When you examine the films that make the most money at the box office, the movies that are given the highest budgets and highest number of franchises, and seem most popular with audiences, what genre is the most popular? Year after year, the genre that has proven to be most popular and successful is action films. Of the 46 films that have grossed over $1 billion, 33 are action films (the rest mainly being animated or Disney family films). Action cinema has spawned many of cinema’s most iconic franchises: Indiana Jones, Die Hard, Terminator, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Pirates of the Caribbean, Jason Bourne, Mad Max, Mission Impossible, Fast & Furious, Rambo, John Wick, the Matrix, James Bond, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, DC and Marvel comic book films. All of these franchises are fundamentally action films. It has spawned countless iconic stars: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, Mel Gibson, Donnie Yen, Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves, Sylvester Stallone, Chow Yun-Fat, Kurt Russell, Bruce Willis. I could go on.
This begs the question: for something so universally popular and in-demand, why is so much of the action in action movies done so poorly? Why does it feel like mainstream Hollywood action is inferior to even a lot of straight to VOD action and stunt-work nowadays? It is certainly not due to lack of money or lack of talent and effort on behalf of the stunt people. Nonetheless, when you examine mainstream Hollywood films, most action cinema is either lifeless CGI extravaganzas or quickly edited messes filled with shaky cam where you can barely tell what is going on. Is it out of filmmakers’ laziness, or have people just forgotten how to make a great action film?
There are a lot of reasons why action is done poorly. It can be over-edited to the point of being choppy and hard to follow, overly loud to the point of being numbing, improperly paced, hindered by poor visual effects, etc. Most of the time, it is not done out of incompetence on the part of the filmmaker either. The process of making a film is impossibly complex and challenging, and I do not want to belittle the challenges that come with that. Rushed deadlines and production schedules, budgetary restraints, actors contracts, directors lacking training on how to film action, and studio meddling are all common issues that can cause problems when constructing action sequences. For many big-budget productions, the action scenes are done entirely by a second production unit, without even the director or crew’s presence.
You might say I am just nit-picky. As long as what is happening on screen is a cool spectacle, it’s okay, right? The movie can be “just dumb fun?” Well, yes, to an extent that can be true. The spectacle can overcome many flaws, and a lot can be forgiven in an action film, but that is only true if the action itself is compelling. If the action is mediocre, it only serves to accent the other flaws of the film, from poor characterization, clunky pacing, or a bad script. Yet when it is done well, action sequences can be the highlight of the film. They can be a jaw-dropping spectacle, nail-bitingly intense, triumphant, and exciting. It can be among the most visceral filmmaking has to offer, when it is done well. So what separates a great action scene from a mediocre one? I am a tremendous action fan, growing up watching action classics, and the genre is one of the first introductions I had to foreign language cinema. As such, I have watched a ton of action films and thought about what stands out among the best of them. How do masters of action like John McTiernan, Steven Spielberg, Zhang Yimou, George Miller, Christoper McQuarrie, John Woo, Gareth Evans, or James Cameron stand head and shoulders above the rest? I have come up with a list of seven key characteristics that I believe drive exceptional action, so let me break it down for you.
Character Must Drive Action:
This is a vague concept that can be described in several different ways, but it is one of the most important concepts to understand when creating an action sequence. Creating an action film is no different from a story perspective than any other type of story. Every beat and every moment of action must be motivated by the characters and story. To put it another way, a fight or battle is not a time where the story pauses. Instead, the action is a story in itself. It advances the plot, develops the characters arcs, and keeps the story moving. If a piece of action does not do this, it is fluff and will not be as compelling or thrilling as it would if it were vital to the film’s story.
A great action film makes every moment of action of violence necessary to the particular story that it is telling and utilizes the groundwork laid in previous scenes to make the action flow better. When action sequences are used as a technique that a director can tell the story, that causes the audience to become more engrossed in the moment because the most compelling moments in a story usually involve the characters making meaningful choices. In an action sequence, every single decision has life-and-death consequences. If you look at every masterpiece of action filmmaking, this is always the case. For example, take the legendary bank-heist-gone-wrong from Michael Mann’s Heat:
Heat is a long and deliberately paced film, with a running time of 2 hours and 50 minutes, and the heist takes place halfway through the film. One of the most significant reasons why the sequence is so effective is how character-oriented Mann is when it comes to crafting the scene. Before the scene, we have spent a considerable amount of time with these characters, both the thieves and the police squad, to the point that we understand them. We know their personalities, how they act under pressure, and their motivations. We have seen the meticulous planning of the heist and the police’s surveillance and countermeasures. Everything has been set up, and the heist is the payoff.
