so slavish to one of the most irritating and misuse action movie shooting technique was not only irritating but sad to see. Bond is now a follower not a leader? That’s sad. Sadder for te fact that had QUANTUM OF SOLACE been shot with the same elegance and thoughfullness that CASINO ROYALE was, it would made for a movie truly worthy of being CS’s companion, because the story is pretty good and the acting is quite very good all around, specially from Daniel Craig.

    It’s funny but back in the day THE FRENCH CONNECTION was considered to be a very high octane action movie. That it won an oscar is actually quite an amazing thing, it would be the equivalent of DIE HARD winning oscar for best film in 1990 or INCEPTION in 2010. THE FRENCH CONNECTION can only be seen not as an action movie only if one compares them to toay’s action movie stastandards. At the time, the movie was as quicked paced and frenect as they come, and there had been nothing like that car chance before, not even the one in BULLIT.

    I have seen bits of HAYWIRE, specialy that first diner fight scene, and it’s quite fantastic that what is one of the best fight scene i have seen recently is one whwere i can actually see what the hell the fighters are doing to each other with a camera that allows me to do just that. I’m not an absolutis that says that shaky cam has no place in action movies and can’t be well used well. It can, it can be very effective, but like any filmming technique, only if done well. It has to have a purpose, and it can’ defeat the point of the scene.

    Once upon a time, action movie hacks overdid slow motion to the point i could tell a movie would be good or bad if they used it. Nowdays, it seems that shaky cam does that. I think this happens because nowdays there is a this new generation of deluded over-egomaniac hacks who for some reason actually believe they are artists who are good enough to imitate and replicate the techniques used by great filmmakers, but without the thoughfulness those did. If it’s good enough for Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Akira kurosawa and Sam Peckinpah, is good enough for Michael Bay, John Moore, JJ Abrams and Paul W. S. Anderson, right? Wrong! Oh so wrong.

  26. Skani

    “I would seriously like to see Dolph get more character actor work on the big screen. I think he is extremely talented, has a really distinctive look, and is able to be serious and stoic or just have that crazy off-kilter glint that we’ve seen in Expendables and UniSol.”

    Well, Dolph has becoming better with time, and in fact, he himself has been doing just that by himself. When the offer for roles have started to die out for him, he decided to do it himself and started directing his own action movies. And aparently he is quite good at it. I think Vern himself have reviewed some of his own directed action movies, and he has like what he has saw.

    I say that it would be a good idea to have a movie about Ivan Danko and what would be he today, with Dolph back to the role. The same way that Stallone revisited Rocky with his ROCKEY BALBOA movie, the same thing could be done to Ivan Danko.

    That Dolph gets to play a memorable character in THE EXPENDABLES movie is, i think, quite a charming and heartwarming thing that Stallone is doing to his od friend. i was him who pratically discovered Dolph and put him to play Rocky’sgreatest nemesis, and ROCKY IV was directed by Stallone himself. and now, he’s back to nuturing Dolph back to the big screens and giving him a good memorable character to play, and to shine again on the big screen. It’s quite sweet, actually.

    I really used not to like Dolph at all in the past, but nowdays i gained quite a lot of sympathy for him. Yeah, he is cool. Age even helped him. Yeah, i like Dolph.

  27. Isaac,
    You’re right about Dolph. I know he’s been directing a lot of his own DTV vehicles for a while now. I know that mostly via Vern–I personally haven’t watched many of them, save for UniSol: Regeneration (which Dolph obviously did not direct). Dolph’s performances in UniSol and UniSol: Regeneration and Expandables 1 are inspired. From Rocky IV, you really would not have guess that Dolph could be a genuinely good actor, but I think he is. As he’s gotten older and (frankly) uglier, he has become more and more interesting to watch, and I agree that he’s either gotten better as an actor or simply had more chances to display his versatility. that said, I still have fond memories of “I come in peace” being a lot of fun, and that’s from way back.

