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How to make a good action film: 11 lessons from modern movies

Every year is a good year for action cinema, at least from a financial standpoint: If you count superhero movies, the genre pretty much has the top of the box-office charts on perpetual lockdown. Truly exciting, entertaining, or awe-inspiring action movies are harder to come by, but they’re not impossible to find, even in this age of bloated CGI spectacle. Below, we’ve drawn 11 lessons from the last five years of action movies, using the cream of the adrenaline-supplying crop to create a game plan for future dispensers of shock and awe. We were strict with the definition, picking films that are first-and-foremost action driven, so don’t be alarmed by the absence of Liam Neeson battling wolves or Ryan Gosling cruising around Los Angeles to the super sounds of The Chromatics.

1. Create a world (John Wick)

When news came a few months ago that a sequel to John Wick was in the works, it brought with it a tinge of disappointment. Part of the charm of David Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s very entertaining debut—about a blank-slate ex-hit man (Keanu Reeves) wreaking havoc after somebody kills his dog—is the way it creates its own discrete universe of bywords, not unlike Brick or Looper, or another film on this list, Mad Max: Fury Road; it’s the kind of thing that is tantalizing because it suggests that so much is being left unexplored. Viewers take it for granted that most action movies are set in a parallel reality of shoot-outs and fiery car chases, but the rules John Wick makes for itself—repurposed from classic American action movies, French crime flicks, and anything else that could be considered cool—are strict. They create context for the film’s bravura, practical-stuntwork-heavy set pieces, which come to resemble violent ritualized dance. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

2. When possible, go practical (Mad Max: Fury Road)

It would be inaccurate to claim that the spectacular fourth entry in George Miller’s Mad Max series is a CGI-free affair. According to the film’s visual-effects supervisor, Fury Road contains no less than 2,000 special effects shots, many designed to digitally enhance the desert scenery or pack more vehicles (and explosions) into individual frames. But most of the actual action is achieved through good ol’ fashioned stunt driving and pyrotechnics. When a car blows up, there’s a good chance you’re seeing it blow up for real. And when a character hangs precariously from the passenger side of a speeding truck, it’s usually the actor—or at least the stunt double—doing the hanging. CGI, which even today rarely manages to create a proper sense of weight or movement, just can’t compete with the awe practical effects inspire. It’s better used as a supplement or a last resort, as when you need to send your characters racing into a mighty electrical/sand storm. [A.A. Dowd]

3. Star power matters… (the Fast And Furious movies)

The ostensible draw of the Fast And Furious movies is watching cars doing death-defying stunts while driving really fast. But the real secret to the franchise’s longevity isn’t the stunts, but the savvy casting. Effortlessly diverse, the Fast And Furious ensemble is stocked with action heroes with which people of many ethnic backgrounds can identify, and its female cast—anchored by Michelle Rodriguez as drag-racing tough gal Letty—is just as capable as its male one. This isn’t to say that the Fast And Furious movies have great acting, or even realistic character development; it’s just that everyone’s star shines so brightly, viewers are more than willing to laugh along with Tyrese Gibson’s corny one-liners or cheer Dwayne Johnson when he straps on a machine gun and storms in to save the day. As the leader of this street-smart crew of charmers, Vin Diesel brings boatloads of lunkhead appeal; he’s the kind of guy, to quote a common defense of George W. Bush, that you’d like to have a beer with. (A Corona, specifically.) Over the course of seven movies, this star power has done something other action franchises could learn from: It’s made viewers care about who’s behind the wheel. [Katie Rife]

4. ...But sometimes physical talent matters more (Haywire)

Look, Gina Carano isn’t much of an actor. Her line readings in Haywire are often flat and unaffected, and she develops little chemistry with the supporting cast of her first starring vehicle. What Carano, a professional MMA fighter, can believably do is kick the shit out of someone, which is why Steven Soderbergh built an espionage thriller around her kinetic, athletic talents. American audiences were notoriously hostile toward the movie—it earned a deadly D+ from CinemaScore voters—but anyone with a real appreciation for fight choreography can forgive the star’s less-than-polished performance and just focus on the way Soderbergh captures her pure prowess, maximizing our view of the analog ass-kicking through clean camerawork and editing. Carano doesn’t need one-liners to entertain. Her feats of strength and agility are what the best action cinema is all about. [A.A. Dowd]

5. Don’t be afraid to get weird or serious (Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning)

John Hyams’ Universal Soldier sequels are an object lesson in how to reinvent a tired, almost-forgotten franchise outside the bounds of the mainstream. Day Of Reckoning, the weirder of the two, is a perverse amalgam of art film and intense direct-to-video action; it takes its cues from David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Apocalypse Now, and Enter The Void, among others. The result is a nightmarish meditation on the slippery nature of identity—and an action movie where the viewer quickly learns that basically anything can happen, be it a grisly fight in a sporting-goods store or a character seeing his double on a security camera. Action movies often appeal to generic pleasures—the stuff viewers might enjoy because they recognize it. This one hews closer to true horror; viewers don’t know what’s coming, but they know it’ll be bad. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

