Hollywood Sucks at Action Scenes!

Monday , 26, June 2017 22 Comments

Hollywood is a big old pile of suck, and it’s not all the fault of the usual suspects: lazy writers, crappy directors, and incompetent studio execs. No, the MPAA plays a big part as well.

The MPAA—Motion Picture Association of America—is responsible for handing out all the movie ratings you see. They, and they alone, decide what qualifies as an “R”, “PG”, “G”, and so forth. They change the guidelines on a whim (one of the reasons the guidelines are kept secret from the rest of the world), apply them unfairly (letting one movie get away with stuff they no one else would), and sometimes just do their job badly. (1976’s Taxi Driver infamously spoofed the ratings board by resubmitting the exact same edit of the movie over and over again, each time claiming they’d cut some gore as requested, when they hadn’t cut a single frame, until eventually the MPAA approved the pic’s “R” rating, instead of the dreaded “X”, because now the movie wasn’t so violent anymore.) The latest example of MPAA incompetence is this: People are no longer allowed to hit each other in a PG-13 movie.

Every get the feeling that modern fight scenes suck? Or that they feel fake and unreal? It isn’t just you. Directors are no longer allowed to show fists impacting the human body, and keep a sub-“R” rating. One punch impacting a face, and it’s “children under-17 admitted only with an adult” time for your comic book epic.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at a film with otherwise great fight scenes: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Slow down the scenes, watch them frame by frame, and you’ll notice they IMPLY hits, but never outright show them. They cut just before and after the actual impact (meaning you assume it happened, but never actually see it), have the punch obscured by an actor’s body, or use other cinematographic and editing tricks to avoid showing the actual punches. As a result, the fights are robbed of much of their impact. Put bluntly (not that I ever would), they just plain suck.

You can blame the hippie pervos for this. After decades of whining about how nekkid boobies are verboten but fistfights are A-OK, the MPAA bowed to their whims (another weakness of the ratings system) and started treating simple fisticuffs like they were explicit sex scenes.

Today, The Karate Kid and Wild Orchid would BOTH receive the same hard “R” rating. That iconic last scene in The Karate Kid, with Daniel LaRusso kicking Johnny’s face in? You can actually see the kick land, so it’s treated just the same as if they’d shot a full on nude nekkid orgy party scene instead. (Because THAT makes so much sense.) To get a PG-13, no blows can be seen to land.

Also—and this will be germane in just a second—PG-13 now means no gore. Ever. Compare the original World War Z to the Unrated cut, as I did here, you’ll see what I mean.

So where can we, as action junkies, go, now that they’ve banned all the action? Enter basic cable.

Since the advent of Game of Thrones (and imitators), premium cable has become a vast wasteland of nekkid boobies and violence. But basic cable? Ahh… all the violence, (almost) none of the nudity and explicit sex.

Take Into the Badlands, AMC’s Journey-to-the-West-by-way-of-Mad-Max post apocalyptic martial arts drama. And all the face-punching, sword-slicing, blood-spewing action scenes you may have been missing in your modern action movies are here, in spades.

The very first scene of the very first episode features main character Sunny (Daniel Wu) facing a dozen well-armed Badlands thugs all by his lonesome, and taking the entire gang apart with his bare hands. Yes, there’s some sloppy editing here and there, but they actually show punches landing and, in fact, Sunny is responsible for snapping more limbs than an entire tractor-trailer filled with skateboards. By the way, the second episode? Also starts with an epic fight scene. And also the third. In fact, the whole series is peppered with killer melees. (No pun intended.)

Nor is this a surprise. The series imported three mainstays of Hong Kong kung fu flicks to train the actors and choreograph the stunts (Stephen Fung, Andy Cheng, and HK legend Master Dee Dee). The series is basically an English-language Hong Kong martial arts kung fu melodrama, and the fight scenes (the best thing about the series, admittedly) are GORGEOUS.