Every moment from when Val Kilmer’s Chris walks out of the bank to see the police across the street and opens fire is even tenser because of what has been communicated to the audience up until now. We know that Chris is reckless and in it for the thrills, so there is an inevitable dread as he takes more risks in the gunfight, cracking a gleeful smile as he first opens fire. Robert DeNiro’s Vincent has repeatedly preached detachment and professionalism. When he risks his life to help an injured Chris, we know how out of character that is for him, and it drastically racks up the tension. The central heist serves as a significant story beat for all of the characters, where their inner desires and needs are challenged. They are all pushed beyond their limits, and the movie immediately switches from an immaculate and detailed caper to a chaotic attempt at escaping the inevitable consequences of their violence.
Another excellent example of this comes from Ang Lee’s wuxia classic Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. At this point in the story, Jen You (an impetuous nobles daughter played by Zhang Ziyi) has secretly stolen the legendary green sword of destiny. The retired warrior Yu Shu Lein (Michelle Yeoh) has suspected her, but a minor miscalculation leads her to confront Jen, and the fight ensues. The beauty of this scene (apart from the breathtaking cinematography, sweeping wide angles, and precision editing) is how the visual language is used to communicate information about the characters. Without even a single word, the way the scene is shot tells us everything we need to know and show the internal conflict of these characters. We see how Michelle Yeoh’s character is poised and practiced, continually finding holes in Jen’s defenses. Her experience and emotional control are always on display; she is mentally five moves ahead.
Meanwhile, Jen is youthful and angry, using her brute force and the strength of her blade to power through Yu’s attacks. Their character conflict is built into their choreography, and the scene functions as the same sort of conflict between these two personality types as an argument would. Yet for these characters and in this movie, the conflict is expressed wordlessly through a blade’s strikes.
Those two examples get to the core of why character-driven action is essential. Action storytelling is still storytelling, and as such, is (usually) driven and motivated by character. The beats of compelling storytelling, set up and payoff, cause, and effect are identical. The most effective action films will utilize their action scenes to further those characters and that story. When they don’t, they drag on. The action becomes perfunctory. Without characters driving the action, the stakes are lessened. If the characters are not being forced to make crucial decisions, they are not being threatened or facing real difficulties. For a negative example of what not to do, check out the action moments in the dreadful cash-grab sequel A Good Day to Die Hard.
So much of the action within this film drags on with no purpose. Our hero John McClain stumbles through the movie without challenge. He makes no decisions that drive the narrative. That is not to say that having a reactive protagonist is negative; John McClain is a reactive protagonist in the original Die Hard, stuck in a situation he is desperately attempting to escape from. Yet, throughout the narrative of the original, John is continuously pushed to the brink and forced to make difficult decisions and forced to put himself in harm’s way while attempting to save others. The John McClain in this latest sequel is nothing like that. He does not care about anything that happens. He is not invested in the affair, and he makes no decisions. Many of the scenes drag on for an eternity, becoming nothing but white noise and chaos to pad the runtime. There is no challenge, Bruce Willis (in one of his most lackluster efforts from a decade of cashing in paycheck performances without passion) seems to sleepwalk through every moment. Compare this to any scene from Mad Max: Fury Road, where every moment challenges the protagonist’s Max and Furiosa to make difficult choices and sacrifices. It makes the moment all the more exciting and every action scene that utilizes the technique.
Stakes & Consequences:
Another critical element of a successful action scene is stakes. This is the danger! The excitement! The primary story reason why this is important is apparent. The higher the potential consequences for failure, the more the audience will be invested in our character’s successes. In Star Wars, we want Luke Skywalker to blow up the Death Star because if he doesn’t, it will blow up Yavin 4 and the remainder of the Rebellion with it. However, this process is not as simple as it appears. It is not a simple formula where it is a 1-to-1 ratio of increasing stakes, automatically equaling higher audience investment. After all, there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” For example, world-ending stakes can be kind of exhausting. The dreaded “sky beam” end of the world device is the plague of so many superhero films that it has, in the matter of a few years, become a meme and a cliche that numbs the audience to the actual impact of the violence and danger inherent to the action genre.
