Sunday, 7 February 2010

Cinemaniacal: On Bullets

Welcome to the show folks....

A couple weeks ago I sat down and watched Magnum Force, the second Dirty Harry movie and I put on the audio commentary by John Milius who created the story and wrote the bulk of the script. He made an interesting statement that has stuck with me, to bastardize paraphrase it he said that back then, when people in action movies used revolvers, the shootouts were more important because every shot had to matter.

Damn, he made a point with that.

Pretty much since the 1980s the shootout has gone from an event that essentially made an action film into just a piece of cinematic punctuation. Shootouts have become the movie equivalent of a comma. Just something to create breaks between plot exposition and shower scenes for the lead starlet.

I use the 1980s as the beginning of the end of the shootout as an event because the sole point of action movies of the 1980s was to top the early action movies of the 1960s and 1970s. So the heroes became freakishly muscular, their stunts became more outrageous, and the firepower had to grow on an exponential scale. Revolvers just stopped being "macho" enough for action heroes, and nothing that hurled less than three digits of bullets a second were good enough for Hollywood.

They all want to recreate the visceral force of the finale of The Wild Bunch, but only see the surface values of blood, bullets, and sheer size of the battle, while they ignore the cinematic and narrative elements that gave that battle its emotional weight.

But that's only one reason why it's hurt action movies more than helped. The second reason is suspense, or the lack of it.

Suspense comes from questions, and if your action movie doesn't ask: "Does he have enough bullets to stop the bad guys?" "Can he reload in time?" and "Can he survive being outgunned by the bad guys and their superior firepower?" then there is no suspense.

With the suspense gone it all became about a ballet of carnage, where the heroes and villains hurled millions of slugs at each other while they dance around the set, and there is no uncertainty at all about the outcome. This became worse in the 1990s, reaching a new height, or nadir with the gravity mutilating antics of The Matrix and its sequels. The Matrix literally had guns and ammo appearing out of nowhere, something most action films since have tried to imitate, even though they're supposed to take place in the real world.

Which sort of bugs me, because I can still enjoy many of those old action movies, but a lot of the new ones, just turn into white noise for me.


  1. Wasn't that the point of the 7 part Phantom Menace review from RedLetterMedia? That without narrative weight behind it, lightsaber duels are just boring.

    Indeed, it seems that applies to every action segment. It gets almost humorous when you compare movies via math and science. Die Hard might not have that many gun battles, fights or explosions of some films, but you are so invested in John and even the villains that you feel the action more than you do in the sequels. Just look at the matrix. The first one had 1 major gun battle, 3 chase scenes, and 3 major fist fights. Compare that to the sequels where similar scenes went on for much longer if not outnumbering.

    Or as I've said somewhere (oh, here's a shameless plug:, if the audience doesn't care about the participants, than the action scene is no different than a fighting video game. And why watch that when you can go play it? (indeed, sometimes I've seen people get more into a video game because they know and are rooting for one+ of the players, further proving my point)

  2. And then there's the other side of the coin. The plot where through some unlikely accident or unnatural event, the gun makes an appearance but is useless. This may raise the tension, but if not done correctly it becomes a "oh, so he accidently throws the gun away just when it would have solved the problem -boy is this bad writing" moment during the movie.

  3. Good point on the video game reference, I think the rise of the first person shooter has pretty much killed the classic shootout film. Why watch some people shoot at each other when you can fire up the 360 and play call of duty modern warfare 2.