The Running Man

In The Running Man the future is depicted as an authoritarian police state with a broken economy. When our man Richards (Schwarzenegger) faces airport security and has no travel pass, he rummages through his bag until a line of anxious tourists forms behind him. “We got a plane to catch!” one yells, so the guard lets him go! Watching it today, we’re shocked at how stupid this is.

But airport security was like this in 1987, back when you boarded the plane on a staircase outside the airport, so we all believed the scene. Today, Richards would have been arrested after a DNA analysis of his dandruff, unless facial recognition software caught him first.

This depiction of the Orwellian Police State in The Running Man recalls the 80s when trust levels were so high that you could jump onto an airplane just by threatening to slow down business. They projected this sentiment into the dystopian future, which was complete with game shows, money spewing from every crack, and what in general seems like a lot of vibrant, happy people, a stark contrast to the 2010s’ Hunger Games or Looper.

While Pet Sematary‘s presentation might feel a tad Lifetime-y now, it still serves up a great tale on the human inability to accept the end of life, hitting all the right beats with regular thrills, superb gore moments, and eerie atmospherics that make for an exemplary horror film. As a bonus, it would be utterly impossible to repeat the film’s finale in today’s uber-sensitive culture. It’s no wonder a package like this would make over 5x its initial $11M budget. Stream on Netflix here.

I’ll be posting short reviews for the sake of search-ability, focusing on genre and how they live up the Action Kickback Model. I’ll review genre films in general; action, horror, sci-fi, etc. The main points I want to address with the reviews are:

Story – Do we care what’s happening?
Genre Promise – Does the film deliver on the genre promise? Does the sci-fi film use science as a device? Does the action film have action that serves the narrative? Etc.
Marketability – How well did it sell?

My hypothesis is that films that excel in story and genre promise tend to do the best on the market. There are exceptions, like the great films that failed due to poor advertising campaigns or being released on the same weekend as other major films, or good films that were saved by one-off advertising gimmicks that (probably) couldn’t be repeated, but my hypothesis is a general, high-level one that I hope will serve as a guide for anyone looking to make genre films, action or not.

While working on a science fiction concept I’m developing, it’s been interesting to study how the genre itself functions. Science Fiction has two key responsibilities:

  • Predicts the logical ends of a technological trajectory and sets it up as the conflict.
  • Utilizes current filmmaking and computer technology in a profound way.Or “Tech-porn”. Often sci-fi films will have throwaway scenes that really have no place in the story except to showcase a new technology. These are necessary for the trailer, so they’re  forgiven because they’re profound enough to elicit a strong response.

    (My favorite example is in Total Recall, where police see an x-ray of Quaid’s gun, so he just breaks through the x-ray glass, toward them! The police then cower and let him run away. The scene obviously had no logic to it, yet it’s iconic, so it’s forgiven.)

This is backed up by Wiki’s explanation:

Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible (or at least non-supernatural) content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovations is one purpose of science fiction, making it a “literature of ideas”.

We expect sci-fi films to extrapolate on our current trajectories and set those up as the conflict. AI goes berserk (2001, Terminator), space travel finds more than it bargained for (Alien), and playing God goes bad (Jurassic Park, Gattaca). It’s what the genre promises. Take what we know about technology and show the consequences. The results of scientific innovation could be positive, but when a human is the main character, the genre tends to fall into the realm of man vs. technology. This is not an error of mere convention, but rather how stories have evolved over thousands of years.

Yet many recent sci-fi films depict scenarios already unacceptable, such as increased pollution, corporations exploiting the population, oppressive police states rising to power, etc. To make them “sci-fi”, technological elements are mixed in, often as solutions to the problem rather than problems in and of themselves. These stories are “What-if” scenarios, not logical ends to scientific innovation. Contrary to these, I can predict with certainty that in 10 years, no matter who takes office, there will be more green energy, smarter artificial intelligence, less religion, no time travel, and no zombie Hitlers. Last two notwithstanding, it’s disappointing that sci-fi filmmakers rarely tackle such issues.

In case you’ve been in a cave for the last 30 years, you won’t be surprised to hear that government-funded Science (with a capital S) has settled into a cozy era that has placed it on the pedestal. Artists are less inclined to predict its drawbacks and more interested in “what-if” scenarios should the trend reverse. That is the new sci-fi. Exceptions aside, for a genre which produced dozens of classics before the 2000s, its continual reneging on its promises has cause it to go soft and limp.

Basically, sci-fi sucks because Science takes itself so goddamn seriously.

My prediction is that this trend will not reverse any time soon, unless somehow Science loses its government funding and falls from grace, or an alternate information source springs up that competes with it. Until then, there are thousands of sci-fi concepts just dying to be made, and the audience is still there. It’s a good time to be a genre filmmaker.

