What Kind of Action Do We Want?
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.
Anticipation for comic book adaptations come in very different forms. The Batman movies all suffer from a similar fate in that fans want darker every time, hence the widespread spurning given to Joel Schumacher’s Cyberpunk nightmares during the 1990s. Daredevil suffered a similar fate, although in both cases, little argument can be made for the actual quality of the adaptations, let alone their inability to tap into the desires that fans have of what they envisage for beloved characters. Sometimes, the criticism becomes slightly unfair. Witness the recent news that Fantastic Four is to be rebooted by Fox with a view to providing a darker vision of their super-family strife. The Fantastic Four movies are not great but, admit it, they capture the spirit of the comics very well indeed.
Watchmen is an entirely different beast. You could compare them to other Alan Moore adaptations and the treatment they had, but that doesn’t quite grasp the kind of no-win situation into which Zack Snyder plunged himself by taking on, and subsequently talking up, a film version of Moore’s most revered work. V for Vendetta inspires great love amongst Moore fans but that adaptation seemed doomed from the beginning given the presence in the directorial chair of James McTeigue, the perfect example of what Kevin Smith described as ‘failing upwards’ in Hollywood. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen isn’t Moore’s most revered but it is a brilliant, rollicking set of tales. It should have been easy to adapt but, beset by problems across the board, you can understand why that one fell to pieces. None though carry with them the stigma of adaptation that Watchmen has. It is an distinctly mixed desire amongst fans to see the film adapted anyway. It has often been described as unfilmable, not least by Moore himself, while the likes of Terry Gilliam (who was advised not to embark on the venture by Moore himself) and Paul Greengrass walked on past without managing to bring it to life. So, as this beast arrives, the question is raised as to whether Snyder managed to pull it off, and whether he should have tried at all.
The answer to both is a very tentative yes. Watchmen is some achievement, a linear and entertaining action movie gleaned from source material which never gives any concession to such narrative convention. You could never deny that Snyder has pulled off the adaptation, and for that he should be applauded. But he should not be lauded because, while this is undoubtedly something to see, nearly every problem that this film has offsets the positives and, on both sides of that coin, Snyder takes responsibility.
Snyder is undoubtedly a visual stylist, maybe even auteur, and his fingerprints are smeared on every scene. There are a great number of moments from the graphic novel which get lifted into the film wholesale, itself a visceral thrill for any fan watching. In doing so, he manages to include a number of the bigger themes that the book explores, not to mention the moments of humour that Moore often slips in, a welcome addition to what is a big, serious movie. The title sequence deserves a significant amount of praise, given that it manages to provide the alternative history of Moore’s United States with panache and skill without every feeling like important information is being shoehorned in; it’s a lesson for anyone taking on big, difficult adaptations and how to deal with the fact that five-hour movies don’t tend to sell. The other huge positive the movie has is Dr Manhattan, a brilliant CG/human creation which outstanding work from Billy Crudup, joining Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian in bringing the characters to life with verve and skill. Manhattan’s screen-incarnation is so well-judged and intelligently used, he is easily the most fully-realised and well understood adapted creation in Snyder’s universe.
But, for all the good, the bad and mistepping comes streaming through to match. The minor gripes first. The sex scene, itself used in a semi-comic context in the movie, is incredibly poorly filmed and badly judged by Snyder, coming across like the worst form of late-night, Channel 5 nonsense. Akerman is weak as Silk Spectre 2, an undemanding character which she manages to make completely unbelievable, especially in the S&M variation on the original costume which reaks of at-least partial sexism. Matthew Goode too, whilst relatively good in terms of look and attitude as Ozymandias, is slightly out of place and, although reportedly this was an acting choice, his accent is all over the shop.
The real problems though fall to Snyder himself. He is a director with great visual flair and an understanding of action quotients and slickness. However, his addiction to slo-mo fight scenes and, in this case, astonishing violence in given parts (the alley way and Rorschach’s turning point with a cleaver). Snyder seems far too interested in the slo-motion sequences, themselves extremely annoying and lacking in the kind of pace needed, and ends up fetishising the violence in truly disturbing fashion. It seems as though his history on 300, a far less illustrious project but equally strewn with heavy, slo-mo battles, was more indicative of his overall style rather than his adherence to Frank Miller’s work. Any concentration on the violence in Watchmen is to miss the point of the story, especially when he’s putting in the action sequences in slo-mo and taking up time which should be used to bring in other story parts (most notably the magazine vendor and kid reading comic which frame the story in the comic so brilliantly). It seems to me that Snyder was much more interested in amping up the violence and action scenes and producing a linear movie, rather than managing to balance the more difficult moments in Watchmen with those base elements.
As a director, he can undoubtedly make a film in which you are dazzled by the visuals and the gung-ho entertainment value. But it seems he does not have the ability to grasp wider emotional issues. For that reason, Watchmen doesn’t quite manage to ascend to greatness. But, for all the faults that strew the movie, I would argue that this is the absolute best that Snyder could ever have done and, therefore, he can be rewarded on a personal level. But I cannot help but wonder what a more versatile directorial talent would have made of it. Given all the history though, I think I can just be pleased that Snyder managed to adequately sidestep fucking up the greatest work of graphic fiction of all time.