This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
When you think of action filmmakers, a few names come to mind: Kurosawa. Leone. Cameron. McTiernan. Woo. Lin.
These filmmakers come with pedigree — they established a style and had a fairly consistent run of quality films to solidify their action credentials. A few managed to re-define the genre. All have made great movies which continue to endure as high points in the genre.
By contrast, here is a list of action specialists who do not get enough attention. A few are genuinely talented directors worthy of re-appraisal; others are just competent professionals who lucked into good material which they executed well. They might not be as talented or recognisable as the names I mentioned, but all have made movies which can punch above their weight — a few have even managed to achieve the same hallowed status as the films of people like McTiernan and Woo.
Craig R. Baxley
A former stuntman and second unit director, Baxley has gained street cred from directing two movies that rank high in the guilty pleasure stakes — Action Jacksonwith Carl Weathers, and I Come In Peace/Dark Angel with Dolph Lundgren. Managing the difficult task of making solid action flicks on small budgets, Baxley manages to create dynamic, impactful action sequences which never betray their financial constraints.
Signature set piece: Baxley’s directorial output is not really representative of his talents as an action helmer. For a great example of this, check out Arnie’s team’s assault on the rebel camp in Predator. According to his interview in the November 2012 issue of Empire, Baxley was responsible for assembling this opening salvo due to the inexperience of green director John McTiernan. McTiernan was less than complimentary, but Baxley’s staging of the sequence is fantastic at setting up just how bad ass Arnie’s squad truly is.
If it was not for a lack of good scripts, and his association with the Bond franchise, Campbell would have a place with the greats. His Mask Of Zorro remains one of the best of the latter-day swashbucklers, and he managed to kick-start the dormant Bond franchise twice by filtering it through an unfussy combination of contemporary styles and the series long-standing aesthetic.
Campbell’s other problem is that he took too long to make it. If he had made it big in the mid 80s, his aesthetic would have gelled with the action movies of that era. In the age of the big budget comic book movie, Campbell is a man out of time. Campbell’s old-school approach to action is based on the fundamentals — providing a clear sense of geography through dynamic shot choice, simple camera movement and tight editing.
Signature set piece: The parkour chase in Casino Royale — Campbell manages to create visceral impact while maintaining a sense of geography and weaving in character beats that set up Craig’s character.
He has received more respect in recent years, but Corbucci still remains in the shadow of the other Sergio. A complete study in contrast, while they both made westerns, Corbucci’s work could not be more different than Leone’s. Unlike Leone, Corbucci uses a moving camera and razor sharp editing to create montages of violence that pack more impact than most action films of the same period. He creates dynamic action sequences which can stand up to today’s slice-n-dice aesthetic.
Signature set piece: the mud battle in the middle of Django(1966) is iconic, and most indicative of how Corbucci’s work work was different from Leone’s. The muddy, sinking street is a terrific inversion of the traditional dry and dusty location, while the Klan’s burning crosses and red hoods add a gothic menace to proceedings.
As the bad guys fill up the street and surround him, Django (Franco Nero) opens the coffin he has been dragging, pulls out a machine gun and proceeds to tear a swathe through the villainous Klansmen. With the bleak location and morbid atmosphere, Corbucci’s work is closer to a horror movie than the dry, mythic desert of Leone, while his set pieces are based more on the violence itself rather than the build-up to it (Leone’s forte).
Possibly the finest director working in the DV action market today. Best known for his work with Scott Adkins (the Ninja and Undisputed series), Florentine has distinguished himself with a series of efficient, brutal action flicks that feel like worthy descendants of the 80s. He shoots his action in wide, extended shots that allow the performers to show off their prowess.
Signature set piece: If any scene sums up Florentine’s credentials, the opening scene to his recent film Close Range fits the bill. Florentine utilizes a series of extended takes to track MacReady (Scott Adkins) as he enters a hotel and proceeds to tear through the men who have kidnapped his niece. Circling around Adkins in steady wide shots, Florentine captures all the action in a dynamic way that manages to be visceral without Bourne-style shaky cam. One part worth mentioning is the button to the set piece, when MacReady ambushes two guards who arrive in the elevator, knocking one down while using the accidental burst from his gun to take out the other guard. In one shot, Florentine creates a masterclass in how to stage action with economy and style.
Peter R. Hunt
A man whose reputation rests solely on a single picture, but what a CV. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service manages to pack more ideas into its action sequences than most directors manage in an entire career. The fight on the beach, the hotel room punch-up… even the fight in front of Marc-Ange Draco’s office is gloriously frenetic. The ski chase, one of the first of its kind, remains enormously exciting, despite the dodgy back-projection. Using his experience as an editor, Hunt developed a new style of cutting on action, rather than after it. It is an approach which filmmakers such as Michael Bay have pushed to the most ludicrous extremes.
