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Cat’s Cradle: Action as art

There is more to action on film than a couple of people scuffling. Though it is often thought of as plot filler, action is more complex. Action is meant to demonstrate narrative, character and choreography. A well-made action film invests an audience in a character and follows them as they attempt to accomplish their goal.

Action, in its most root form, exists in every film. There is the action of walking, talking or performing a task. What separates your Jayne Eyre from No Time To Die is how action is structured, choreographed and captured. 

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is often considered one of the best martial arts films ever. The film is a basic revenge story. The bulk of the narrative is dedicated to the protagonist learning martial arts. The film conveys this through two key elements: the montage and wide shot

Through montage, the film conveys development. While wide shots are relegated to a full view of a character’s talents. By the end, audiences believe in the character’s growth through his actions.

Mad Max: Fury Road uses the movement of action to convey the story. Each actor is given their own motivation, interest and action within a scene that raises tension without becoming muddled. Scenes flourish into an interworking series of events, each character employing a skill or lesson they’ve learned along the way, giving life to the scene.

The Bourne Supremacy is the exact opposite. Frenetic editing and camera movement makes the scene illegible, and the fights feel contrived rather than an actual demonstration of talent. Though the occasional home appliance becomes a deadly weapon, the action isn’t remarkable. Instead, it’s a movement from scene to scene as Bourne performs his special move and leaves.

Action should place the viewer within a moment. Take the mamba lessons from Dirty Dancing. Though the action is overshadowed by the romance, there is an element of discipline, a focus on action and the development of talent. 

Moving from wide shots to medium shots, the movement of the scene demonstrates the challenge and reward of learning to dance. What follows is the progressive development of that skill which eventually pays off on the dance floor. 

What these positive examples of action demonstrate is well-acted choreography. A sense of intention that conveys a sense of importance to a scene. Films like Mission Impossible Fallout, The Matrix or any Jackie Chan movie. The movement of the body requires grace and control, like any dance, which requires coordination to translate to film. 

Fight scenes become a tableau of character actions. Movements, reactions and motivations are expressed through the body that words can’t create. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fight between Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film uses the scene to demonstrate talent versus strength, the power of the weapon to the wielder and the folly of Jen Yu’s ambitions. 

Good action tells a story. Be it a chase, a dance lesson or a parable on strength, well-made action can’t be removed from a narrative. Action cinema has a place in the discussion of cinema, as seen with six Oscar wins for Dune. Instead of zoning out for an action scene, look at how it’s framed, choreographed and performed. Often the art of the scene is locked behind a well-placed punch.

Benjamin Ervin is a senior studying English literature and writing at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Benjamin know by emailing him

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