This review will be about two movies from 2011: Fast Five and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (MI4). I managed to catch Fast Five in theaters yet I missed out on MI4 until I got my hands on the Blu Ray.
But before the actual review lets view a very interesting story about the current state of action movies:
The incredible success of Avengers has lead Sylvester Stallone to comment on the current situation of action movies and how he thinks that the traditional action movie is fading away.
“This genre unfortunately is becoming…let’s just say it’s fading away. You have the superheroes today which are possessed with all the extraordinary powers; they can blink and a fireball comes out of there. It’s great. And then you have a bunch of us which is just your basic male-pattern badness…Kind of like hands-on action. The movie business has worked assiduously to discourage intelligent, discerning people, FROM the theater. They have worked hard to get rid of you, because you don’t go and then buy toys and games.”
Now while this is an interesting statement it should be taken with a grain of salt. It is obviously a ploy to cater towards the Expendables-fancrowd to make them feel like “manly men watching manly movies” (like I hoped to feel while watching Expendables). If Stallone is talking about movies like Expendables I can only hope that they will be fading away after the colossal wreck that this movie was.
And while Stallone might have a point when he says that the merchandise for comicbook-based movies means a big profit for the studio let’s not forget that MI4 and Fast Five both cracked 600 million dollars worldwide and have a combined boxoffice of 1.3 billion dollars. So while the action genre might not be as big of a cashcow as Avengers it for sure is no Sundance production.
Personally I love the action genre. Similar to comedy it gets overlooked when it comes to big awards. A lot of people will snort at action and there seems to be the belief that you can fabricate an action movie just by going through a list of mandatory money-shots.
Well technically this is true but that doesn’t make it a good action flick very much the same way that throwing abortion and immigration into one pot doesn’t automatically give you an arthouse film.
The art of crafting a good action movie is probably as hard as crafting a serious drama. When an action film is competently put together you get genre-gems such as Die Hard or Terminator 2.
But what makes an action movie great
and why is it that not every movie that has spectacle
is automatically a great action film?
Movies like Transformers and Avengers are seen as action blockbuster movies but I would never consider them to be a measurement bar for good action. They are spectacle movies that boast impressive effects and some good acting when it comes to the latter of the two but they lack something to elevate them to the heights of the genre.
So after I ranted a lot last year about how much was wrong about Expendables I am happy to present a much more positive outlook on why the action genre is far from over and what the difference is between spectacle and actual tension.
Getting the plot out of the way
Action movies are about The Mission. It is the one goal the protagonists have and it is best kept very simple. The faster you get your goal clear the more time you can spend with your characters trying to achieve it. Unless you are making Inception your goal will be pretty simple so there is no point in trying to act as if it was anything more than a framework for impressive sequences.
Movies like Expendables stroll around a lot not really knowing what to do until a final mission calls for all characters to unite in one setpiece. Before that the script will do everything in its power to prevent stuff from getting interesting.
Both MI4 and Fast Five have simple goals lined out within the first half hour so the rest of the movie is focused on achieving the goal. Much like romantic comedies we all know how the movie will end – what we don’t know is the road between the start and the finish and what obstacles will be in the way.
And for all this to never get boring you need…
In MI4 the special unit of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is shut down so he and his three comrades are the only ones who can stop the villainous plot. In Fast Five we follow Vin Diesel and Paul Walker as they attempt to get the money of the richest guy in Rio while Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is on their heels.
Both storylines are not complicated but whenever the characters try to relax there will be another obstacle or another complication. It will never be easy because we know that this is…
The toughest job ever!
Yes, it is a cliché.
But a very important one. An action movie is all about spectacle and characters going somewhere the average movie goer will never go. Of course we know that there are a million movies out there with the same goal: some terrorist has a bomb, some mobster owns the police – nothing new here.
Still it is pivotal that the movie characters believe in the seriousness of the situation.
This is one of the big faults with the current tongue in cheek humor. If characters wink at the camera and add snarky comments about how ridiculous this all is it cheapens the effect. In a movie that is about escapism the last thing you want to do is break the fourth wall and take the audience out of the action.
If the characters don’t believe the action is tense –
why should we?
And what really drives me mad: If you are aware about how “ridiculous” your scene is and if it is that much of a cliché that you feel the need to point it out to the audience – why is the scene in the movie?
If you know it better then change the story but don’t justify the use of a standard plotdevice by winking at us if you don’t have confidence in it.
To elaborate on this point just pay attention to the humor in both MI4 and Fast Five – the humor is derived from absurd situations and some witty comments yet it is never to mock the situation itself. Especially MI4 which is the funnier movie of the two has hilarious scenes but not because the movie references how ridiculous the entire concept is.
