C'MON HOLLYWOOD: Stop screwing up fight scenes!
As far back as I can remember, I’ve been an action movie junkie. Having been born in ’81, as a child, I was exposed to the heyday of action Gods like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford. Every time one of those guys came out with a new flick, I devoured it and watched it over and over. As a child, I all but wore out my VHS copies of COMMANDO, the RAMBO trilogy, TERMINATOR 1 & 2, TOTAL RECALL, the DIE HARDs, DEMOLITION MAN, CLIFFHANGER and all three (at the time) INDIANA JONES movies. And don’t even get me started on the Bonds (my Bond-mania has been covered in other columns).
Heck, I even liked bad action movies. My father and I used to have a Saturday evening ritual where, at 9:30pm (after DREAM ON- points to whoever remembers that) TMN (the Canadian equivalent to HBO) would show the latest B-action flick, which we would watch together. When we were lucky, we would get a solid Steven Seagal, Jean Claude Van Damme, or Brandon Lee (RAPID FIRE was a particular favorite) punch-up. When we weren’t so lucky, it was a grade-Z flick from Lorenzo Lamas, or Jeff Wincott, although occasionally there would be gems like the Thomas Ian Griffith actioner EXCESSIVE FORCE.
The thing is, even when these movies were bad, and usually they were to some degree, they would be fun and would at least deliver a few solidly staged fights; which you’d find in even the shithouse action flicks produced by Jalal Merhi, or PM Entertainment.
Nowadays, the action flick, or specifically the martial arts flick, seems to be a lost art. Over the last decade, the pickings have been rather slim. The only really good martial arts flicks come from Asian masters like Donnie Yen, or Wu Jing. Of all the action flicks I’ve seen in the last year, the only North American films that I can think of that had a REALLY solid mano-a-mano fights were two DTV flicks, UNDISPUTED 3 and BLOOD AND BONE.
On the big screen, the only guy that makes real old-school action flicks is Jason Statham, but the fight scenes in his last few films have been incredibly weak. This isn’t a knock on Statham, who’s a fantastic fighter onscreen, but rather the directors that mangle his fights with a lot of quick-cutting and close-ups, which make them all but impossible to discern.
Which brings me to why the so-called “fight flick” is a lost art: no mainstream directors seem to know how to shoot fights anymore. The culprit for this is THE BOURNE IDENTITY, which no one can deny is probably the most influential action film of our generation. All three BOURNE films were superb and the way the fights were staged was very creative, with them being shot in close-up and cut in a way that made the audience feel they were right in the middle of the fight scene. In these films, this worked beautifully, but the success of this series assured that a whole generation of rising studio execs and directors assumed this was the only way to shoot action, which it certainly is not.
Nowadays the BOURNE fight technique is showing up in every action film. I don’t have a problem when this technique is used in a film like TAKEN, where the star (in that case 58-year old Liam Neeson) is a proper actor, and not a trained martial artist. I was even OK with it in the latest Bond films, although I thought they went too far with it in QUANTUM OF SOLACE (CASINO ROYALE had a good balance). My issue is when these types of fights show up in movies like THE MECHANIC, where you have an expert martial artist like Jason Statham in the lead, yet you can’t see the moves that he’s using.
Now, instead of being impressed by the actual physical skill on display, we have to satisfy ourselves with watching the same damn style of fight scene over and over. In many ways, this reminds me of the first half of the 00’s, when every action film tried to ape the gravity-defying action sequences in THE MATRIX. Luckily that trend came to a merciful end and hopefully we’ll get some old school throw-downs back on screen before long.
For me, there are two upcoming action films that I have a lot of hope for. The first is MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL. Supposedly, Tom Cruise is keen on throwing in a lot of hand-to-hand action with several epic fights supposedly on tap. My hope is that director Brad Bird, a director who I think deserves a lot of our confidence (after his great work in animation), and will put a lot of work into making the fights feel different from those in the BOURNE films.
The other action flick I have high hopes for is the next Bond film. I think producer Michael G. Wilson’s a smart guy, and I’ve heard that even he feels they went too far cloning the BOURNE films in QUANTUM, and hopefully, along with Sam Mendes (not my first choice for an action flick, but a damn good director), some major effort will be put into giving the Bond action scenes a totally different flavor.
Time will tell…