    And I agree about Sly. I am busting his chops here because I love him and his heart and what he’s capable of doing. And I love the way he keeps throwing parts toward Dolph or the way he keeps extending the olive branch to Van Damme after Van Damme clearly rebuffed him and pooh-pooh’ed the first one. “You’re all heart, Rock!”

  28. Rehydrated Dehydrated Pirate Paul

    August 24th, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    “A good non martial arts example might be John Woo’s Hard Boiled. Modern shootouts seem to lean toward the “you’re stuck in the chaos of battle and don’t really know where the shots are fired from” approach, which I think has been used well in things ranging from Saving Private Ryan to Miami Vice. But how many of these give you anything close to the thrill of what Woo did? Is this only because he goes so far in his violence? I think it’s partly because of the way he choreographs and presents it. Nobody could sit through even 1/3 of the epic hospital shootout if it was done in a Quantum of Solace style. It would be unbearable instead of exhilarating.”


    And the only thing I’d add to Vern’s article would be “And each action scene must be true to the tone of the movie at that point and the characters of those taking part in it.” But that’s a less modern problem. Still, I don’t see why Jackie Chan should be the exception, rather than the rule, when it comes to his mastery showing and developing character in action scenes in his best movies.

    My point, though, is that if an action sequence doesn’t have any emotional “stake”, doesn’t advance the story, doesn’t reveal anything about the characters, or is a foregone conclusion from the start (and I don’t mean in the sense that of course the good guy is gonna triumph over the bad guy in the end – I mean that how we get to that point should be an interesting journey with enough unexpected “beats” to keep us interested – hall of mirrors scene in “Enter the Dragon” anybody?) then it might be perfectly shot and scored but it still won’t enthrall me.

    All that said, I completely agree with Vern 100% as far as he goes.

  29. Rehydrated Dehydrated Pirate Paul

    August 24th, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Ok, here’s a thought. What if advances in filmmaking technology are partly to blame for the sad state of action cinema nowadays?

    I’m reminded of an oldie but a really really baddie, “The Mummy Returns”. A film that I could not stand when I watched it in the cinema. It was wall-to-wall action sequences, taking full advantage of the new technology of the time (sometimes to horrific effect – remember the Scorpion King in that one?) with only a few pauses for some lame jokes, then more action. And in my humble opinion that movie was complete and utter shite.

    It brings to mind a comparison with “The Terminator”, a movie that I absolutely love, which was considered a sci-fi actioner back when it first came out. Nowadays, not so much. I don’t think it’s considered an action movie, so much as a science-fiction movie with action scenes in it. The thing about “The Terminator” is that a lot of it, and its sequel, are fairly quiet moments. There’s a huge amount of contrast between the film’s “chase” moments, and the other stuff that comes in between. And yet I think most people would agree the movie wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it is if you left either element out.

    But action has got easier, and cheaper, and doable with shakycam and CGI instead of the techniques they used to use. And the result is, audiences have become used to more action. Many people complained at “Drive” – a movie I think most of us at least really liked and Vern put at the head of his “best of 2011” list – because it was so much less frenetic than they expected. And compare a newer Bond film – in particular “Quantum”, “Die Another Day”, “The World is Not Enough” or “Tomorrow Never Dies” spring to mind – to something like “From Russia with Love” or “Goldfinger”. The never ones are littered with action scenes that don’t really DO anything. Hell, if you took out most of the extraneous “actiony” bits from TWiNE, it would probably be a helluva lot more compelling than it was.

    My conclusion: THERE’S TOO MUCH ACTION IN MODERN ACTION MOVIES. On the one hand, there seems to be a tendency for filmmakers to add in action scenes regardless of whether they advance the story, rendering them emotionally unsatisfying; on the other, the temptation is there to take short-cuts and over-use techniques like shakycam and CGI, at the expense of genuine craftsmanship.

    What do you guys think?

