BY TERRENCE RAFFERTY
The honors recently bestowed on Kathryn Bigelow — the best director Oscar and the DGA Award — were, everybody knows, the first ever presented to a director of the female persuasion. But that wasn’t the only unusual or momentous thing about them. The film for which she won, The Hurt Locker, which was also named best picture by the Academy, is a kind of movie that doesn’t usually get a lot of love during red carpet season: it’s an action movie, which is to say a film whose primary mission is to stimulate the pleasure centers of the collective audience brain with the beauty and terror of things and people in motion, and a heightened awareness of physical danger; rather than, as is most often the case with award winners, a sense of spiritual or emotional uplift. It’s been nearly 40 years since a movie as single-mindedly devoted to action has been so honored. That was William Friedkin’s The French Connection in 1971, whose success briefly gave rise to the theory that the chase was in fact the essence of cinema. Like all essence of cinema arguments, that isn’t true in any meaningful way, but The French Connection at least got people talking about movement in film: the motion part of motion pictures.
And I hope Bigelow’s work on The Hurt Locker does the same, because great action filmmaking doesn’t get anything like the respect it deserves, despite the piles of money studios have made over the years on screaming car chases, spectacular firefights, giant explosions, cops leaping from roof to roof, cowboys thundering after Indians (or vice versa), and so on. Back in the day, of course, nobody spoke about “action movies” per se. There were simply genres—Westerns, gangster pictures, war movies—in which swift, violent action was kind of mandatory, and there were directors, like John Ford, who knew how to create that kind of excitement on the screen. But Ford didn’t win Oscars for thrilling Westerns like Stagecoach or Fort Apache: his four best-director statuettes were for The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man. The great action director Sam Peckinpah’s mantelpiece was bare to the day he died.
Almost as soon as the idea of the “action movie” took hold, the adjective “mindless” somehow attached to it—too frequently with justification. But the fact is that creating movement on the screen is a task that requires enormous intelligence and skill, because there are so many different kinds of movement to deploy. There’s the motion of the actors (and their vehicles) within the frame, and, often, of the camera itself; the rhythm of the editing; the momentum of the narrative itself. And all these elements have to be marshaled in a way that both makes sense and delivers the jolts of adrenaline that action movie audiences tend to demand. And these days, viewers’ threshold of stimulation has been significantly elevated by the nonstop action of interactive video games. One of the problems action filmmakers face is
that moviegoers crave novelty in their cheap thrills. Watching a hit action picture of even, say, 15 or 20 years ago can be a fairly sobering experience because the stuff that turned us on then has been stepped on too many times since. Been there, blown up that.
And this kind of filmmaking, more than other aspects of the craft, changes with technology. Silent filmmakers like D.W. Griffith needed the proverbial cast of thousands because they didn’t have any way to fake a crowd. I recently looked again at one of my favorite Griffith action sequences, the pursuit across the ice floes in Way Down East, and was stunned to realize that there isn’t a single moving-camera shot in the scene. (Of course there isn’t: the cameras of the time were so bulky you practically needed a cast of thousands to move them.) It’s all editing, and movement within the fixed frame, and it takes the top of your head off, anyway. And when you watch Buster Keaton doing impossible things on and about his locomotive in The General, you understand how much kinetic pleasure can be generated with pretty primitive technology.
But with the exception of martial arts movies—and, when they come around, Steven Spielberg’s slapstick-pulp Indiana Jones pictures—the thrill of action these days doesn’t usually derive from the spectacle of human bodies, like Keaton’s, in motion. It’s more about the blur of violence, the pure sensation of peril, as in the head-splittingly fast cutting of Paul Greengrass’ terrific Bourne movies, which make cunning use of film’s state-of-the-art technologies. One of the reasons, perhaps, that action movies aren’t more highly regarded critically is precisely that they do work primarily on sensation, not reflection. They don’t have to be “mindless,” but the reasoning brain isn’t necessarily the organ they’re targeting.
The best action filmmakers, like Ford, Peckinpah, Kurosawa, and, today, Greengrass and Bigelow, are those who respect the sensational aspect of their art, who treat the creation of exhilarating movement on screen—with whatever technical means at their disposal—as an exalted calling. Kurosawa once told an interviewer that when he made his masterpiece Seven Samurai, in 1954, he was trying to evolve from the “static beauty” of his earlier films to a “dynamic beauty,” and that, I think, is what real action filmmaking aspires to. You can feel that aesthetic aspiration, and the joy of achieving it, in Seven Samurai and in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and in Spielberg and Brian De Palma and John Woo.
And you can certainly sense it in The Hurt Locker. The film begins with an epigraph asserting that “war is a drug,” which is not only appropriate for the character of the movie’s risk-happy bomb squad hero but is also a pithy statement of Bigelow’s action-movie philosophy: she choreographs movement and cuts it to a rhythm that will give her, and the viewer, a kind of visceral aesthetic high, something that enters through your eyes and winds up in your blood. Maybe it’s not quite the same thing as summer-blockbuster action-movie making, designed to elicit great collective whoops of disbelief while leaving nothing to chance: cranked-up music, snappy tag lines, bigger-than-big special effects, anything to get that reaction. But maybe Bigelow’s elegant hyperkinesis really is the same thing, but in a purer form. Dynamic beauty is potent stuff.
Terrence Rafferty was formerly the film critic for The New Yorker and GQ. He is the author of The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies and is a regular contributor to The New York Times.