The action genre has been in rapid flux over the last decade. Franchises like The Expendables have indulged in the tropes of old, honing in on explosions, over-the-top fight sequences, and little to no plot. Coming off the action flicks of the 80s and 90s, it’s no surprise really. Guys like Michael Bay cut their teeth on CGI-centric filmmaking, giving way to a generation of frenetic movies. But in just the last few years, the industry has come to a turning point of sorts.
It began with 2014’s John Wick, starring none other than Keanu Reeves. It only seems natural that Reeves, a man who starred in a separately revolutionary movie in The Matrix, takes part in a catalyst film for action movies. Since Wick‘s release, it hasn’t been alone in its efforts. A trio of films headlined by a recent release have shown that we may be in a full-fledged movement that’s officially redeemed the genre.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road been buzzing ever since its release, and for good reason. Its overtly feminist narrative combined with gorgeously indulgent and stunning chase sequences have made it a seminal movie. Director George Miller proved that his Mad Max/Road Warrior franchise was one capable of evolving with technology, while still producing compellingly-made cinema.
Outside of its feminist lean (which is impressive in its own right), we have what amounts to a jawdropping 2-hour chase scene. Put that in the hands of a director like Michael Bay or Zack Snyder, and we have something that will probably make money, but completely lack substance. In Miller’s hands, we have the CGI and action all serving a greater narrative purpose, rather than existing simply for the sake of itself.
Compare this to something like The Expendables and it’s a stark contrast. One has nuanced and contextual action helped by strong characters and a deeper message. The other crams its cast full of A-list action stars, works off of a hastily written script, and is driven entirely by big guns and even bigger explosions. Given the reaction from both critics and audiences alike following Fury Road‘s release, odds are Miller’s style will become the gold standard moving forward rather than the exception.
2. John Wick
Directed by Chad Stahelski, John Wick is a movie that doesn’t try to be anything more than what it was: A visually legible movie about a man exacting his revenge. Rather than the frenetic multi-cut shakey camera of its predecessors, we get to see all the fight sequences take place in long, visually legible takes. It helps us invest in the action when we know who’s who and what’s going on. Movies like The Bourne Identity shot with hand-held cameras make it difficult to understand anything, much less follow the story.
The true accomplishment of John Wick though is in the way it pretty much bucked all the common trends for hitman-centric revenge flicks. It was stylistic in its visual language and provided depth for an otherwise godlike main character in our titular hero. In doing so, Stahelski painted a vivid picture of a well-defined universe, where professional killers like Wick have their own established subculture. Again we see characterization and context taking the place of mindless action.
3. Kingsman: The Secret Service
Rounding out the trio is Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman. Vaughn’s career has been punctuated by iconic films and flat narratives alike, with his most recent effort falling in the former category. With Kick-Ass, he developed his instantly recognizable style, using few (if any) takes to film his fight scenes, with his heroes getting visibly exhausted from their efforts.
Kingsman follows this formula to the tee, defined by one particular scene that should be held up as a shining beacon for how a full-on brawl needs to be shot. In it, Colin Firth takes on a church full of amped-up baddies, using everything from axes to planks of wood to vanquish his foes. We get beautiful tracking shots that rarely cut, showing us every bit of the action taking place in front of us. Despite Kingsman‘s struggles in the realm of story convention, no one can deny its place in the new pantheon of visually legible action movies.
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