An Introduction to The Action Kickback Movement

If you’re reading this blog, “action fan” doesn’t adequately describe you. You’re an “action junkie.” You like your action scene unprocessed and unrefined, no sugar added, preferably in a powdery form whose purity is demonstrated by its rapid solubility in a drink. When taken by the average film-goer, its potency separates his frontal lobe from his skull cap before it even hits his liver. But being action junkies, this is the stuff we live for.

This adrenaline-laced, high-potency jet fuel has become elusive, however. Producers cut the product with 9 parts baby powder, and it stopped giving a high. Now it gives more of an itch. Maintaining this addiction to cheap action with none of the benefits of the hard stuff was only sustainable because the dealers cornered the market, though by no sheer force of will. If we were in the crude oil industry and not film, we could just drop a pickaxe in the ground, but the media market relied on expensive equipment, narrow broadcasting pathways, and a prohibitive labor force, forming a natural oligopoly of large, slow-moving conglomerates. Though they still managed to deliver some amazing products, when production became this streamlined things fell through the cracks, and the action scene was one of them. We look back fondly on the good days of action, and The Action Kickback Movement is a movement to bring it back through renewed market demand and independent film production.

First a disclaimer: if you like seeing the camera close and shaky to the action, then there’s plenty to see right now in mainstream Hollywood. But I belong to the backward-thinking school of “Everything has gone to hell, and I don’t like it.” There’s some great action content that’s come out in the past decade, but my experience of modern action is largely colored by a feeling of increasing disparity that has put my expectations at an all-time low. Check out this Salon article, which makes this same case with some flair:

How Hollywood killed the movie stunt
Computers and editing tricks have obliterated one of cinema’s great pleasures: Seeing real people in real danger

A still from "Death Proof"

A still from “Death Proof”

On Nov. 12, 1910, a hundred years ago today, a man jumped out of a burning-hot air balloon into the Hudson River while a movie camera rolled. The vast majority of silent films are lost to history — vanished, destroyed or somehow rendered invisible — and this, it would seem, is one of them; I’ve seen the burning balloon gag cited as the first movie stunt on a number of sites, some quite thorough and authoritative, yet none list the film’s title or the name of the stuntman. Photographic evidence of the balloon man’s deed lives on in the Topps bubblegum card pictured here, and his legacy can be seen on any screen that shows moving images.

But what happens when movies change, and stunts become devalued?

I ask because in looking at that image of the stuntman diving into the Hudson, and running through a mental checklist of my favorite movie stunts, I realized that almost none of them occurred in films released during the last 10 years.

What’s the significance of that time frame? Well, for one thing, it’s the approximate start of the Digital Era of cinema — the point where video started to replace film and practical effects (meaning effects that were created in order to be photographed just like any other physical object) started being subsumed by computer-generated effects. And for another (and this is surely related) the late ’90s/early aughts marks the point when classical or “old-fashioned” editing — which dictated that every cut should be dramatically and aesthetically justified — was supplanted by what the film theorist David Bordwell calls the “intensified continuity” or “run and gun” style. The latter seeks to excite viewers by keeping them perpetually unsettled with computer-enhanced images, fast cutting and a camera that never stands still.

Intensified continuity is about denying the viewer a fixed vantage point on what’s happening to the characters — especially in action scenes. It’s about “using brief shots to maintain the audience’s interest but also making each shot yield a single point, a bit of information,” Bordwell writes. “Got it? On to the next shot.”

One side effect of intensified continuity is that it doesn’t let audiences see action in context — and is, in fact, the enemy of context. If the 1910 balloon stunt appeared in a film made today, we probably wouldn’t see it in a sustained wide shot that showed the diver in relation to the balloon and the Hudson River as he jumped from the basket and dropped into the water (the preferred framing of truly spectacular film stunts from the silent era through the end of the 20th century). We’d more likely see a flurry of shots, only one of which showed us the big picture. Most of those would very likely be anxious hand-held close-ups — say, a hand grasping the lip of the basket, the man’s feet leaving the floor of the basket, a brief point-of-view shot revealing what the man saw as he jumped from the basket and so forth. Intensified continuity, Bordwell writes, “doesn’t demand that you develop an ongoing sense of the figures within a spatial whole. The bodies, fragmented and smeared across the frame, don’t dwell within these locales. They exist in an architectural vacuum.”

That might seem like a minor difference, but for stunt performers, it’s major. An “architectural vacuum” can sustain excitement on-screen — I enjoyed the Bourne trilogy, for example, and defend its often derided rat-a-tat visual style as a subjective expression of its hero’s warrior intuition, an approach that gives viewers a sense of what it might be like to live in the head of a beleaguered assassin who knows he could be killed at any second and has to keep scanning his surroundings for information and signs of danger. At the same time, though, I can’t deny that the run-and-gun style has dampened the impact of stunts. As astounding as that car chase in the second “Bourne” film was, I might have appreciated it more — perhaps savored it as a display of choreography and cutting and physical daring in the way that I did the truck chase at the end of “The Road Warrior” and other ambitious chase scenes — if the camera had pulled back more and if the director, Paul Greengrass, had been willing to hold shots for longer than a second or two.

