Saturday, December 6, 2008

Action Movies, Part 2: Bond/Bourne

Some thoughts on the action sequences in Quantum of Solace inspired by this post from Sean (read it first):

1. The new Bond films - especially Quantum of Solace - are drawing from and responding to the Bourne movies - at least in terms of how they handle action sequences. The foot chase over the roofs in Sienna, which happens pretty early in Quantum, is a more cleanly (and conventionally) put together version of the rooftop chase in The Bourne Ultimatum, but, like the Bourne chase, it is edited and shot to emphasize - viscerally, impressionistically - the physical impact the action has on the pursuer and pursued.

2. Like the Bourne movies - especially the two directed by Paul Greengrass - the new Bonds have adopted a faux cinema verite camera style to give the action sequences a feeling of greater realism than a more conventional style would. Following David Bordwell, I'd argue that this "realism" is superficial and that these techniques - shaky, probing hand held camera work, with lots of reframing on the go - cover up the fact that the action is just as super-heroic and over-the-top as anything in a John McTiernan or James Cameron movie.

3. Speaking of James Cameron: the tremendous emphasis the impressionistic Bourne/Bond action places on visceral, physical impact comes at the expense of any kind of focus on exploring and navigating spaces. Compare the rooftop chases from Ultimatum and Quantum to the backyard foot chase in Point Break. In all three cases, the way the bodies move - the way they encounter and overcome the obstacles in their way (see Sean's point about the Bourne/Bond characters being physical geniuses) - is important. But in the Bourne and the Bond, those rooftops are reduced to being obstacles - the filmmakers aren't interested in conveying a sense of Tangier or Siena - while the chase in Point Break is as much concerned with taking us through a tour of a certain kind of Los Angeles geography.*

(The big exceptions from the Bourne movies are the kitchen fight scene from Supremacy - which really is about confined spaces - and the train station sequence from Ultimatum - which is more a suspense sequence than an action sequence, but I shouldn't split hairs.)

4. The Bond movies remain more conventional than Greengrass' Bournes in that they do not maintain the faux cinema verite style throughout the entire movie.** I would argue that this makes the Bourne movies more conceptually ambitious and accomplished, but also rather tiring. In fact, I got tired watching Ultimatum in the same way and for many of the same reason I got tired watching Michael Bay's Transformers. Bay and Greengrass have different reasons for getting to a place where the individual shot means less than the rhythms of a series of shots. In Transformers, this gives us special-effects that are happening too quickly for us to appreciate in any way. In The Bourne Ultimatum, this gives us action scenes where it's not important that we can parse what is happening or how it is happening, as long as we get that visceral sense of stuff is happening.

5. This leads to a sloppiness in the way the action scenes are put together in these movies. In Quantum, the battle between Bond and Mitchell on the scaffolding is impossible to parse in the conventional sense of being able to figure out who exactly is doing what to whom - i.e. it's shot and edited in such a way that you can't tell Bond and Mitchell apart at least until its over (Bond is the one who kills the other guy).***

Do we have to understand it? Not necessarily: we can still appreciate all the flailing around for the rhythms of movement and editing. But it seems to me that we've lost something important.

6. I'd argue that these impressionistic action sequences lack a sense of orchestration. Well, that's not quite true, but several kinds of "organizational patterns" that filmmakers can use and have traditionally used to orchestrate action sequences are thrown out the window in order to better focus on impact and rhythm. There's really nothing in these movies like the long sequence in Terminator 2 where we start off with a foot chase in a mall, it escalates into a car chase through the streets, and ends up in the L.A. river with the T-1000 in a Mack truck bearing down on Arnold. There's build in what Cameron is doing - a simultaneous ratcheting up of danger, scale, and pace, all the while getting the most out of his chosen locations. But in impressionistic sequences, everything is pitched at the same the level.

7. I think the Bourne and Bond movies are only, barely half-heartedly "abstract" in any meaningful and/or beautiful way. They don't go far enough. Their formal concerns are completely superficial: the more conventional "organizing patterns" they got rid of aren't replaced with anything, let alone the more rigorous action abstractions of Kinji Fukasaku's 1970s yakuza movies or Michael Mann's recent work.****

8. Actually, maybe that's the problem: the action sequences here are less than conventional. That is, they take the conventional "Golden Age" action sequence, throw out any concern for geography, pacing, and orchestration, and overuse all those "you are there" techniques that give off a visceral sense of impact. They are conventional scenes that are doing less, but they are doing less a lot harder (not to mention a lot louder).

9. I should mention that I do like these movies, even though I'm not blown away by the action sequences. I think Sean really gets at what makes these characters compelling and I'd have only good things to say about the acting. I also think these movies are interesting in terms of how they present the post-millennial secret agent.

10. And just so you know where I'm coming from, Rambo is my favorite action movie of the year, so far.

*In deference to Los Angeles Plays Itself, I'd be happy to amend this to something like "creates its own imaginary version of Los Angeles geography", but I'd add that this tends to be a different kind of L.A. than we're used to from the movies. I think Cameron's L.A. movies, in general, are pretty savvy about using the geography of L.A. in this way.

