While large-scale action movies are a common and beloved part of our cinematic lexicon, too many action movies just aren’t as exciting or coherent as they could be. It’s not an easy balance to strike between a worthwhile script, well-directed action, and enough emotional heft to allow us to care about what’s unfolding on screen, but too often the potentially exciting action in a blockbuster is blunted by mediocre handling behind the camera. So what specifically separates a passable action movie from a good or great action movie? Here are a few key considerations.
1) Explosions: Good Action Movies Allow Them to Exist in the Background
The above shot is from Mission: Impossible III. Instead of blandly cutting to the explosion, director J.J. Abrams gives us a remarkably coherent and exhilarating shot showing what the force of the explosion does to our fleeing protagonist, all while letting the explosion exist in the background, where it’s most effective. Below is the sequence in all its glory.
2) Shaky-Cam or Steadicam? Good action movies make a choice and stick to it
The question is: use shaky-cam, a technique that, if done well, can heighten tension, or go for a cleaner, more geographically-oriented look. The answer: whichever a director chooses, they should be able to do it well and commit to their vision. For an example of good shaky-cam I’d point to The Bourne Ultimatum. During the fight scenes the camera is close and chaotic, showing us what it’s like to be right inside all that violence. We see enough to know basically what is going on (which is crucial, shaky cam shouldn’t mean ‘anything goes’), but the chaotic nature of the camera work helps drive home the mythic level of these two fighters. As the viewer we wouldn’t dare step into the ring with either of these combatants. It’s a heck of a fight scene that leaves you feeling almost exhausted by the end.
3) Good action movies don’t let bad editing ruin a sequence
4) Good action movies show the consequences of violence
This ending to an already successful action sequence gives the film added weight, and leaves people feeling like maybe, just maybe, they don’t want to be this hero. That’s a dark angle for an action movie to take; it thrills us with a bare knuckle brawl, and then makes us feel bad for enjoying it. Remember kids: any victory that involves choking the life out of a man is a shitty one.
5) Good action movies make deliberate use of CGI (if it’s needed at all)
Some of the primary things Fury Road used CGI for are: adding cars into the background of the frame making the chase feel larger, tweaking the sky so it looks more interesting (no joke), and taking out a visible part of Charlize Theron’s arm. What’s important to note though is Furiousa’s mechanical arm isn’t CGI; they just took out the parts of her actual arm that shows through her wonderful prosthetic. A lesser film might have created the mechanical arm entirely in post.
Do you agree with these choices? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below.