The Expendables 2 and the Lost Art of the Action Movie

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — The action movie genre is something of a lost art these days. No one can quite pinpoint when the degradation of action on celluloid started to happen, but many will be quick to accuse the shaky camera execution of the Bourne sequels (Supremacy and Ultimatum, both of which were headed up by director Paul “Shaky-Cam” Greengrass) for the decade-long trend in nonsensical action cinematography.  

Shaky-cam is nothing that hasn’t been done before, at least not in the last three or four decades of cinema. Unfortunately, it’s become a prominent stylistic feature in the landscape of modern action films. Thankfully, there are a few Hollywood relics who understand why this needs to change.

Just to bring a bit more focus to this piece, I’ll open with my initial thoughts on The Expendables 2: it is an excellent action film. That’s not to say that it isn’t also a loud, dumb, cheesy piece of testosterone-drenched movie junk food (because it very much is all of those things), but it’s done with an age-old technical craft that seems to be lost on a lot of directors working today. It’s fully self-aware, and it knows why you put your butt in that theater seat. It’s working hard to not just show you action, but to make you fully aware of every single, gloriously violent moment. This is a simple feat that many, if not most, current blockbuster films somehow manage to get so painfully wrong (The Hunger Games, anyone?).

Let’s look at The Dark Knight Rises (a film I neglected to review because, really, what more is there to say about it that hasn’t already been said?) as an example of the point I’m attempting to convey, here. The Dark Knight Rises is an excellent conclusion to what basically amounts to a character study. It’s less about Batman or the things that Bruce Wayne does when he moonlights as as masked vigilante, and more about the realization of an ideal. In that regard, it’s an excellent trilogy, and easily the finest example of comic book adapted filmmaking to ever grace the silver screen. These films are not, however, the most competent action movies, and Christopher Nolan is not a confident director of action.

** SPOILERS AHEAD!  SKIP OVER THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE DARK KNIGHT RISES **

For me, the most satisfying and identifiable action sequence in The Dark Knight Rises is the initial confrontation between Bane and Batman, when they meet in the sewers for a no-holds-barred, one-on-one brawl. It’s an appropriately vicious and brutal fight in which Bane literally breaks Batman. This is, quite possibly, the most important confrontation in the entire Dark Knight trilogy for several reasons; it’s meant to bring Batman/Wayne down to a level he’s never been before, and it’s a reversal on the first film's theme of fear. Wayne, at this point, welcomes death in the name of martyrdom. He’ll die fighting to save Gotham, but it’s clearly not enough in this instance, and that is ultimately what proves to be his undoing.

The fight should be emotional, visceral and tragic, but unfortunately all of these sensations are stunted somewhat by Nolan’s placement of the camera. He shoots his fight scenes close up, using tight framing and fast cutting to suggest, but not fully reveal, the effects of the blows being exchanged. There’s something missing from the sequence, and that is the essence of what makes a fight scene of this caliber so memorable: giving the scene room to breathe by pulling the camera back and allowing the movements and fluidity of the action to come to completion. (Sounds kind of dirty, doesn’t it?)

By framing these two goliaths of raw physical prowess and personality in a wider two-shot, and angling the camera so that each blow is registered in the peripheral vision of the audience, the action resonates on a much deeper level. When Bane lifts Batman high over his head and breaks his back, Nolan is far too close with his camera for us to truly feel the tragic nature of Bruce being broken. The impact is more implied than felt. It’s still a fantastic scene, easily the best in the film, but I can’t help but feel as though it should have been more. Nolan is far too concerned with moving the camera along with the movements of the fight, inadvertently diminishing the effects.

