Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Hossein Amini

What makes a great action scene?

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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

Drive: Real hero, no backstory

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Well, that was good timing. Only a few days after I posted my manifesto on backstory, we’ve been given a movie that makes my argument better than I ever could: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. While not a perfect film, it’s close to a great one, and it reactivates pleasure receptors in my moviegoing brain that have remained dormant for years. Starting with its wonderfully clever opening chase scene and neon-tinged, electronically pulsating main titles, this is a film that proudly wears its influences on its sleeve: Thief, American Gigolo, To Live and Die in L.A., and any number of great ’80s crime movies fueled by the sounds of Tangerine Dream. (Note to my dad: If you’re reading this post and haven’t seen this movie yet, what are you waiting for? It even has your favorite actor.)

And much of the film’s fascination comes from how little we know about the protagonist. He’s simply called Driver. A few years ago, we’re told, he wandered into a Los Angeles garage, looking for work, and proceeded to become a brilliant stunt driver, mechanic, and wheelman. His blank gaze and difficulty in connecting with others, aside from his neighbor and her young son, hints at some kind of past trauma, but we aren’t told what this was—and we certainly aren’t told how he learned how to drive and, finally, kill so effectively, although stabbing a man in the throat with a curtain rod isn’t the sort of thing that comes without practice. He has fewer lines than any other important character in the film, and the screenplay around him, by Hossein Amini, is so spare as to seem nonexistent, in a good way. (According to the director, the shooting script was only 81 pages long.)

Much of our interest in Driver, of course, comes from the fact that he’s played by Ryan Gosling, and rarely have the gods of casting been on better behavior. Alfred Hitchcock knew that by casting a star, you can throw out the first reel, because a star brings his own aura and history to the part. For a role like this, Gosling is ideal: he’s undoubtedly a star, but also something of an unknown quantity, with a selective filmography and an air of detached reserve. His affect, as my smitten wife likes to point out, is that of a man smiling quietly at a private joke. He isn’t an actor you’d think of as an action star—apparently the role was originally intended for Hugh Jackman—but he embodies the character completely, and leaves you wanting more. Which, of course, the movie is too smart to give you. Any hint of backstory would have ruined the part: the embroidered scorpion on the back of his jacket, with its nod to Mr. Arkadin, tells us all we need to know.

Drive, then, is close to a textbook example of how to make a classic thriller, and I hope future directors and screenwriters study it intently. In the end, though, it falters a bit: what it needs is a closing aria of revenge like the one Michael Mann gave us in Thief, and what Drive provides is a little too schematic and unsatisfying. (For an example of how to do it right, please, please see here.) And yet there’s so much great stuff on display here that it transcends the weakness of its last twenty minutes. My wife will tell you that for most of the first hour, I was alternately grinning and shaking, or both, at watching something like mastery on the screen. Drive will be picked apart and admired by movie lovers for years to come, and its central lesson is clear for us all: you don’t need backstory to be a real hero. Or even, as the song over the closing credits reminds us, a real human being.

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2011 at 8:45 am

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