I love action movies, and I have no problem saying that. Even as a pretentious film student I feel that a great many action movies can be considered as stone cold movie classics that deserve credit. But one of the biggest problems I feel that action movies face (seemingly now more than ever) is that half the time it’s the studio in charge of them and not the director. An action movie script during pre-production will be under constant scrutiny and given very specific notes. You Know – “add a car chase on page 50” “There must be at least 2 fight scenes in the final act”. Now a good director and/or second unit director might construct a suitably bombastic sequence with gunfire and explosions, but ultimately it’s hollow. Without any reasoning behind an action scene it’s just loud noise and pretty flashes.
The key to a good action scene is purpose. Why is it happening? What is it leading up to? In Die Hard Bruce Willis’ initial fight scene has him killing the first of many henchmen; who also happens to be a fellow henchmen’s brother. This then enrages the brother and adds that characters vendetta to the story. In the process Willis also gets a lighter (used later while crawling through an air duct), gets and idea of how many bad guys there are, and learns the name of two of the main antagonists as well as getting a walkie-talkie to taunt them and call for help.
Now on the flipside take the central car chase from Bad Boys 2. In this scene the protagonists chase a group of gang members in a stolen truck. This leads to people getting shot at, multiple cars getting thrown through the air, and the bad guys getting away. What was the point? Apart from annoying the police captain the scene was completely unnecessary and didn’t serve the story in the slightest.
This leads me to my point. Treat an action scene like a musical number. Don’t laugh. Think about it this way:
A musical number is always a part of the story, whether it is two characters falling in love or the baddie seducing the heroine. A musical numbers sole purpose is to serve the story. And the two concepts really aren’t in essence that dissimilar when you think about it. Obviously to look at they’re hardly the same, but in terms of believability the chance of a group of people breaking into song is about the same as most people getting into a gunfight.
This idea needs to taken into account during the formation of any action scene. Does it serve the story? Think back to the best action films of all time: Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Desperado etc. Each one stands out because they have a cool story that’s driven by stunts, instead of a couple of huge set pieces bolted onto to a lackluster story.