May 12, 2009
There were a number of aspects of Star Trek that left me unimpressed, not the least of which was Jim Kirk/Chris Pine channeling Pete Mitchell/Tom Cruise; I half-expected him to have to outgun a fellow Starfleet cadet named Iceman. OK, I didn't expect it, but I hoped for it.
And I could have done without the clichéd Romulan leader Nero (don't forget, facial tattoos = bad guy), and the clichéd monster-eats-monster disappointment, and the shamelessly predictable "climax" that audaciously tries to make us think that the entire crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise will perish in a black hole, thus upending the very existence of the Star Trek franchise.
These things made me scoff more than scowl, but one piece of this movie went so far as to outright disappoint me: the fight scene atop the massive drill bit miles high in the sky. A tremendous set piece (one of many that J.J. Abrams impressively brought to life), this platform was featured twice in Star Trek to mostly stunning effect. My problem was not the use of this set, but the huge letdown that was the boring action on top of it. Of all the things Abrams got right with this movie, and despite all of the annoyances I've already listed, the lack of creativity in the hand-to-hand combat department ended up being my biggest problem with Star Trek.
Whatever happened to the ballet of a fight scene?
I can guarantee you one thing: today's action directors spend significantly more time and energy getting the right camera angle/effect than they do actually choreographing a fight scene, and what we end up with are a bunch of images and sounds that form no coherent whole. It's like pounding a case of Red Bull, spinning your head around a bat on the floor 10 times and then watching an MTV show/video montage through a kaleidoscope with the TV at full volume.
Sometimes, I think the director must simply tell the actors, "Pretend like you're fighting, just do whatever, we'll take care of the rest," before turning his attention to the D.P. and camera crew and explaining how the fighting should really look and "feel". Isn't that backwards? Shouldn't the camera observe the action and not create it?
A recent notable exception is Paul Greengrass, particularly in his direction of the instantly classic fight scene in Tangiers in The Bourne Ultimatum. Damon and his adversary, Joey Ansah, obviously spent days practicing their brutal dance before the camera rolled. To get the money shot, Greengrass just used a handheld camera straight on without a lot of zooming, cut the music, amped up the sound effects a bit, and hyper-edited it to make it look like there wasn't a moment to breathe. The result: you can actually understand what's happening in the physical space of the room, and it's a pure adrenaline rush.
Compare this to fight scenes in The Dark Knight, Prince Caspian, Quantum of Solace and Watchmen, for example, and you may get some idea of what I'm talking about. Worse yet, especially in Watchmen - the fighting is creatively choreographed, before being ruined by the cinematography. Zack Snyder is trying to do what the Wachowski Brothers did in the original Matrix, but it's not working. Those guys used - not abused - the camera, and their delicate direction of the action produced some of the most beautiful violence of the decade.
Ten years later, I feel like we're almost to a point where some director will simply have the actors start punching the camera lens, because that would be so intense, man. J.J. Abrams didn't go as far as doing this in Star Trek, but that fight scene was, at least to me, incredibly disorienting, and I don't think it was because it happened at 50,000 feet. There just didn't appear to be any order or flair to the fighting, a doubly disappointing situation considering Hikaru Sulu is supposed to be a fencing champion. I know Star Trek isn't meant to be an action or martial arts movie, so maybe I should have saved this rant for a different movie, but nonetheless, it still seemed like a missed opportunity to elicit a few more "oohs" and "ahhs" and maybe even some laughs from the audience.
Am I asking too much? Must I shrug my shoulders and accept that creative choreography is a quaint ideal? All I know is that the panache of the past has slowly faded in the 2000's, and I for one am disappointed. In the early part of the decade we had some brilliant work in Gladiator and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but those are distant memories now, like the hilarious swordsplay in The Princess Bride.
What was the last really great fight scene, anyway? And by "great" I mean creative, choreographed, well paced, engaging, and above all, well filmed. We'll consider something like this scene from Rumble in the Bronx as the gold standard, and bonus points for thinking of non-Asian cinema like Ong Bak or House of Flying Daggers.