Friday, October 1, 2010

A Piece of the Action: Point Break

A few years ago, when The Bourne Ultimatum had come out, I was talking about the film with my then boss. I was going off about my admiration for the filmmaking, how it struck me as a rare example of someone crafting a fact-cut, shaky-cam action scene that was actually coherent and exciting, how the action scenes successfully juggled simultaneous narrative strands, how they worked in a few incredible shots (especially that shot where Bourne jumps out that window in Tangier, and the camera follows right behind). My boss politely smiled through my monologue, and then said:

"Yeah. I liked the part where he hit that guy with a book."

Well, shucks, I liked that part, too. But are clever ideas the only things that make an action scene good or bad? Obviously a big part of the appeal of action films is the appreciation of a well choreographed fight, or a cool explosion, or a creative kill. Is it only the content of an action scene that matters, or is there an art to an action scene? Part of what I'm trying to do with this series of posts is not just admire the literal events of an action sequence (i.e. guy smacks other guy with a large book), but to admire the craft or form of it (i.e. how that book-smack is filmed and edited) and what its effect is on the viewer.

Last time, we looked a brief sequence (about 20 seconds) from Inglourious Basterds, where I tried to show how Tarantino mixed rapid-fire editing with clear visual storytelling to create an action sequence that felt chaotic but maintained coherency. This time, I thought I'd break down a great action sequence that took the opposite, or at least a very different, tack: a section of the foot chase from Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break. This sequence mixes handheld, less precise shots (lots of blurry motion and subjects going in and out of focus) with a relatively normal, steady editing pace (for an action scene, that is; the average shot length is something closer to 3 seconds, nearly an eternity in modern action movie grammar). The final effect is a scene of headlong energy; you're practically out of breath by the end of it.

Sadly, these days Point Break is mainly viewed as something of a work of camp or kitsch, I suspect because people don't like Keanu Reeves and think its funny the way he delivers lines like "I am an F-B-I AGENT!" I consider it to be a rare action movie that respects and fleshes out its characters, and takes itself seriously even if elements of the story are completely ludicrous. I'm not ashamed to say it's one of my all-time favorite action movies, and a serious contender for #1. However, whether you see it as a corny novelty or not, I think the one thing everyone agrees on is that its action scenes legitimately kick ass. So even if you can't stop chortling at the idea of bank-robbing surfers, you can at least see the value in analyzing the craft behind a sequence where no one does much talking any way.

For those who haven't seen it (and really, if you like action movies, this has a handful of all-time classic action scenes, so you should put this one on your queue), Point Break stars Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah, an FBI agent who goes undercover as a surfer to catch a gang of bank robbers lead by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Utah unfortunately makes the mistake of befriending the wise, seemingly benevolent Bodhi before realizing that Bodhi is the man he's trying to catch. Utah finds himself having a crisis of conscience when he realizes he has to take Bodhi down. (The first Fast and the Furious movie more or less copied the entire plot, but replaced the surfing and skydiving scenes with drag racing.)

The scene we're looking at today is just a segment of the extended chase sequence from the middle of the film, as Utah chases Bodhi through a residential neighborhood and right through the houses (the sequence as a whole also includes involves a bank robbery, shootouts, a car chase, and a gas pump being turned into a makeshift flamethrower; seriously, you need to see this movie if you haven't). Bodhi's face is hidden under a Ronald Reagan mask, so sadly we won't be able to marvel at the late, great Swayze's gorgeous visage as we pour over these stills.

(Note: at the suggestion of Fred Topel, an actual professional journalist who kindly slummed the comments section on the last post, I'm going to try keeping the descriptions brief and save the analysis for afterward. Which, considering how many stills I have this time, is probably for the best.)

Shot 1: Bodhi darts between two houses, down the street, and up to the back gate of another house.
Shot 2: Bodhi breaks down the back gate and runs into the yard, brushing past a swing set.

Shot 3: A near imperceptible cut to a lower angle on Bodhi's feet. He runs right through a kiddie pool, and hops over a little fence into the front yard.

Shot 4: Utah hurtles down the street and into the backyard Bodhi has just left.

Shot 5: Bodhi runs through the front yard, knocking over a pedestrian watering the lawn. He hops over the front fence and runs over a car hood and out into the street.

Shot 6: Back to Utah, who leaps over the pedestrian as he passes through the yard.

Shot 7: Possibly a continuation of shot 5, we follow Bodhi into the street. He jigs right, and a child on a bike passes through the foreground. Bodhi runs to the cross street, right at an oncoming truck...

Shot 8: Quick cut to Bodhi squeezing by just in time.

Shot 9: Utah bolts into the street, narrowly avoids the cyclists, and smacks into a pedestrian (garbageman?) by the garbage truck.

Shot 10: The pedestrian falls over, but Utah continues on.

Shots 11-13: Bodhi in a tight shot, running down the next street. Cut back to a similar shot of Utah, and then back to Bodhi again.

Shot 14: Bodhi cuts into a random yard, up the front porch and to the front door.