So how can action films effectively establish stakes and consequences? It begins with one of the simplest mechanics of story: We must understand the characters’ goals. This applies to both the protagonist of the story and the antagonists. We need to know what they are trying to achieve and the consequences of not achieving that. James Cameron’s The Terminator is an excellent example of the power of this. When Arnold Schwarzenegger’s titular cyborg arrives in the present time, he finds a phone book and pulls out the page with all the Sarah Connor’s. He then proceeds to ruthlessly murder the other Sarah’s, which is intercut with the daily life of Sarah Connor. She seems so normal, so naive to the threat that this inhuman killing machine that hunts her. Since we see the superhuman ability and lack of mercy of The Terminator, we immediately know the stakes. One slip up would result in her death. The Terminator doesn’t stop to perform an evil monologue or hesitate in a moment of compassion. He is merciless and will do everything in his power to kill Sarah. The framing of the film, beginning in an apocalyptic hellscape of a future where the ground is littered with bones, communicates clearly what is at stake beyond Sarah’s life. It emphasizes that if she dies, this is the inevitable future.
But the establishing of stakes and consequences can take many forms. It is possible to have them without the possibility of death. In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s cowardly military recruiter Cage becomes trapped in a time loop, like an action movie version of Groundhog Day. No matter how many times he dies, he simply wakes back up again before deploying against the aliens. When you restart the same day over and over again, the threat of death is lessened. However, the film finds a source of tension through the psychological impact it has on the character. He becomes more and more unhinged as the film continues, as he repeatedly dies in increasingly painful ways and sees those he cares about repeatedly slaughtered. The movie establishes its stakes are not his survival, but whether he will escape this purgatory he is trapped in with his sanity intact or if he will be trapped there forever. In Speed, the film establishes its brilliantly efficient premise: there is a bomb on a bus, and it will go off if the bus drops below 55mph. With just a few lines of dialogue (and the delightfully hammy performance of Dennis Hopper), the stakes of the entire film to follow are set. Every small challenge from there on out, every bump in the road, is infused with dread and suspense because of the clear consequences.
It may seem like such a simple concept; after all, every story requires some stakes, and every action has consequences. But it is still possible to do these things poorly, and poorly establishes stakes can hurt the impact of a film. One of the most prolific examples of this is Captain America: Civil War. While directors Joe & Anthony Russo do a solid job of reinforcing stakes and consequences in their other Marvel films, in Civil War, it always felt off to me, particularly in the airport fight, the central set-piece of the film. At the time, it was proclaimed the greatest battle within the superhero canon, but the film undermines its impact. The problem is one of the consequences: from the very outset, the film is determined for the audience to know that the fight does not matter. When the heroes finally come to blows, it is only with repeated side comments from most of the characters that they don’t actually want to hurt each other. While Marvel films are known for their quips and sarcastic one-liners, they are usually done by the heroes in an antagonistic manner towards the villains. When both sides of the conflict are doing it towards each other, in a way that emphasizes their lack of investment in the battle (or as Hawkeye makes sure to ask Black Widow, “we are still going to be friends after this right?”) it undermines any real sense of danger. We know no one will be killed because only one or two people are serious and out for blood.
That is why the climactic fight of the film (where Iron Man realizes that Bucky Barnes was the person who killed his parents and flies off the handle in an attempt to avenge them) is so much more effective because we know there are actual stakes and the heroes are not stopping to reinforce to the audience that the conflict is friendly. Unfortunately, Civil War is not even content to let this moment of dramatic tension sit and be effective because they have to make sure at the end that everyone in the audience knows that the status quo will be returned. Tony and Steve will be friends again in the next film. Unfortunately, there is no room for lingering impact when you have a cinematic universe to maintain and have to play it as safely as possible so as not to alienate even a single member of the massive ticket-buying audience.
