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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The essence of action movies

image“All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.”

It’s a tried and trusted formula from French master of the thriller, Jean-Luc Godard.  Well, that’s all very well, but what do you do with them once you’ve got them? They can’t just stand around talking. Well, they can, but then you end up with a dreary existentialist monologue, and that may work as an arthouse film, but it’s not an action movie.

In the 1930s and 40s, before the advent of TV, movie serials were a popular format. They were often very short episodes, sometimes as little as ten minutes, and had to hook people fast, and deliver excitement, thrills and action relentlessly week after week. Director William Witney summed up the genre succinctly. “In a door, into a fight. Out a door, into a chase.” That’s the essence of the action film. It’s a chase punctuated by fights.

It’s basically the same formula Raymond Chandler used when writing his classic pulp novels.

“If you’re stuck, have someone burst into the room with a gun.”

The trick is to keep the audience’s attention by making the fights and chases not just exciting but meaningful. They have to be interested in what’s happening on the screen,  and they also have to care about the outcome. Those aren’t the same thing at all. Some modern audiences seem to be conditioned by games to expect fight scenes to consist of hordes of mindless enemies to be mowed down almost with impunity, and that’s what a lot of blockbuster action films deliver.

To make an exciting action scene requires interesting choreography, strong camerawork, tight editing and, of course, great sound. Snappy dialogue can help, but isn’t essential. Shooting effective action is a whole topic of its own, and I’m going to leave that for another day.

However, none of that matters if the audience doesn’t care about who’s going to win, or what would happen if they don’t. You need to set up your action scenes carefully beforehand and put them into some kind of context so that the audience has something to relate to. Even the best filmed action scenes are unengaging if the audience doesn’t have an emotional investment in it. Who is fighting? Why are they fighting? What are they trying to achieve? What are the consequences if they fail? And, perhaps most importantly, whose side is the audience supposed to be on? That has to be carried by your dialogue.

You’ve basically got three types of dialogue you need to include.

First, you have simple exposition to explain what’s going on. Keep this short and to the point. The audience doesn’t want a long-winded conversation setting up the back story. They just need enough so that it makes sense. If your hero is breaking into a mansion to retrieve a stolen jewel, that’s the key plot point to get over. Add in enough extra to make your villain slightly less one-dimensional, and get to the action. If you’re going to add twists to it that depend on the back story, tell more as you go.

Second, there’s dialogue to convey character.  You need just enough to let the audience form their own impression of the characters and their relationship. This is one reason why terse, laconic action heroes work so well. They don’t talk much, but when they do, it carries weight. If you’re going to add in the usual element of the hard-bitten hero falling for the damsel in distress, just have him change the tone of his remarks to her. You don’t need him to talk about his feelings in detail.

And lastly, dialogue is used to change pace. After an intense action scene, slow it down while they talk. Let the audience catch their breath and digest the implications of what just happened.

imageWell-written dialogue does all of these simultaneously and maintains the balance between action and talking. There’s a perfect example in Raiders of the Lost Ark. After their escape from Egypt on the boat, Indy gets his arm bandaged by Marion. He complains that she’s hurting him, and points to his elbow as the only but that doesn’t hurt, so she kisses him there, which then develops into a full-on kiss.  In about 90 seconds, we’ve had the setup for the next part of the plot, seen the relationship between the two protagonists develop, and then it’s right into the next action sequence where the Nazi submarine arrives and Indy has to elude them.

Or, as William Witney might have put it, out of the door and into a chase.

(0) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland



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