With Wanted ripping up the box office and polarizing action fans, I decided to take a look at some recent action sequences that have really had me on the edge of my seat. Personally, I wasn’t very impressed by Timur Bekmambetov’s over-the-top approach, but I may be in the minority. His use of bullet time, slow motion, fast motion, p.o.v. and CG has inspired some while inciting some major eye rolling from others. Personally, it’s not the CG that bothers me, but rather the stale approach. Just have a look at the following list for examples of complex, CG-heavy set pieces with some serious weight behind them. Better yet, we’ll also look at the simple approach in creating the ultimate visceral action experience.
Before we begin, there’s one major stipulation to this list: I’m only looking at films from the year 2000 on. I’ve also decided against including films that I have not yet seen or have not yet been made. I’ll be saving those for my ’10 Films Which Haven’t Been Made Yet That, Based on Leaked Set Photos and Concept Art, May Include Action Sequences That Will Shake My Reality’ list. It’s interesting to note that of the ten choices, there are only 7 directors. That’s right, three directors have two films on this list. Eat that! I’m sure there’s a shitload of notable films I’ll be leaving off of here, so feel free to share some examples or contend my choices in the comments section.
10. Spider-Man 2 – Train Sequence
Spider-Man 2 is probably my favourite super-hero film of all time. I find it utterly rewatchable. This is mainly due to it’s precise tonal balancing act, teetering back and forth between a perfect mix of fantasy and drama. I think it’s safe to say I’m not alone on this one. I was excited to see the re-teaming of Raimi and cinematographer Bill Pope (Army of Darkness, Darkman), and thrilled that the re-union seemed to have put Sam in a nostalgic state of mind. I know some Spider-Man purists may have found Raimi’s Doc Ock ‘hospital sequence’ a little too self-refrential, but I thought it was a great return to form and a reminder of how much I’ve missed the old Sam. Having said that, as much as I loved that scene, it’s NOT the number 10 on this list. As far as CG heavy action sequences go, I’d have to say Spider-Man 2′s subway sequence is the best of the entire trilogy.
I love the use of space around the fast-moving elevated cars as a platform for Raimi to exploit the powers of Spidey and Doc Ock. It’s almost dizzying watching the two battle it out standing upright on the side of the car, flipping the axis of the scene and thus adding an whole new dimension. I especially love Doc Ock slamming Spider-Man through the car windows.
The problem when you get two somewhat balanced super-power’s fighting it out is the lack of a threat. Things can get boring pretty quickly. Thankfully, a subway car full of innocent bystander’s provides some good collateral damage. Spidey spends most of his time catching flying bodies in giant make-shift web-based safety nets, all the while holding Doc Ock at bay. Pretty intense. Not to mention his final self-sacrificial human-train-brake stunt. All in all a good time and a creative use of CG.
9. King Kong – Dino-Chase
Although I wasn’t a HUGE fan of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, I must admit his Spielberg-ian ‘dino-chase’ set piece was pretty intense. (If this was a top 20, Jurassic Park: Lost World would’ve made my list.) I just love how ridiculously out of control things get when the Bronto’s clumsily stumble over eachother. Sure the compositing may have been a little sketchy, but the image itself was pretty stunning.
Then we’re stuck in a narrow cavernous pit as T-Rex’s hang from vines, just out of reach of Ann Darrow. This scene had me smiling simply due to the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ nature of it all. The second things seem to be looking up, the situation just gets worse and worse. I specifically remember the audience in the theatre responding strongly to Jackson’s disgusting, giant insects. Definitely one of the creepier uses of computer generated creatures.
8. United 93 – Storming the Cockpit
I suppose it’s debatable whether or not this sequence belongs on an ‘action’ list (possibly even a bit disrespectful?), but there’s no deying that the final 15 minutes of Paul Greengrass’ ‘United 93′ (My number 1 film of 2006) was one of this decades most intense, visceral, and overall stressful moments in cinema. An impressive feat considering we all know how it was going to end.
People are pretty down on the ‘shakey cam’ action, but I think it’s a tool that, when used appropriately, can be quite powerful. This particular scene benefitted greatly from the verite approach. The sloppiness of this scene is one of the more positively frustrating things I’ve seen on film. Watching this group of people attempt to breach the cockpit as the entire plane is banked left and right is almost unbearable. I still can’t believe the level of immersion Greengrass achieved with this scene. One notable element is the music, which relies on a slow aching build rather than a typically percussion-heavy approach. How people can write this film off as ‘boring’ blows my mind.