Threat & Vulnerability:
This leads to the next important principle for effective action, which overlaps quite a bit with the last one: the hero needs to be vulnerable. There needs to be a credible threat, and we need to understand there is a possibility that they fail, get hurt, or even killed. If you doubt the necessity of this, look no further than two of the greatest action heroes in action cinema: John McClain and Indiana Jones. One of the things that makes Die Hard and Raiders of the Lost Ark so effective is that both heroes are incredibly vulnerable. Both of them are continually getting their ass kicked. They are always outnumbered, outgunned, and on the defensive. They get shot, punched, slammed, etc. in every scene. Both are barely able to walk by the end of their adventure, and they win more fights through cunning and intelligence than they do through brawn, which is part of what makes them so lovable. The audience naturally roots for an underdog, and tension is enhanced when we feel that the character is vulnerable and in danger. One of the many reasons that the later films in those franchises (particularly A Good Day to Die Hard and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) lose the impact of those earlier films is their heroes slowly become invincible and lose that underdog status, as well as any sense of threat. Indiana Jones survives a nuclear blast, and John McClane shrugs off the possibility of radiation poisoning in Chernobyl with a joke in those films. The difference between them and the early films in the franchise is night and day.
This gets to the core of why, psychologically, Jackie Chan’s films are so compelling to watch. If there is one thing that most people know about Jackie Chan, it is that he is a crazy person who does all of his stunts. We know in the back of our minds that he is really in danger, which enhances the power of the breathtaking stunts. Compare this to the biggest action star in the world: Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. While Johnson’s work ethic and screen presence have allowed him to become one of the most bankable stars on the planet, he is notoriously controlling his image in the films he creates. According to The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Johnson employs a team of loyal collaborators to police every element of how he is depicted onscreen, sometimes down to the punch. He has to always give as good as he gets, never lose a fight or get beaten up too badly, etc. The negative impact of this is psychological; the audience begins to associate Dwayne Johnson with an invincible, muscle-bound superman. The majority of the time, there is no vulnerability to his characters, and he effortlessly dispatches most of his enemies. We know that his characters, whether it be in Hobbes and Shaw, Skyscraper, or Central Intelligence, we know that the characters are never in any real danger. This can still be an enjoyable time; don’t get me wrong. But it deflates the potential tension in the action because of the lack of threat.
Meanwhile, Jackie Chan’s characters are always competent and talented but are always getting beaten within an inch of their lives. His stunts are death-defying because the characters are always in real danger. His characters may come out on top, but it is through outlasting his opponents, through his tenacity and toughness that he can triumph in the end. Like Indiana Jones or John McClane, there is an everyman quality to him that makes the audience more invested in the character. They can see themselves more in these grounded characters than, say, The Rock or Arnold Schwarzenneger. There is a reason why I think Arnold’s best roles play more in the action/comedy role (such as Commando, True Lies, or Total Recall) or purposefully use his physique and persona to the film’s advantage. The Terminator uses his insanely muscled appearance and awkward acting to make him into even more of a threatening killing machine as the villain. On the other hand, Predator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day subvert this by showing off this invulnerable action hero presence that he is known for, only to pull the rug out from under it by introducing an even crazier, more deadly threat.
In Predator, John McTiernan takes the time to introduce this hyper-competent and masculine squad of killing and quipping machines that quickly dispatch a small army of faceless goons. It plays out in a typical ’80s over-the-top action fashion for the first act until the Predator comes into play. Then the film almost becomes a slasher film, where it toys with each of its victims before effortlessly dispatching them in graphic ways. Since we have already seen how dangerous and powerful this squad is, to see them so utterly helpless against a greater threat ratchets up the tension. Compare this to Commando, which fully plays into the invincible ’80s action hero cliches. It may be hilarious and very, very entertaining to watch. Still, the lack of threat and sustained tension is noticeable when compared to a film that takes the time to create that sense of vulnerability, even one with the same muscled hero like Predator.
