Posts Tagged ‘Action Movies’

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Movies That Made Me #1- “Hard Target”

January 26, 2018

In what I hope will be a repeated, if not entirely regular, series, I thought I’d look at some of the films that have influenced me as a filmmaker. Now before people get all commenty in the comments section (best place to do it other than a toilet wall somewhere), most of these are not going to be undisputed classics. In fact most of these films would prompt an expression of confused disgust from many filmmakers and movie aficionados. But, good or bad, they have had an effect on me and the way I perceive and make films to this day.

These are the movies that made me.

First up to bat, it’s the slow motion Jean Claude Van Damme action vehicle and mullet enthusiast’s propaganda film, “Hard Target.”

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For a teenage boy growing up in the early 90s, the local video rental shop was a godsend. I’ve mentioned it before, but my Dad knew a good deal when he saw it and for £10 a month, we could rent any three tapes we wanted, for as long as we wanted and swap them out as and when we felt like it. This meant that I saw pretty much every action movie ever made in the early years of that decade and for a boy who’d developed something of a fascination with martial arts (even before he took his first karate class), that was a lot of small screen inspiration.

I’d been a fan of Van Damme ever since I saw the first Universal Soldier, but it was Hard Target that really cemented him as an action star for me. It was also the film that introduced me to one of my greatest directorial influences, John Woo Yu Seng. It’s only in recent years that I can look back on Hard Target and see how profound an effect it had on me as a filmmaker.

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Don’t eat all your snake, Van Damme, or you won’t have room for your scorpion tortillas.

If you haven’t seen the flick, it’s John Woo’s first American movie and while it’s a mixed bag compared to his previous Hong Kong outings like The Killer and Hard Boiled, it was a tour de force for a thirteen year old boy who had never seen anything like Woo’s flavour of balletic action before. The remarkably thin plot is about a group of mercenaries turned entrepreneurs hunting homeless veterans for sport in New Orleans, with Van Damme playing one such vet trying to help a young woman find her previously hunted father. And while that might be an awkwardly long sentence, it does pretty much sum up the story of the movie in one breath.

New Orleans makes for an interesting backdrop, even if it’s usually just used as a generic “small town America” and the Deep South references are relegated to soundtrack cues and architecture, but it makes a change from the usual L.A/New York setting most 90s action flicks find themselves in. It helps give the film a bit of character- something most of its contemporaries on the straight to video shelves lacked.

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The acting itself is exactly what you’d expect from a 90s actioner directed by a man who didn’t speak English all that well- it’s pretty pish. Lance Henricksen and Arnold Vosloo are the best performers in the flick, Yancy Butler is alright but has very little to work with and JCVD… well, dialogue was never his strong suit, certainly not at this point in his career. Kicking people in the face, however, was, and while the movie isn’t overflowing with Van Damme’s usual bootwork, there are enough kicks mixed in with the gunplay to showcase what he can do.

Which brings me on to the action…

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Wide angle spinning split kick- the best moment in the film and possibly in JCVD’s entire career.

As a 14 year old boy, this film blew me away. I’d seen action films before obviously, but this was refreshingly different, high energy and balletic compared to the Schwarzenegger-style flicks I’d seen previously. Bad guys flew through the air when shot, guns held about seventy rounds per clip, everything exploded when hit and diving sideways while doves flew past was the preferred mode of locomotion. I fucking loved it. And looking back on it, it had a huge effect on me as a filmmaker.

What made this film stand out for me at the time was the way it’s shot and edited. Woo’s style uses double cuts, replays and changing film speed (in particular, his often-cited slow motion) to enhance the feeling of an action sequence, making them a thing of beauty as well as a visceral experience. But he also uses frequent big close-ups, smooth dolly shots and mirrored compositions to tell a story- such as when Van Damme and Vosloo have a mid-gunfight conversation back-to-back against a wall. A lot of the story is told visually- characters don’t explain their feelings in dialogue, they show it in their eyes and the way they react to the things around them. This is one of the things that I notice a lot in my own work- a story told through when and how characters react to events in the scene. Little looks and gestures given decent screen time to highlight them. Obviously, Woo wasn’t the first to do this- it’s kinda filmmaking 101- but for a kid who was only just starting to notice movies for the craft involved, Woo’s work was a revelation.

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So this is a “face.” But can it come “off?”

But probably the biggest takeaway for me was how Woo shoots and edits action. Action sequences rely on audiences understanding the geography of the location and having certain elements set up and paid off within the scene. For instance, the big finale takes place in this abandoned warehouse full of carnival floats, providing both a nice nod to the New Orleans setting and an interesting splash of colour to what could’ve been a drab and dingy location. The warehouse is a maze, full of all this junk and Woo sets up the size and creepy chaos with a suspenseful sequence where the bag guys led by Henricksen and Vosloo hunt for JCVD before all hell breaks loose. And it’s this suspense-release pattern that stood out amongst all the straight-to-VHS action films I’d been used to.

So, yes, it’s not the greatest film in the world and its not the greatest film in Woo’s catalogue, but Hard Target will always be the film that taught me how action design and editing worked. If you get a chance, it’s worth a look!

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“We Are Not Sick Men!”

March 24, 2015

Not Sick Men

For those who are not martial arts film fans, the above quote might seem a little strange, but it comes from the 1972 Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury. Right at the beginning of the flick, some Japanese martial artists from a rival school give the Chinese students an insulting gift- a signboard with the often-repeated cultural slur “The Sick Men of Asia” calligraphed on it. In the very next scene, Bruce defeats a dojo full of Japanese students, shatters faces and cultural prejudices alike and proclaims on behalf of the Chinese people “we are not sick men!”

