Monday, 24 July 2017

Action Films and the Importance of Pace

I've seen two films in the past couple of days: Edgar Wright's gritty crime thriller Baby Driver, and Spider-Man: Homecoming, the energetic child of Disney money and Sony's intellectual property. I enjoyed both films immensely, for different reasons, but one thing they share is intelligent spending of an action film's most valuable currency - pace.

Pace, or the manipulation of speed and time, defines the action format - I don't think 'action' is a genre in the same way as, say 'Western,' but that's a subject for another time. Compare the exquisitely drawn-out kitchen scene in Jurassic Park with the exhausting chase scene at the start of Casino Royale. Both are thrilling, edge-of-seat moments, but achieved through completely different uses of pace. One is a fast-moving, shakily-filmed parkour fest that never stops for breath. The other is deliberately slow and static, fueled by the seeming impossibility of the children to escape their predicament.

However, what separates a good action film from an okay one is the diversity of pace. An hour after Bond loses track of his prey, we watch as Martin Campbell makes Poker seem like Russian Roulette. By the same token, the climax of Jurassic Park sees our protagonists running and driving from an escaped T-Rex. This is one of the many problems with the Star Wars prequels - there's no control of pace. The action scenes are well-choreographed, but often feel like an onslaught of light and sound; and the slow scenes in between are just... slow. There's little tension or intrigue, just exposition.

Baby Driver and Homecoming are also tonally different. The latter maintains a playful undertone throughout, just as a Spider-Man film should, and I think Disney's writers have finally nailed the wise-cracking Spidey we know from the comics and cartoons. Baby Driver, on the other hand, stands out in Wright's catalogue as an inherently dark film. There are funny moments, sure, but the action is as unforgiving for the audience as Spacey's ruthless mob boss is for his heist teams.

As mentioned above, though, these films know how to use pace. Wright's protagonist, young getaway driver Baby, must listen to music to block out his chronic tinnitus. Not only does this make for an incredible cross-genre soundtrack, the whole movie is driven by music. Every car chase is matched exactly to the rhythm of whatever Baby is listening to; when things go well, the timing is seamless, but when things fall apart, so does the link between visual and sound. This is an ingenious way of tying theme to plot, but it also means the film never feels too fast or too slow. Baby is the driver and the DJ. When you go see this, sit back and let him take control.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is refreshing for a mainstream Marvel film. It doesn't stay in one place for too long, and never creates a scene if there doesn't need to be one. BBC's Sherlock injected pace via the use of technology - the on-screen texting is a famous example - and a similar thing happens here as well. Peter Parker spends much of the time wearing a Stark-made suit, through which Iron Man can advance the plot without slowing down the film. Finally, fast-paced films often feel the need to generate most of their comedy from changes of speed; whether it be an awkward exchange between characters in a lift, or failure to notice something in a fight scene until it's too late. Homecoming makes one of these jokes at the start and one at the end, and they're both hilarious.

In a world where nineteen partially-improvised scenes can make up a viable rom-com, I hope to see more films like these in the near future. Films with a good grasp of pace are never boring, and feel somehow more complete - The Lego Movie and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are each more than ninety minutes long, but their management of time and speed makes them feel half that length. Let's respect our audience's intelligence and their time; give stories the time frame they need, and nothing more.

On which note, thank you for your attention, and I'll see you in the next post.

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