I was watching Pulp Fiction on IFC the other week (in HD, thankfully), and was reminded about one of my favorite aspects of the movie; how the script takes potentially ordinary action scenes, and makes them compelling by making them unusual. The gunfighting chase culminating in the sword-wielding rescue of Marcellus from the “rape of the rednecks” is perhaps the best example. The surprise confrontation between Bruce Willis and John Travolta (who’s sitting in the bathroom) is another. Granted, these scenes were brief, but with swords being slashed and machine guns being fired, I say they’re action scenes.
All of which made me think of the Crank movies.
Outrageous as they are (Crank 2 more delightfully so then the original), they do make a point of staging each and every action sequence as unusually as possible. The result is an audience riveted as much by “I can’t believe he’s having a gunfight while experiencing oral pleasure from his girlfriend” as by Jason Statham in a sharp suit stoically employing firearms. To be frank, I had expected both of the Crank movies to be either a) terrible, or b) a guilty pleasure. But the imaginative (and hilarious) plotting, Statham’s complete commitment to playing it straight, and its highly unusual action sequences kept my eyes on the screen for two whole installments.
Which isn’t to say this notion of unusual action staging can’t be overdone. Speaking of another movie I had no business enjoying but kind of did, Shoot ‘Em Up employed the same idea, outrageous action sequences staged in ridiculous ways. However, whereas the examples I cite in the previous movies are (by comparison) down-to-earth sequences that could plausibly be performed by a fit and practiced marksman, the sequences in Shoot ‘Em Up are utterly beyond the boundaries of any possible human achievement. While the director get points for imagination (not to mention including Monica Bellucci), I take more points away for eliminating any hope of suspension of disbelief. (And yes, I do understand that the whole point of Shoot ‘Em Up was to be completely and totally outrageous. It was.)
Now, before you tell me I’m insane for even mentioning suspension of disbelief in a post discussing the Crank movies, please note, I’m talking about the action sequences themselves, not the overall plot.
While I find myself utterly engaged by action that’s imaginative and creatively staged, I’m only truly engaged if I’ve got an emotional investment in the scene, which usually happens if I believe, in the moment, that a character is trying really hard, and has an actual chance of dying (or at least being horribly maimed). If the action is so far over the top that it triggers my “no-fucking-way” response, emotional engagement goes out the window, and at that point I’m simply watching a well-choreographed routine. Maybe fun, but not stirring.
So that’s my personal take-away on action scenes, and what I try keep in mind as I write. Keep things plausibly within the capabilities of human physiology, but stage things interestingly, and hopefully the audience will get a ride they can connect to and enjoy.