Saturday, April 4, 2009

Keeping It Real: Action Sequences


When you're writing an action scene (never mind directing it), it's extremely important to make sure that the scene has a sense of reality to it. That means both keeping the action within the realm of the believable (unless you're writing a superhero film of course), and just as importantly have all the characters in the scene behave in logical and natural ways.


A good example of how not to do this can be found in the Dutch children's movie De Brief Aan De Koning (The Letter For The King). This medieval adventure story follows the exploits of Tiuri, a sixteen-year old squire who is entrusted with a secret mission to deliver a highly sensitive letter to the king of a neighbouring land. Tiuri is constantly chased by evil knights and henchmen, and often finds himself in dire straits.

Now, Tiuri is a teenager who knows how to fight with a sword, but is still inexperienced. His opponents are experienced knights and killers, most of whom are fully armoured as well. So you can see it's going to be something of a stretch to make the fight scenes believable.

Unfortunately, the film goes out of its way to sabotage itself. In one scene, Tiuri has been captured by a gang of knights, and their leader decides he is to be executed. One of the knights raises his sword to behead Tiuri, but the youth manages to get away and grab a sword. Unarmoured Tiuri manages to wound the executioner in the arm, at which point a second knight steps forward to attack him.

But why didn't the knights grab Tiuri when he broke away? Or why didn't they attack him simultaneously once he got hold of a sword? At this point in the story they consider him to be a traitor and villain of the worst kind...

The same lack of logic occurs during the final duel. Arriving at the castle of the king, Tiuri is attacked by the main villain disguised as a beggar. There are guardsmen all around, but when the fight breaks out, they just stand there doing nothing - not even when Tiuri's buddy steals the sword of a guard and throws it to Tiuri. In fact, the guards only interfere at the end of the fight when Tiuri is about to kill his defeated opponent - then they suddenly show up and arrest both combatants.

In both cases, the viewer wonders why the most logical events given the situation. Now, the choices in directing these scenes are to a considerable extent to blame for the mess - but the script's at fault too. For it doesn't even attempt to create circumstances which might explain why the most logical course of action (i.e. the guards interfering as soon as the fight starts) is prohibited or cannot occur. Just a simple tweak might do it - for instance, making the guard a coward who runs away to get his colleagues at the first sign of trouble would have solved everything.

And I didn't even have to think long or hard to find that solution. So, put in the effort, for it may well mark the difference between a succesful, exciting action scene on film and a scene which, despite all the effort, pyrotechnics or stuntwork falls flat on its face because it just is so obviously not 'real'.

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