  30. Rehydrated Dehydrated Pirate Paul

    August 24th, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    And Andreas…

    “I think for example that BOURNE SUPREMACY is a fantastic action movie with one of the best car chases and terrific fight scenes. As long as it’s not a movie about martial arts I don’t think it’s the most important thing to see every move clearly. Sometimes it’s much more exciting to feel the impact, to feel like a part of the action instead watching it from a distant point of view. ”

    I agree that it’s a fantastic action movie, but that’s IN SPITE OF the action, not because of it. That Russian car chase at the end, the first time I saw it in the cinema, made me feel literally nauseous. I’ve watched it three or four times since on the small screen, and there’s still moments where I cannot tell what the hell is going on or where anybody is in relation to each other.

    In short – couldn’t disagree with you more on the car chases. And also the fights. For me they’re just completely frustrating to watch. I cannot tell what the hell is going on.

  31. As always, I completely disagree with that one, Paul. Yes, the action scenes that advance character and plot and have emotion to them are the best action scenes. My favorite thing ever, which I’ve always failed to come up with a name for, is when the action climax and emotional climax of the movie are one and the same.

    But at the same time, a great fucking action scene is a great fucking action scene. It’s okay and very appropriate to the genre to just show off. It’s like the dance analogy again. If Michael Jackson just wants to moonwalk for no reason then I think he should go for it. And if Jackie wants to run up a wall then he should too.

  32. In my opinion the decline of (quality) action in (quality) action movies is due to a general decline of attention spans the world over. Hollywood just goes where the money is and most people these days can’t concentrate on anything for longer than about three minutes without checking their fuckin iphone (I include myself in this). In order to combat this movies are structured like a youtube playlist full of strobing CGI and shots of Megan Fox’s arse. The problem is the information age we live in and it’s only gonna get worse. And by worse I of course mean different.

    The sad truth is that movies just aren’t as important as they once were due to the fact that there is just so much else to do these days. Do any of us here honestly believe that movies as they exist today will still be a primary source of entertainment in 50 years time? People that grow up playing videogames just aren’t wired for long stretches of passive entertainment.

    Personally speaking I find it kinda hard to watch an entire 2 hour movie without fidgeting and becoming distracted by some kind of infernal technology. It’s not uncommon for me to watch a movie while listening to music while playing games while looking at this very websight all at the same time and I honestly don’t think it’s healthy. My brain is so accustomed to this constant flow of information that I get freaked out by the silence. I’m like a fucking Borg in the midst of an existential crisis brought on by it’s disconnection from the collective.

    I think the internet and technology in general have brought with them a bunch of problems both societal and biological that are only just beginning to surface and that probably don’t even have names yet. I remember some storylines in the old Judge Dredd comics involved a mental illness called futureshock that was caused by people being unable to cope with the word they were living in. Technology evolves at a rate so much faster than biology it seems inevitable that something like that is gonna happen. We’re all living further and further outside of our natural habitat – something’s gotta give.

  33. Apologies for straying kinda off topic there, I know you like to keep your house in order Vern.

  34. Yeah, but what about the hobbit and stuff. I agree that people are wicked distractable, but it seems like runtimes have gotten longer.

    All my comments about efficient markets, studios make what we pay for, blah, notwithstanding, I’m not convinced that people love the quick-cutty crap. I think it serves a purpose, and I actually don’t mind it in Bourne at all. the idea in those movies is to sweep you up in the frenetic scenario of him scrambling around trying to stay one step ahead.

    But in general, I think it’s just kind of a trend, and if people are given an alternative that is more brutal and intelligible, they’ll watch that.

  35. Fuckin Hobbits – Ruining lives (probably) and theories since whenever the fuck that fictional year was. I hate them.

  36. Yeah, never you’re back on a hobbit. They’ve got no code. You turn your back, and they’ll go off on some epic 4-hour adventure like you’ve got nothing better to do than spend half a day watching them. Nolan and Dark Knight aren’t much better.

