The Problem with Action: Why Explosions & Epic Battles Are Just Kind Of...Eh

You've got a monster the size of a skyscraper wreaking havoc upon a big city with F-16s firing missiles at it -- missing -- leaving everything within a two mile radius in a pile of smoking rubble. So what?

Action films are specifically designed to get your heart pumping, however it seems that, as of late, they fail in a big, big way. If you've realized that these flicks have left you a little -- bored -- there's a reason for it.

It seems as though many of today's assembly line action films are a lot like the destruction they so brazenly depict up on the big screen: they're senseless. They make monsters and villains bigger, badder, more cataclysmic because -- "it's more epic." They show explosions and car chases for the sake of showing them. It's chaos for the sake of chaos.

We say it all the time here at NFS, story is supreme. If whatever's up on screen isn't serving the story, be it an action sequence, an edit, or a line of dialog, then it has no reason to exist. It's superfluous. It's unnecessary. And good cinema has always trimmed the fat, so to speak, letting the excess fall to the cutting room floor.

This doesn't mean that action films have to tone down the action, necessarily. It just means that it all needs a few things: a narrative purpose, coherence, and good cinematic practice. The video explains a few ways to make your action sequences better cinematically by "showing rather implying", like capturing the action in wide shots, not relying solely on rapid editing to hide poor choreography, and giving you audience a clear sense of space. However, the big message from the video is this: your action scenes must have emotional arcs.

They explain it like this. Though action films contain emotional character development scenes, they often don't mix them with the action scenes. To put it more clearly, action scenes, even if it's a grand, explosive spectacle, would be so much more powerful to the story if they also contained a part of the overall character arc. Because over the top chaos, extravagant destruction, and senseless action lacks the one thing that really drives us to the movie theater in the first place: something to connect to emotionally.

 

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23 Comments

Sorry, but it should be rewritten to why do BAD action scenes suck=)

September 28, 2015 at 1:56PM

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Josh.R
Motion Designer/Predator
1157

Fury Road aside, what are the action scenes of the last decade that we can point to as strong ones? So many of these are from Matrix-era and before. I've avoided the medium the last ten years specifically for the reasons above, so pointers on who is doing it right appreciated.

rogerebert.com had a good video a long while back on why a scene from SALT worked so well. I think it also eviscerated the chaos of the Dark Knight truck scene.

September 28, 2015 at 2:56PM, Edited September 28, 2:56PM

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Sean Voysey
Creative Director
316

As far as recent goes, John Wick....EVERY action scene in that is awesome, because the hand to hand and gun play is so well done. Makes most of the fighting in Matrix seem flat-out silly.

September 28, 2015 at 4:57PM, Edited September 28, 4:58PM

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Josh.R
Motion Designer/Predator
1157

John Wick multiple scenes, Kingsman church scene, Skyfall house finale, District 9 (most of the movie), winter soldier elevator and final battle scene, Star Trek into darkness ship battle, any scene from 300, Watchmen comedian fight and Wanted gunfights, lone survivor gunfight, any Christopher Nolan movie, Avatar (2009) last battle, the raid 2, I saw the devil, x men first class submarine and mutant base attack scene, days of future past quicksilver and whitehouse scene, 3:10 to Yuma final shootout, Django unchained shootout, kickass penthouse finale, letters from Iwo jima beach assault scene, pretty much all of Dredd (remake), Bourne Ultimatum, dead mans chest kraken scene. These are my own opinions, some of these are a little gratuitous but they're done so well so that saves them

September 28, 2015 at 4:59PM

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Matt Nunn
Amateur
451

The first Bourne movie was excellent. Even though the single shot shot-gun scene isn't really 'action' is was f*#@+*g great!

You might like La Femme Nikita (French 1990). :-)

September 28, 2015 at 5:05PM, Edited September 28, 5:05PM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
1928

Along with these other suggestions, Inception was done well.

