Thursday, August 16, 2012

Musing Pictures: The Bourne Legacy

There's a certain confidence necessary for a truly effective action sequence.  Action sequences need room to breathe, moments of quiet that allow the viewer to get oriented, to see the danger, and to register its potential.

I thought of this a lot while watching "The Bourne Legacy".  The initial trilogy (of which I'd say this is a spin-off) included some of the best action sequences of the last half-century, so this one had a lot to live up to.  Without dissecting action sequences shot-by-shot (an interesting, albeit lengthy exercise), here's where I think the originals got it right, and where the new one gets it wrong.

Take a look at the pacing and lensing of this now-famous scene from "The Bourne Identity":

I think it's remarkable to note that many of the shots in this sequence last for more than a second.  Also, the action is very clear:  each shot conveys something about the progression of the sequence: where they're going, where they are in relation to the people chasing them, where the obstacles are, and what happens when they collide.

Also, we're kind of set-back from the action, not too far, but just enough to see most of what we're looking at.  We see most of the car, or most of a motorcycle.

There's a tendency to come in really close in a lot of "imitation" chase sequences, and to cut very quickly.  The reasoning behind this is that a chase is frantic, so, in a way, that frenetic energy needs to be conveyed to the audience.

I think "The Bourne Identity" conveys this energy well (unsteady camera, lots of movement, etc.), but it never loses track of the fact that this is, after all, a part of a narrative, and that as narrative, it must remain clear!

If we can tell what's going on at all times (even if we don't know how the hero is going to get out of the situation), we're on the edge of our seats.  Once we lose track of the action, and it becomes a jumble of quick, shaky close-ups, we lose our focus, and instead of anxiously watching the hero figure it out, we find ourselves forced to figure it out on our own.

In a nutshell, I think that's the main flaw in the "Bourne Legacy" action sequences.  They're shot too close and cut too fast, aiming for a visceral, rather than narrative experience.  See the movie, and let me know what you think.


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