Saturday, October 3, 2009

Hollywood and the Lost Art of Action

These two articles have appeared recently bemoaning the inability of Hollywood to film a good fight sequence.

Hollywood has lost the art of filming good fight scenes

You wait ages for a lunkhead action pic to come along, and then District 13: Ultimatum and Ip Man arrive in the same week, followed by Ong-Bak: The Beginning a fortnight later. That makes three films in which men (and in District 13, a girl whose pigtail has blades attached to the end) beat the crap out of each other, and none of them is American.

GI Joe and Gamer don't count, because their fight scenes are rubbish; Hollywood has forgotten the art of filming combat. I'm not interested in bravura displays of ultra-rapid editing and CGI. I want to see real people going at it mano-a-mano, or gamba-a-gamba or whatever, with minimal trickery and no "fucking the frame", as Michael Bay calls it. A bit of slo-mo is permissible, but not too much, and definitely no arty camera angles. I want to see the choreography, preferably from a fixed camera position with minimal editing.

Serious film critics tend to scoff at lunkhead action movies, but I would respectfully contend that fight scenes offer nuggets of cinema in its purest form, though invariably submerged in a slurry of naffness. But it's missing the point to carp about daft plots and clunky dialogue. You might as well complain about the plot and dialogue in Fred Astaire musicals. You don't watch Top Hat or Swing Time for the plot or dialogue (and if you do, I feel sorry for you); you watch them for the dancing.

And the best fights are just like dancing, only with more blood. It's no coincidence that modern Hollywood can't film musical numbers any better than it can film two guys duking it out. (Exhibit No 1: Chicago.) How can you marvel at the human body in motion if the rhythm and movement are created by the editor, not the dancer?

Part of the problem is that so few Hollywood actors are trained in martial arts, as Steven Seagal was, though you'd never guess it to look at Kill Switch (recommended if you enjoy yelling insults at the screen), in which the fight scenes consist of a stuntman in a bad Steve wig beating up another stuntman, interspersed with non-matching shots of Seagal's face. It's an extreme case, but symptomatic. The reason I enjoyed the fight scenes in the three films mentioned in the first paragraph is because in each case, it's clear that these guys are doing it for real.

David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli do their own parkour and French-fu in District 13, written and produced by Luc Besson, who should have made them fight more and talk less. Donnie Yen does his own Wing Chun in Ip Man, with trad 1970s-style fight choreography by Sammo Hung. And Tony Jaa does his own Muay Thai, kenjutsu and elephant-fu in Ong-Bak, which Jaa directed himself until inconveniently deciding to go awol during filming. Jaa may lack charm and a sense of humour (things Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan had in spades) but when he starts to move, he's mesmerising.

So where are the lunkhead action heroes of yesteryear? Jean-Claude Van Damme's foray into serious drama with JCVD appears to have been a momentary lapse; he and Dolph Lundgren have just finished Universal Soldier: A New Beginning. But they're both getting a bit long in the tooth, as is Chan. Even Jet Li is pretty much an elder statesman, plus he announced he was giving up martial arts movies, which is a shame, since there's one thing at which he's a genius - and it's not acting. Of the younger generation, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has swapped action flicks for kiddy films, which leaves Jason Statham carrying the torch as God's lonely action man.

But wait - what's this on the horizon? Fasten your seat belts for The Expendables, due to hit cinemas next summer. Sylvester Stallone writes and directs himself, Statham, Li, Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke in the manliest movie of the millennium, albeit one that's slightly creaky around the joints. If Stallone screws up the fight scenes, I'll never forgive him. But if he gets them right, it'll be lunkhead nirvana.


This article is a follow up:

Hollywood’s lost art of film fighting

Guardian film critic Anne Billson’s latest entry (see above) in a series of articles on film looks at what she affectionately calls “lunkhead action movies,” the kind serious critics scoff at, and Hollywood filmmakers’ inability to shoot quality fight sequences when compared with recent foreign actioners like DISTRICT 13: ULTIMATUM, IP MAN and ONG BAK 2.

She points out what screen fighting fans typically want to see but rarely do in modern action films. It can all be boiled down to what she describes as “real people going at it mano-a-mano …. I want to see the choreography, preferably from a fixed camera position with minimal editing.”

Of course, Anne and many others are keenly aware that many of the stars appearing in today’s action movies are lacking the training necessary to perform quality screen fighting in front of a fixed camera. It takes years of hands-on experience, months of pre-production preparation and weeks to shoot great fight sequences.

Filmmakers and stars unqualified to be involved in screen fighting action have been able to hide behind the artifice of stylized editing which is stilled viewed by some as an advancement. I shudder at the thought. With few artistic exceptions, it’s a gimmick, a fad born from trendiness and the necessity to mask inferior abilities on the part of the stunt coordinator, stuntmen, director, or actors involved or perhaps it is something else. Perhaps the shift from live choreography to post-production editing is the desire of film directors to want to maintain control of something they really don’t understand.

Hong Kong gave rise to the position of “action director,” a filmmaker who understood screen fighting but also possessed the ability to handle the camera, direct the entire sequence and then edit it together. Their success depended on the ability to conceptualize a fight sequence and see it through from start to finish, even if another director oversaw the rest of the film. I suspect that many Hollywood filmmakers today are reticent to give this much control away to their stunt choreographers. Yet they still may not understand how to shoot or edit a fight sequence and try to do so anyway.

Anne closes her article with a hopeful note by reminding us that old action warhorses like Sylvester Stallone are still with us and trying to carry the torch, particularly with THE EXPENDABLES. It’s fitting given Stallone’s intent.

Stallone has been in touch with his fans and understands that those who grew up in the ’70s or ’80s are generally not satisfied with computer effects and stylized editing replacing good old fashioned stunt work. It’s like replacing sugar cane with corn syrup or The Clash with Green Day. Once you’ve had a taste of the real thing, no substitute will do and I’m willing to bet that if younger generations could see more of the real deal in a modern context they’ll feel the same way. That’s why action filmmaking needs to get back to the business of producing real action with real stunts and real screen fighting. Forget the “serious” critics or the pop trends. Seeing real skills in action is what energizes audiences and keeps them buzzing long after the curtain closes.

There is the real possibility that great stunt work and screen fighting will indeed become a lost art, at least as we’ve known it for the past three decades. Film history tells us that cinema greats like Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks and Bruce Lee are irreplaceable, just as some of cinema’s great action directors are. Yet history also tells us that so long as the legacy of great action and screen fighting legends survive, someone driven and talented like Jackie Chan, Tsui Hark or Quentin Tarantino will step forth to pay homage to past action film masters and perhaps in the process rekindle broader interest in making great action and fight scenes again. That’s a pop trend I would like to see.


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