Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Two Sides of Action Filmmaking

In action filmmaking, less is more. Not in the usual sense, which is used to imply that being subtle is more effective than having a film scream “LOOK AT THIS!” into the collective face of its audience. Rather, I mean it in a more literal sense: not so much ‘less is more’ as ‘less is equal to more’. The aim of any action film is get the gut reaction, hitting the audience square in the viscerals. And ‘less is equal to more’, because toning down or ramping up the stylisation of action are equally viable choices in achieving this. The proof? Two films I ended up seeing back to back one Tuesday night: Haywire and Underworld: Awakening.

These films make for an excellent comparison. They are both helmed by women. They both feature thin plots and underdeveloped characters (played by ironically well-developed actresses). In fact, plot and character are only present in these films to legitimise what would otherwise be a non-stop orgy of violence. As might be expected then, neither film is that interested in engaging the mind with themes, or the soul with moments of poignant beauty. Their aim is to present battles that grab the audience by the balls. Both films achieve this, only through completely opposite methods.

Underworld: Awakening elects to take the route that winds up and over the top. Everything about the film is over-stylised, with Seline’s (Kate Beckinsale) costume being a prime example. The rubber, corset & big strappy boots combo, all tinted the slinkiest of blacks, creates an image that truly deserves the title ‘hypersexual’. But there’s more to this outfit than simple sex appeal.

In this universe, vampires are immune to getting hair in their eyes

Seline after all is a vampire, marked in this series by her eyes on occasion turning bright, ice-blue. This note of colour stands out massively on a character which is so monochrome. In addition to the all-black outfit, Beckinsale’s face is made up very pallid, and her hair is as dark as her squeaky outfit. The eye change then is very noticeable, hammering home to the audience that what we are seeing here isn’t quite human. The same happens when Seline feeds. The contrasting redness of her blood-drenched chin similarly reinforces the monstrous nature of her character.

And it is important that this is reinforced. In Underworld, the insanity of the fight scenes only makes sense because the characters are so clearly inhuman. And this isn’t the only way the style displayed in character design feeds into the action. Seline as a character is not so much eyecatching, as she overwhelms the eye in stimuli. All that hypersexuality combines with the vampire affections, to make a character that throws out a confusing mix of allure and alienation.

This reflects the action because it also grabs attention by being visually overwhelming. In Underworld, characters are not punched. They are twatted, sent flying across a room, or burst from the inside, or both. Bones are broken through the skin, necks are snapped and faces are torn off. Through this, Underworld aims to make you wince. It seeks immediate sensory overload and it is highly successful. And as such, the Underworld action sequences are pure visceral fun.

And so are those of Haywire, despite the fact that where Underworld over-exaggerates, Haywire under-exaggerates. It’s actually kind of crazy just how stripped down Haywire is. The film is a parade through multiple, featureless environments. Unlike in Underworld, situated in a city that looks like it was designed by Edgar Allen Poe, Haywire’s surroundings have no dominating style. In fact, only the globetrotting extent of the film stops it looking like a student production.

And it doesn’t stop there. Gina Carano (who plays the heroine Mallory Kane), Michael Fassbender (as fellow agent Paul), Channing Tatum (Aaron, another agent) and most of the rest of the cast play distinctively low-key roles: not much emotion, softly spoken, the whole works. It’s a nice way to bring across the alien levels of reserve that professional killers, in a literally cutthroat industry, would need to operate, but somewhat unexpected from an action film.

Even the person of Carano herself reflects this toned-down style. Though certainly beautiful, she is not so in the usual waifish Hollywood sense. In fact, by comparison to such people she looks positively normal. For the most part. See Carano does have some distinguishing features that, in my mind, mark her out as born physical actress. Namely, a grace to her movements and a hard intensity to her eyes that just states ‘fighter’ (which, as a Mixed Martial Arts champion, she is).

Her eyes aren't invulnerable. They're just lethal.

This visual presence is a lot different to the ‘LOOK AT ME’, hypersexual style of Beckinsale. That style screams to be noticed, is extreme and overwhelming. By comparison Carrano’s style is downplayed. She doesn’t call out to be noticed. And yet the merest glance at her informs that this woman can tear people to shreds. This is something Beckinsale’s character announces. Carrano says it, slowly, calmly and with papal-level infallibility.

So, as with Underworld, the action of Haywire reflects this domineering style. Visual shock has no place here. Haywire’s fight scenes feature two people simply rolling around and punching each other, and they do it in silence. Haywire’s score is only forgettable background music at the best of times, but even that extra facet is stripped away during the fights, with the only audio the sounds of impacts and the gasps of pain and exertion.

And yet, these scenes are just as visceral as the overblown werewolf-vampire dusts up of Underworld. In my opinion, it works because Haywire strips out everything that might distract from the fighting. This technique plays on the way humans are naturally captivated by fights. Haywire, in making sure there are no other demands on our attention during the fight scenes, blinkers its audience. Once our attention is caught, nothing is allowed to distract us from Carano beating the shit out of people. And with our focus so captured, it is impossible to not become viscerally invested in the onscreen goings-on.

So, there you have it. Haywire and Underworld Awakening, two films which take totally opposite approaches to the presentation of action, that both prove equally successful. So, what is the point of pointing this out? Well, it could be to let Hollywood know that there is a route to good action movies other than over-exaggerated stylisation: it would be nice if amongst all the blockbusters that look like Underworld, there were at least a few that styled themselves after Haywire. But hell, they aren’t reading this, so instead, the message is targeted at you, the consumer. If you’re out shopping, and you’re looking for good action, don’t automatically gravitate to the flashy stuff. Remember, there are multiple ways to grab someone by the balls.

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