Lights, camera… and action!

Posted on May 14, 2016


Thoughts on fight sequences that are more than just… fight sequences.

I sat glumly through the new Captain America movie. It was too long, and it took itself too seriously. There’s probably something to the theory that no post-9/11 superhero film can afford to be, you know, light and fun and nothing but escapist entertainment, but then, the peak of the Cold War, with the ever-present spectre of nuclear annihilation, yielded the preposterously diverting James Bond films – so I don’t know. And it isn’t just the seriousness in themes, with these new films. There’s also the seriousness in tone. The first meeting between Iron Man and Spider-Man feels like a chamber scene out of Chekhov. It all feels like they’re straining for something that’s not there, some sort of mythic grandeur. But there are too many characters, and you need a film as long as the Mahabharata to do justice to all of them, to make grand myths out of each one of them.

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But at least the action scenes deliver, and the best one comes towards the end – it’s a fight between Captain America, Iron Man and Bucky Barnes. This is the only time the film comes anywhere close to myth, and it’s because these aren’t empty action moves, like in the Bond films. We’re not just asked to thrill to the way the characters duck and swerve and defy gravity. We are invested in their past (history), in their future (destiny). We want revenge for Iron Man, whose mother Bucky Barnes killed. But we know Barnes was brainwashed, so we don’t want to see him die for actions beyond his control. And we worry, more than anything, that the longstanding friendship between Captain America and Iron Man will come to an end (it’s always heartbreaking to watch great friendships rupture on screen). When the Captain makes his choice, bringing his mighty shield down on the glowing core of Iron Man’s armour, it’s as though he’s driving a stake through the heart.

So I’m talking about action as not just an excuse to admire the action choreographer’s work – though, as the Bond films keep reminding us, that’s its own kind of fun. But fun is all it is. We admire it at a superficial level. But we dive deep into Captain America’s stake-through-the-heart action scene, because this is action as an extension of character. The recent Tamil/Telugu film 24 has a great instance of such a scene. The protagonist, trapped in the villain’s den, isn’t itching for a fight. He wants to hide, escape. But when his childhood friend is tortured, he’s forced to do something. The action is an extension of his feelings for this friend, plus his frustration about his own stupidity at finding himself in this situation in the first place. The action says: “I care so much about you that I will risk my life and try and save you… but aaarggh, I’m such a fool.” You may or may not like the action choreography, but that is execution – this is about intent, the reason for the action sequence.

Of course, you could argue that there’s a reason behind all action scenes – say, Bond wanting to stay alive or prevent getting caught or a Tamil-film hero fighting off a few dozen henchmen. But these aren’t emotional reasons. Take Trishul. No one today can take its action sequences seriously, for the choreography is practically primitive. But the intent behind each one of them – there are four in all – is enough to make them important, valid in the context of the screenplay. The first two action scenes aren’t just about Vijay (the Amitabh Bachchan character) beating up a couple of bad guys. It’s about a penniless man with a sinister dream using the only things he owns to achieve that dream: his brains, his fists. It’s all part of a plan. The physical fight is simply a subset of his psychological war with the father who abandoned his mother.

The final action scene is a more conventional heroes-versus-villains stretch, but, again, there’s something more. The action sets up the mythical stage on which the father can atone for his sins by taking the bullet meant for his son. (It wouldn’t do to have him die in a hospital bed, after a tearful confession.) In the hands of really good screenwriters, action scenes take on these other dimensions. Take Aboorva Sagotharargal/Appu Raja. A minor action scene paves the way for the reunion of mother and son. A more conventional writer would have staged this meeting in a temple, say, or the mother might have seen the son on the road while she was taking a bus, but with the action element, the tone of the emotion changes. On top of the son trying to escape (his emotion is “I have to save my skin”), we have the mother’s emotions, a quicksilver transformation from “Please help, this man may kill me” to “Ohmygod, he looks just like his father.”

The third fight in Trishul is between step-brothers Shekhar and Vijay. The immediately apparent reasons for the fight are that (1) Vijay is trying to bring Shekhar’s father down, (2) Vijay tried to cause friction between Shekhar and his girlfriend, and now (3) Vijay is helping Shekhar’s sister get married (against their father’s wishes). All of this causes the innately civil Shekhar to explode, and this is the underlying emotional dimension in this action sequence, that this suave, sophisticated, golf player has been forced to “come down” to Vijay’s level. The ultimate fight-between-brothers, of course, is in Agni Natchatiram. It could have happened at any point, during any of the numerous encounters between the step-brothers who just cannot stand each other. But Mani Ratnam makes us wait. And wait. And wait. And well into the second half, the action scene occurs. The underlying emotion here isn’t about who wins. It’s that they need to get all this poison out of their systems. It’s action as psychotherapy. At the end of the fight, they just fall, exhausted.  Nobody wins. But now, they can finally be brothers.

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