I love action movies. I think it was John Woo’s Hardboiled that originally hooked me (I saw it on the big screen at a tender age and all previous action was eclipsed … wow!). In this post I’ll try to describe where I find the joy in action.
‘Action’ I define pretty broadly. I include car chases, parkour, martial arts, gun battles, sword fights, space battles, slapstick, even some dance sequences, etc. Anything that means characters are moving under pressure. I can’t recall a still or static action sequence, and I can’t recall a relaxed one either. Typically the action is associated with a decent helping of narrative tension and high stakes.
Here are five ways I find joy in action:
The visceral sense of movement I feel when watching (some) action. There are many examples: Spiderman swinging in the downtown canyons, all the zooming in Star Wars, Ang Lee’s Hulk leaping through the desert, the ‘deadtime‘ moments in The Matrix, Chow Yun-Fat + guns drifting through the air in slow motion, Jackie Chan tumbling through a fight sequence, the trip home in the opening of Paprika. In all these sequences I get an immediate kinetic empathy, I feel the movement in my gut. It’s lovely, direct storytelling.
A pretty primitive joy here (primitive in the same way Conan is primitive). The joy of watching our hero do what only they can do, being spectacular and effective, calling out to us with their commitment and skill. It’s damn satisfying. It’s important to realize that this isn’t always about violently destroying the bad guy. Often it is, like in Oldboy‘s hallway fight or when Aragorn’s killing orcs at the Falls of Rauros. Sometimes it’s gentler, like the pastry spatula fight at the end of A Boy and His Samurai). Sometimes there isn’t any actual bad guy destruction at all: Jackie Chan, Tony Jaa and Charlie Chaplin all offer up ass whupping which is mostly about their amazing physical performance.
Action is a lot like dance and often recognized as such (John Woo’s ‘balletic’ gun battles). This is most obvious in martial arts movies (Drunken Master), but it’s a small step to see the drifting in Initial D as dance, or the racing in The Fast and The Furious, or the dogfights in Star Wars, or the duel on the cliff in The Princess Bride, or the bamboo ‘fight’ in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or the Spiderman/Lizard school fight in The Amazing Spiderman, etc, etc. These sequences seem to welcome the application of the language surrounding dance. It’s easy to talk about choreography, poise, composition, interpretation, grace, tableau, etc when discussing action.
Character Under Fire
In a lot of action we watch the characters we’ve been getting to know have to show, well, character under fire. Action sequences provide an environment of (sometimes ludicrously) heightened stakes and extreme pressure. Sometimes this context is best read at face value (like in the Bourne series or in Arnie‘s action mega-movies), sometimes metaphorically (like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or The Grey). But regardless, our characters are placed in extremity and we get to watch them rise or fall, react gracefully or self-destructively. One of the fun aspects of action is that often we get to watch the character ‘act’ their responses (often through movement – it’s dance!), rather than speak them. Of course, none of this is restricted to action!
I also get a lot of joy out of watching action technically. By this I mean appreciating the construction of the sequences (the choice of shots, when and where the cuts, the rhythms, the storytelling mechanisms, the music, the sound design, performance beats, etc). It’s easy to enjoy the skill and vision required to put the sequences together. A couple of examples where the technique is both very visible and pretty geeky are the 2:40 single take gun battle in Hardboiled and the car scene in Children of Men. But every action sequence offers some degree of technical geekery joy!
A Brief Response to Action as Power Fantasy and/or Catharsis
I mention these two ideas last as they are the kinda typical responses to action. I don’t find either idea particularly interesting and both are pretty limited by their reductionism. The power fantasy idea feels dismissive of the rich experience of watching action. I guess one could frame Ass Whupping as power fantasy but Ass Whupping is more about the joy of effectiveness and realized potential, than vicariously pursuing feelings of power. And this after the very notion interpellates me as dis-empowered! The whole idea kinda pisses me off in the way it frames me and my interaction with the movie. A desire for catharsis is sometimes considered as the root of the attraction to action (or more commonly violence). But to me this suggests another problematic interpellation: I am assumed to harbour violent feelings which require some kind of externally facilitated release. I don’t relate much to that.
Well, there we go – a bunch of ways I find joy in action movies. I hope it offers some ways in ;)