Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

What makes a great action scene?

with 2 comments

For most of this week, anyone passing by my house would have seen a bright rectangular glow in the living room window, as the new Blu-ray of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol played in a nonstop loop. While it doesn’t have the same visceral power as it did in IMAX, this is still a fun, expertly assembled action movie, the perfect sort of thing to have playing in the background while I’m working on other projects. Even after seeing it three or four times, however, I still have to drop everything and watch whenever the big scene in the Burj Khalifa comes up. I may not get as dizzy as I did when I first saw it, but even on the small screen, it’s still wonderfully exciting—and all the more terrifying when you know how it was actually filmed. (Incidentally, as much as I hate this sort of corporate extortion, it’s worth shelling out the extra money for the Best Buy exclusive edition, which contains some great bonus features that aren’t included in the version available on Amazon.)

In fact, I’d say that the Burj Khalifa climb in Ghost Protocol is my favorite action sequence of the past five years, on a short list that includes the Guggenheim shootout in The International and the opening chase scene in Drive. At first glance, these three scenes might not seem to have much in common—one is a death-defying ballet staged one hundred and thirty stories above the ground; one is lunatic, extended gunplay; and the last is the car chase as chess game—but they’re all executed with something of the same spirit, and it’s worth drilling down to figure out why they affect us so deeply. There’s something hugely pleasurable about these scenes that goes beyond their immediate impact, and which sets them apart, in my mind, even from such landmark sequences as the hallway fight in Inception, which I love, but find somewhat less interesting from a writer’s point of view. Because what the three scenes I’ve mentioned have in common is that they were all written first.

Here’s what I mean. Many action scenes, particularly car chases, come off as assemblages of second unit footage that have been pieced together in the editing room, and as a result, there’s something monotonous about the relentless similarity of action—just see any Michael Bay movie for an example. The action sequences in these three films, by contrast, were conceived on the printed page. They have a clear beginning, middle, and end. They make memorable use of their locations. They have small setups, payoffs, and surprises along the way, as when Ethan Hunt throws away his malfunctioning glove and finds it adhering to the side of the building a few stories later. Each is centered on the personality of the characters involved—indeed, each scene unfolds as a sequence of logical choices, which is something you’ll never hear said of Transformers. And these are all things that can only be planned at the screenplay stage.

And while this may seem obvious, it’s worth remembering in light of a movie like The Hunger Games, which has its good points, but to my eyes, despite the strength of its material, doesn’t know how to plan and carry out action. Instead, it relies on editing and camerawork to create the illusion of momentum, when all of this should have been laid out in the script. (Note that none of the three films I’ve mentioned ever use anything resembling a shakycam.) Full credit, then, to writers Eric Singer, Hossein Amini, and the platoon that worked on Ghost Protocol for giving us action scenes we’ll remember, which is something that ought to be celebrated. Because it appeals so shamelessly to our reptile brain, the ability to write a great action scene may never get the respect it deserves, but like any other narrative skill, it benefits from intelligence, ingenuity, and clarity of thought—and all of the editing tricks in the world won’t make up for their absence.

Written by nevalalee

April 26, 2012 at 10:16 am

2 Responses

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  1. Action movies are a mixed bag for me, because while I love the thrill of the tension, I really, really hate chase scenes. They are all over TV and film – Doctor Who even started making jokes about how the characters need fold-up bikes to stop them from running everywhere. I’ve seen so many chases that I just don’t care about people being chased. At all.

    What I do think adds real tension to an action scene is intercutting moments of frenzied action with points of stillness. Writers of screenplays often seem to underrate how effective it can be to dwell on a moment, stretch it out as long as possible, push it a little harder, then finally break the tension. I’ve spent a lot of time working in theatre, and one of the joys of theatre productions is the freedom to do just that, to leave the audience aching while the actors do their thing and act and act until finally one of them snaps and ramps up the tension of the scene even further with the delivery of their next line. Even though the line is scripted, the freedom of sensing tension and stretching it is a real delight. But of course, it has to happen where appropriate. I feel that Hollywood doesn’t quite understand that tension can be created by character and silence as much as it can by incredible stunts and implosive thrills.

    So Drive is an absolutely beautiful film for me because there’s so little dialogue. It’s such a mood piece, but the moods build and then flare up so well. I guess what I think a decent action scene needs more than anything is appropriate pace.

    (Ha… I’m an English Lit postgrad student and I was about to illustrate my point with some casual Shakespeare references before I remembered I’m writing a comment, not an essay… apologies for the formal style.)

    I only just discovered your blog, so I’m going to go and continue avoiding my Shakespeare papers while finding out what you think of The Hunger Games…


    April 26, 2012 at 10:32 am

  2. That’s a great point. Action scenes can really benefit from a moment of quiet—the Victory Motel shootout in L.A. Confidential has a couple of nice examples of this—which is something that tends to be overlooked in movies that are nothing but relentless action.

    Thanks so much for the insightful comment—I hope you’ll stick around!


    April 26, 2012 at 10:42 am

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