"Human beings must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it."— Albert Einstein
In a sense, a great action film works on the same grounds as an awesome dance act — it aims to satisfy this carving for the perfectly paced and fluent movement, which is present in all of us. Also, it's probably the safest way to do so.
Yet, they're still movies, which means that they need to tell a story and connect with us on an emotional level. In other words, too much action with too little drama simply creates a numbing and shallow viewing experience. In fact, this is why so many action films use the same classic formula of taking an emotionally easy to understand premise (like a revenge plot or a rescue story) and carefully build the #action around it.
Now, some have perfected this formula, while others have even been able to successfully derive from it completely. Let's take a closer look with the help of these six examples.
6. 'John Wick' (2014): Perfecting The Classic Action Film Formula
Kicking things off is a cautionary tale on why it might not be a good idea to kill a grieving ex-hitman's dog. Here is #JohnWick — the sleeper hit of 2014 and easily one of the most refined examples of the classic action film formula.
Indeed, this classic revenge tale really doesn't bring anything new to the table (apart from having a dog as the loved one to avenge for). It's just that, well, this film simply does everything so damn well. Naturally, it's apparent in many amazingly crafted action scenes, which are expertly balanced out through the story. However, perhaps even more importantly, it's the sheer amount of sincerity and raw emotion that is put behind this simple premise. Owing largely to a committed performance from Reeves, we really get a strong sense of Wick's pain and motivations without dwelling on them for too long.
Also worth pointing out, is that even though the structure here might be simple, it's not stupid. For example, the villains are well fleshed out and have an interesting relationship with Wick. Adding to that, we also get this this subtle world-bulidng for this criminal underworld, where Wick used to operate. That way, we seamlessly gain more knowledge and perspective on his character and how capable he is (safe to say that quite capable).
All in all, John Wick succeeds as an action thriller because it has a near-perfect balance between action and plot owing to it's simple but well-delivered structure. However, as tried and tested as this approach is, there are other ways of going about making an action flick.
5. 'The Man From Nowhere' (2010): Masterful Buildup, Sweet Payoff
To an extent, this South-Korean thriller uses many of the same tricks, which I just highlighted in regards to John Wick. Once again, we have this simple premise delivered with strong emotion and some subtle world building. This time around, it's a story about a mysterious pawnshop owner Cha Tae-sik, who has to save a girl named So-Mi (to whom he is sort of a farther figure). Also, as was the case with Wick, the film takes its time during the beginning to firmly establish an emotional center by showing us just how much Tae-sik cares for So-Mi's well being.
Where the movie differs though, lays in its approach towards action. The thing is, well, there actually isn't that much for a considerable part of the film. Granted, we do get some nice glimpses of it here and there but, for much of the time, following the journey of this enigmatic lead character is kind of a slow burn.
Now, it being a two-hour long action thriller, this could have ended up being problematic in regards to pacing. However, it works out perfectly thanks to the way we're teased with the promise of action further along the way. You see, all of it is done in such a manner that it never comes across as boring or dragging. In fact, it just gets us more excited for the end-game, which, well, let's just say doesn't disappoint.
What it goes to show is that a well-paced action film does not necessarily need to have this perfect 50/50 balance of action and story. A slow burn with a worthy payoff can work just as efficiently. In other words, pace doesn't always mean speed.
4. 'The Bourne Ultimatum' (2007): The Ultimate Combination Between An Action Flick And A Spy Thriller
When the first two films on this list were a case of building an action film around a simple premise, then The Bourne Ultimatum shows that you can also build it around a complex one. Only thing, it's pretty damn difficult (which is probably the reason why the #Bourne films became such game-changers).
The challenge here is indeed massive. On the one hand, by making a complex story move at such a rapid pace, you risk with the whole thing becoming convoluted. Slow it down a notch, and away goes the necessary intensity. So, it's kind of like trying to solve Rubik's Cube while running 100 meters at the same time.
And therein lays the brilliance of Ultimatum — this intricacy of the plot and the non-stop action end up serving each other instead of clashing. You see, the spy story adds a sense of urgency to the action, thus making it all the more intense in the process. The action, in turn, makes the plot even more compelling, since every twist and turn has a visually impressive outcome.
Now, it's fair to say that a lot of it is simply down to this flick being a masterclass of filmmaking from a technical point of view. The editing is perfect, script is tight, and acting is just excellent, with Damon leading the charge in this career-defining role. However, everything only comes together because we never loose the main focus of the story, which is seeing Jason Bourne trying to simultaneously uncover and bury his past. Therefore, the main takeaway here is that even though it is indeed possible to pull off a sophisticated action thriller, you can't do it without a clear and simple focus.