September 30, 2015 at 2:30PM

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Klay Abele
DP | VFX Artist | Motion Designer
1

But Fury Road is unwatchable, so not sure it counts.

October 2, 2015 at 10:18PM

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Here's to hoping Godzilla vs. King Kong, which begins shoot next summer (planned), won't suck.

September 28, 2015 at 5:01PM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
1928

Gene, we are still waiting for your unbiased research concerning Red Vs Arri...? You totally let us don't brother... I guess Godzilla finally kick King Kong ass :)

September 28, 2015 at 5:39PM

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Alexis Marcoux
Director of photography
392

.

September 29, 2015 at 12:35AM, Edited September 29, 12:36AM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
1928

sounds stupid already

September 30, 2015 at 5:16AM

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Wildlite
171

They should put Mad Max on this list, too.

I enjoy the raid, but there is too much action that it wears out it's welcome fast. In both movies.

District 9 was probably the last solid movie with Action I liked since Matrix. Before that, Kill Bill and Terminator 2.

September 28, 2015 at 5:09PM

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Vincent Gortho
none
1206

2 Days ago I watched the last scene of Saving Private Ryan again: there is a lot of emotion in it. It's brilliant and gruwsome.

September 28, 2015 at 11:41PM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
9829

Action movies are geared at not very interesting 15 year old males.

September 29, 2015 at 6:59AM

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I'm 36 and I still love 'em.

September 29, 2015 at 10:45AM

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Will Gilbey
Screenwriter / Editor
186

The box office doesn't lie people still flock to these big action movies. However the trick is to have value to the action. Hulk vs Ironman in Age of Ultron was top notch, but most of the finale battle scene was just ok. Mainly because it was to much of the same thing. The first avengers worked because even in the last battle because there was variations in the action. The last Transformers movie on the other had was to much like the others just robots fighting which we seen in the 3 films before. Action needs to be treated like a story you haven just have 15 or 20 minutes of just fighting and explosion. If you build a story into the action sequence basically make it it's own movie then it works.

September 29, 2015 at 10:29AM

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Yeah...assuming that EVERYONE watches movies for the same reason. Movie goers may be a lot more jaded these days but I think people in general like "cool" action scenes. Most movie goers are not as analytical as the dudes who made this video.

September 29, 2015 at 5:36PM, Edited September 29, 5:36PM

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Dantly Wyatt
Writer, Director, Content Creator.
1003

The problem I have with today's action films is the lack of realism.

...If James Bond is chasing down an evil doer and jumps from the third story of a building to the ground, he's just broken both of this legs and maybe an arm too, fractured his spine, and is going to spend the next 6 months recovering in the hospital.

With today's action movies there are no consequences to taking extreme risks, so you see all kinds of crazy action scenes that are total fairytales.

You can't out run an explosion.

You can't lift up one or two people hanging from your arm. ( you arm is more likely going to be ripped off from the full body weight of these people )

And if you jump off of something that is 5 times taller than you are, you are going to break lots of bones.

September 29, 2015 at 7:18PM, Edited September 29, 7:18PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33082

Go see Sicario. Your heart will be pounding is so close to real.

September 30, 2015 at 8:38PM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
1928

Tony Zhou said it way better:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1PCtIaM_GQ

In fact these guys used many of the same points and movies examples, which makes me pretty sure they just copied him.

September 29, 2015 at 10:41PM

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tacky action films are like eating a bag of potato chips for dinner. It may feel like your eating, but you're still going to feel hungry after and it's probably going to make you feel sick too.

September 30, 2015 at 5:18AM, Edited September 30, 5:18AM

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Wildlite
171

This is the most boring article I've ever read.

September 30, 2015 at 5:52AM

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Josef Lorenzo
Director
426

A good action movie is the equivalent of a dance movie for guys. I want to see the choreography and the dance between characters. Action scenes that are too chaotic or don't show the geography well leave us wondering what really happened which is why they stink.

October 1, 2015 at 7:58PM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
877