Signature set piece: So many to choose from, but the final battle at Blofeld’s mountaintop facility takes the cake. Combining great stunt work, editing and cool moves (Lazenby’s slide across the ice is especially noteworthy), this set piece stands toe-to-toe with most modern action films.
Louis Leterrier and Corey Yuen
They have directed movies alone, but together they are dynamite. Combined with Letterier’s energetic cinematography and editing, Yuen’s choreography is shown off to its best. Between them, they create a glorious cartoon universe in which schoolgirls commit carjackings, car bombs get detached by flying past a crane, and bad guys named Wall Street fight Jason Statham on top of an 18-wheeler. One can only hope that they will combine forces again to show the Fast & Furious crowd how it’s done. Or just give them Fast 9.
Signature set piece: A tossup between the oil slick assist in The Transporter and the fire-hose assist in Transporter 2. Fast, inventive and very funny.
Well regarded as a choreographer, Ching’s directorial career has been equally distinguished. However, the presence of Tsui Hark as a producer on his most famous film A Chinese Ghost Story has undermined his standing. Like the Spielberg-Hooper situation on Poltergeist, it is often rumoured that Hark has extremely hands-on with this film, but whatever the case, Ching’s stamp is present in the vibrant colour palette, beautiful choreography and completely gonzo tone, which he would expand upon in the truly jaw dropping Swordsman II.
Signature set piece: A Chinese Ghost Story is more well known (and coherent), but if you want to get a real taste of what Ching is capable of, check out the deranged ‘meet cute’ in Swordsman II. Drunken swordsman Ling (Jet Li) meets a beautiful mute (Brigette Lin) who offers him a fresh cask of wine. Cue somersaults. In the ocean. Only Ching could re-frame romance as wire-fu. Glorious.
Known for Takenand the first District 13, Morel’s talents have been obscured by some of his more recent career moves. Neither From Paris With Love or The Gunmanbroke out like his previous work, and both movies, to varying degrees, highlight his limitations — he is good at simple action movies, and should stick to that. When he is directing a movie with a simple, dynamic premise, you end up with Taken or District 13. When he tries to add other things — politics in The Gunman; the body cop dynamic in From Paris With Love — he spoils the recipe for success. When making an action thriller, Morel should not be going for respectable — he should stick to what he does great.
Signature set piece: The opening parkour chase from District 13. Morel shoots the action in a series of wide shots that maintain a sense of geography while showing off star David Belle’s prowess.
Brilliantly unhinged in their Cranks, somewhat up and down in their other works, Neveldine and Taylor are living, breathing throwbacks to the deranged sleaze of the grindhouse era. Lost in the mechanics of a big budget action movie, their particular brand of lunacy is better bottled in the smaller containers provided by the indie market. Give them a small budget and they will still turn out a fantastic piece of work.
Signature set piece: Usually, a genre movie runs out of steam before the climax. Neveldine/Taylor somehow manage to arrange their insanity so that it reaches fever pitch at the finale. While the ending to the original is iconic, the sequel manages to spin so many plates (hookers, a talking head, Pedro with nunchucks) while somehow packing an emotional punch that really hits home (Chev’s fantasy about re-uniting with Amy Smart’s Eve), all still in hilariously bad taste (there a few things funnier than watching Bai Ling on fire while the Stath walks away). I don’t know if it is genius or genuine psychological trauma, but whatever it is, it is great cinema.
Without Siegel, there is no Rambo, no Lethal Weapon, no Die Hard. A big influence on Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood, Siegel’s unfussy approach allowed him to become a jack of all trades: he is responsible for directing a sci-fi classic (Invasion Of The Body Snatchers), an Elvis musical, John Wayne’s last western (1976’s The Shootist) and one of the best prison movies of all time (Riot In Cell Block 11). However, his biggest stamp on popular culture came with his work on 1971’s Dirty Harry. Trained as an editor and second unit director (experiences chronicled in his excellent autobiography), Siegel had a clear understanding of the working parts of an action-driven narrative.
While less innovative than 1971’s other classic police thriller The French Connection, Siegel’s straightforward shooting and editing style helped to distill the visual vocabulary of the western and the police procedural into the cues which continue to be used in modern action movies.
Signature set piece: The car chase at the end of The Line Up (1958), an otherwise routine crime picture, is fantastic. Ending on a show stopping beat (an unfinished elevated highway), the sequence anticipates the vehicular mayhem of Bullitt and The French Connection by over a decade.
This list is extremely small. I’ve probably ignored hundreds of other filmmakers who deserve more attention. Throw them in the comments. They are my primary reason for writing this piece.