I was probably sitting right in the centre of the grand Watchmen debate. I didn’t hate the film with fanboy outrage or the bemused annoyance of the un-anointed. But I didn’t sing its praises in the way many others did. I will freely admit the film is a startling vision, but beyond looking just about right in comparison to its source material, it was poorly handled emotionally and imaginatively. Director Zack Snyder was my primary source of scorn. I don’t doubt the difficulty of the position in which he was placed. No one, Greengrass or Gilliam included, could possibly have pleased everyone with an adaptation of such beloved graphic fiction.
But, while that can be taken into account briefly, his attempt to please as many people as possible meant the overall work was compromised, ending up giving the world and mixed, muddled and messy moving storyboard of frames linked only briefly in the running time. He works so hard to make everything so close to Alan Moore’s print vision that he forgets to differentiate in his own mind between the two mediums. He is desperate to fit in as much dialogue and as many scenes from the novel as he can, in the process sacrificing any creativity which should be brought to any adaptation.
Watchmen feels flat and lifeless on the screen, only managing to break into moments of greatness through the generally good performances and some superlative sequences. Is it not telling that easily the most brilliant moment of Watchmen is the opening title sequence? Tracking the alternative history Moore sets up through visually breathtaking montage; re-appropriating Dylan’s ‘The Times Are A-Changin’ to be an anthem for his history rather than for 1960s America; these are the brave moves taken by a director who understands he cannot possibly fit the source material onto the screen wholesale and must improvise. It’s that moment, when Snyder gives himself the freedom to interpret the source material in his own way, that you feel finally as though a real adaptation is occurring in front of your eyes.
For me, although I think Watchmen is a finer achievement of scale, Dawn of the Dead is still the most successful and satisfying project of Synder’s. Here, he had no qualms about giving his own take on a classic original film, eschewing the political and social concerns of Romero’s original to produce a visceral, thrilling action film. He interpreted the material brilliantly, something he resolutely fails to do in either Watchmen or the turgid 300.
Snyder has now been talking up his next project, Sucker Punch, and the bravery of Warner Bros in putting out his films in the past. I don’t deny WB has become the top major studio for taking risks with its major projects. But Watchmen directed by Zack Snyder is nowhere near the risk which would have been involved in taking on Watchmen by Gilliam or Watchmen by Greengrass (even if his re-contextualisation would have been a step too far). Sucker Punch, which will follow a young girl sent to a mental asylum and her fantasies of escaping alongside her fellow inmates, doesn’t really sound like much of a risk either. Snyder’s Watchmen may not have done the kind of business many were hoping for – although I will continue to argue against that – but this is a project in which a relatively bankable director has recruited five very attractive young women (lead Emily Browning joined by Vanessa Hudgens, Abbie Cornish, Evan Rachel Wood and Emma Stone) to take part in what I predict will be a series of semi-intense action sequences and recall the kind of Grindhouse films Tarantino so desperately aimed for a couple of years back. I don’t deny that sounds entertaining, but I can’t imagine this will provide any evidence to contradict that Snyder is a competent director with a knack for divisive slo-motion action and no ability to harness the emotional core of a story.
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.