They’re so good, one of Season 2’s digital extras is a half-hour compilation of just the fight scenes from Season 1. It’s unexpectedly riveting.

Season 2 also points up how badly Marvel’s Iron Fist dropped the ball. If Into the Badlands can turn tubby Brit Nick Frost, of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame, into a passable kung fu fighter, Marvel has no excuses for how bad Finn Jones came off.

If the action scenes are the best part of the series, and they are, the rest is barely more than alright, most of the time. Frankly, I didn’t like any of the characters, I never could bring myself to care about anything they were doing, and after two seasons (16 episodes), I’m still not sure what the series is supposed to be about. (And the many slender-yet-kick-ass kung fu action chicks in it are kinda grating.) But the action scenes, well the action scenes are amazing.

The only American movie that beats them is, of course, John Wick (which has the benefit of adding in firearms). And being as how Americans INVENTED action movies (not to mention movies themselves), that’s just embarrassing. It’s a sad day when Hollywood sucks so bad at making Hollywood movies, they have to import action movie experts from China just to do the jobs incompetent American filmmakers can no longer do.

Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.

  • deuce says:

    ” It’s a sad day when Hollywood sucks so bad at making Hollywood movies, they have to import action movie experts from China just to do the jobs incompetent American filmmakers can no longer do.”

    Excellent closer.

  • Personally, I wouldn’t mind if they just sped up their own suicide as an industry. They’ve destroyed all my favorite stories, I never know going into it if the social messaging will make me vomit and want to take a shower after. Then there’s the regret I fell when I realize I’m funding my own demise by supporting meat-puppets like Liam Neeson who have no issue advancing agendas that limit my freedoms.

  • Andy says:

    Ugh, action movies are basically a dying art outside of Asia. It might be my favorite genre but I think I can comfortably count on one hand the number of good ones Hollywood has made in the last…20 years? It’s bad.

    A few years ago I caught WWE’s Saturday morning show and was aghast at how they’d edited out of the matches every single blow to the head. You think it’s hard watching an action movie like that? It makes wrestling utterly incoherent.

    • Nathan says:

      But it’s been great seeing the action movie boom across Korea and Indonesia, with each country putting its own spin on the action and the violence. A wu xia artist is formidable, but a Korean action hero with a knife is scary…

  • Brian Renninger says:

    Ironic that the complaint that was arguing for freeing up sex and nudity ended up the reverse.

    Also, wasn’t PG-13 created to create a middle ground between PG and R. That is, a bit more mature content than PG? So what’s allowed the difference between PG and PG-13 now? Or, heck, G and PG-13? Mild cuss words?

    • PG-13 was basically created because of the “heart-ripping” scenes in Indiana Jones ans the Temple of Doom. The first movie to carry the PG-13 rating was the original Red Dawn.

      (These days I think old Bugs Bunny cartoons would be PG-13 territory. I’ve worked in movie theatres a long time, and remember a few years ago a preview was labeled PG for “some bullying” and knew that America had become a nation of wimps.)

  • John E. Boyle says:

    ” It’s a sad day when Hollywood sucks so bad at making Hollywood movies, they have to import action movie experts from China just to do the jobs incompetent American filmmakers can no longer do.”

    That ought to hurt, but I doubt if they see what they’ve done as a bad thing.

  • Josh Young says:

    Wait. Nick Frost is in Into the Badlands S2? You might have just convinced me to do something besides rewatch DS9 and Archer and actually hit my DVR up.

  • David says:

    Don’t believe me? Take a look at a film with otherwise great fight scenes: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Slow down the scenes, watch them frame by frame, and you’ll notice they IMPLY hits, but never outright show them.

    I do remember that happening and being bothered by it, but I recall being told part of it was the shield they were using was made of fiberglass to avoid breaking bones and they cut scenes to avoid showing the shield wobbling. Your explanation does make sense though.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    Ah! So that would explain why bad guys bodily throwing the good guy around the room has become so commonplace. It’s not a punch when the hero gets thrown bodily into a wall 30 feet away, so it doesn’t count as violence.