A key moment in Chinese cinema and martial arts movie history, sure, but why do I bring it up here? Because it’s a nice segue into the fact that action films are generally treated like they’re the “sick men” of the film industry. And, like Bruce Lee, they most definitely are not.

This isn’t to say action movies aren’t appreciated. Virtually every studio’s tentpole offerings year after year are action movies. They cost lots of money and they make lots back, both at the box office and then on download, disc and pay per view. They are important. But they are not respected.

I'll just leave this here.

I’ll just leave this here.

You see it all the time… Audiences, critics and other filmmakers alike all look down on action movies like they’re the cheap amusements of a bunch of undereducated morons. How many times do you hear the words “big” “dumb” and “action movie” slung conveniently together in that order? I have to admit, I’ve used that phrase more than once. How many movies are pardoned off as “guilty pleasures” because “you can turn your brain off” when watching them? As if they’re somehow beneath your aspirations and you feel embarrassed for liking them in the first place. Well, don’t be. Comedian Dara O’Briain has a similar defence of pop music in one of his stand up routines and the bottom line is that if you enjoy something, don’t feel bad about it. Not every piece of music is a Bach and not every movie is a Kubrick.

Action movies are frequently looked down upon because they are considered to be mere entertainment and not art, but that is bullshit of the highest order. Some films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero or John Woo’s The Killer have very strong artistic qualities, certainly more than many art house dramas.

I think if other filmmakers took a closer look at action movies or better yet, tried to make one, they’d respect them a little more and realise a few things.

Like just how fucking difficult they are.

The main reason non-action filmmakers struggle with action films is because a lot of what they know and rely on as directors goes out the window when you’re shooting action. You see, with normal, non-shooty-kicky-boom-boom scenes, directors, editors and DoPs can fall back on the “Hollywood method” of shooting coverage (not to be confused with the “Hollywood method” of contraception which involves not having a stylist/personal trainer or just being Adam Sandler). I talked about coverage before… ooh, ages ago… but if you don’t know what it is (and shame on you, this being a filmmaking/directing blog and all…), it’s about shooting a master shot of the scene, followed by sub-masters, over-the-shoulders, close-ups and anything else that’ll give the editor all the options and headaches he could ever want. Thing is, coverage doesn’t work like that for fight scenes. If you shoot a master of the whole fight then cut in for character A’s punches and reactions, then do the same for character B and try to edit it together, it’ll look like shit.

(Above: Shit)

For a start, wide shots are difficult for the actors and stunt performers. It takes a lot of skill to perform multiple precise techniques in a full frame and not fuck up- that’s why it’s only skilled and experienced fight performers like Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao that take twenty plus moves in one take in their stride. Even if you have skilled fighters, you’ll also likely tire them out on the wide master, so that by the time they get to shooting their other angles, they’ll look as attractive as Adam Sandler on a stairmaster.

In recent years, american movies have taken to throwing out the master and just sticking to the close-ups, disguising the relative shot repetition (and potentially shoddy technique) with nausea-inducing wobble-cam. I’m looking at you, Paul Greengrass… Fast-paced and kinetic? Yes. Clear and expressive? Once I’ve recovered from synaptic overload, I’ll vomit out a “no.”

In Hong Kong, they choose the camera angle first and then choreograph the action with that angle in mind, because certain moves and techniques look better or worse or stronger or faster from certain angles and lenses. Each shot is designed to showcase a certain part of the choreography or story, the camera moves with the action and each edit point flows seamlessly into the next (meaning the last move of one shot is the first move of the next, allowing you to cut invisibly on action). This means you have to be aware of things like the 180 degree rule, the 30 degree rule and the effects of camera movement in order to pick your shots properly. For people like Yuen Wo Ping, Lau Kar Leung and Sammo Hung, they can make this shit up on the fly and it cuts smoother than Barry White carving out soft scoop ice cream, but generally, you need to know how the scene will edit together before you shoot it. This obviously limits the creative options in editing to a “when to cut” rather than a “what to cut to” which is why a lot of session editors hate it. I know that one first hand, which is why I prefer to cut my own shit for the lack of arguments if nothing else.

This “see it edited beforehand” process is also necessary for chase sequences, gunfights and anything that involves effects work- shooting Hollywood-style coverage on any of these will likely result in hours of useless footage and lots of money, time and cast/crew goodwill wasted.

It’s one of the few areas where even the most experienced action directors plump for storyboards. Not just to communicate to the crew (including a second unit tasked with the fun explody stuff and cutaway minutiae), but also to work out the editing for the sequence- knowing what shot goes where and when. Which is weird when you think about it, because like all still images, they can’t convey the passing of time or anything that changes over time, like movement. But short of doing an animatic, storyboards are probably your best tool for prepping an action sequence.

Some of the storyboards for a fight scene from my new short film "Dead Meet"

Some of the storyboards for a fight scene from my new short film “Dead Meet”

Sometimes, particularly for a fight scene, it’s worth following up the storyboards by shooting a blocking tape- essentially a rough shot-by-shot edit-by-edit assembly of the fight to see what works and what doesn’t. It can give you a sense of pacing and progression that storyboards lack and especially for an inexperienced or otherwise faithless crew, it can also give them the confidence in both the sequence and you as a director.

(Above: Part of “Dead Meet”s blocking tape)

So if you’re one of those filmmakers who sneers at action flicks because no action film has won at Cannes or Sundance or some other festival where hipsters in black polo necks congregate, then I suggest you have a crack at making one. Shoot a chase sequence, a gunfight or a post-modern hyper-ballistic kung fu battle. And send me the link when you’re done! You’ll learn a shit-ton and probably have more fun on the shoot than the time you worked on that promo with all the supermodels…

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Or maybe not…