Bullets, blood, Bruce Willis. It doesn’t take a lot to make a great action movie, right? Critics have taught us that such phrases as “the director’s unique vision” need only be applied to awards-worthy drama, not Die Hard. Action films are cinematic junk food; no one cares who the chef is.
Well, we respectfully disagree. The action films which stand the test of time are able to do so precisely because the director in charge has a storytelling style that resonates with audiences. To prove this point, let’s look at some of the landmarks of American action movies and see what we can learn…
Indiana Jones and the Spielberg Style
For many film buffs, the age of the modern action movie began with the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Although the genre existed beforehand—the only reason we have Indiana Jones today is because Spielberg couldn’t get hired to direct a James Bond movie and decided to run with George Lucas’ adventure serial homage idea instead—this is the one that started the revolution, and it owes a great deal of its’ success to Spielberg’s sensibilities as a director.
Some claim that Spielberg is a Hollywood sentimentalist without an original bone in his body. Those people aren’t looking closely enough. They don’t realize how quietly unconventional many of his ideas are. With Jaws, he entirely subverted the notion of heroic masculinity that had dominated movies up until that point.
In another director’s movie, Quint would have been the hero. In Spielberg’s vision, it’s the realistic, regular guy. Thus, we have Indiana Jones. OK, he isn’t your everyday archaeologist, but he’s not John Wayne, either. Jones is a history nerd, and he does lose his cool when the odds are stacked against him. As an audience, we know when he’s in over his head. It’s easier to relate to that kind of character than to those untouchable figures of male strength from the past, and it is one of the reasons why Raiders, or any other classic action film, works. It’s that unique Spielberg touch.
Of course, there’s also the excitement of the set pieces. Spielberg’s action scenes are often stunt-oriented, and he films them with clarity, keeping the characters and environment in focus. There are no close-ups or handheld cameras. We are given an opportunity to marvel at the choreography.
Lastly, story matters. The Indiana Jones films may be famous for perfecting the use of the MacGuffin, a vague object that draws our hero into the action, but they make for good stories because the villains are always easy to hate, and the circumstances are always dire (usually something involving Nazis influencing the fate of the world), and Spielberg has an impeccable sense of pacing that gets the story across without sacrificing action beats.
Die Hard Gets Dark
Die Hard is the quintessential 80s action film, combining some of Spielberg’s qualities with the unique sensibilities of the directors of that decade. John McClane may be a little more macho than Indiana Jones, but he’s still a regular guy thrown into an irregular situation, dealing with bad guys who have thick German accents.
What the 80s action films had going for them was their edge. A lot of these pictures were rated R. The violence was more graphic, and the comedic relief came in the form of a clever one-liner punctuating the death of a terrorist. Visually, they remain pretty conventional, although the darker hues on the screen correspond to the darker characters.
The ones that matter, though, the ones like Die Hard, don’t rely solely on competent technical filmmaking. The focus is still kept on story. We care about John McClane because he seems like a real guy whose wife is in real danger. The world might not be at stake, but a life we care about is.
Michael Bay and the Appeal of “Cool”
Michael Bay is not a great director, but it’s worth looking at why. He epitomizes an era when action films took a major step backwards. It was a time when everyone wanted their movies to look “cool” and “slick.”
Well, they did look pretty. Bullet-time effects, constant slow-motion, aerial acrobatics. All very impressive.
But, these films lacked the heart. The Steven Spielbergs, John McTiernans, and James Camerons all know that we have to care about the people involved in the action. Michael Bay’s characters are cut-outs. They have no soul. In fact, perhaps his films might be a little better of they were less stylized. We are too distracted by the pyrotechnics to even care what the story is. We just want to see another car blow-up.
Action Films Are Re-Bourne
American action movies were given a new lease on life by Jason Bourne, with a lot of help from director Paul Greengrass, who helmed the second and third films in the franchise. Does Bourne deliver casual one liners? No. Is he an everyday guy? Certainly not. Do we understand him? You betcha.
The Post-9/11 world wanted an action hero to match the moral complexity of the times. Jason Bourne fit the role. He was a trained killer who took no pleasure in what he did. That’s not a past he can escape, and that inner conflict haunts him.
Greengrass also energized the way action scenes are filmed. We’re bored with the traditional cinematography, because we’ve seen it so often. He puts us directly in the frenzy of the action, making it feel real, and this style has influenced everything from Christopher Nolan’s Batman films to the James Bond reboot.
So what’s it all mean?
Maybe action films get a bad reputation because, with a drama, we at least know the director set out to make a meaningful film about human relationships. It is definitely possible that an action film was just made because teenage boys like explosions. But those cheap cash-ins aren’t the ones that stand the test of time. The ones that become classics are handled by directors who have a strong visual eye, but have the sense not to let that get in the way of story and character. What’s the sense of choreographing a fight scene if we don’t care who wins?