3. 'No Escape' (2015): A Tale Of Survival
From one extreme to another, No Escape could not be a more simple and pure approach to the classic action film formula. Starring Owen Wilson and Lake Bell, here we have a story of a family moving to a foreign country, where a violent uprising escalates. There are really no dramatic character motivations or major plot twists. It's basically just one big action scene in form of this family's escape towards safety.
What's great about such a simple premise is that once we have been introduced to this this likable family and spent some time with them, the film can solely focus on the action. There is no need (or point) in slowing down, since the further this family moves away from their comfort zone, the more suspenseful and dramatic the whole experience becomes.
For it to work, the whole experience is made to feel as real as possible, with some impressive attention to detail. There is this almost anti-cinematic sense of uneasiness to the whole thing, which, in turn, gives us this lingering feeling that the family's safety might not guaranteed by the usual action movie tropes. Further adding to this sense of reality is the way this film treats that uprise. You see, No Escape doesn't necessarily take sides in regards to this fictional political conflict, but simply informs us of its causes and merits (via an ex-007 no less). That way, it doesn't feel like we're just watching the good guys escape from some two-dimensional bad guys.
This actually brings us to a nice little paradox in regards to action films. We previously concluded that even an extremely complex action flick (The Bourne Ultimatum) still needs some simplicity at its core. Well, on the other hand, it seems that an utterly simple one can't really do without some complexity in many aspects (heavy attention to detail, sense of reality, etc.).
2. 'Quantum Of Solace' (2008): When Over Delivering On The Action Ends Up Serving The Story
Right, just bare with me on this one. I am fully aware that when it comes to great action films, this direct result (or victim) of the 2007 Hollywood writers strike is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind. Actually, one could say that, at best, Quantum of Solace works as a sort of passable epilogue to the vastly superior masterpiece that is Casino Royale and, at worst, it's just a messy attempt to mimic the Bourne movies. Yet, despite this glass half-full or half-empty situation, Quantum of Solace actually manages to have its flaws serve the story.
Firstly, let's check out the flaws. Here we have a movie that, on the whole (except for a few strong dramatic moments), feels rather empty and void of emotion. It blasts onto the screen from the very first second and, well, never really lets up. In fact, regardless of the impressive stunt work, it's a good example of how over-delivering on the action can make the whole viewing experience fairly tiresome and even numbing at times.
However, the reason why these quite major drawbacks end up serving the story, is that they make us feel what Bond must be going through in the film. You see, the plot in Quantum of Solace revolves around 007 trying to find some closure and move on from some emotionally scarring events. Yet, he also clearly acknowledges that this closure he seeks is not going to provide him with much consolation (if any). Therefore, seeing Bond coldly and relentlessly power through the film without really giving a damn, actually makes a lot of sense. The guy just wants to get it over with as quickly as possible and is not going to let anyone slow him down (including his own people).
Now, by simply acknowledging that parallel, this rushed and emotionally cold thrill ride suddenly immersed me. In a way, it felt like a ticket to Bond's psyche, thus enabling me to sympathize with the whole story a lot more.
Don't get me wrong here. If you are among the many who dislike this film, I'm not suggesting that you are missing some ingenious subtext. It's just, well, for an action movie to mercilessly overdo on the action but somehow end up gaining from it, is a rather fascinating precedent. Regardless of whether or not it was an accident (it probably was).
1. 'Run Lola Run' (1998): Using Action To Explore Action
Concluding the list is this little gem from Germany. Now, what we have here is not so much a straightforward action film, but an exploration of action in general. It's a fast-paced look into how every little action can have huge consequences, and how doing something just a little bit differently can drastically change things in the long run.
The whole thing is realized by inviting us to follow 20 hectic minutes in the life of a woman named Lola (Franka Potene a.k.a. Marie from the Bourne films). She gets a call from her boyfriend Manni, who kindly informs her that if he doesn't come up with a whole lot of money in the next 20 minutes, some people are going to kill him. Now, since Manni himself does not exactly have the brightest plan to obtain the cash, it pretty much leaves Lola to somehow figure out what the hell to do. So, she just runs outside and, well, simply tries to wing it.
How did the filmmakers manage to stretch these 20 minutes into a feature-length film, I rather not spoil here. What I will say though, is that by the end you have witnessed a brilliantly made thrill ride that made your mind flow in some interesting directions. All in all, just an awesome example of how an action thriller can also serve as a means to an end for exploring some cool ideas.
To Sum Up
I can't help but to recall this constant talk of how everything moves at such a rapid pace these days and how people have developed extremely short attention spans as a result. Well, maybe so, but if these six films are anything to go by, we can still achieve great things despite that constant need to keep the pace up.
Also, check out the trailer for the upcoming John Wick: Chapter 2
What are some of your favorite action thrillers? Let me know in the comments below.