A good, recent example of a “less-is-more” stylistic approach to action cinematography is in the widely overlooked gem The Book of Eli, where Denzel Washington stars as Eli, a wandering stranger in a post-apocalyptic vision of the future. If you’ve seen the film, you know there’s more to Washington’s character than meets the eye, and you know that his character is capable of doling out some very wicked bouts of punishment when his hand is forced. A key sequence comes at the beginning which reveals Eli to be a proficient killer, giving us everything we need to know about his abilities through movement alone. The camera is completely stationary in a wide shot that takes place under an overpass, and as the five attackers approach Eli and the fight sequence begins, all that is visible are the silhouettes of the people in motion. This one bit of action is so expertly crafted, and so respectful to the stunning choreography on display, that the impression lasts for the duration of the film. The framing is wide, the camera holds, and every single movement is perfectly discernible. It’s breathtaking stuff, as far as action sequences go. This one shot is seconds long, and not a single edit is used; the fight choreography is done in one, seamless take.

This is where we go back to the discussion on The Expendables 2, and why a fight scene (mild spoilers) between Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme is actually a far more expertly crafted sequence than the aforementioned Bane/Batman confrontation. Now don’t misunderstand me, there’s nothing profound about the characters here like there is in The Dark Knight Rises, but it’s in the technical execution that The Expendables 2 wins out by a long mile Van Damme and Stallone are unleashed upon each other like two rabid dogs, and the camera work gives these two action veterans their dues by allowing every bit of the fight to be absorbed by proper framing. Most of the shots are medium to long, and you can clearly differentiate between who is throwing which punch (the Bourne films are virtually indecipherable in this regard). It all sounds like pretty basic stuff, once you put it into context.

This is why The Expendables 2 excels at being not only a suitable 80s action homage (the kind the first movie wanted to be, but fell short), but as an exercise in competent action filmmaking. Director Simon West (Con Air, The Mechanic) is a veteran action director with a penchant for the simple, “old-school” technical flourishes that make the action tense and rewarding. Wide, steady shots of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Sly Stallone holding big guns and unloading into an army of bad guys is as good as it gets. West knows that if you’re going to put these three legends in the same frame, you’d best be ready to hold it for two-to-three seconds before cutting to two-to-three seconds of bad guys getting pelted with lead showers. This is contrary to the very popular modern-day technique of unloading an action sequence onto the audience with a fast and frantic barrage of edits; where a punch is thrown but not seen connecting (only heard), before cutting to the next motion in the assault.

Everything else that The Expendables 2 has to offer is good, clean, macho, ultra-violent fun. The cast is once again a big, muscle-ripped ensemble, with walk-on roles from the likes of Chuck Norris, and slightly meatier roles for Willis and Schwarzenegger, but it’s with Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Jason Statham that the film is primarily focused. The surprise standouts this time around are Dolph Lundgren, providing many of the really good laughs, and Van Damme, who is clearly relishing the chance to make a viable comeback in Hollywood.

Van Damme is having a lot of fun with his role as the lead villain, and my only complaint is that there wasn’t more of him. Reviews, both positive and negative alike, seem to be singing Van Damme’s praises, so I hope this is the first of many roles for him in major Hollywood productions. His fight with Stallone is a real highlight, and it’s great to see him throwing those impressive roundhouse kicks again (since the guy is in his 50s now). If they can dust off Mickey Rourke and throw him back into the fold, then surely Van Damme deserves a solid chance. If you need more convincing of that sentiment, then seek out a 2008 film called JCVD and perhaps then you’ll be swayed.

The Expendables 2 makes a case for why good action films need a revival. It manages to achieve a tone that is totally reminiscent of the 80s “golden era” of action cinema, with a very tongue-in-cheek sense of self-awareness that never failed to incite some hearty laughter from the audience at my screening. Yes, it’s dumb, but in a very harmless and inoffensive sort of way. (Think the opposite of Transformers 2.) It’s a cheesy good time that delivers on the initial promises that were made by the first film, and it’s coming in at the tail end of a somewhat abysmal summer movie season. The 80s were a glorious time for action fans, and for those of us who wish to recapture a fleeting moment of nostalgia, The Expendables 2 is as good as it’s likely to get.

The Expendables 2 will open in local theaters September 6.



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