  37. I would argue that while attention spans are shorter, visual IQ has gone up drastically. That is to say, people my age are easily distracted, but we can also read an image much, much faster and with more accuracy than can people even just 10 years older. Frankly, I’m almost never confused by so-called, “Shaky-cam” or by hyperactive cinematography. I’m just annoyed because it’s more impressive to see the stuff in long takes. I appreciate the technical skill involved in that and the formalism. You know what? That’s what it is! Die Hard and the French Connection are like Sonnets. Borne is like Bukowski’s free verse poetry. The lack of form becomes part of the form.

  38. Interesting that Vern says Greengrass does it well but the imitators took it too far. I actually think Greengrass is the worst and some of his imitators make more sense of it.

    BOURNE SUPREMACY is total nonsense and GREEN ZONE is just lazy slop. It actually goes out of focus while the camerman’s running around. That is just unacceptable. ULTIMATUM works in spite of the style, maybe the editor worked his magic.

    I actually think QUANTUM OF SOLACE is the only movie that did modern fast cut handheld style right. It totally works for me (tho I sat a normal distance from the screen and have watched it again on Blu ray.) I thought Forster just took the air out of every scene, but it still cut together and made sense.

    Maybe we all have different eyes. I know people who say they can see what’s happening in SUPREMACY but not QUANTUM.

  39. After thinking alot about Vern’s article and this discussion I rewatched the action scenes from some of the mentioned movies this morning.

    I think I can understand that some people don’t like the shaky cam approach of BOURNE and QUANTUM, even if I was really engaged in their action scenes. This style calls attention to itself. If you don’t like it it’s hard to ignore.

    But what I can’t see is a general trend, for example that the action films of the 80s are better crafted than the action films today. Badly directed, filmed and edited action films were also common in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. The trend to badly copy the style of a successful action film was also already pretty established in the 80s.

    The modern technology allows the filmmakers to create any style they want. You can get a video camera and some masters of martial arts and create THE RAID, you can throw the audience right into the action like in the opening of QUANTUM OF SOLACE or you create a easy understandable spectacle like FAST FIVE.

    Today’s movie landscape seems much more diverse to me than that of the 80s, and I think every action fan can still get his highlight every year, whatever style he prefers.

    So why are we in the Post-Action era?

    Is it just because a special kind of action movie that was a trend from the 80s and 90s doesn’t get produced in the same quantity?

  40. Rehydrated Dehydrated Pirate Paul

    August 25th, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Ok, Vern, let’s do this.

    “As always, I completely disagree with that one, Paul. Yes, the action scenes that advance character and plot and have emotion to them are the best action scenes. My favorite thing ever, which I’ve always failed to come up with a name for, is when the action climax and emotional climax of the movie are one and the same.”

    Well I think I can get behind this. And one example of what I think is a great action scene is the ending of “Blood and Bone”, which actually resolves very little, story-wise, but it completely true to the characters of those involved (and indeed does a great job of showing what kind of a person Price is when he has literally two sentences worth of dialogue). More to the point, it’s brilliantly filmed, brilliantly choreographed, brilliantly scored, and just superbly done in every way IMO. And the ending to the fight – the tap-out as “Fuck you!” to Eamonn Holmes’ character? – that’s gotta be an example of what you were talking about there.

    Similar thing with Jing Wu’s death in “Kill Zone”. Probably my favorite single action scene of the past few years. It’s beautifully shot, beautifully choreographed, the scoring is fantastic (y’know, I wish more movies still did the whole “synchronise the action scene to the dramatic beats in the score” thing), and the way they use the lighting, the weapons, the diffeent camera angles… I could write a two-page essay on this one scene. (I’ll spare you.)


    “But at the same time, a great fucking action scene is a great fucking action scene. It’s okay and very appropriate to the genre to just show off. It’s like the dance analogy again. If Michael Jackson just wants to moonwalk for no reason then I think he should go for it. And if Jackie wants to run up a wall then he should too.”

    Now here I agree with your two specific examples, while disagreeing with your general point. Michael Jackson moonwalking is an art form in itself. It’s a master showman at the top of his game, showing what he can do and taking our breath away while he does it. Jackie Chan, same. And I absolutely love that scene in “Hard Boiled” (as well as most of the movie). You know this.