Shot 15: Bodhi charges into the house.

Shot 16: From Bodhi's POV, charging directly towards a woman holding a stack of laundry, the pile of clothes flying right into the camera.

Shot 17: Cut back to a wider angle, approximately where the camera passed through in the previous shot. The effect is almost that of the laundry passing through the camera.

Shot 18: Utah runs in from outside, the camera pans as he rushes past...

Shot 19: And leaps over the woman with the laundry.

Shot 20: With the camera in pursuit, Bodhi runs through the back porch, out into the street, and quickly scales a neighbor's wall.

Shot 21: Cut back to Utah exiting the backyard and similarly scaling the wall.

Shot 22: In this sequence's most elaborate shot, Bodhi hotfoots it down some alleyways, onto a porch, through a sliding glass door. The camera pulls in to show him locking the door, then whip pans back to Utah, running onto the porch, snatching up a flower pot, and hurling it at the window.

Shot 23: Cut to inside the home as the window explodes. Utah dives in, collides with a table and slams into a ground. The startled woman in the house begins hitting him with her vacuum.

Shot 24 - 25: Two quick shots: the woman hitting Utah, and Utah brushing it off and getting to his feet.

Shot 26: Utah runs outside, and the camera pans right...

Shot 27: Holy shit! Bodhi throws a fucking dog at him.

Shot 28: Close-up of Utah wrestling with the dog.

Shot 29: Utah kicks the dog away, and the camera follows him as he runs out of the yard and out into the street.

Obviously there are lots of reasons that this is a great chase scene, in terms of the content. You have the nimble footwork, the near-miss with the truck, the constant collisions with innocent bystanders, Keanu being beat with a vacuum cleaner, Swayze throwing a dog, etc. But let's take a quick look at the form to understand how the style really makes the chase pop.

The key here, I think, is the way Bigelow uses dynamic, handheld camera work for energy, without sacrificing visual coherency. In many shots, the camera almost appears to be running behind the characters; participating in the chase. It darts up and down alleyways, follows the characters into yards and houses, peaks over fences, and whip pans back and forth to stay with the action.

You can see how this could easily go wrong: a lesser filmmaker with a less-talented crew might end with up an ugly, confusing series of blurry, practically abstract shots, bearing more resemblance to a Stan Brakhage short than an action scene. What Bigelow does, though, is avoid using too many close-ups. She keeps the camera held back a bit, so even when the shots are unsteady, blurry and/or not particularly in focus, the "story" of each shot is obvious, including: the character/subject, the action being performed, and its relation to the geography of the scene. When Bigelow does go to close-up, like with the dog toss, there's a good reason; in that case, to emphasize the surprise and add a visceral sense of impact.

Speaking of geography, its maintained very well during the scene, even though the characters are never in one location for long. A scene like this could be tedious if it was just a matter of watching one character run through a stretch of land, followed by the other character doing the same. In some cases Bigelow uses similar shots of locations, for example Bodhi entering the house in shot 15 and Utah entering in shot 18, to orient the audience (to make it clear they both entered the same door). But she's clever about including ellipses here and there so it's not too repetitive: i.e. we see Utah enter the backyard in shot 4 and run through the front in shot 6, but we don't see the entire journey through the back yard nor his jump over the fence (and we don't need to.)

The fast-but not-too-fast cutting of the scene helps in a few ways. Most importantly might be that we're allowed to see the characters complete whole actions. It's been noted by many (for instance, this great blog post on action scenes by David Bordwell, and Roger Ebert's review of From Paris With Love) that fast editing and tight framing can hide the specifics of motion in a scene; punches don't connect, characters seem to start an action in one shot but have already completed it by the next, etc. Here Bigelow is careful not to cut until an significant action is complete, as in the wall scaling in shots 20 & 21.

When she does cut on an action, there's usually a solid match on the next shot. The best example is probably between shots 22 & 23, where Utah throws the pot at the window, followed by a shot of the window breaking and Utah charging through. The transition is seamless, as we clearly see the action from beginning to end.

The other benefit is that there's a real sense that all of this is actually happening to the characters. Obviously, it could be anyone under that Reagan mask, but it really does appear to be Keanu Reeves in all those shots; if they used a lot of stunt men for this scene, it's hard to spot. (The dim lighting during the window break/table dive is clever, I suspect they are hiding a stunt double's face). Other movies cut so fast, even if it is the actor doing the stunt, it hardly matters because the audience could never tell anyway. In this scene, it actually looks like Keanu is doing all the things his character is supposed to be doing.

There's also some smooth, nearly invisible cuts during the scene that help keep the flow going. The cut from Bodhi entering the yard in shot 1 to his legs in shot 2 matches so well you could be forgiven for thinking they are the same shot. Ditto the dog throw.

This is a less than 2 minute segment from a much longer chase scene, and already you can see how many complex elements went into making just this little snippet. Hopefully, I've managed to illustrate with these frames how a skillful combination of kinetic camerawork/editing with a clarity of motion and spacial relations helped to make a classic chase scene.


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