The latest series of events in Stunt People history have made it painfully obvious to me that you have to be a huge player to get any momentum in the entertainment world.

  • Materials – Getting a printing company to make 1,000 DVDs on time when their regular clients print 50,000 is like pulling teeth. Printing 1,000 units through a smaller printing company will cost you far more since it’s not as streamlined and requires more man-hours.For example, I’m trying to make DVDs and the people at the press are utterly unresponsive after running into multiple errors with the discs and hard drives I sent. I’m not convinced these are my errors and I’ve seen no attempt on their parts to figure out what to do next, but since they’re not making much money from this deal compared to the 50,000 disc runs they’re used to, they have no incentive to respond to my emails very quickly. I’ll end up on the phone with them today, probably a lot.

    I recommend kunaki if you’re doing single-layer DVDs or CDs. Quick, cheap, and easy.

  • Distribution – If you’re indie, you rely on a core, fan audience, but once your film is done, sales agents tell you not to make too much noise, for fear of hurting international sales. If international distributors get word that your film is “old” or has been released already, they may drop their deal. The alternative is to stay silent and avoid getting too much press for your film, and avoid showing it to people until some distributor picks it up, which these days might take years. Getting people to review your film and showing it to the world before its eventual release requires stealth and will result in a lot of aches and pains.

    For example, I went ahead and edited the IMDB listing for my last feature film (starts with “cont” ends with “or” … see that shit? stealth, though don’t be surprised if I have to edit this damn blog too now) to give it its new alternate title. An hour later, our distributor contacted me saying, “Hey just a quick note, just in case you’ve been telling people about the old title of the movie, don’t give out that information, because it will kill the film.” When I told him about the IMDB update I made, I think he had a heart attack. Currently I’m trying to cancel that, which is incredibly difficult if, again, you’re a small fish.

  • Being Talented – If you’re talented, and you make a big splash, the way The Raid has, you’ll get noticed. Then you become a big star, right? No. You get hired to work behind the scenes on the remake of your own film.

This isn’t meant to be a bitter blog post. It’s a snapshot of how the industry works, and why only the hugest conglomerates survive. Conglomerates are no more evil than Manzanita in California or killer whales in the Pacific, or mold on your bread, they’re just the things that survive. And I’ve got no interest in fighting the system because, like it or not, we’re all knee-deep in it. In fact I like the system. It made many of the world’s best action films.

The big guys are, however, sweating. The market is volatile as ever, and the people in high positions are clinging to their spots, which explains why nobody would ever just GIVE Evans and Uwais starring parts in a new film. Since the studios can’t make action films like The Raid, they just co-opt the people who can. And being co-opted is a valid decision, because the alternative is a lot of cancelling IMDb changes, sneaking around while trying to release your film to your fans, fighting with disc printers to get your stuff done on time, and making roughly 25% of the salary of a stuntman. It’s not glamorous by any means.

But that hasn’t been the decision for me and I don’t plan for it to be in the future, despite opportunities that have presented themselves. I like the stuff I do, I like my audience, and through all this I’m still convinced that this is the best way to do it.

The recent hit Haywire with Gina Carano is putting the spotlight on actors who do their own fighting and stunts, but there seems to be a viewpoint that audiences are somehow responsible for the diminished quality in our action genre. An article on the subject has this to say:

7. Audiences: Free your mind – Audiences themselves bear some of the responsibility for what they get to see. Don’t just demand the same actors in every action movie. Open your minds to performers from other realms too. That’s what real MMA fighter Gina Carano says. “I don’t want to take anything away from actors,” Carano said. “I don’t think just anybody can do it. I believe if you like watching an actor, a singer, a fighter, usually for me it’s because [of] a creative thing, an artful thing is coming out of them. I think if people start relaxing and letting people creatively express themselves more in different areas, I think we’re going to see more mixed martial artists, we’ll see more crossover. People have to be willing to let go of that in their head because an athlete is somebody that people get emotionally attached to for who they are and then you see them playing a character and that’s not them. As fans of the people we like to watch, we have to learn to let them go and let them creatively express themselves in whatever avenue they want to. I think that’s going to be a huge movement.”

There’s a word for this: elitism. Elitism in this form demands the audience suppress its human desire for entertainment, the desire that creates the action genre, so that it can respond to some higher calling. We could also define it by its historical term, “Puritanism”, only in its 21st Century form divorced from all theology yet still attached to an anti-masses mentality. Like a preacher who asks his congregation to absolve themselves of all earthly wants, film elites continually demand audiences take advice from cultural professionals like journalists and academics. In this case, it’s so the audience can make the right decisions about martial arts actors, even if these folks, talented as they are in the ring, are stiff as boards and will take on any script tossed their way. Open my mind, you say? Not if that stuff is going inside it.