  • Vlad James says:

    Heh, I assumed this article was going to be about action choreography, which has sucked hard for decades in Hollywood. (And has never matched the golden age of Hong Kong kung fu films, 1973-1985)

    However, having barely watched any recent Hollywood films in the past years, especially ones that aren’t R-rated, I didn’t even realize they were no longer allowed to show the impact of a strike.

    Frankly, I’ve considered action films a completely dead genre in Hollywood since about 2008 or so.

    Some people will counter with superhero movies, but they’re not really action films per se, for several reasons. It’s almost a new type of genre, actually; the special effects spectacle movie.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    I would draw Hollywood’s attention to South Korean spy thriller That’s not only action packed but it’s a chemically pure pulpy experience. It’s called IRIS and it’s sequel IRIS 2. Michael Bay should direct the American remake as he’s the only director who makes great war/battle/fire fight scenes.

    • Freddo says:

      Michael Bay mainly uses wildly moving cameras and CGI in his shots to distract people from the fact that there is no substance to his scenes (or movies).

    • David says:

      Thank you for suggesting these movies. I will check them out and I encourage more people to make recommendations. I have been bored with action movies for some time, though I couldn’t be sure if it was because of terrible choreography or because I didn’t care about the characters. The first John Wick movie would be an example of the latter.

      • Andy says:

        My problem with John Wick was the campy stuff like the hitman hotel. I did like the action scenes.

        I enjoyed the Dredd movie with Karl Urban (a British film). The action is actually pretty basic but it’s clearly shot and the movie nails the characters.

  • JD Cowan says:

    Hollywood has had a problem with action movies since the ’80s. How else can you explain how they took and utterly wasted John Woo by handcuffing him in every movie he made. I think the only movie he had any creative control was Face/Off, which is also his best received Hollywood movie.

    Then there are folks like Jackie Chan who outright stated that Hollywood will not give anyone the time or budget to make action scenes what they could be.

    I’d pay money to see anyone make a modern action movie with the style and budget of older ones. Cut out shaky cam, and modern “realistic” color grain, and put in a heroic protagonist, and I’m there.

    • Vlad James says:

      Not sure if John Woo is the best example; there were a lot of flaws/weaknesses to his earlier Hong Kong films, and he was definitely losing whatever talent he once possessed by the time he moved to Hollywood in the mid-90s.

      The fact that Woo’s HK films since he moved to Hollywood have been underwhelming don’t help matters.

      A great example would be someone like Kim Jee-woon; makes dementedly brilliant, visceral action films in South Korea, then makes a forgettable action film in Hollywood, “The Last Stand”.

      • Nathan says:

        Red Cliff is worth a watch, but that’s more historical in tone than action movie, and it also shows signs of government meddling.

        • Vlad James says:

          I’ve watched Red Cliff.

          It’s okay, but still a pale imitation of what Woo was doing earlier in his career. If there was government meddling, I doubt it affected the quality; it’s simply a historical retelling of the beginning of the Three Kingdoms predicated upon its lavish battle scenes. Maybe the communists added or deleted a word here and there in the dialogue, but that was a minor, inconsequential element of the movie’s appeal, anyways.

  • JD Cowan says:

    As an aside, it would be cool to see someone do a series on the best (and worst) of Cannon Films. Even their worst action film is better than anything starring Liam Neeson.

    • Vlad James says:

      Heh, I could easily write that series, as I watched practically every Cannon Films production growing up at least five times over. However, I doubt it would fit the content of this website. In the meantime, there is a decent, if somewhat incomplete documentary that came out a few years ago; “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films”.

  • […] Yup. You see that fist impacting the guy’s side? No blood or guts or heads exploding or anything? That, my friends, is enough to earn your movie an R rating nowadays. […]

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