Judge them not by their words but by their action
August 13, 2019 2:05 AM   Subscribe

Regardless of how one feels about filmed violence, there's no denying action movies are the lifeblood of popular cinema. With it being a year ending in a nine, Jonah Jeng, writing for the Mubi Notebook, gets an early start on remembering the decade by looking back at the best action scenes from around the world. His selections aren't ranked but looked at in depth, covering shots, cuts, and a little about the bodies of work from those involved. Part 1 Part 2
posted by gusottertrout (25 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
I like action movies and I like reading about film and movies. This was a satisfying, and satisfyingly 'nerdy' look at some great action scenes. (unfortunately some scenes were geo-blocked but I'd already seen them. But still, in context, I would have liked to see them again.)
posted by From Bklyn at 4:00 AM on August 13


If it weren't limited to film, I'd add some of the scenes from Daredevil.
posted by jzb at 4:25 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]


Compared to the Asian blockbusters that comprise the majority of the previous section, most American superhero films—which, at this point, have become almost synonymous with “American blockbuster cinema” writ large—look flat-footed and drab. Color palettes often remain within the narrow spectrum between blue and gray, and the action has a tendency to favor large-scale CG destruction and rapid, obscurantist editing.

I like the MCU films mostly but their hand-to-hand fight scenes have been consistently disappointing. As jzb mentioned, Daredevil had some great fight choreography so I don't know why Marvel's film division can't ever seem to hire anyone who knows how to stage and edit a fight scene.

Not just to pick on Marvel, Nolan's Batman films had some of the worst fight scenes in recent history.
posted by octothorpe at 5:07 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


I was stopped by this:
the z-axis of filmic space
which the author seems to be using to mean depth, not its standard meaning of vertical dimension. Is this accepted usage in film circles?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:18 AM on August 13


Is this accepted usage in film circles?

It is in filmic circles, perhaps
posted by thelonius at 5:23 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


Sorry about the geoblocking. I'd hoped Mubi would have been on that since a lot of their users are from outside the US.

which the author seems to be using to mean depth, not its standard meaning of vertical dimension.

It is used with some frequency to describe camera movement that goes forward into the screen depth or pulls back from depth, as with a zoom, to differentiate from other camera movements. It's kinda unsatisfactory, especially for an article like this, but that's how it goes with lingo sometimes.
Here's a bit more on it.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:38 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


Not just to pick on Marvel, Nolan's Batman films had some of the worst fight scenes in recent history.

There was a nice video piece about that somewhere, breaking down the incoherence of the chase scenes.

The Geo-blocked scene I most wanted to re-watch was for Soderberg’s Haywire. Soderberg’s films are pretty much always satisfying on some levels, if not all all at once. Haywire is a nice example of this, where he puts together a generic ‘rogue warrior with a code of gold’ movie that is flimsy but in the telling still good. Like listening to a really good actor perform a bad song, poorly. You can see all this ability shining through the failure.
Also Gina Carano as great as the super-warrior. And Euan McGregor meets a very satisfactory end. Actually all the baddies do.

The lack of blood in “The Final Master” clip (there was some but only some) was noteworthy - not that there has to “Kill Bill” levels but it seemed especially restrained. Which was curious - also I wondered what the guy on the back of the bike, with the curved knives, said because that seemed relevant. Also also the ‘kill-stroke’ in any of those confrontations seemed so obtuse as to be invisible and (even if not announced by fountains of blood) was thus unsatisfactory: made me think of “Seven Samurai” where it happens lightening quick but you can see that it has happened...
posted by From Bklyn at 6:10 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


Some very good stuff in this 2 part essay. I'm glad my favourites are mentioned (which I've championed here before):
[Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)] is a pseudo-Lynchian fever dream of bestial masculinity and unraveling psyches starring Adkins as the grief-stricken hero seeking the man who murdered his family (the first and even better sequel, Universal Soldier: Regeneration [2009], is also tonally subversive and would have made it onto this list had it been released a year later).
They are far better then schlocky pedigree would suggest.
posted by Ashwagandha at 6:28 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]


I don't see Haywire as any kind of "failure". The action scenes are amazing, and should be studied for style and choreography by the many tedious lingering adherents of the shakycam. Haywire, like the Astaire & Rogers musicals, stands back and really shows off the deft and powerful physical work.

