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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

X-Men: First Class, The Death of the Fight Scene, and Fast Five

X-Men: First Class is good, but not great. Entertaining, but not in any memorable way. Actually, it is like pretty much any other forgettable action movie of the last half-decade or so. It has a little substance, mainly in its depiction of the brotherly relationship between mutants Charles Xavier, and Erik Lensherr, two men who bond over their new-found mutant abilities. There are plenty of other entertaining minor characters and villians, but none leave much of a lasting impression, nor does the plot. It just happens and it's over. There are nice touches designed specifically to recall the James Bond films of the 60's, the decade depicted in this film, but they add nothing new to the table beyond homage.
The most egregious offense I can levy at the film, though, is the lacklaster nature of its action scenes. They are not bad, per se, but when $160 million is spent on a film, I expect to have the action replaying in my head later, and to face the temptation of driving my car much too fast on the way home, or imagining that that guy hogging the copy machine and me are about to get into an epic brawl over its usage. An entire submarine gets lifted out of the water in X-Men: First Class, and there are brawls, but the submarine is no greater an effect than the bridge relocation in the equally distressing X-Men 3, and the fights don't touch anything found in the first two X-Men films. Those two films worked hard to setup rivalries between the combatants, and each of Wolverine's battles at the ends of those films were balletically choreographed and shot with artistry. The third X-Men film did a great job of setting up a rivalry between Wolverine and Juggernaut, only to withhold a fight between the two and have Juggernaut literally deceived into running into a wall and knocking himself out by a little girl.
Now, I may not make movies, but I can easily tell you that a climactic, knockdown, dragout death-fight between two nearly indestructible foes is far more exciting than having the two not face off in a final battle, and having one incapcitate himself by being clumsy and outsmarted by a child. That's just good sense, and it seems like a lot of filmmakers don't have it these days.
You can boil what works best in an action film down to a simple, easily followed formula.
1. Introduce your heroes and villians.
2. Build tension between them.
3. Hire a top notch fight-coordinator.
4. Let them go at it, and try to stay out of the way.
Just throwing fancy special effects at the screen doesn't thrill anymore, and quick cuting between a few punches until one person gets knocked out doesn't do it, either.
So let me to take a moment to do something that in previous years would have been unthinkable:
Praise director Justin Lin, his screenwriters and coordinators, and their film, Fast Five.
They set up the two huge, bald foes, Vin Diesel and the Rock, show them to be evenly matched, work up tension between the two of them, then have them come together in a shack-destroying brawl. The camera doesn't get in the way of the punches. You can clearly see the mathematics of the fight. It looks like they are really throwing each other through walls. It actually lasts a few minutes.
Instead of simply saying, "okay, this is where they fight, just hit each other a few times and we'll cut it together," the director thought, people are paying to see these two hulks beat the crap out of each other, so I will show the audience respect and actually have these two men decently beat the crap out of each other.
Also, when it came time for the action scenes, the creators of Fast Five attempted to do some things that creatively had not been done, and if you think you can show me any car chase or action scene lately that can rival the vault-heist at the end of this film, you are probably thinking wrong. In fact, here is one of the craziest true things I will ever say:
Fast Five is art.
I am serious. There is an art to choreographed destruction, and while some directors think just CGI-ing stuff and quickly cutting through it gets the job done, credit needs to go to filmmakers who go to great lengths to ensure there is a beauty and a motion to what they are putting on the screen.
No, Fast Five isn't a great film in the way Citizen Kane is a great film, but it is extraordinarily well made, something so very little things are these days, and it needs to take credit for that.
Don't pretend that Fast Five is less of a film because it has "less meaning" than First Class. That film's trite, throwaway lines about acceptance and being different can be found in a thousand other movies and pamphlets, and they are only perfunctory. As I've said, the joy and poetry of Fast Five's chase and fight scenes are meaning enough. That's all I really want from a "simple" action film. Is it really that hard to deliver?
And on a final note, here is a quote from Fast Five's stunt coordinator, Jack Gill, which explains why the destructive, vault-pulling car chase at the end of that film was so much more thrilling than the sub crash in First Class:
There was never once a CG vault. We had 7 different vaults that each served a different purpose. We had 4 weeks of prep for the scene, storyboarded everything, and every camera angle was pre-determined. The tumbling safe on the first turn was real, not CGI. It was much more violent than we even expected.
(Thanks to Screenrant)


Neal said...

You're right about something needing to be at stake in an action scene. One of the (many) things wrong with the Matrix sequels is that many of the fights did not have anything at stake. Neo randomly fights some asian dude to "get to understand him," etc. Whereas in the first, everything has something to be lost, or we've invested in the characters enough to like them.

And you can tell what is going on. These fast cut (or dimly lit) action scenes are terrible. I saw a musketeer based movie once (not the Disney one with Charlie Sheen), and was disappointed when most of the fight scenes took place in darkly lit spaces, making it next to impossible to appreciate what was going on. I went to see it because some martial arts master directed the fights, but you couldn't see anything to appreciate them.

Hero was great for being able to tell what was going on, and that is one of the more beautiful martial arts movies I have ever seen.

Nicholas said...

I know about the musketeer of which you speak. It looked like they filmed the action scenes under the Mississippi River.
Also, Hero definitely rules. I like Crouching Tiger as well, for many of the same reasons.