6. On the other hand, don’t be shy about leaning into the ridiculousness (Lockout)

If you’re going to make a shameless rip-off of a beloved cult film (Escape From New York), go hard or go home. And by “hard,” we mean “completely absurd,” which is the direction this Luc Besson-penned space actioner takes. Co-written with directors Stephen St. Leger and James Mather, Lockout details the quest of wrongly imprisoned CIA agent Marion Snow (Guy Pearce), who is given a chance at freedom if he completes a dangerous mission: Enter an orbiting space prison and rescue the president’s daughter, who has been taken hostage by convicts who seized control of the facility. The movie likes its overstuffed plot points almost as much as it likes its hammy one-liners, but the real attraction here is Pearce. Cranking up the crazy dial to its highest setting, the idiosyncratic character actor turns what should have been a shoddy Snake Plissken knockoff into a weird and funny hero. Pearce doesn’t chew the scenery so much as he converts it to mulch with the oddity of his performance. Lockout demonstrates a valuable lesson: If you can’t make it great, make it fun. [Alex McCown]

7. Build anticipation (13 Assassins)

There’s very little in the way of heroic swordplay in the first hour of 13 Assassins, which almost plays more like a propulsive heist flick than a bloody samurai action movie: a team is put together, deals are made, an ambush is set, traps are built. Director Takashi Miike slips in just enough glimpses of the gruesome to suggest something lurking around the corner. And then, the target—the shogun’s sadistic half-brother—arrives, and the movie explodes into a continuous, occasionally demented 45-minute battle sequence. Most movies shoehorn plot and characterization in the downtime between action scenes; Miike stacks it all in the front. The result is exhilarating when it hits. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

8. Or just never let up (The Raid: Redemption)

Action movies don’t come much more violent or relentless than The Raid, in which a beleaguered SWAT team makes its way through the high-rise headquarters of a drug kingpin, floor by deadly floor. After the relative calm of the opening minutes, it’s a nonstop orgy of gunfire, machete combat, and Silat, the martial art practiced by limber star Iko Uwais. To its detractors, this Indonesian import is more arcade beat-’em-up than movie, dispensing as it does with character development and story in favor of one jaw-dropping, bone-snapping fight scene after another. But in plenty of action films, character and story are totally perfunctory anyway, a pretext to the carnage. The Raid simply has the good sense to waste little of its running time on those elements, instead giving the audience an unbroken supply of exactly what it came to see. Last year’s The Raid 2 would achieve a more traditional balance of mayhem to narrative, but trust us on this one: It’s the all-action, all-the-time original that gets the job done. [A.A. Dowd]

9. Let the camera serve the action (Man Of Tai Chi)

Keanu Reeves’ no-frills directorial debut is essentially a feature-length tribute to stuntmen and martial artists, conceived as a starring vehicle for Tiger Chen, with whom he first met while working on the Matrix movies. A thin skein of plot—something involving an underground fighting ring and a temple threatened with demolition—connects crisply crafted fight scenes that pit Chen against a variety of opponents, each practicing a different martial arts style. Reeves uses a loping camera and clear cuts to create and maintain a sense of movement; it is always in the service of the action, choreographed by a team led by the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping. The sense of momentum and weight—a too-rare quality in the CGI era—is thrilling on its own. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

10. Manage those visual lines (Drug War)

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 notwithstanding, Johnnie To is one of the great working nuts-and-bolts movie craftsmen; every one of his later movies contains at least one master class sequence—an object lesson in editing and composition where To pulls out all the stops. The Mainland crime flick Drug War has a few of these, but the one that’s relevant here is the extended daytime shootout that makes up the climax. While cars crash and cops exchanges gunfire with crooks against a backdrop of smoke and windshield glass, To maintains complete control over tension and action through carefully arranged camera movements and implied points-of-view. Every shot here has a purpose, and almost every cut is built around specific visual lines, be it a close-up structured by an actor’s sight line or an exchange of gun-fire matched by rhyming zooms. It’s the perfect antidote to the modern blender style; why go for shaky handheld and jumbled cross-cutting when your action sequences could be Hitchcock-tense? [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

11. Privilege the set pieces above all else (Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol)

One does not go to Mission: Impossible movies for the convoluted espionage plot lines, or the snappy banter between agents, or even to bask in the smoldering (if fading) star power of Tom Cruise. One goes for the set pieces, the scenes built around daredevil stunts, ingenious gadgets, tight time constraints, or all of the above. Ghost Protocol, the fourth and finest of the Mission: Impossible movies, recognizes that these self-contained spectacles of suspense are the raison d’être of the franchise. And so director Brad Bird just keeps them coming, one after another, creating a daisy chain of wow: There’s little superfluous connective tissue between Cruise breaking out of a prison and breaking into the Kremlin, or between him climbing the world’s tallest building and then leading a car chase through a sandstorm. Ghost Protocol devises a bunch of cool spy-game sequences, then severely cuts down on everything that doesn’t fit that description. More action films could stand to follow its just-the-fun-stuff lead. [A.A. Dowd]