It struck me when writing my review for Watchmen recently that a divide seems to have opened up in the movie industry as regards action sequences. There seem to be two schools of notable action in common day moviemaking:
A. The hyper-kinetic, handheld, shaky-cam, mega-edited hand-to-hand combat typified by the Bourne films.
B. Slow-motion, bone-crunching, balletic brutality, sometimes but not always involving bullet-time, born from The Matrix and elongated to its logical extreme in the films of Zack Snyder.
Now, these are not the only forms of fighting we see. You could also count the newer forms of martial arts, most notably Tony Jaa’s Muay Thai style. But I would argue that the two given the most attention in the last few years, both in praise and criticism, are the two aforementioned.
It leaves a question of what exactly will become the norm for modern action. Perhaps it will remain at to two extremes, on which revels in the blow-by-blow fascination of violence and the other which spends little time on singular blows and is more interested in placing the audience amidst the combatants. Years ago, fight scenes were simply done at regular pace with easily-spotted dives taken by stuntmen (see the likes of Die Hard and onwards to so many mid-90s picks like Con Air etc.). Now it seems we must strike a balance between the two or face a war between fighting styles beloved of fans.
Some adore Snyder’s method, slowing down the action into the bullet-time motion for the purposes of the audience seeing the blows make contact and for bodies to fly across rooms in moon-walking style before speeding back up to pepper the scenes with both hyper-slow and hyper-fast beats. Other favour the Greengrass close-quarters speed-fighting, however unclear it can sometimes become.
Modern action by no means needs a norm, but it seems interesting to have these two duelling forces stepping to each other, both presenting entirely different methods for presenting fighting on screen, and which will win through in terms of followers. At present, Snyder’s style does not seem to be finding too many imitators, although you could put forward the point that his style is a slightly-altered version of that peddled popularly by The Matrix in the early-00s and before that by wire-fighting extravaganzas from the Asian circuit. The Bourne style has been aped most famously in the recent Bond incarnations.
So, which do you prefer?
Also, check out this excellent article from Slate on the evolution of the fight scene.