How to Make a Good Action MovieStyle, substance, structure.
“If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.”
Yesterday I entertained the idea of getting back into martial arts.
I was inspired by the breathtaking “gun foo” of John Wick: Chapter 2, about a hitman forced to return to the business. As Ebert’s Angelica Bastien playfully puts it, “Cinema was created so Keanu Reeves could wear a fine black suit and slice through people with the same grace as Fred Astaire.”
The past few years have revitalized action films. Three films in particular have moved me to a greater appreciation of the genre: 2014’s John Wick (and its sequel); 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road; and summer 2017’s heist hit, Baby Driver. I left each screening with a stupid grin on my face, shaking with excitement and impressed by the craft.
But why, exactly? What makes an action film good?
It’s a question I’m still exploring, but I wanted to share three trends I’ve observed so far.
Like its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a visual feast. Director Chad Stahelski paints his world of assassins in exaggerated colors, from the sumptuous reds of The Continental to the blues and greens of slick nighttime streets:
George Miller’s Fury Road began its life as a series of 3500 storyboards, a testament to the ability of images to sustain a high-octane chase through the desert for two hours:
Edgar Wright borrows from music videos for Baby Driver, creating an extraordinary synchronization of sound and image that kicks every getaway into high gear:
Essentially, all three movies are distinguished by cinematography and soundscapes bursting with personality, reflective of the unique environments and characters who inhabit them.
It’s worth noting that the filmmakers chose practical effects over CGI wherever possible, rooting events in the real world.
For example, many of the stunts in Fury Road were actually performed. In John Wick: Chapter 2, “It was a 60/40 split [between practical and digital effects,]” Stahelski said. Since the shoot was just 50 days long, this required an immense amount of coordination. “You’re never going to break the mold, you’re never going to do something better, if you’re struggling to get it done,” he summarized. “The better I have my shit together, and the DP’s got his shit together, the more time [the actors] get to nail it. We’re protecting our on-camera team, who get in more time. That’s what prep does for you.”
Similarly, the action scenes in Baby Driver were meticulously planned. They were shot practically – and single camera. In the words of stunt coordinator and John Wick veteran Darrin Prescott, “If the action is good, there’s no reason to cut around it.” Specific shots were designed for each action beat, much as in Fury Road.
Such precision yields clear scene geography. Instead of mindlessly shaking the camera to contrive tension – often a crutch that disguises lazy, uninspired coverage – all three films clearly show what happens, where, and when. Consequently, the audience can follow the action and grasp the stakes.
When Wick is pinned down by enemy gunfire, for example, we grasp his predicament. When Furiosa improvises her way out of a tight spot, we understand her solution. When Baby out-drives the cops, we admire his skills. The clarity ups our investment in the characters and what happens to them; we become more empathetic.
Reflecting on studios’ obsession with CGI and the lack of spatial clarity in lesser action films, Wright observed that “action sort of tends to get bigger and bigger to sort of like fulfill this need to top the last thing… But I think there’s sort of real visceral pleasures to watching a somewhat realistic car chase.”
John Wick, Fury Road, and Baby Driver are sweet, stylized shots of adrenaline, but they’re grounded. They resist the temptation “to get bigger and bigger” for the sake of it. Instead, the physics make sense, the spatial relationships make sense, and the action itself is clear and comprehensible. They prioritize story over spectacle, and the end results are supremely satisfying.
As fun as they are, top action films in recent days strive to say more with their screentime.
John Wick is about identity, as anyone who saw Chapter 2 will recall, thanks especially to the epic Hall of Mirrors scene. Is John Wick John the grieving husband or Wick the assassin? By giving a lot of the narrative weight to Furiosa, Fury Road’s story of revolution and redemption delivers an empowerment message, suggesting that “women, as the creators of new life, will, inherently, always be the gender that holds hardest onto hope for the future.” Meanwhile, Baby Driver is about a young man who just wants to lead a normal life and protect the people he loves.
All three films feature characters we understand, wrestling with questions we confront ourselves in everyday life. Said differently, the action is built on a solid thematic foundation, lending each story an urgency and importance that elevates it beyond sensory thrills.
Both style and substance embrace the power of structure. We explored this some time ago in our breakdown of John Wick, which, we discovered, follows a traditional Three Act structure. The pacing is tight and kinetic, with an explosive forward momentum from first to final act. There are no wasted beats – or wasted lines.
It’s interesting to observe that protagonists in each of these three films are fairly taciturn. By and large, they express more with their physicality, expressions, and mannerisms than they do with dialogue. For example, “the way they fight speaks for them,” Bastien says of John Wick’s characters. “When Ares gets her showdown with Wick, she’s scrappy and unhinged, like a starved lioness released onto an unsuspecting public. Cassian is more openly brutal and forceful. He’s more simplistic than Wick in his fighting choices but nearly as deadly… Then, of course, there is Reeves. His body tells an entire story all its own, even in subdued moments. A glare or half-hearted smile communicates more history than many actors do with a monologue.”
“If it’s a good movie,” Hitchcock once said, “the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.” It’s a principle that Stahelski, Miller, and Wright – as visually-oriented action directors – put into practice.
Many action films are built around their set pieces. I first noticed this years ago while watching James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day – the LA River chase, the siege of Cyberdyne laboratory, the showdown at the molten lava factory… They’re locations that host scenes we remember. The same is true in recent days. There’s the aforementioned Hall of Mirrors hunt in John Wick: Chapter 2. The War Rig in Fury Road is unforgettable. And in Baby Driver, I keep thinking about Bo’s Diner, an oasis from Baby’s life of crime.
Imagine mapping out an action film’s structure on index cards, with a unique color for each set piece. It’s a productive way to chart the progression of the plot and get a sense of the film’s forward momentum. How many showdowns are there? What happens around each set piece, and how do the stakes escalate from beat to beat? Is the pacing tight enough?
Never underestimate the power of structure to keep an action film on track, friends. It provides an excellent frame of reference for how to keep the story moving!
To summarize, a good action film has a unique style, with grounded action that clearly communicates the story. It has substance, helping to win an audience’s intellectual and emotional investment. And it often follows the dictates of traditional story structure, leveraging them to achieve tight, kinetic pacing.
What do you think? Have you noticed other trends in good action films? I’d love to hear your perspective in the comments below!
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