7. Oldboy – Hallway Fight
Speaking of sloppy fights, I was especially surprised to see such an ungracious action sequence in an Asian film. (Is that racist?) I think the hallway fight scene in Oldboy was the most memorable moment for me. (Even beating out the live Octupus!) I love the complete aversion to cutting and shakiness, instead relying on a simple dolly movement to allow you to completely analyze the action. Also, the side-scrolling video game imagery is pretty cool. I just love the desperation of the scene.
6. Eastern Promises – Naked Knife Fight
The approach is simple and effective. A knife fight in a bath house. The catch? A naked Viggo Mortensen. The power of this scene is in its simplicity, relying on pure hand to hand combat with a twist. Putting the ‘hero’ in such a vulnerable setting triples the threat and helps the audience sense every swing of the knife blade, wincing twice has hard every time the blade makes contact. Not only is it physically intimidating, but the idea of 1. wrestling with a naked man covered in blood, and 2. defending yourself form a knife wielding Russian in the nude, are equally unimaginable and disgusting. It works from both points of view. To top it off, Cronenberg manages to find some wonderfully brutal ways to put an end to the whole sha-bang. A great scene.
5. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring – Troll Fight
Although Jackson’s giant battle sequences didn’t do much for me, I do remember really reacting to the Troll Fight in the first film. In fact, it may be the only part of the trilogy I really remember. I think what made this scene work for me was the choice to drop the score. The sound design sells the entire scene. Looking back on it now the CG effects do feel a touch dated, but the man-in-suit Goblins are still pretty creepy. I don’t think the remaining films of the trilogy ever captured such a viscerally compelling action sequence. I love the shaft of light in the middle of the room.
4. Bourne Ultimatum
Rather than focusing on actual sequences, I’d like to point out two specific moments in The Bourne Ultimatum that sent shivers up my spine. The first; Matt Damon jumping from one building through the window of an opposite building. A pretty standard move that is made thrilling by the camera weilding stuntman that follows right behind him! What a great shot. This is what I mean when I talk about wanting to feel as though the camera man is right there, face first in the shit. The fact that they did it practically makes it all the more awesome.
Second is the ‘desperate measures’ taken by Bourne whenever he’s in a pinch. This guy will do whatever it takes, no matter how bruised and battered the resulting actions will leave him. In this case, he drives full speed in reverse off the top of a parking garage. I love the fact that it’s not pretty, and definitely not graceful. He does what he has to do and doesn’t give a fuck if it looks like ballet. GO BOURNE!
3. Kill Bill – Crazy 88′s
The next two choices are both Tarantino films. Odd, considering that in the 90′s, he was simply known as the guy who can write great dialogue.
The body count goes through the roof as Uma Thurman cuts her way through the Crazy 88′s in a carefully choreographed sequence that reminds me how it can be to watch carefully choreographed action unfold under controlled, cinematic conditions. Robert Richardson’s trademark spot-lit overhead key lights add a fantastic glow to everything, and Tarantino’s knack for combining music with imagery (in this case, the 5,6,7,8′s) really shines through here. I’m excited to see the uncut version, sans black & white. I have a strange love/hate relationship with kung fu. I’m not a fan of wire work, but it seems the sloppier it is, the more I dig it. In this case, Tarantino seemed to be challenging the Shaw Brothers kung fu films of the 1970′s. There’s no concern for realism. In fact, the opposite holds true. This fight is meant to be pure cinema. Blood spraying as a representation of death rather then a realistic portrayal of it.
2. Death Proof – Car Chase
Although I loved the entire film, even hater’s have to admit the two major action set pieces in Tarantino’s Death Proof are amazing. The final 30 minutes of the film are essentially built as a tribute to stunt drivers and the road films of the 70′s, showcasing Zoe Bell as a new female talent in the industry. Tarantino manages to capture every possible cool angle throughout this chase, and does proudly without any CG. (Maybe some wire removal?) Everything is shot low to the ground as the road blurs by, tipping you off as to how fast they really are going. It’s a lengthy sequence that ends with a surprising twist, and a definite return to form for Kurt Russel. If only Neil Marshall’s ‘Doomsday’ took this similar approach to it’s car sequences.
1. Children of Men – The Long Take
Here is the perfect example of how to use CG in an action scene; invisibly.
As with the previously mentioned hallway scene in Oldboy, Alfonso Cuaron seems to be inspired by the first person immersion of video games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honour, choosing to play out his two major action sequences in long, single takes. (with hidden cuts of course) The goal, of course, is to simulate the look and feel of war journalism. Mission accomplished. The final scene of the film plays out like a Universal Studios ride. (minus the creepy mechanical E.T. saying your name as you exit) Blood splatters onto the lens, explosions shoot dust and debris everywhere, characters cross paths only to lose each other and eventually meet up again in different locations. Watching Clive Owen traverse the battle field is probably the closest I’ll get to experiencing the thrill of paint ball. Or war I suppose. Nah, paintball.