The decline of classical filmmaking, coupled with cinema’s increased reliance on computer-generated or computer-burnished imagery, has pretty much destroyed the specialness — the magic — of movie stunts. You can’t appreciate what you can’t see. And it’s harder to appreciate the unusual nature of a physical achievement when the entire movie strives to make every moment seem thrilling, astonishing and intense — a phenomenon I wrote about in a 2009 Salon piece about the director Michael Bay, who seems to believe there is no such thing as a small moment, and whose hyperactive action pictures suggest what Nike ads would look like if they were directed by killer cyborgs on cocaine.

I thought this summer’s Angelina Jolie action thriller “Salt” split the difference between classical and contemporary filmmaking quite well, giving viewers the now industry-standard editing razzle-dazzle while also holding shots somewhat longer than the norm and putting the heroine’s feats of strength and endurance in physical context. My favorite stunt in the film is photographed with what is, by contemporary filmmaking standards, unusual patience and calm: Salt ducking out of an apartment window to elude pursuers and clambering from window ledge to window ledge like a cat, carefully and with concentration. Jolie did this stunt herself with the insurance of a wire harness that was later erased digitally. It’s a meat-and-potatoes stunt, not too fancy, yet it’s very effective. Why? Because it sustains the illusion that we’re watching an actual person do something dangerous in circumstances we recognize from life. I get mild vertigo just thinking about that scene — much more so than I do recalling a far more visually spectacular stunt in the same film in which Jolie’s character escapes CIA agents and cops by jumping off an overpass bridge and landing on the roof of a moving truck. The latter is far less exciting than the window ledge stunt partly because of how it’s edited (cut-cut-cut) and partly because a key shot in the sequence, which follows Salt as she tumbles down off the bridge, is obviously (and rather awkwardly) computer-assisted — and thus no more real-seeming than the airborne house in “Up.”

Yes, of course, stunts are still being performed. And stunt performers are no less daring and inventive than they were in the ’80s, the ’60s or the ’20s, when Harold Lloyd hung from a clock face in “Safety Last” and Buster Keaton risked getting crushed by the falling facade of a house in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” But stunts don’t register (for this viewer at least) the way they once did, because the current language of movies devalues and diminishes them. Real stunt performers clambered across the tops of the train in the current “Unstoppable,” but director Tony Scott cuts so often that it’s harder to appreciate the bravery of the characters and the athleticism of the stuntpeople; the stunt becomes another piece of data in the cinema of information overload.

Great stunts are arresting in large part because they occur in reality, or “reality” — the reality established by the movie; i.e., the wider (visual) context that Bordwell writes about. In retrospect, I think the last great flowering of movie stunt work happened in the early ’80s and ’90s, when Hollywood was churning out an unusually high number of well-constructed crash-and-burn action thrillers such as “Aliens,” “Die Hard,” “Terminator 2,” “Under Siege,” “The Fugitive” and “Speed,” and Hong Kong action cinema was showcasing work by actors who also happened to be astonishingly gifted stunt performers, and situating their work in films that made sure you knew where you were spatially and what the dramatic and physical stakes were. Think of Jackie Chan leaping from escalator to escalator and getting his face smashed into window glass in the shopping mall finale of “Police Story,” or the incomparable Michelle Yeoh, aka Claudette Colbert plus Buster Keaton, riding a motorcycle onto the roof of a moving freight train at the end of “Police Story III: Supercop.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that on those occasions when a recent stunt makes a strong impression, it’s because the filmmaker has made a point of setting it up in a plainspoken manner, often showing the stunt performer’s entire feat in a comparatively long (for the action genre) take that views the performer from far back. Think of Roger Moore’s double Rick Sylvester diving off a cliff at the end of the ski chase in “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Or Harrison Ford’s regular stunt double Vic Armstrong sliding underneath a moving truck in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — or the legendary Hollywood stuntman Yakima Canutt performing a gag in “Zorro’s Fighting Legion” that directly inspired the one in “Raiders.” Or Thai kickboxer Tony Jaa showing off his superhuman agility in the low-fi martial arts thriller “Ong Bak.” Or stuntwoman Zoe Bell hanging on the hood of a Dodge Charger in the climactic chase sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.”

It’s probably also no coincidence that Bell and Jaa’s achievements were described in pre-release publicity for the movies — an extra-cinematic means of letting the audience know that what they’re seeing is both a great movie moment and a documentary record of an extraordinary athlete doing his or her thing. We’ve gotten to the point where audiences assume everything on-screen is conjured with pixels unless filmmakers strenuously insist otherwise. The low-fi aesthetic showcased in “Ong Bak” and “Death Proof” is the best antidote to audience skepticism, because when a movie is clearly made by people who didn’t have two nickels to rub together, that means the stunt work isn’t just an ingredient in the meal, it’s the main course.