Also, even though I own Haywire already, whenever someone puts a clip of it online I have to watch it! ♥ YESSSS TWIST CHARMING POTATO INTO A PRETZEL, SMASH MICHAEL FASSBENDER'S FACE
posted by theatro at 6:39 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]


Is this accepted usage in film circles?
That's true in computer graphics at least: the x denotes width, y denotes height and the z represents depth.
posted by elgilito at 7:36 AM on August 13 [4 favorites]


Gina Carano as great as the super-warrior. And Euan McGregor meets a very satisfactory end. Actually all the baddies do

I just recently rewatched her smashing around pretty boy Fassbender. Very satisfying.
posted by praemunire at 8:12 AM on August 13


The article is very clear about singling out sequences over entire bodies and that is the only way that Civil War's staircase sequence can be considered better than Winter Soldier as a gestalt, but Winter Soldier has the Lemurian Star takedown, the Fury car chase, the hallway rooftop chase, the elevator smackdown, the overpass fight and the aerial finale meaning that in aggregate, Winter Soldier is clearly superior.
posted by Molesome at 8:51 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


With it being a year ending in a nine,

that means I've entered another decade (ie: just turned sixty), so ignore what I'm about to say as just the pre-senile mutterings of an old, if you wish.

What I'm about to say is that I Now Officially Find Action Sequences Fucking Boring. Yes, even the brilliantly conceived and choreographed (and curated) selections on offer here. I suppose it goes back to 1992 or thereabouts, catching John Woo's Hard Boiled in a local film festival, being gobsmacked by the fabulous and chaotically precise ballet of the opening scene at the teahouse, and onward from there. I seem to remember championing Hard Boiled a fair bit. I'd link to something, but those were pre-internet days for me.

But where do you go from there, beyond MORE? Which is what I've been seeing ever since, so much so that I eventually found myself starting to just fast-forward through action sequences (chases, fights etc) because 99 times out of a hundred, nothing happened (narrative wise) in the three or five or seven minutes that couldn't have been resolved in a few seconds. That is, a cavalcade of flash and bother (increasingly super duper heroes and villains delivering and enduring increasingly super duper punishments) that usually had nothing to do with anything beyond offering we, the mob, a bit of the ole ultraviolence. Eventually, some people would be dead (or otherwise incapacitated) and some wouldn't, and the actual story could get moving again. And sometimes it was a pretty cool story (ie: well written), a fascinating mystery, an engrossing drama, a tightly wound exercise in suspense ... but fuck it, this finely tuned narrative tension was just getting parked for a few minutes so we could have some ballet.

Or a song, because that's what these sequences have become for me. Akin to song breaks in musicals. Everything stops and Julie Andrews shows off her pipes for three or five minutes, and then back at it. I've always hated these sort of musicals, even as a little kid. Actually, Julie Andrews is a bad example, I realize, certainly in the context of Mary Poppins, because there's a musical where the songs actually advance the story, they hop on board the narrative and take it somewhere relevant, a place it couldn't have gone without the song. Which is all I'm really asking, I guess, of this action shit. That it serve the story and not distract from it. That it doesn't suddenly show a character I'm supposed to be thinking of as an at least slightly normal, mortal human pulling off positively immortal moves.

But what do I know? I'm just a writer. And old.
posted by philip-random at 8:57 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]


which the author seems to be using to mean depth, not its standard meaning of vertical dimension. Is this accepted usage in film circles?

In both video games and film, you're dealing with images displayed on a 2D space; since the choice of reference frame is arbitrary anyway, it's convenient to assign x and y to the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the display. That leaves z as the natural choice for the axis that runs perpendicular to the display plane.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:10 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


a cavalcade of flash and bother (increasingly super duper heroes and villains delivering and enduring increasingly super duper punishments) that usually had nothing to do with anything beyond offering we, the mob, a bit of the ole ultraviolence.

I don't necessarily disagree, but this criticism of action is perennial, and maybe even essential to the genre. Essential because every 5 or 10 years there seems to be a wave of minimalist-oriented directors who react to that impression and put out a tight 90 minute movie that gets praised for its narrow scope and visceral violence.
posted by Think_Long at 9:14 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


That is, a cavalcade of flash and bother (increasingly super duper heroes and villains delivering and enduring increasingly super duper punishments) that usually had nothing to do with anything beyond offering we, the mob, a bit of the ole ultraviolence.