Like I’ve said in my Action Kickback model, story comes first. Once we have that, then we worry about the genre, the “martial arts” part. Don’t put pressure on the audience just so you can be lazy and neglect that first step. If you just wanna do martial arts for a living, the ring is where to be.

Tired of stunts done with computer graphics? Wires that gently float actors down after a dangerous 4-foot jump? Still imagining the pads off camera? Here is some much-needed medicine for your ailment.

Let’s start early on, just at the peak of the Hong Kong “old school” kung fu film. “Shapes”, or succinct, posing movements that didn’t necessarily have formal application but rather held symbolic meaning, dominated the fight scene. Phillip Ko was one of the champions of shapes, with a lot of vertical movement, extensive footwork, and complex handwork that only an octopus can mimic. He made otherwise lackluster stars look good while at the same time schooling them righteously. Here’s The Loot from 1980. Check out all of his films from 1978-1981.

When the modern Hong Kong film squashed the old “Shapes” franchise, there was a wave of kickboxing that dominated the market. One man who didn’t quite make the squeeze was superkicker and Drunken Master villain Hwang Jang Lee. His last major outing in Hong Kong was a starring role opposite veteran Wang Yu in Innocent Interloper (1986), choreographed by Shaw Bros. veteran and kickboxer Wang Lung Wei. Hwang does all his signature kicks, all with a cool shirt and a jheri curl. And check out Wang Yu. What’s going on? I don’t remember him being able to punch let alone kickbox. I have no idea what amount of cocaine or steroids the guy took to fight like this, I almost don’t believe it’s him, like it’s a different Wang Yu. In any case, he holds his own.

Meanwhile in Thailand, a film made by Tony Jaa’s mentor Panna Rittikrai (or “Litkrai” if you want to search his name) called Sing Wing Lui (1987) appeared on the radar and promptly vanished until 2006 when Tony Jaa made a big splash. Panna does “real-contact hits”, where instead of lining up the shot and faking it you just smack the stuntman with your kick. While he didn’t invent the method, he took it to its logical ends. The result is nothing short of pornography for action lovers. Panna did a lot of these films for ultra-low budget in his back yard and in the woods, much like your standard indie action filmmaker, and before 1992 they are for the most part spectacular. I also recommend Plook Mun Kuen Ma Kah 1 and Gerd Ma Lui (aka “Born to Fight“, remade in 2005 with Dan Chupong under the same title).

Where’s Japan in all this? One of the younger players in the Sonny Chiba-founded Japan Action Club was Junya Takagi, who put together a pet project called Bad History (1985). Three things come to mind when watching this clip: 1) single, long takes, a HK film lover’s dream, are everywhere, 2) this film is nowhere to be found. If anyone has a link to a VHS or anything, please let me know, and 3) there’s an absurd shortage of modern martial arts films in 1980s Japan, which extended into the 1990s, with only Henry Sanada filling the void on rare occasion (also a JAC heavy). The description of the video says Junya was “The last big gun of the action world in Japan,” which has a ring of truth to it. The Japanese market never had much of the modern martial art film, which is a crying shame because we could have had a LOT more of these. The clips are rough around the edges, but you can’t help but love this kind of editing that hides nothing.

Back to Hong Kong to round out the modern era. In the vein of Jackie Chan’s Police Story, and with many of the same stuntmen and similar in style, here’s stuntman Ben Lam’s breakout film Angry Ranger (1991), another one by Wang Lung Wei. You’ll also see Venom’s superkicker Sun Chien in the villain’s seat as his last big outing.

Lastly, Night Life Hero (1992) is similar in vein, but with a different stunt crew. Chin Kar Lok, the stuntman who doubled everyone including Jackie Chan, heads this pic. Ridley Tsui, Sam Wong, and other awesome new-wave-era stuntmen get tons of screen time. Night Life Hero is essentially a bunch of stunt guys getting together to make a goofy action film, so enjoy the non-obtrusive camerawork situated on a tripod 15 feet away, making every move clear as day. The film has tons of action aside from this clip, so search it out on YouTube.

Things slumped worldwide through the late 90s and early 2000s, and they picked up recently with some entertaining flicks, but the rawness of these videos can’t be glazed over. There is no CG, no faking anything. It’s straight out of the pipe into your head, and it’s the stuff I like to go to when I’m feeling down and need a quick fix. Here’s to a resurgence of the good stuff. Action Kickback all the way.

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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