By extension, having threats and vulnerability requires the fights to have some sort of physical impact. We have to feel the results of them; people need to get tired, injured, and have some progression throughout the fight. One of the worst sins a film can make when it comes to vulnerability is to have their battles go on until the script says that one person loses, with no progression. This does not mean that every moment needs to be dripping in blood like it is a Tarantino film, just that there has to be some sort of physical progression. A limp, a slowing down to reflect injuring and tiring throughout the fight, and of course, blood and visible injuries create a sense of impact that cannot be understated. Even something as relatively family-friendly as Raiders of the Lost Ark has Indiana Jones get beaten to hell throughout the movie, which makes him overcome those odds even more impactful.
Geography & Staging:
While the first three principles of great action are more about the film’s storytelling, a macro look at the structure, characterization, and script of the film, these last four are more technical. They are about how the action is presented to the audience through the camerawork, editing, flow, and hundreds of other small factors that can influence how the audience reacts to an action scene. The first of these factors is the geography and staging of the action.
This is such an essential element of filming action scenes. To adequately understand the action, we have to understand the environment it takes place in. We need to understand the location, the potential threats within that space, and where everything and everyone is in relation to each other. This sounds very simple on the surface, but can be a significant hindrance when it is not done well. Otherwise, threats come out of nowhere, and the reason we are being shown the information in each shot starts to lose its importance. While this can work well for a scene designed to display power and effortlessness (such as a superhero quickly dispatching several faceless goons when displaying their powers), it does not make for incredible action. For example, when this is not established well, check out the opening of the James Bond film Quantum of Solace:
This scene has a lot going for it. In my opinion, Daniel Craig is a great Bond who brings intensity and rawness to the role that no other actor has. There is a lot of great, practical stunt-work and car destruction that gives the film a sense of physicality. The problem is the geography is a huge mess. The film is shot and edited in such a chaotic manner that we can never really tell what is going to happen. It is a cacophony of sound and chaos, with rapid shots of cars shifting gears, people firing guns at each other, reaction shots of the drivers, and inserted shots of oncoming vehicles with horns blaring. But we do not get any sort of connection between these different elements. It is practically impossible to know at any point where the vehicles pursuing Bond are in relation to him, mainly due to the incredibly chaotic, rapid-fire editing and the lack of wide shots to provide spacial context. How many vehicles are after him at any point? Are they gaining on him, or is he getting away? It is impossible to tell these things during the tunnel chase. Oncoming vehicles come out of nowhere, instead of being established earlier and serving as vehicles (pun intended) for raising the stakes. The scene serves as an overwhelming force of flashing images and raging sound but is so chaotic, shaky, and hard to follow that it fails to deliver on the action front.
Several notable examples demonstrate the power of geography in cinema: Seven Samurai, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and The Raid 2. For the first positive example, Seven Samurai by Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa is a massively influential film within action cinema. Its plot, a convergence of 7 freelance samurai’s who come together to defend a small farming village against a much larger force of 42 raiding bandits, has been ripped off and remade so often. The Magnificent Seven is a direct remake of it (which has itself been remade), and every film that involves a siege or a defense of a small area from a much larger force (such as Assault on Precinct 13, 13 Assassins, the finale of Skyfall, John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, and the final church shootout from The Killer) all borrow heavily from the tropes that Seven Samurai established.
Since its conflict is massive in scale and could quickly become too chaotic to follow, Kurosawa takes his time with the set-up. We spend the entire second act of the story watching the samurai prepare for the oncoming battle. With them, we learn the geography of the town, the weak points, and see them fortify it and decide what areas even to try to defend. They train the villagers in the use of bamboo spears so that they can be of some use. They scout the enemy force to learn how many people they are up against. That way, when the battle does break out, and everyone is split into smaller groups to defend their assigned areas, we are never confused. If we see one group begin to struggle and lose ground and call for help, we know who is nearby. The samurai’s keep track of the dead during the multiple-day siege, so we always know how badly the odds are stacked against them. It is like watching a chess match, but one where we have seen inside the heads of the two players. The time spent establishing the geography and staging the battle to come by laying out the strategies, clearly defining the groups involved, and the defenses of the village pays off in spades and results in one of the greatest mass-scale battles in cinema history where every single action and choice feels like it can turn the tide of the fight.