    But apply that to the extraneous action scenes in, say, “The World is Not Enough”, and it’s a very different story. I’m sure somebody will disagree with me, but I would content that Pierce Brosnan is NOT an action icon whose work rivals that of Jackie Chan. He’s a serious actor who’s played some roles in films that have action scenes in them. And I don’t think those films are best served by having him pointlessly run away from CGI explosions every twenty minutes.

    My point is that 99% of action sequences are NOT of the “Jackie Chan spider-walks up thirty feet between two walls without a safety harness” type. Great fucking action scenes, as you put it, are rare. Yet filmmakers keep throwing in constant noisy action, with all the problems you talk about – shakycam being the most recent – into films that really don’t need it.

    “Drive”, “Die Hard”, “The Terminator”, “Predator”, “Jurassic Park”, hell even the likes of “The Running Man” – these films worked because the filmmakers had a story to tell, and the confidence in their audiences’ respective intelligences that they didn’t feel the need to throw in a shakycam shot of somebody running from a CGI ‘splosion every twenty minutes in case people were starting to get bored. And THAT to me is what’s wrong with modern action movies.

    Or to put it another way – shakycam is a symptom, not a cause.

    Despite that I think Andreas, Mode 7 and Tawdry have all made reasonable points. Which I guess shows how many different angles there are to this, since we’re all mostly contradicting each other…

  41. Rehydrated Dehydrated Pirate Paul

    August 25th, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    I would add, too, that I loved “The Raid”, which will probably get an “honorable mention” spot on my “Best of 2012” list, if I can be bothered to make one. (It’d get more than that if it hadn’t been such an awesome year.) Exactly the plaudits I gave to “Drive” in my “Best of 2011” list, if you recall. And yet one movie is action-packed, the other is 90% quiet and contemplative with a few explosive action scenes. How can I like both of these movies as much as I do, despite the differences between them? Because, besides the fact that they’re both really good films, in neither case is the action unnecessary or extraneous.

  42. I loved Bourne Supremacy. I don’t put it into the same genre of film as your typical action movie. It’s a chase spy thriller deal, not just an exercise in bad assery. I can see why people get bent out of shape at over shaky cam, but it’s never bothered me in the bourne series and I think it actually serves a purpose and make it somewhat more like a first-person type experience. “first-person” is not technically correct or the right word, but something like that. that said, I thought Doug Liman’s style worked too.

  43. You all know that I think that the 3rd BOURNE movie is in my opinion completely unwatchable (from a visual point of view). It’s the only movie I’ve ever seen, where the camera work made me aggressive (seriously!) and gave me a headache that was so bad, that I had to spend the rest of the day in bed (Really! I’m not trying to be funny here!). And I only saw it on DVD! I survived CLOVERFIELD, which at least has a purpose for its visual style, in theatre. But that Bourne movie totally ruined my day.

  44. CJ, my significant other felt the same way about Bourne 3. so, even though that wasn’t a problem for me, I recognize that it’s a legitimate thing. Always money in the banana stand.

  45. Andreas – thanks for your comment. My concept of “post action” is that we’ve come to an era where they don’t even think the audience wants or expects to see much in the way of action in a story that not long ago would’ve been considered an action movie. So they market THE GREY as a movie about fighting wolves, but you can’t see a damn thing when the fighting happens. They market WARRIOR as a movie about a fighting tournament, but they don’t film the fights so you can see them. Even a Jason Statham movie I have to go in assuming if there’s fights I’ll just have to imagine what happens. In THE MECHANIC (a pretty good movie storywise) they have a guy wearing a ring to show that he’s a fighting champion and he doesn’t even fight! Why would you? This is post action.