There are always rules and we need to…
Establish the rules… to break them
When reviewing Expendables I referenced a scene in The Dark Knight where the rules and geography were established to give us a sense of urgence and show us the complicated task the hero had to fulfill – only to throw all this overboard as the situation becomes more complicated within seconds.
MI4 and Fast Five have perfected this device.
A lot of situations are established as incredible delicate. Even if there were no accidents the task itself would already be complicated enough. We as the audience feel that we understand the goals and wait for them to be achieved.
So the moment things start happened that have not been mentioned we are emotionally invested because we have not thought about this opportunity. The tension arises from hoping that the characters will be somehow able to still outwit the enemy and achieve what they want to achieve.
Most notably would be the overcomplicated sequence in MI4 where they are in Burj Khalifa (currently the biggest building in the world) and everything that could go wrong seems to go wrong. But for all this you need to know what is going on so you need…
Contrary to the Bourne-inspired action movies the action in MI4 and Fast Five is clear and possible to follow. Both movies have fantastic sequences that have to be viewed in HD. Especially MI4 is a treat.
Directed by Brad Bird who comes from an animation background (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) has stuffed the movie with fantastic imagery and a lot of shots that tell more than the dialog. When everything goes haywire the camera and script needs to stay focused. With all the fantastic stunts going on why shouldn’t you show the hard work done by the stunt team? After all…
The action is extraordinary
I mentioned escapism before and it can’t hurt to return to this. Pop Corn entertainment is about extraordinary stunts and spectacle. It is like watching a fantastically choreographed circus performance where you marvel the timing and skill behind each stunt.
The worst that could happen is that you feel like watching two special effects hitting each other instead of two conflicting sides. It helps if you can see what is happening but there is something else current special effects extravaganzas tend to forget…
Over the top =/= no tension
Just because impossible things are happening doesn’t mean that you should not care about the weight of the punches that are thrown. The situation can be as ridiculous as you want it to be but the second you stop losing the grit and rawness of the action it becomes uninteresting.
Just because you can render a flying helicarrier doesn’t mean that it can look as if flying this thing was just a piece of cake.
When Ethan Hunt is climbing the tallest tower in the world we know it probably wouldn’t work but we are given enough visual clues – hard breathing, malfunctioning equipment, strong wind – to feel how Ethan Hunt feels. Because for him it is not just another day at the office. Every action scene is tough for him.
Fast Five involves on of the most memorable and over the top action sequences in recent action history. In the hands of a director with the attitude “hey just do it, it is ridiculous, I don’t care” it would have felt really boring – instead we have screeching tires, smashed windows, feet hitting the breaks, gunshots – all this helps to ground the ridiculous scenario in a fantastic final chase sequence.
Both movies know…
A moneyshot without tension is worthless
My biggest gripe with Avengers – action wise – was the way the action shots were orchestrated. Rather than integrating the action into the main story the movie seemed to stop every five seconds to assure us how BADASS everything was.
The moments when the main heroes shined seldom moved the action in any direction – granted the entire beating in the streets was rather pointless – they were place to show individual moments to shine but you could have taken out most of the shots without affecting the main action.
Particularly Sam Jackson had a hilariously pointless moment to be BADASS where he took a bazooka only to find out that his actions had no effect on the plot whatsoever – it was just written to show him firing a bazooka.
On the other hand there are a lot of gimmicky moments when Ethan hunt shows off or when Vin Diesel has to assure everyone that he got the biggest balls on the playground – yet they are always integrated in the main storyline and drive the action scenes forward. It actually feels much more heroic when Diesel, Rock and Walker have a shootout in the streets of Rio because the shooting is necessary for them to escape – the money shot has a purpose and without it the scene couldn’t exist.
Naturally everything comes down to the final fight which is again all about tension and…
The tension is not over until the final kill
Most action movies have the villain as the final confrontation so that you can have maximum tension. It is also important that your foe is an actual threat and not something you can throw around when you feel that you have now beaten enough aliens into the ground to justify a finale.
For this the movie needs to constantly amp up the game. It will already start tough but like a computergame it will get harder the further we get until the inevitable showdown happens. Only after this final kill the tension is released, the movie is over and you will have had an adrenaline rush that will have you leave smilingly.
The action genre is far from dead but personally I feel it is vastly underappreciated – well at least initially. Currently nobody doubts that Die Hard is not a fantastic achievement but I bet everything that it was tossed away as “another action film” when it came out. You know the “well it was good… for an action movie” category that this site refers to as Category 1.
Personally I am not ashamed to say that I thoroughly love action movies – especially great ones like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Fast Five.