Another example of an even more intricate mass battle is the siege of Helm’s Deep, the climactic set-piece from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. This battle is truly epic in scale, involving thousands of combatants spread across miles. There are archers, foot soldiers, cavalry, invading forces on ladders, explosives, and trebuchets. But no matter what happens in the battle, we always know what is going on, why it is happening, how it relates to the larger flow of the battle as a whole, and where our central characters are in relation to it. In the same way that Kurosawa did, director Peter Jackson takes his time with the set-up, explaining the structure of Helm’s Deep not only to the audience but to the characters attempting to hold the fortress. They learn its weak points, and Jackson takes care to always place his characters at the focal points of those moments. They are on the walls, defending the critical points from intruding forces. When the wall is blown open from its one weakness, they are thrown back, but once again, we always know where they need to go and why their actions are essential. Every choice on the part of the heroes is integral to their success in their specific tasks, flowing into the greater flow of the battle. Every small victory or defeat affects the macro scale battle so that we, the audience, always know exactly how the fight is going. This is extraordinarily difficult, but Jackson makes it look easy. It is one of the tensest and exciting battles ever put to film for a reason, mainly due to the attention to geography and how Jackson stages the action. This breakdown by the YouTube channel Cinefix provides a fascinating deep-dive into this scene if you are interested in exploring it further.
One thing about both these examples though, is that they are defensive battles. The heroes fight to defend a location, so it is easier to establish geography when you are spending time there beforehand. However, it is still easy and possible to establish geography beforehand. Take, for example, the prison riot scene from The Raid 2: Berandal (warning, this scene’s violence is very graphic):
This scene is visually kind of complicated. It involves multiple factions of prison gangs and the guards. All prisoners wear the same clothes, and the mud in the prison yard makes it so that everyone looks pretty identical once the battle begins. For this reason, director Gareth Evans has to take his time to establish where the relevant characters are in relation to each other. Thanks to a few carefully placed wide shots that explain the area of the prison yard, and some tracking shots that move from person-to-person to guide the viewer’s eye and direct their attention to the important people within the scene, it is always clear and easy to follow. Speaking of being clear and easy to follow, this leads us to our next point.
The single most important technical element when it comes to a fight scene is clarity. We have to be able to understand what is going on and follow the action. This is where the trend of shaky cam and chaotic editing is the most harmful. The combination of the two ruins so many action scenes in popular, big-budget movies because it obscures the action. This could be for budgetary reasons (getting the choreography right is a time-intensive and expensive process), to make an actor seemed more talented when it comes to martial arts or stunts than they are, to hide the impact and blood to avoid a harsher rating, or just laziness. But choppy and shaky action makes it incredibly difficult to follow along with. Just look at this scene from Taken 2:
It is headache-inducing (and at least for me, nauseating) to watch. It is a gestalt of sounds and flashing images that bombard the viewer into thinking they are witnessing the action, while none of it is visible. Unfortunately, this is one of the most cost-effective methods of producing action, and since the mid-2000s, this frenetic and hard-to-follow style has become the default. However, this has not always been the main way of doing things, and there has been a push in the last 5 or 6 years to return to a better and more clear form of action filmmaking.
This is one of the primary reasons that the John Wick and Mission Impossible franchises have become so beloved in the latter half of the 2010s. These franchises, and the actors and directors that helm them, are a return to an older style of action filmmaking that emphasizes clarity above all, making sure that you see every stunt, piece of choreography, and impact. It helps that the lead actors in those franchises, Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise, are extraordinarily committed people, who put countless hours into learning choreography, weapons and vehicle training, and stunt work. They make sure that the directors don’t have to worry about editing around them to hide poor choreography or a stunt double. For example, check out this fight scene from John Wick 2:
The difference between this and the Taken 2 clip is night and day. All of the stunts are on full display, with everything captured in nice wide angles where we can see Keanu Reeves whole body and all of the enemy henchmen in a single frame. Thanks to this, we always see all of the action, where the henchmen are emerging from in relation to Wick, and the temporarily disabled henchmen that are struggling to get back up and will soon return to being a threat. The camera does move sometimes, but never shakes too violently to obscure the action, and cuts happen to maintain the rhythm of the scene (which we will get to in more detail in a minute). Still, it never becomes chaotic or edits too often.
