The art of the one-take action sequence


Charlize Theron as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton fights off police in Atomic Blonde.

Bad action sequences are easy to spot. They are the scenes filled with quick cuts and shaky cameras, which make it difficult to make out what the fighters are doing. It looks awful so why do directors continuously make the decision to purposely diminish the quality of their movies? Well, sometimes they don’t have a choice. In order to keep the camera still and hold on a shot, an actor has to be able to execute the fight choreography convincingly. Without that, stunt men must fill the void and the director can’t allow us to see that is the case. Other times, the blood or the killing blows have to be hidden to keep a movie at PG-13. But when a director takes a stance and the actors put in the work, the result can make a movie great.

The rise of shaky cam

Let’s wind the clocks back to 2004 when director Paul Greengrass took over the Bourne franchise from Doug Liman with the Bourne Supremacy and stayed on for the third installment in 2007 with the Bourne Ultimatum. These are the most notable shaky cam movies that used the device correctly. Greengrass utilized the shaky cam to emphasize the intensity of the action sequences and the movies became box-office hits and increased in quality. Unfortunately, this would be the peak of the shaky cam genre. Many others took what Greengrass did and just put it in their films without realizing the craft behind it. This opened the door for laziness where actors didn’t actually have to excel in the fight choreography. Movies will simply quick cut and shake the camera so we won’t be able to see what the heck is going on.

Bucking the trend

In 2011, the foreign film The Raid came out and shook up the game. It was lauded as one of the best action movies of all time, only to be topped by its 2014 successor, The Raid 2, with their use of one-take action sequences. The technique also hit the U.S. in 2014, but not with an action movie. Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman was shot as one take. The whole movie. Now, obviously there were cuts in there, but they were hidden so well that it looks as though the movie never stops. The movie took home best picture and Inarritu earned best director at the Oscars and the one take was reborn. He followed that up with The Revenant in 2015, which has one of the best action sequences I’ve ever seen. A one-take Indian raid that puts the audience right in the action. We could see it all and that’s what makes it so thrilling. It’s beautifully shot throughout and Inarritu became the first director to take home back-to-back Oscars since 1950.

Aaaaaand action

Also in 2014, Keanu Reeves returned to the big screen as action hero John Wick. We had seen his ability to handle action in the Matrix trilogy, but in his 50s now, the man’s still got it. Capturing a fighting style I had not seen work so effectively in the past, John Wick utilizes gun fu to perfection. And Reeves trained hard to handle the long takes. The result was one of the best action movies of the 21st century. You could actually see the action. The camera isn’t shaking. There are no violent cuts to make your head spin. The concept is so simple, but it takes the commitment of the actors. Reeves is doing all the stunts so there’s no need to hide him with shaky cam and cuts. Reeves’ level of commitment produces great action films. The Johh Wick franchise is now a box-office success with the second film almost doubling the gross of its predecessor worldwide. That is because of the film’s action. That quality is something audiences have started to demand, which is great.

Netflix and fulfill

In 2015, Daredevil kicked off the Marvel Netflix universe, finally delivering on the character that was mishandled in the 2003 film. Bolstered by the strength of its characters, Daredevil also hits audiences with great action. The one-take hallway fight scene in season one is legendary. It was so impressive that it started the universe’s obsession with iconic hallway fight scenes. Season two somehow managed to top the hallway scene with the one-take stairwell scene. What I love about Daredevil’s use of the one take is that you get to see the brutality of an extended fight and how much energy it takes to fight for your life. It’s realistic. Hopefully, The Defenders and Daredevil season three can give us much of the same.

HBO wow

Game of Thrones got in on the one take with last season’s “Battle of the Bastards” and this season’s “Loot Train Battle.” Game of Thrones has also been a victim to the shaky cam and quick cuts. The level of importance of the battle drives the quality of the action in the battle. It has to be a budget thing but I digress.

There’s a point during the “Battle of the Bastards” where we follow Jon Snow through the scrum of the fight. When you watch these kind of fights in a film when it deals with usually medieval times, it’s difficult to see what’s happening and how the fighters don’t kill anybody on their own side. This puts the camera right at Jon Snow’s back so you can see everything that’s happening and the chaos within the scrum. It’s beautiful and something that we have needed when it comes to these type of fights.

As for the “Loot Train Battle,” I think it’s too close to it actually airing Sunday so I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s much of the same as Jon Snow in the “Battle of the Bastards.”

Atomic Bond

Charlize Theron takes a shot at becoming another kick-ass MI6 agent in Atomic Blonde and nails it. You could see how much work she put into perfecting the fight choreography. You could feel the punches she throws, and you take the blows she endures. The movie is filled with long takes and a beautiful one-take sequence on a stairwell. We already knew she was an amazing actress, but she absolutely cemented her ability in physical acting. She is 42. Reeves is 52. Is there any excuse for younger actors to not put in the time to perfect fight choreography?

Participation trophy

Hardcore Henry was an experiment to see if a movie could take on a first-person shooter point of view for an entire run time. A lot of the action was great. I enjoyed the gun play and a scene very similar to a video game where Henry had to protect someone being lowered down a type of elevator while taking out enemy combatants down a stairwell (I’m just realizing now, stairwells seem to be the place for great action scenes). The first person long takes are great, but when Henry fights in hand-to-hand combat, it’s difficult to see because his head is moving all over the place. That’s realistic, but still tough to follow. Also the movie’s plot is awful. So I hope we could revisit this type of one-take first-person style, but let’s not shove the plot and the script to the side. Good action movies could get buried by poor storylines. Another reason John Wick is so great is because it builds a fascinating world. Great action doesn’t give you a great movie. You need to maintain its quality.

The bottom line

I think we’re going in the right direction with action. At the very least, we’ve shown improvement over the past few years. If we continue to back films that give us quality action, the studios and filmmakers will listen. And I believe we’ve done that as an audience. We moved John Wick from cult classic to box-office success. We’ve lauded Daredevil and Game of Thrones for their continued quality, proving we now understood what good action entails.

Catch my review of Atomic Blonde on today’s (Aug. 9) episode of The Bridge during the segment “Five Minutes in the Film Room.”

The Bridge is broadcast as a one-hour radio show every Wednesday night at 7 ET on Sports Radio America. After the live broadcast, the show is released as a podcast on iTunes and at on Friday. You can listen to the live show every Wednesday on Sports Radio America here or through the TuneIn app.

About dukemich

Samuel L. Jackson
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1 Response to The art of the one-take action sequence

  1. Pingback: The Bridge Ep. 78: Scott Kornberg, the radio voice of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, joins the show to discuss his passion for sports broadcasting, covering a Minor League Baseball team and more – The Bridge

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