    But I mentioned FAST FIVE because it’s either a refreshing change from the trend or a sign that things are getting better. Please note that I ended the essay on an optimistic note. I didn’t mention THE RAID because I was keeping American/western action movies separate from Asian ones, which are kicking our ass 28 ways to Sunday. I had to keep the word count down so I cut out the part where I listed great recent movies from the various Asian countries. Here’s a paragraph I cut out from an earlier draft:

    “It might seem like a purely American art form (like jazz?) except so many of the stars are from Europe. I guess we let Italy borrow Clint Eastwood for a while so we got to keep Arnold, Dolph and Jean-Claude. I say ‘western style’ to distinguish from Asian action movies, which are alive and well. Most of the best action from the last several years has come from Hong Kong (the Ip Man series, Johnnie To), Japan (13 Assassins), South Korea (I Saw the Devil, Chan Wook Park), Thailand (Tom Yum Goong, Chocolate), even Indonesia (The Raid, Merantau). Meanwhile, the iconic martial arts actors of the west have aged and been hidden away in direct-to-video films of varying quality. Our most promising up-and-comers (Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White) have had their best work in that same market, unseen and unknown to the mainstream audiences who used to flock to this sort of thing.”

    thanks again Andreas

  46. Vern – Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I visit this website nearly every day to learn something from your reviews and the subsequent discussions.

  47. I’ve just tried to write a better explanation what I like about modern action scenes. (I struggle to articulate more nuanced thoughts because of the language barrier.)

    I wanted to use Stathams SAFE as a great example. Because I needed so much time to write my comment I had the idea to search if Vern hadn’t already written a review of SAFE. Yes, he had. (After reading his review I remembered that it was this review that made me watch the film in the first place.)

    While some other critics critized SAFE for the use of shaky cam, Vern argued otherwise, mentioning great scenes with a limited point of view.

    I couldn’t agree more and would argue the same way about BOURNE or QUANTUM. I love it to be that involved and at the same time that challenged by a movie. I have to be absolutely focussed on the screen to follow what’s happening, something that’s very rewarding because it gives me the intense feeling of being right into the action.

    SAFE is a great and not too extreme example of a action movie that actually uses the tools of modern action cinema in a good way.

  48. The Original... Paul

    August 26th, 2012 at 5:46 am

    Vern – good point about Western versus Eastern action. I don’t watch all that much Asian action cinema, I’m more of a horrorphile, so with the odd exception (“Kill Zone” in particular) I tend to lump it together with the Western variety for convenience.

    Here’s a thought though: can “The Raid” truly be called an Asian action film when the director / writer is Welsh? I know the cast is mostly Asian and a lot of the stylistic choices lean more towards the Eastern than Western idea of what an action movie should “be”, but still… it’s a little difficult thinking of it as your Asian action joint when the director’s name is “Gareth Evans” and he used to live not far from where I live now. Takes some of the “exotic” out of it, y’know?

  49. I recently discovered that Guy Ritchie found a good way to make an action scene chaotic and put you right in the middle, without making it hard to follow. Those of you who saw SHERLOCK HOLMES 2, probably know what I’m talking about.

    For those of you who don’t: In one scene Holmes, Watson and some other guys run through a forest, while a small army shoots all kinds of weapons, from rifles, to early machine guns, right to fucking big cannons at them. And in typical Ritchie style, it’s all ultra fast edited with moments of slow motion* and very often there were short hand combat scenes or moments of people running from explosions, where the camera was attached to certain bodyparts (heads, arms). The camera was still far enough away from the body and pointing at the persons, so it’s not like we got any POV shots of arms or something, but it created the effect of an ultra frantic shaky cam. Only that, doesn’t matter what happened, the camera was still always focusing on the important people. Imagine an adrenalin version of the Spike Lee shot where it seems like people are floating instead of running something. I thought that was a seriously cool idea. It’s not a new one, but use to a great and innovative effect.

    *And I have to say that he really knows how to use speed ramping. He is everything that Zack Snyder is not! He uses it to let you catch a breath and point your attention to small details, that definitely would be lost in the middle of that chaos. Like “where did the bullet land that that guy just shot” and not “oh look, a jumping Spartan. Can you believe how cool that looks in slooooow motion? Let’s do it again! And again! And again!”

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