ByDena Pech, writer at Creators.co
Storyteller, award winning screenwriter, movie junkie, video gamer. Verified Creator. There's always a gem in a bad movie...
Dena Pech

The American #action movie is without originality. What comes with originality is the ability to reinvent. Once that is understood, the human eye can see an action movie with a whole new standard. "Originality" is a vague word to describe Hollywood because "reinvention" is what it truly means, and is a quality rarely seen. There are a few action movies that have fought their way out of stagnation, like #MadMaxFuryRoad and #JohnWick. Those gems aside, Hollywood sees reinvention as walking blindfolded into the unknown — a realm of uncertainty. In the last decade, the American action movie has struggled, fighting for the spotlight between forgettable remakes, reboots, sequels, and the golden age of comic book adaptations.

This happens when you wear a blindfold (Warner Bros.)
This happens when you wear a blindfold (Warner Bros.)

Why is it like walking blindfolded into the unknown? Because Hollywood has its sights on the latter, with popular franchise properties, and the notion of stealing recipes for success. Originality is vague to Hollywood because profit aren't a guarantee. Reinvention is a risk, yet Mad Max and John Wick are proof that it is needed. What Hollywood likes to do is grab whatever they can from the unknown, and see if it works. On the other side of the world, the Asian action movie has always maintained its spotlight. Why is that? It’s because they understand the definition of originality, and how it conveys through the camera lens. Asian action movies are massively successful because they use simple, yet powerful, production techniques. Their three main techniques are action choreography, non-verbal dialogue, and easy editing.

Action Choreography

Chinese filmmaking focuses on actors’ abilities, which gives them chances to show off. Most action stars overseas like #DonnieYen and #JetLi are successful, partially because of their #martialarts awesomeness, but it’s mainly choreography that guides their way into the unknown. They dedicate themselves to practice long before shooting begins. Mastering the action prior to filming shows the trust and respect in the actors’ abilities.

The American action movie tends to focus on spectacle, with constant explosions and car chases. The production tends to forget what the actors can do. Spectacle is easy because it meets production schedules, and a surefire way to add action to a story. That’s why action scenes in American movies are blended with each other, because the spectacle outweighs the actors’ potential. Most fight scenes in action movies are generic and dismissive to the general audience, but its wow factor will have audiences forget its tricks. Actors like Donnie Yen and Jet Li suffer in American action movies because they are relegated to the background of the spectacle. Their abilities are wasted, and their roles are forgettable. Even American actors are relegated to the latter when time is a constraint.

Donnie Yen & Xiaoming Huang in 'Ip Man 2' (Variance)
Donnie Yen & Xiaoming Huang in 'Ip Man 2' (Variance)

The American action movie must prioritize action choreography. They need to have their actors do the action. If there’s a fight scene, have the actors (and their stunt doubles) practice the fight, and show how real they can get. #TheMatrix is a wonderful example of inheriting eastern techniques. Prior to filming, #KeanuReeves and the rest of the cast underwent kung fu training for four months. Training under martial arts master #YuenWooPing (#CrouchingTigerHiddenDragon), the cast of The Matrix were able to perform their fight sequences with credibility.

Tiger Chen & Keanu Reeves in 'Man of Tai Chi' (The Weinstein Company)
Tiger Chen & Keanu Reeves in 'Man of Tai Chi' (The Weinstein Company)

"It was challenging, not just in the physical sense, but also mentally challenging. This was one of the hardest things I've ever done. But it was worth it.” — Keanu Reeves

Reeves’s experience with Yuen Woo-Ping inspired him to further his kung fu studies, personally and professionally. Reeves directed the martial arts spectacle, #ManofTaiChi, a film that shows great prowess between Reeves and co-star (and friend) #TigerChen. #TomCruise also trained in swordplay months prior to filming #TheLastSamurai. His dedication to wielding a sword helped the film aesthetically with its battle sequences.

Hiroyuki sanada & Tom Cruise in 'The Last Samurai' (Warner Bros.)
Hiroyuki sanada & Tom Cruise in 'The Last Samurai' (Warner Bros.)

“Tom is an actor who knows his limits and he prepares for danger extraordinarily well.” — Paula Wagner

From Keanu Reeves to Tom Cruise’s commitment to choreography, comes the reinvention of action. Asian filmmaking has reinvented their martial arts genre countless times, yet they manage to do it without rehashing the same old routine. Each martial arts film carries the same action formula, but the choreography sets them apart. Each of the #PoliceStory movies are standalone films with different stories, but all are part of a franchise. The legacy of martial arts films is as strong as they were 40 years ago. The actors’ commitment to practicing action choreography is what makes every martial arts movie a gem to see.

Jackie Chan in 'Police Story' (Shout! Factory)
Jackie Chan in 'Police Story' (Shout! Factory)

Going back decades in terms of Hollywood action movies, the quality has shown its declined. There's the groundbreaking #DieHard, then there's the forgettable #AGoodDaytoDieHard. The Hollywood trend of unsuccessful rehashing is a wake-up call for reinvention. Hollywood needs to find another way into the unknown, and stop recycling things from other movies. Rehashing proves that what worked for one movie won't trend with another. The three #JasonBourne films are fine examples of reinvention. They took action to a whole new level with great fight choreography. Hollywood took note of it, then rehashed it into the first two #DanielCraig #JamesBond movies.

