Martin Campbell has done an action thriller or two in his time. The New Zealand-born director is perhaps best known as the director of not one but two of the most successful and acclaimed movies in the James Bond franchise: 1995’s GoldenEye, which introduced Pierce Brosnan in the role, and 2006’s Casino Royale, which reinvented 007 in the form of a more minimalist, hard-edged Daniel Craig.
Along the way, Campbell’s had more success (The Mask of Zorro) and some elaborate failures (Green Lantern), and he returns to the big screen this week for the first time in four years with The Protégé, a violent, very gritty thriller starring Maggie Q and Michael Keaton as deadly professional assassins who are drawn to each other as the former sets out to avenge the murder of her mentor (Samuel L. Jackson).
Even though he’s back in the genre for which he is perhaps best known, Campbell tells Den of Geek that the manner in which action films are made has changed drastically over the decades — and not for the better.
“I think if anything, in some ways they’ve deteriorated,” he says frankly. “I mean, with the visual effects and so forth, they seem to have gotten more preposterous to me. And now that people have that toolbox in their hand, you can look at Fast and Furious, you can look at these things with preposterous action, that just makes no sense whatsoever.”
It’s interesting that Campbell mentions the Fast and Furious franchise, which has admittedly grossed truckloads of money over the years even as it reveled in ever more ridiculous stunts, like driving a car between skyscrapers or, in this year’s F9, launching one into space. But that’s the problem, according to Campbell: “While I think earlier, it used to be fun, it’s now got to a point where you just sit there, glass-eyed, watching this stuff and not believing a second of it.”
Campbell learned his craft in an era without the kind of elaborate physical and especially digital effects that dominate films now, applying that esthetic to his own movies like Casino Royale and The Protégé. But he says that the ability now to manipulate reality with digital effects has sacrificed the kind of gritty reality we used to see in motion pictures.
“If you look at, say, car chases, now we have the tools to flip cars and blow them up and have them do cartwheels on the road and everything else,” he says. “But then you go back to, say, Bullitt with Steve McQueen, which features a fantastic car chase because there was no digital. They had to do the chase. There was nothing — no green screen or everything else.”
He continues, “McQueen drove that Mustang himself. The guy driving the other one who was sort of one of the bad guys, he was actually a stunt driver. But you look at that and you believe every minute of it, because they’re really doing it. The same with something like The French Connection, which I think was ’71 or ’72. You look at that chase — it’s absolutely brilliant.”
Campbell says that the editing has changed too over the years, with viewers no longer having a chance to acclimate themselves geographically in a scene. “Now, of course, they cut every second or one and a half seconds,” he adds. “Michael Bay cuts so frantically, that at the end of the day, it just washes over you like wallpaper.”
One could read this as the grumblings of a director who’s just not keeping up with current filmmaking techniques — except that his own relatively recent Casino Royale, for example, still stands as not just one of the best entries in the Bond series but one of the best action films of the last 15 years. And he’s sticking to his stylistic guns on The Protégé because it’s what he knows best.
“Every time you make a movie, it feels like your first movie,” he says. “I mean, that’s the weird thing — you feel you’re starting from scratch every time.”
The Protégé opens in theaters this Friday (August 20).