**Not that I expect many people to get this comparison, but Quantum of Solace : The Bourne Ultimatum :: Hot Rod : Napoleon Dynamite.

***See also: the car chase at the beginning of Quantum.

****I could also mention Akira Kurosawa and Seijin Suzuki.


Lin Swimmer said...

Ah, one of our favorite perpetual topics of film conversation. I really can't understand the endurance of this trend. We must simply be in the minority in our frustrations, right? People like it? This is the hardest thing for me; trying to understand what is actually popular, and why (especially when it's so directly opposed to what I would prefer to be popular). I don't know. I guess it's an inevitable byproduct of over-analyzing film, and moving further afield from the average viewer (consumer). I read a fascinating e-mail exchange between Mike Figgis and the photographer Jeff Wall recently where Figgis mentions that he was noticing that the billboards on display in LA are all for child/adult films, Anchorman and Spiderman and Pixar and the like. My large format photography teacher was telling me about showing some of his classes La Jetée and how in a class of 30 all but two students would fall asleep. Sorry... I'm getting onto my "modern viewers are getting dumber" soapbox again... my second most popular soapbox after "no one reads anymore."

I do know that I've been hearing a lot of negative things regarding the new Bond, and although I purchased the newly printed Fleming short story compilation containing Quantum of Solace, I haven't had much desire to read it yet.

I haven't been watching movies in theatres much at all this year. A dead summer season into a dead Fall. The last movie I paid $12.50 to watch was JCVD. Did you get a chance to go? You are perhaps one of the only people I know who could implicitly understand what it was attempting to do, as well as where its strengths and weaknesses lie. I have such mixed opinions about it in general, but ultimately I decided that its flaws were either easily overlooked, or that their removal would have robbed the film of necessary elements that contributed to gags and scenes that worked incredibly well. It's one of those films where although there may only be six or seven "great moments," those moments are entirely worth the cost of admission and the time invested in viewing the film. That seems an odd or rare arrangement... I wonder what it signifies?

I was surprised to hear you were satisfied with Rambo. I myself was rather disappointed, but I suppose I would have to rewatch it to really figure out why. Have you written about it?

The last action movie that I got really excited about was the Criterion edition of The Naked Prey, 1966 directed by Cornel Wilde. It's remarkably stripped down and spare, boiling everything down to pure pursuit and survival. Really enjoyable.

James said...

Jon it is like midnight or something, but as I was falling asleep I had a non-trivial thought about this subject! I am so happy that I finally get to say something almost meaningful about film techniques that I actually got out of bed to write this.

So: I agree with you about the general crumminess of the fight scenes in the most recent Bond films. This shaky-cam stuff, this negation of the spatial environment, seems to be endemic in action movies these days: they do it in the most recent Batman films too, as well as in Borne. (I'd argue that the super-fast CGI sequences in the Star Wars prequels are a bit of the same "look how fast I can do it!" phenomenon.)

It's like the filmmakers spend all this time figuring out these complicated set pieces, only to make it impossible for the audience to savor it. It's perverse, and if you're going to be expensively perverse with a major piece of IP like the Bond franchise, you ought to have the guts to do more than just screw up your throw-away set-pieces.

But also: the device of the shaky-cam, this emphasis on impact and "kineticism," completely undermines the central fact of Bond as a combatant: he's completely, magnificently focused in-the-moment (total commitment, follow-through, clarity of purpose, situational awareness) while remaining utterly loose and flexible moment-to-moment (improvising, imagining, keeping his cool). For someone like James Bond, the jittery impacts of shaky-cam are completely and totally out of character. I can see Bond being sudden and forceful, but he's also graceful and fluid. We don't get a sense of that, and thus not only do we miss out on a great set design and some ingenious fight choreography, but we also miss some characterization too.

Speaking of characterization, my feeling with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace is that somebody wants to make James Bond into a John le Carre character, but while they've jettisoned a lot of baggage they can't bring themselves to let go of the blockbuster action film nonsense. So you've got this man-child of a movie that's supposedly about murder, alienation, love, and grief . . . but features all these jumble-cam shots of hotels blowing up in the Bolivian desert while Africans wield machetes during the World Series of Poker.

Sleepy time.

Jon Hastings said...

Thanks for the thoughtful responses, guys!

I'm going to continue the general action movie conversation in this post.

Lin - I do plan to write about Rambo in my year-end "favorite things" post. I liked what Sean had to say about it, though.

James - I agree with you re: the Bonds' attempt to mix Le Carre's gravitas with standard action movie stuff.

FWIW, I like the way the action is filmed in Batman Begins, but I thought that Nolan made a mess of things in The Dark Knight. My suspicion is that trying to compose for widescreen and IMAX was beyond him. Nolan is a good filmmaker, but he's no James Cameron when it comes to action choreography.