I may have mentioned this before; Pascal Aka was behind one of the more disappointing films this year –Double Cross. For some odd reason I went into that film with reasonably raised expectations because Aka had a decent track record and he appeared to be bringing refreshing tone to the big screen. I had also seen his enjoyable short, The Banku Chronicles, a witty crime flick driven by an amusingly innocuous craving for – yep – Banku. Well like the states handling of our power situation, he showed me. Double Cross was not a very good film but I’m Ghanaian, dealing with disappointment is our pastime.
Aka still remains a prospect of intrigue for me and I was digging for something to gossip about on my Film-Cap and I found my way to Aka’s Facebook page and came across a shot linked to his next feature, Interception (I presume), which shows him giving instruction to some of his cast members. What’s special about this? The thing is the cast members are all geared up in some kind of SWAT apparel so I gather we may have full blown action film on our hands, unless of course that is a scene involving some cosplay. My immediate thought was Aka may be biting off more than he could chew. It takes a tremendous skill to pull of an action film in a time where we have so many terrible to mediocre offerings. An impressive action film is slowly turning into Holy Grail of cinema. Was I selling Aka short though, without any solid cause to do so (aside from Double Cross)? A small part of me felt I was.
Maybe there is some reason (akin to The Banku Chronicles) to be optimistic in Aka’s latest feature so I went through some more of his past shorts and a couple of them happened to be action films and I admit there was some decent stuff to behold. Now hold on, I’m not saying he blew me away with his craft but he appeared to have a solid handle directing action and that largely stemmed from his collaboration with the 8th Wonder Stunts group – people who well verse action performances. There was a refreshing simplicity to the way the fight scenes were shot.
He didn’t employ gratuitous quick cuts or close up shaky cam effects to mask an unfamiliarity with action performances because he was working with stunt men who knew their craft. There were solid long takes via mainly medium shots with minimal cuts and my mind was drawn to John Wick director, Chad Stahelski, who hails from a stunt background hence the well-constructed action sequences in his well-received action flick. Don’t underestimate the role well versed stunt talent plays in a good action set piece. You could argue the restraints in funding kept Aka from over indulging and in another life, with CGI and big money at his disposal, he serves up artificial nonsense but he does have a handle on things so there is reason to be optimistic as far as his ambitions go.
As always (for me at least) his film will live or die by his world building or the story he serves up and I hope the powers that be loosen whatever leash wrapped round his neck because, going by his shorts, he can churn out smart simple stuff. I should also point out he’s interested in the action genre – or appears to be. I feel like the era of specialist action directors is behind us. No more John Woo or Tony Scott or Michael Bay (well he’s still putting in work but not for original material like The Rock and Bad Boys). Now we have directors like Keneth Branagh, Gavin Hood and even Finding Neverland director, Marc Forester, who went on to direct Quantum of Solace. All these directors and more had their careers anchored in genres like comedy and drama.
This the above shift could be attributed to the interesting phenomenon of shooting action called “Chaos Cinema,” a term coined by Matthias Stork. Stork posits that conventional cinematic concepts of spatial clarity and escalating momentum have been replaced by frantic editing and boisterous camera movements that almost always look like they’re trying to mask a poor action performer. This style was kind of pioneered by Michael Bay and is characterized by the frantic gratuitous shaky cam, hyper quick cuts and blurred visuals. The argument is this style is an attempt to mirror the frantic nature of action but the thing is “frantic” only applies to the individuals involved in the action and this feeling should not filter through to audiences who are looking for something coherent and enjoyable in action sequences. Imagine how terrible fighting/action video games would be if they wanted to mirror the frantic nature of action.
The Chaos Cinema system also requires less precision during production than the more conventional methods of shooting action. It outsources out stunt-and-fight-heavy scenes to second units that are mainly concerned action performance as the director collects as much footage as possible for the cutting room. This is probably why we have so many action outsiders finding their way into action filmmaking. Studios seem happy with this because they can attach a director with a track record of critical acclaim to an action flick hence also increasing the chances of attaching a major film star. A Michael Fassbender is more likely to align himself with a Justin Kurzel who will pay due diligence to character development on an Assassins Creed movie. Also the fans aren’t really complaining. Taken 3 still made good money despite serving up a number of laboured excuses for action sequences.
Aside the mediocre but bankable offerings in the mould of the Taken films, audiences (myself included most times) connect more to the action films hoisting the chaos module whilst also parading more ambitious narratives and characters. Consider films like Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (I detest the final entry FYI) or the most recent incarnation of James Bond. Whereas the stunts get thumbs ups, the fight scenes in Nolan’s film lacked proper craft and coherence – the Batman vs Bane fight, which deserved better treatment was horrid. The Bond fight scenes aren’t bad by any stretch but they got drab and old quickly without any invention. The emphasis with these films, however, is ostensibly on the ideas at play, stirring atmosphere and fleshed out characters and despite the subpar action I generally welcome films in this mould.
That doesn’t mean we have to be deprived of inventive action hard boiled action. A balance can and should be struck. A film like Die Hard gave us a compelling hero and narrative along with well-crafted stunts and gun action but that was pre chaos cinema so how about Mad Max; Fury Road – the ass kissing continues. Kinetic splendour, exhilarating practicality of action set pieces and heart and character at its core – Fury Road ticked all the right boxes audiences are slowly being denied. The Matrix also mixed heavy themes and ideas with great world building and imaginative action so it has and can be done.
The most poignant question remains: what has all this got to do with Pascal Aka? Not much really. I’ve just had the action genre on my mind recently. I revisited the Bourne “Trilogy” this week and that too ticks the right boxes I must say. The pacing and editing jumped out at me on my most recent viewings. Simply top drawer stuff. Consider how the chase sequence in Algiers plays out and how Greengrass utilises almost every tool at his disposal: the score, sound mixing, his camera, the terrain and of course the actors. On my (confusing) reading on the action genre to flesh out this post I came across a brilliant film vlog by a Chris Stuckman. I leave you with his break down of the problems with contemporary action cinema.