"While Doug Liman‘s first entry, 'The Bourne Identity,' did the work in terms of establishing a new, real-world tone, it is really Paul Greengrass‘ nervy handheld docudrama style that redefined the action landscape..." — Jessica Kiang and Oliver Lyttelton, Indie Wire

"Director Marc Forster has also given 'Quantum' a look and attitude that's closer to Matt Damon's Jason Bourne movies than it is to your standard Bond picture." —James Sanford, Mlive

Instead of waiting for what comes out of the unknown, Hollywood needs to find another direction. Martial arts films in the East are as relevant as they were decades ago. American action movies are interchangeable and redundant. Action choreography is key for reinvention of the genre.

Let The Pain Speak

With choreography comes physical acting, the art of non-verbal dialogue. One of the reasons Asian martial arts movies remain the standard is because choreography can speak on its own. It’s physical acting with real emotion, and therefore, no dialogue is needed to convey the action. Legendary physical actor #JackieChan is a prime example of the latter. His fight sequences show emotion that speaks louder than words.

A fight without pain has no consequence, and in general, takes away the importance of the action. Jackie Chan’s physical acting shows pain and fatigue, adding resonance and (even) comedy. The American action movie likes to show the hero falling from heights and crashing into things without harm. It also likes to show an indestructible hero in the heart of the action, and it's hard to cheer for that. Watching Jackie Chan punch someone and feeling the pain is funny, relatable, and true.

Screenwriting styles between Asian and American cinema can be compared by the amount of dialogue. In a martial arts movie, the story is carried by its physicality, while showing the progression of a film’s characters. A fight scene in an American movie is an object to add (again) spectacle, or to fix pacing issues, then there's plenty of exposition in between. The technique is expected to carry the story onward, yet it lacks character study. The American action movie can reinvent themselves by showing more emotion with less dialogue. Sometimes having non-verbal moments in film conveys it all. Let the physicality of the actors portray the emotion over dialogue. A screenplay is a blueprint, and it's OK to omit dialogue because of a great performance. That's why acting is a talent.

Jackie Chan at his Finest in 'Drunken Master'
Jackie Chan at his Finest in 'Drunken Master'

In movies like 'Drunken Master' and 'The Young Master,' Jackie Chan had become a star by perfecting — and, in some sense, inventing — that combination of broad, goofy physical comedy and precise, acrobatic martial-arts choreography. He made a few relatively serious movies when he was coming up, but he found his voice when he became a complete clown. — Tom Breihan, A.V. Club

Simple Editing

Fast cuts, unreasonable shaky cam, and close-ups are the norm in Hollywood action movies. According to the editing rule from Walter Murch's Blink of an Eye, there are six rules to follow when editing a picture. The two main ones are emotion and story. With choreography comes great performances, then comes physical acting with non-verbal dialogue. Any editing in between must keep that emotion and story. Action scenes in martial arts films are simply edited, because the emotion (choreography) and story (non-verbal dialogue) are clear in the fights. A film only cuts when the action of the scene changes course.

The American action movie has resorted to fast-paced, quick-cut editing. The techniques are gimmicks that try to excite the audience with two actors barely fighting in a scene they hardly practiced for. The technique takes away emotion, and the story is put on hold until the scene hits a beat. The hospital shootout in #JohnWoo's #HardBoiled contains minimal cuts, great choreography, emotionally driven action, and is easy to follow. The final practice that Hollywood needs to inherit from Asian Filmmaking is simple editing. When the emotion and story is shown by the actors’ performances, there is no need for fast cutting.

Chow-Yun Fat in 'Hard boiled.' A rare gem. (Rim)
Chow-Yun Fat in 'Hard boiled.' A rare gem. (Rim)

"Action was always intelligible, no matter how frenetic the scenario. A prime example: John Woo’s classic Hong Kong action film 'Hard Boiled.' Its action is wild and extravagant, but it is nevertheless coherent and comprehensible at all times." — Matthias Stork, Indie Wire

Conclusion

Three simple rules applied in action filmmaking make for a better story and emotion. American action movies of the last decade are very hard to remember because they are products of loud noises, jolting images, and with unbreakable heroes. Those values are designed to keep the audience’s attention for two hours, but are the audience emotionally invested? It's hard to tell whether those films are memorable or not. Sequels don’t prove anything. Reboots and remakes are safe bets in the attempt to keep interest with the studios’ bought properties. Standout action movies like the Bourne series, The Matrix, and Mad Max: Fury Road utilizes the three rules effectively, and they’re memorable at best, and imitated at worst.

One of the best fight scenes in American cinema. (Universal Pictures)
One of the best fight scenes in American cinema. (Universal Pictures)

Hollywood has inherited a few good tricks in the past to make standout action flicks. The problem with Hollywood is that they like to find the gem of yesteryear and reshape it as their own for quick success. Action movies in Asia are thoughtful with their action, showing more respect to its performers over spectacle that serves as filler. Walking blindfolded into the unknown is never a good idea, but Hollywood keeps doing it. If the three rules are carefully considered for each action picture, the popularity of the genre will find its path.

Peep the video below for 12 more reasons why Asian action films kick some serious ass. You can keep up with all the original video content from Movie Pilot right here.

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[References: Ron Gluckman, TomCruisefan, mlive, avclub, Walter Murch's In Blink of an Eye, indiewire, indiewire]