Action movies can be a lot of fun. There generally isn’t a whole lot of thinking required from the audience and it’s easy to just sit back and be entertained for a few hours. If you’re like me, though, you’ve probably noticed a lot of fight scenes in movies these days really suck. This isn’t just happening in bad movies either– there are a lot of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters being released with really underwhelming fight scenes. They’re hard to follow, choppy, and it’s generally difficult to understand what’s even happening. So what’s going on here?
In 2004, director Paul Greengrass and his new movie, The Bourne Supremacy, changed the future of action movies. In this film and in its sequel, The Bourne Ultimatum, also directed by Greengrass, the action scenes involved heavy usage of shaky cam and fast edits to heighten their intensity. While these techniques are not, in and of themselves, bad, as proven by the fact that both of these Bourne films were actually quite well done, future directors have taken these film techniques and used them to cut corners and hide the lack of preparation and choreography in their fight scenes.
One of the benefits of shaking the camera about and cutting a bunch of times is that the shortcomings of the actors in terms of fighting ability can be hidden. These techniques can hide the fact that either the actors haven’t been trained how to fight or that they aren’t in the scene at all and it’s actually a stuntman. Anybody can be an action star now because regardless of how physically capable the person is, they can be made to look like they know what they’re doing. Liam Neeson in the Taken trilogy, for example, would not be a believable hero if we could actually see what he was doing during the fight scenes. The director and the editors hide Neeson’s lack of ability by obscuring what’s going on in the scene. Take this scene, for example, out of Taken 3:
Now, that’s a pretty atrocious fight scene, and you can see as well that by shaking the camera and cutting very quickly, very often, the geography of where the characters are in relation to one another is also lost. This adds to the confusion and just generally makes the sequence far less exciting and engaging.
Shaky cam and quick edits also drastically cut down filming time and can save a ton of money. Why take a week to film a fight scene when it could be done in an afternoon? Hollywood productions are generally on a tight schedule and budget and if a fight scene can be filmed in one or two days rather than putting in weeks of training and choreography practice, more often than not, studios will take the easy way out. For a lot of fight scenes these days, the choreography is created on the fly. The actors and stunt coordinators will show up on the day of the shoot and bang out a quick fight scene.
Even huge summer blockbusters like Captain America: Civil War are using these filming techniques for some of their fight scenes. Marvel movies such as Captain America and The Avengers generally do a good job crafting large-scale destruction and superhero fights, but even they have some really awful fight scenes. I mean, just look at this scene from Captain America: Civil War– what even is this?
This method of filming fight scenes that has become the norm for so many American action movies today is in stark contrast to a lot of movies coming out of Asia. In The Raid and The Raid 2, for example, shaky cam and quick edits are traded in for a steady camera and longer takes. Here’s a great fight scene from The Raid 2:
While there has been plenty to complain about recently in terms of action movies and their fight scenes, it’s not all bad. The Marvel series Daredevil has some incredible fight choreography that uses longer takes and steadier camera movement. In fact, I’d say that show has some of the greatest fight scenes ever seen in a Marvel production.
Similarly, in 2014, John Wick was a surprise hit and much of the reason why is due to the fact that the action scenes were remarkably different from what people have been seeing. The two directors of John Wick, both former stuntmen, were heavily influenced by the films coming out Asia and were determined to make a movie where the action was intense and yet comprehensible. In order to do this, they trained Keanu Reeves, the movie’s star, for months before filming began so that audiences would believe that everything he was doing on screen, he could also do in real life. The result of this approach speaks for itself with the second film in the franchise achieving even greater success than the first, and a third film already in the works.
Now, as a closing point, I feel that I should mention that I don’t dislike shaky cam or rapid editing– there are plenty of films that use it effectively. Shaky cam and fast edits work well in the Bourne movies because the rest of the movie is shot in a similar fashion. The pacing of the movie and the mental state of the Jason Bourne make those techniques work (not to mention the fact that Paul Greengrass is an excellent director who knows how to film that way). Hell, even Saving Private Ryan uses shaky cam and that movie is a masterpiece. Problems arise when these techniques are used to hide an actor’s lack of ability, bad staging, or the absence of any comprehensive choreography. The artistic merits of shaky cam or frantic editing are lost when they’re used for the wrong reasons.