I wonder if we’ll see a resurgence of low-tech, stunt-driven action as an antidote to high-tech sorcery. I hope so; with the right context and the right attitude, a wide shot of a man jumping out of a burning balloon could be more exciting than 300 computer-generated avatars charging across a battlefield made of ones and zeros while the director runs and guns and cuts, cuts, cuts.

While the article focuses on stuntwork, the implication is that the quality of action as a whole diminished with technology. The ability to edit digitally in the 1990s meant editors could make rapid edits, something that was almost impossible when they had to edit physical film. When digital video took the place of film stock in 2000, cinematographers and directors shot more angles to feed the editor even more to work with. Soon it became standard to shoot action from 10 angles rather than one, correct angle.

So Eric, you ask, you’re saying technology killed the action scene? This puts me in the awkward position of seeing amazing technological developments like non-linear editing and cheap solid-state HD SLR cameras as bad things. Must we dispense with the industrial-technological system altogether to bring our action scenes back?! To restore the old order, as it was? Definitely not. I might be crazy, but I’m no Unibomber. Destroying critical media innovations would effectively eliminate any chance we have at fixing the problem. While Teddy may be right about technology acting like a steamroller and taking on a mind of its own, he failed to realize that technological globalism is really a two-sided goat.

In 2001, while the search for good action films was leaving the taste of chalk in my mouth, editing software suddenly became affordable; digital camcorders were introduced at the low hundreds; hard drives kept following Moore’s Law, giving us twice as much space every 18 months… or more; and everyone had internet. I formed The Stunt People and jumped on it. By 2005, with YouTube and improved camcorder technology, making a feature-length action film was doable for $5,000, as my film Contour demonstrated. This cheap video technology and means to edit it opened the floodgates for the independent film world. It’s a wonder all those corporations and politicians didn’t prevent our grimy hands from getting hold of it, but there it was.

Great. We can produce action films for cheap. But that’s only half of the equation. Where’s the demand? If Hollywood is making action scenes with shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing, and Hollywood is profitable, isn’t it safe to say that that’s the most profitable way to do it? In short, it once was. Martial arts in the US always felt ‘foreign’ to audiences. We didn’t expect Bruce Willis to do roundhouse kicks because that’s not what white cops did. In my home town of Redding, CA, locals had no idea what a roundhouse kick was in 2001.

But today 2012, the USA has an extremely profitable mixed martial arts industry. Those same Redding locals can now tell the difference between a triangle choke and an arm bar, and many can demonstrate one if you’d like. It’s almost expected that, if you’re a Hollywood badass, you have a couple Judo throws in your arsenal, and probably a kick or two. And mixed martial arts isn’t just popular in Redding: it’s everywhere. From podunk towns to gigantic cities, every casino, bar, and night club has an HDTV that gathers crowds when showing the latest MMA match. They’re not just drawn to the violence, but to the character dramas, long fight scenes, solid technique, and camerawork that lets them see everything. They can see themselves in the ring, and MMA schools have capitalized on this by opening gyms across the country. Maybe this is just an extension of the WWF and WCW craze of the 90s, but as a martial arts filmmaker and film fan, you can’t help but think this paradigm shift, which happened just over the last decade, is utterly incredible. To say there’s no demand for action films with good characters and well-shot action scenes would be like saying the MMA craze is some passing fad, like Crystal Pepsi.

Technology itself is shaping demand too. With the help of YouTube and cheap DVD online stores, finding the old, good stuff that expired off the video shelves decades ago now only demands a search query. How many people saw one of the best fights ever, from Wheels on Meals, in 1982? I bet none. 1998? A few, but only if you lived near a Chinatown. Within the past few years? Probably most. Seeing films like these after their short-lived heydays was near impossible until technology brought them to YouTube and made purchasing them on DVD simpler than ever. If you haven’t seen that fight, click the link already.

We’ve tasted the forbidden fruit of the past, that guerrilla-grade nitroglycerine that will make it all the more difficult to sit through the next Bourne film without asking, “Couldn’t they have done this action better?” Consider this ailment as an addiction not easily cured with the current slew of Hollywood fluff. You’re better off spending a night on YouTube watching obscure Hong Kong action scenes.

From all this we see that the means to produce content is readily available, and audience demand for well-shot action with good stories is waiting to be fulfilled. Hollywood, the slow-moving Goliath that it is, is still hell-bent on using shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing, even for MMA-related action films. This is faster, cheaper, and more in line with its method of separating choreographers from the cinematographers from the editors. Everything is compartmentalized and divided. In the end, there’s no vein that runs through the production that gives the action film its unique flare. As Action Kickback producers, our task is to fill this void and bring back the good stuff.

For more reasons than just the obvious, the Unibomber was wrong: power has not been wrested by the few to subjugate the many. The ugly truth is that power is fragmented and precious, held by producers and execs who are incapable of making a coherent and enjoyable action scene. And they lose sleep knowing that the masses can save their pennies, get a good script, and make marketable genre films. Power then ultimately rests with those who are capable and courageous enough to pick up a camera and transform their unfiltered, raw talent into pure, high-grade media that millions of action fans across the world will flock to. After that, there’s no going back.

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