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The Poetry of Violence: Anatomy of an Action Scene

A good action scene does not exist for its own sake; rather, it is the culmination of the screenwriter’s meticulously-laid groundwork. Shootouts, fistfights, and car chases represent the ultimate payoff, the thundering crescendo that releases the viewer’s pent-up tension; if one of these stock story beats ever falls flat or feels boring, it is because the film lacks adequate buildup–without tension to alleviate, there can be no genuine stakes, no emotional investment.

The very best cinematic storytellers know exactly how to wind the watch tighter and tighter, straining the springs until they inevitably, satisfyingly explode. Quentin Tarantino has perfected the formula in recent years: collectively, his past two films play as a thesis statement on how to construct a suspenseful game of verbal cat-and-mouse. In Inglourious Basterds, Michael Fassbender’s cool, cultured Archie Hicox, undercover behind enemy lines, finds himself caught up in a silent battle of wills between a shrewd, suspicious SS officer and Til Schweiger’s insatiable Nazi slayer. Similarly, the two protagonists of 2012’s Django Unchained (the eponymous freed slave and his German companion/mentor, Dr. King Schultz) must match wits with sadistic slaveowner Calvin Candie–whose casual cruelty (of particular note: feeding a would-be escapee to a pack of ravenous dogs) makes it increasingly difficult for the bounty hunters (especially the kindhearted Schultz) to keep up the charade. Both scenarios can only result in a sudden eruption of violence–and each and every gunshot and blood spurt only amplifies the viewer’s sense of catharsis.

South Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-Woon (The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, I Saw the Devil), too, excels at this delicate art. In The Last Stand, his English-language debut (and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s big comeback vehicle), the director deftly juggles several disparate narrative threads–a bloodthirsty drug kingpin races toward the Mexican border in a souped-up Corvette, a beleaguered FBI agent desperately tries to cut off his escape route, a small-town sheriff (and retired badass–this is Arnold, after all) rallies his troops for the impending battle–as they gradually converge on an explosive climatic showdown in the sleepy streets of Sommerton Junction. And the sight of the former Governor of California mowing down dozens of mercenaries from the back of a moving school bus is hardly the only moment of triumph the movie has to offer; the film’s most effective sequence, by far, is the first encounter between our ragtag band of heroes and the villain’s nefarious henchmen. Two woefully inexperienced sheriff’s deputies (Zach Gilford and Jaimie Alexander) find themselves pinned down by gunfire after inadvertently stumbling across the villain’s super-secret bridge construction project. A garbled voice on the other end of the radio promises that backup is on the way, but any comfort that those words might provide quickly fades when the bad guys kill the work lights, slip on night vision goggles, and advance with guns ablaze. We unconsciously slide to the edge of our seats: previous scenes devoted a lot of precious screen time to establishing these characters’ goals and ambitions and dreams, and while those beats felt somewhat slow and unnecessary in the moment, they served their purpose–they got us to care. So when Arnold rides in like a knight on his noble steed, firing his shotgun one-handed and splattering mooks across his windshield like so many mosquitoes, the audience is compelled the cheer: this is the emotional release we’ve been craving since the first muzzle flash, and it is glorious

Kim Jee-Woon understands. Tarantino understands. The Coens, Beat Takeshi, and Takashi Miike all understand: action scenes work best when used as punctuation. After all, exclamation points are meaningless unless they appear at the end of a properly structured sentence.

[Originally written January 21, 2013.]

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