While this style is just now re-emerging in the United States, it has always been the standard in Asian action cinema, particularly from movies coming out of Hong Kong. Bruce Lee always insisted that the choreography and martial arts talent in his films were put on full display, always shooting them in wide angles with little to no camera movement. Jackie Chan has also been a vocal proponent of the importance of clarity, and the difference between his work in Hong Kong, where they understand the time and money it takes to produce high-quality action, and in America where the budgets and production schedules are much more strict, is noticeable. If you compare this scene from the end of Legend of the Drunken Master and this fight from Rush Hour, it quickly shows the difference. Chan’s style of physical comedy revolves around the clarity of the action. Almost always, the action, impact, and reaction will occur within the same shot. While the fight in Rush Hour is not bad or as hard to follow as the fight in Taken 2, the impact isn’t as great as the masterful fight from Legend of the Drunken Master.
Other incredible examples of how Chinese filmmakers frame their action include that scene from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon that I discussed earlier, as well as any fight scene from Zhang Yimou’s historical epic wuxia film Hero:
Now, this section has spent a lot of time complaining about shaky camerawork that obstructs the action. I will give one caveat to this: in the rare situation where the filmmaker takes the time to ensure that shaky cam and over-editing are done well, it can work. Obstruction can be a powerful tool to represent the character’s mental state, such as this incredible long take from Game of Thrones season 6 episode 9, The Battle of the Bastards directed by Miguel Sapochnik. It masterfully puts us into the clouded headspace of Jon Snow and visually depicts the confusion of a mass-scale battle. The camera is shaky, and the scene is chaotic, but it serves the greater narrative of the scene and works well. There is also the director who arguably did the most to popularize the shaky-cam trend, Paul Greengrass, who directed the Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum.
He is arguably the only director who makes good use of the style because he ensures that the chaotic style fits the aesthetic and tone of his paranoid and chaotic spy thrillers. No matter how shaky it gets and how rapid the editing is, the scene flows into itself. The actors performing the stunts are not hiding a lack of skill. Instead of obstructing the fight, it lends it to this hyper-kinetic sense of energy. So that is to say, there are a few niche situations where shaky-cam and rapid editing can be defended from an artistic standpoint, but these are in the small minority and still take a great deal of care and time part of the filmmakers.
So what prevents a filmmaker from just capturing everything in one long take with a wide frame? Why cut at all (other than the obvious level of time and money required to accomplish that)? Well, the answer is that great action requires rhythm to the scene. It has to flow well to maintain a sense of energy; otherwise, it becomes sluggish and drags. That can be used purposefully, such as this scene from Oldboy using that feeling to demonstrate the monumental effort on display from the protagonist to defeat so many people. But most of the time, it just ends up dragging the scene out because the directors don’t think about the flow of the scene very much, such as the long take scene from the abysmal London Has Fallen:
There is no real reason for the scene to take place over a single take, other than it is cool. It does not add to the scene in any meaningful way, and in fact, disrupts the pacing and rhythm of the scene. There are only a handful of modern directors who utilize this technique to the best of their ability: George Miller, Christopher McQuarrie, Edgar Wright, and Gareth Evans. George Miller’s magnum opus, Mad Max: Fury Road, is the immediate example that jumps into my mind when I think of this concept. The film is unrelenting and frenetic, cutting rapidly but always in a way that maintains the clarity of the scene and the geography. Like the scene from The Bourne Ultimatum, it does not obstruct but enhances. Check out this moment:
While the rest of the elements for a great action scene are more intellectual, rhythm is instinctual. It is about what feels right at the moment. The cuts have to all flow into each other, holding for just the right amount of time to allow the information to be communicated before moving on to the next shot. That scene from Fury Road demonstrates the power of that perfectly. While it cuts frequently, the cutting pattern matches the energy and urgency of the scene. Each cut when you go through the scene feels like the best possible choice (thanks to the films editor Margaret Sixel) and matches up perfectly with the ramping up of Junkie XL’s pulse-pounding and now-iconic score. For a few more great examples, such as Christopher McQuarrie’s recent hit Mission Impossible: Fallout.
