By R. Emmet Sweeney
[Photo: “Eastern Promises,” Focus Features, 2007]
With as many mindless explosions and shootouts that the film industry churns out every year, there are almost more mindless condemnations of them. So we’d like to take a moment to celebrate the technical expertise and genuine imagination that are needed to create these so-called empty-headed exercises in bloodsport.
“Eastern Promises,” directed by David Cronenberg
Scene: Bathhouse Knife Fight
Courtesy of Viggo Mortensen (clad only in his tattoos) and the visual imagination of David Cronenberg comes this animalistic brawl in a steam room. Mortensen is Nikolai, a stoic bodyguard just inducted into the higher ranks of the Russian mob, whose boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) doubts his loyalty and sets him up to be disposed of. Once Nikolai is isolated in a bathhouse, two machete-wielding men corner him in the steam. As Paul Newman learned in “Torn Curtain,” it’s difficult to kill a man, even a naked one. Almost the exact opposite of the “Bourne” trilogy’s fleet-footed edits, this scene is deliberately slow paced so every chest heave, blood spurt and eye poke is documented squeezing every last breath out of its thugs and asking us to enjoy it.
“Exiled,” directed by Johnnie To
Scene: Apartment Complex Shootout
Led by the stone-faced Blaze (Anthony Wong), the hunted exiles recuperate at the local backdoor doctor’s place, only to find that their mobster foes have come to get sewn up at the same joint. Blaze and his pals hide behind the makeshift hospital curtains as foe Boss Fay (Simon Yam) gets a bullet plucked out of his groin. Then, in a feast of slow motion operatics, the fabric is tossed aside, the lead flies, the shooters pirouette and the good guys rush outside in time to see their colleague Wo sacrificed mid-courtyard on a blood stained tarp, which the group tears down in a brilliant piece of tragic choreography.
“Live Free or Die Hard,” directed by Len Wiseman
Scene: F-35 Fighter Jet vs. 18-Wheeler
Plot doesn’t matter! In a spectacularly insane scene that could only be conceived during a sugar-fueled childhood argument, tough guy John McClane (Bruce Willis) battles an F-35 fighter jet with his own beat-up 18-wheeler. Grunting as if he’s passing a stone, McClane maneuvers his steel chariot up an elevated freeway as the F-35 turns the big rig into a convertible with an army’s worth of ammunition. McClane’s bald head shimmers with the top down until the freeway collapses … and he leaps on the plane which is headed for destruction! Werner Herzog is fond of using the term “ecstatic truth” when describing his films this scene embodies what could be called ecstatic untruth.
“The Bourne Ultimatum,” directed by Paul Greengrass
Scene: Rooftop Chase
It’s a balmy day in Tangiers, and Mr. Bourne (Matt Damon) has to save the life of Nicky (Julia Stiles), who’s in the path of one of those robotic psychopathic killers the CIA likes to churn out. Instead of a starter’s gun, the race starts with a car bomb and follows the two agents’ sprint through twisting city streets, brittle apartment windows and closely packed rooftops with bristling intensity until they meet in a cramped bathroom, utilizing whatever household appliances can inflict the most damage. Greengrass’ controversial editing style, which cuts shots to impressionistic shreds, works wonderfully here to create a sequence of nigh unbearable tension.
“Hot Fuzz,” directed by Edgar Wright
Scene: Village Shootout
Combining every action movie cliché into one epic shootout, Capt. Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) trots into the town of Sandford to dole out bloody justice to its quaintly evil inhabitants. Both parody and homage, director Edgar Wright utilizes pointless whip pans, lens flares and quick cutting to ape every blockbuster in recent memory, with “Bad Boys 2” being the major touchstone. A gun totin’ spinster is taken down by a car door, the venom-spitting priest screams “Jesus Christ!” upon taking a slug in the shoulder and after shooting his dad in the foot (scored to a slo-mo groan), doughy deputy Butterman (Nick Frost) enacts his action flick-fueled fantasies with a tart “yeah, motherfucker!”