Has any genre been more underexploited for its aesthetic potential than action? A scene of visceral intensity and excitement, with fine stuntwork, editing, direction and choreography, creates an aesthetic effect unlike any other, and takes us into the realms of pure narrative, where our desire to see what happens next, our hope that the hero survives and that the bad guy doesn’t escape, and our wincing at every blow and gasp at every explosion results in a momentary out-of-body experience. Yet so rarely is this done in a fine movie.
In the eighties and nineties, if you wanted to see an action movie, you had to put up with bad writing, poor acting and a general atmosphere of relentless stupidity. Die Hard is the classic example. Its stunning special effects and spectacle made it a must-see for anyone attracted to action, but the bone-headedness of the scenes in which every other police officer and FBI agent is too stupid to believe anything Bruce Willis says, or the excruciating scene at the end when Willis’s buddy – who has been too scared to draw his gun on anyone since he accidentally shot a kid – triumphantly regains the urge to kill, makes it difficult to enjoy the film unreservedly, let alone make a case for it as a fine movie. The Lethal Weapon films are even more relentless in their stupidity, whilst dross of the kind that Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal star in represent cinema at its most laughable. When we talk about the tropes of bad movies – plotholes, clichés, stock characters – we are usually talking about action movies.
There were some exceptions. The Terminator movies matched action with an intelligent and imaginative narrative, no-nonsense acting and some unusual casting to compelling effect. The best Bond movies and the Indiana Jones trilogy, on the other hand, were more gung-ho but constructed their action scenes with such elegance, and in between the action created such iconic moments, that watching an action movie became a complete aesthetic experience, rather than a combination of longeours and exciting moments. Steven Spielberg’s magnificent Duel transformed a chase between a car and a truck into an epic struggle of David versus Goliath and Man versus Machine, conveyed through expert use of the medium.
The ridiculous films of John Woo were acclaimed by some critics as demonstrating the aesthetic potential of action, in much the same way as some critics insist that martial arts movies possess a balletic grace, but this argument is feeble. Woo’s predilection for slow-motion and shots of doves flying past the heroes do not transform his movies – all of which have dreadful scripts – into art. The endless scenes of men firing twin handguns at each other become monotonous, and the lack of any real physical danger prevents actual excitement or tension (a problem the two Matrix sequels ran into: if the hero and bad guy can’t hurt each other, what’s the point?).
Far more successful are The Bourne Identity and its two sequels, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. These felt like the action movies for grown-ups I’d been waiting for. They were well-written and superbly acted, with attention paid to characterisation and dialogue, and yet they also contained the most extraordinary car chases and fights you could see on celluloid. And while these sequences were superbly staged, directed and edited, they were all the more exciting for being integrated within a compelling narrative and enacted by characters the audience came to believe in. As his hands scrabble for rolled-up magazines or ballpoints to fend off terrifying crunching blows, and cars pursue him at disorientating speeds, we fear for Bourne in a way we never do in a Lethal Weapon or a Die Hard. This is due not just to Paul Greengrass’s riveting visual style, but also to Matt Damon’s empathetic performance, which manages to make Bourne both an iconic figure of danger (it is significant that the posters are confident enough to proclaim “Matt Damon is Jason Bourne”, an honour reserved for mythic figures like Bond), and a person with a sympathetic quandary. The supporting performances are also of a higher calibre than almost any action movie. Franke Potente, as Marie, is a far more well-rounded love interest than any of the Bond girls, while Joan Allen has such a strong presence as CIA boss Pam Landy that the character increases in stature as the films progress. The presence of Brian Cox, Chris Cooper, David Straitairn and Julia Stiles also helps to create an interesting gallery of characters, in contrast to Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace which tend to grip less when Bond is off the screen (despite Judi Dench’s presence, the scenes with MI6 and government officials are the least memorable in both films due to bland characterisation and dull casting).
Unfortunately, the other way forward for action movies, rather than grasp the aesthetic potential of the genre, is to deny the genre itself, in much the same way that science fiction writers have found supposed literary respectability by denying that they write it. When Daniel Craig took over as James Bond, there was an emphasis on how the series would become darker, grittier and more realistic, and grapple with Bond himself as a character. Action movies are in fact not very well-equipped to do this, partly because so much screentime is taken up by setpieces, and partly because their heroes need a degree of superhuman ability if they are to take part in an action sequence, and a degree of implausibility in their origin in order to set them apart from other men. James Bond, Indiana Jones, Bruce Wayne and even Jason Bourne are all ridiculous creations (not that there’s anything wrong with that), to say nothing of the ones that get bitten by radioactive spiders or exposed to gamma rays. This renders attempts at three-dimensional drama unsuccessful: the only emotion behind Quantum of Solace is that Bond is upset at the death of his girlfriend but trying not to let it show, while each of the characters’ predicament, background and psychological profile in The Dark Knight can be summed up in five words or less: Harvey Dent is idealistic, Batman hates crime, the Joker likes crime, Commissioner Gordon is the only incorruptible cop.
And yet, while these movies are trying and failing to be dramas, they are also failing to do what they can do so brilliantly. For all that has been written about The Dark Knight, no critics seemed to notice its most important flaw: the film only had one decent action sequence. The opening sequence in which we first see Batman in action is very flat and seems to end before it’s got started. Clearly the movie is keen to move onto its scenes of human drama, and yet if had started with a gripping action sequence these scenes would be so much more charged and our interest in these characters so much stronger. The scene that most of us will remember from The Dark Knight – and the scene that people will have discussed so animatedly as they left the cinema – isn’t any of the confrontations between the Joker and Batman or the anguished scenes with the Joker and Harvey Dent, but the lavish setpiece in which Batman pursues the Joker, running riot in a huge truck, on the Batpod, a gigantic motorcycle that looks like the kind of bike the devil would ride, only even cooler. It is scenes like this that are the heart and soul of these movies, and create aesthetic joys that can be found in no other type of movie.
So what next for the action film? It must maintain a tightrope balance between two courses ahead. On the one hand, it must continue to increase its ambitions, and to learn the lesson from the Bourne trilogy that just because a movie contains action setpieces doesn’t mean it can’t have good dialogue and interesting plotting, characterisation and ambience. At the same time, it must remember that action itself is crucial to its distinctiveness: to move in the direction of The Dark Knight and Quantum of Solace is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Stephen King, talking of the difference between sensationalist and literary fiction, suggested that the latter were cars with exquisite bodywork but no engine. Action movies can have ferocious engines, with a kick to them you won’t find in classier-looking models, but that doesn’t mean to say we can’t improve the paintwork a little.