After a suspenseful scene of disabling an arms dealer in a club’s restroom and attempting to take a scan of his face to make a mask so that they can impersonate him, Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill are forced to fight the agent when he regains consciousness and gives them a bigger fight than they bargained for. The level of energy in this scene is insane, with a fantastic interspersing of wide shots to demonstrate where all three are in relation to each other (where one might be getting back up on the side or recovering from a severe hit), without taking away from the action. It uses the edit to control the momentum of the scene and ratchet up the tension, as well as humor. Edgar Wright is another person who does this exceptionally well, particularly in Baby Driver where he edits the scenes to the music that the main character is listening to, staging the action just like a musical would its dance numbers in a way that must have taken an incredible amount of effort but works to such tremendous effect. Its full effect is glorious to behold.
Likewise, Gareth Evans (the director of The Raid: Redemption, The Raid 2, and Apostle) maintains a level of kineticism in his action scenes that few can match. In the final fight of The Raid, two estranged brothers finally come together to defeat the insane warlord named Mad Dog, who has plagued them the entire film. Evans manages to ramp up the scene’s energy and tension so much merely by manipulating the edit and rhythm. Once again, it is less of an academic or theory-based decision, but just about what feels right with the scene. If you watch it, I doubt you could deny the impact of the editing choices.
Use of Environment:
This brings us to the final element of what makes a great action scene: they must take advantage of the environment they find themselves in. Action (usually) does not take place in a vacuum; it happens within a specific space with its elements that can be used by the characters to their advantage. Most action scenes are not just a boxing match, or a pistol duel, the place in which they happen can influence how the fight happens (cue a thousand “its oven Anakin, I have the high ground” memes). Great action filmmakers know how to take advantage of this and use the production design and props within a scene to enhance it.
Once again, going back to the master, this is something that Jackie Chan is brilliant at. He is famous for his use of props and the scenes environment, from the famous ladder fight in First Strike, the scene where he makes use of (and destroys) an entire restaurant in Legend of the Drunken Master, making use of an entire supermarket as a weapon in Rumble in the Bronx, or the climactic mall shopping fight from Police Story. Nobody does a better job of consistently using the environment to enhance their scenes and make use of every single element of the set and production design than Jackie. That said, he is far from the only person in action cinema to do a great job of this. Gareth Evans does a great job in all of his films of making the environment of the scene a living part of the threat, as does his frequent collaborator Timo Tjahjanto who directed Netflix’s 2019 action bloodbath The Night Comes For Us.
Notice how every element of the apartment comes into play throughout the scene. The furniture becomes weapons; the doors become chokepoints; the windows become ways to dispose of enemies. Even the smallest things like plates become potential weapons within the insanity of that fight scene. The Bourne Series is also great about this, as Jason Bourne will use anything at his disposal to help him win the fight, from a rolled-up magazine to a pen:
All of these scenes find creative ways to utilize their environments, creating potential threats, weapons, and obstacles out of the mundane. This is not required per-se to have great action. The boxing scenes in Ryan Coogler’s Creed are in a boxing ring, the most neutral and sterile environment possible (by design, to make it fair to both fighters). But when there is an opportunity to add tension by utilizing the environment, a good director will find ways to do that. It can be as simple as how John McTiernan traps John McCain in Die Hard due to broken glass. When the villain’s fire at him, it shatters the nearby window panes. Since he is without shoes, John is forced to make a painful choice when he is trapped, and the enemies are closing in. This creates additional vulnerability for the character and heightens the tension more than it already was.
This is the way that real geniuses of action filmmaking think. They take what resources they are given, and find a way to make the best use of it. It takes effort, time, and commitment on behalf of the crew and actors. Like every aspect of filmmaking, it will never be perfect and will always be forced to compromise. But when attention and care are put into those scenes, action cinema is among the most potent and exciting kind of filmmaking. After much careful consideration of what makes my favorite action films work and what causes others to fail, I keep coming back to these seven principles. The action must be character-driven and motivated by the character’s choices and the story. The stakes and consequences must be established, and the characters need to be vulnerable to the threat for the necessary tension to build. We must be able to follow the action, which is aided by attention to geography and staging. Great action also follows a specific rhythm in the edit and makes use of the environment it finds itself into the fullest effect. When all seven of these principles are followed, the action is elevated to its maximum potential; it can serve as some of the most impactful and memorable moments in cinema history.