To: Any Hollywood action movie editor or director who may stumble across this page
cc: Everyone who reads the site, and very welcome you are too
Subject: Editing trends in action movies
I am but a mere punter. I stump up my cash, I go and see films, I buy the DVDs, and I then jabber on about them until my friends decide it’s time to go and find new friends instead. And I passionately believe that there are few relaxing pleasures in life quite like a good, rock-solid action movie.
Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve been spoilt by an abundance of action-packed movies that I watch, re-watch and watch again. Die Hard, Aliens, Shoot ‘Em Up, Con Air (my love for which is explained here), Armageddon (that’s explained here), Crank, Starship Troopers, Bourne, Mission: Impossible, Casino Royale – I could, quite literally, babble on forever, and keep the list going for some time yet. Ask my ex-friends.
However, in recent years, there’s been an increasing trend towards, what seems to me, a bit of madness in the editing suite.
I first noticed it, or it was at its most obvious, in Michael Bay’s Transformers movie (and I say this as someone who likes many of his films). That’s perhaps the first film I’ve seen that’s ever made me feel old. Because while the effects were stunning, the build up was good and the idea of seeing big mechanical constructs whacking seven shades of shit out of each other was utterly endearing, I got to a point where I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Genuinely: none whatsoever.
So fast were the edits, and so tight were the shots, that for too much of the running time, I felt like I was watching flashes of colour going by, as if I was undergoing a glorified new and experimental eye test. I understand that film editing theory often remarks something along the lines of ‘when was the last time you saw a film that was too quick?’, but if anyone is asking that question, I’d like to stick my hand up in the air right now.
Now don’t get me wrong: film editing is a remarkable skill, and action movies have always relied on fast cuts to get across an energy and momentum. I have no issue with that whatsoever. I’m not being a moaning fuddy-duddy either, who is about to reminisce about how things were in the good old days. Action cinema evolves and moves on, and we’ve felt some very big benefits of that in recent times.
I also understand that sometimes the effect of very, very fast cutting can get across, successfully, the idea of quick and brutal fighting, such as in Batman Begins or The Bourne Trilogy. Those films, for me, get across the notion that you’re not supposed to see everything that’s going on, because these are fast, borderline-ruthless fighters we’re talking about. But at least they give you a clue, and let you have an idea of what’s going on. You can at least see the back of their proverbial shoes as they run off ahead of you, and they get the balance right between quick, close cuts and treating you fairly as an audience member.
But then I sit through something like Quantum of Solace (a film so aching to be a Bourne sequel it’s staggering, but perhaps that’s a conversation for another time). The opening sequence of Quantum is cut so ridiculously fast, for no obvious such effect, that again, I didn’t feel like I was supposed to – or be allowed to – know what was going on. It’s not the only recent example: just this week, Stuart’s review of Transporter 3 noted the decision to “edit the fights down into an incomprehensible mess of flashing lights and sound effects”. I’ve not seen Transporter 3, but as a devotee of action cinema, I do understand where he’s coming from.
So if this, then, is the latest trend in Hollywood action films, can I now please ask that it stops, in favour of giving the viewing audience a chance to see what’s going on?
It really is okay not to be a Bourne movie, and it’s absolutely fine to believe that you don’t have to bombard an audience repeatedly to get across the message that your film is fast and furious. I rewatched Die Hard recently, and while it’s certainly cut fast, the excitement of its action is right there in front of the lens of the camera, and the razor-sharp editing gives us ample opportunity to enjoy it. That’s without the film ever losing pace or energy.
I write this, as I said, as a huge fan of action cinema, and I’ll continue to be so. What’s more, I’ll continue to stump up my cash, I’ll no doubt pick up another copy of many of my favourite action movies when they hit high definition, and I’ll gleefully check out the trailers for the next action extravaganzas just around the corner.
I just ask, of the people making these films, that you do this one thing for me. And that’s please give me a least a sporting chance of seeing what’s going on.
Many thanks for your time.
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