I really hate to say this, but Bryan Singer, or whoever did Bryan Singer's fight choreography, is almost the only director who understood that superpowers should mean brilliantly weird fights, not Super Punching. The fights in X2 are great. I mean, fuck that guy, really (if there is someone on the crew I can give credit to instead, I'd love to), but there it is. Most of the MCU proper is just arbitrary punch inflicting arbitrary damage on a dude who can take arbitrary damage, and thus is very dull. Cap does okay because the shield seems to inspire people, but most of the fights vs. Thanos in particular...ugh.

On the other hand, the opening credits fight sequence in GotG2 is actually both charming and a good intro to the characters for those of us who didn't see the first movie.
posted by praemunire at 9:20 AM on August 13 [5 favorites]


Or a song, because that's what these sequences have become for me. Akin to song breaks in musicals.

Also, I should say...criticizing a genre for having genre conventions is a bit beside the point. Totally fair to not enjoy the particular conventions, or to think they're badly executed in any given case, but...genre gonna genre. Complaining about the existence of fight scenes in action movies truly is the equivalent of complaining about people bursting into song in musicals, or taking ten minutes to sing a strenuous aria before expiring in an opera.
posted by praemunire at 9:25 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


I like the MCU films mostly but their hand-to-hand fight scenes have been consistently disappointing.

I think a large portion of this stems from actors that aren't martial artists. When you're filming people who have trained to throw punches and kicks for as long as they've been walking it lets you pull back and use wider shots with fewer cuts. An actor who might be athletic and has trained extensively for the scene will still look awkward and weird if the scene is shot the same way.
posted by VTX at 9:41 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


But where do you go from there, beyond MORE?

I feel like the Die Hard sequels are this in a perfect microcosm. You start with John McClane walking across broken glass and climbing through air vents, then somehow that ends up with him dodging F-35 fighter jets and ducking just so under 18 wheelers that are flying through the air from explosions.

Which isn't to say that there's no place in the world of film for over-the-top action, but the type of action needs to suit the film and the characters. It's one thing to have Spider-Man do the duck-the-flying-18-wheeler thing, because hyper-agility is his whole deal on account of the radioactive spider business, but when you have normal-ass humans doing it that's just pure indulgence and it's boring.

Or a song, because that's what these sequences have become for me.

This is why Cowboy Bebop rules. If the action isn't doing it for you, you can just close your eyes and enjoy some cool jazz music.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:58 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]


Now that I've got around to reading the articles, I'm really glad that they immediately juxtapose The Raid against Baahubali. The clips from the latter are a perfect illustration of what I would consider good over-the-top action, where the whole film is taking place in this sort of fantastic space where wild nonsense like leaping in the air while firing arrows three at a time is a totally reasonable thing to do. (In other words, I think I need to find out how to watch those movies streaming in the US.)
posted by tobascodagama at 11:14 AM on August 13 [4 favorites]


I love how they shoot off three arrows at a time but their quivers never run out. It's the Indian epic fantasy version of John Woo's guns with arbitrary amounts of ammunition.
posted by hyperbolic at 3:39 PM on August 13 [2 favorites]


It's not arbitrary. The magazines are bottomless until the doves show up, after which everyone has to switch to another bottomless magazine.
posted by tobascodagama at 5:14 PM on August 13 [3 favorites]


Man, this place is getting lazy. A "best of" list and almost no push back with "your favorite action scene sucks here's a better one". What's happened to the Metafilter I once knew? Heh.

The articles highlight a lot of interesting scenes, but the author's take is kinda narrow, favoring as it does certain film and fight choreography techniques, which is a given any time someone writing about movies drops terms like "z-axis" into their piece. Nothing wrong with that and it can help draw attention to aspects of movie making that might get neglected, but it isn't everything and enjoying a scene for other reasons can be fine too.


(In other words, I think I need to find out how to watch those movies streaming in the US.)

If you liked those scenes, you won't be disappointed by the movies as the scenes only hint at how extravagant and inventive the rest is, to some purpose as well. Also might want to check out Eega from the same director to see some excellent housefly vs evil human bad guy action. (There's Fanfare threads on all three.)
posted by gusottertrout at 12:47 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


God dammit I was trying to get some work done today
posted by gottabefunky at 11:50 AM on August 14


The knife fight from Kill Zone is pretty amazing. (And at least partially improvised from what I understand.)
posted by gottabefunky at 11:52 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


« Older Bought on a whim, for a song.   |   'You always needed to explain to her why something... Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.