If you had read our review of the Fate of the Furious, you will realise the minimal attention given to its action set pieces. That’s not because there weren’t any; there were a plethora of action sequences, but because of just how unspectacular it all was. From the choreography to the stakes involved – action scenes were forced, illogical and lacking in direction that makes a scene engaging. It got me thinking about how severely this long-running franchise has fallen from grace. It could really learn a lesson or two from action movies that have mastered vehicle combat and car chases. Do be informed there will inevitably be some major spoilers ahead!
Filmmaking is an art, and action scenes are no exception. In fact, vehicular action sequences may just be its most demanding form. As with any action scene, it requires the camera to capture impact, heft, velocity and all that’s technical. Most challengingly, there is constant moment across long distances. These are a lot of complicated elements to be conveyed on-screen. It is important for filmmakers to communicate clearly so that viewers can quickly process the information being delivered.
George Miller’s masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road taught us that when it comes to large-scale vehicular warfare, viewers need an awareness of the geography of the battlefield. The film takes time with its birds-eye view sweeping shots, to survey the landscape and highlight to its viewers where each faction is in relation to each other. This greatly aids our understanding of any situation within the set piece, as we know exactly what is happening in any time and space. We are able to anticipate and never become confused by the complex movement and developments in the action never seem like an afterthought.
It’s worth realising that this much attention to layout is paid to a one-dimensional battlefield – an empty desert. In comparison, we have a key action set piece in the Fate of the Furious that takes place in Manhattan, a location far more complex due to its verticality and infrastructure. There is so much more to process. Perhaps the usage of drones like Mad Max: Fury Road may not be feasible, but this is where the studio’s obsession with CGI would come in really useful. As the action unfolds with Dom ripping through the streets, we have no clue where his objectives are, nor the position of those stopping him. This crucially reduces any suspense as we couldn’t even guess if the target was near. Our lack of awareness of the surrounding detracts from the film’s credibility as well, as Dom’s methods of evasion reveal themselves as conveniences rather than moments of surprising instinct. Such is his prompt decision to drive through a glass corner store upon the arrival of the team he betrayed. We had no idea it was there; it was as if it magically materialised for his emergency escape.
In many ways, the final chase in the Fate of the Furious along the frozen lake borrows heavily from Mad Max: Fury Road. Change in temperate, but it shares a similar vastness for vehicular warfare. Here, the geography established with surveying shots across the ice is undermined by the ill-disciplined logic of the film. It’s a lack of logic that defeats the purpose of establishing geography. Cars trailing far behind amazingly catch up to join the chase. Distances are neglected, as the “10 kilometers” of ice towards the gate seem to run for an eternity, much like the ridiculous runway in Fast 6. There was no excuse for that. It’s important to pair action with some sort of consistency in order to allow audiences to understand the stakes – like the threat of the aircraft taking off any moment now. This gives urgency and a reason to take any action scene seriously.
All that talk about absurdity brings us to the point that the franchise needs to inject some seriousness. We are not talking about realism. It’s completely fine that our protagonists always come out alive after pulling off the unthinkable, but their lack of concern gives us little reason to be. It takes away the intensity of each scene.
This has been the case since the sticky introduction of Hobbs, the unbreakable Rock. In Fast 6, he tells his partner nonchalantly to take the wheel, only to leap off great heights in an attempt to land on another vehicle – unharmed. Ironically, we soon frown with cynicism when Fast 7 sees Hobbs injured and hospitalised for the majority of the film, only to cause us to completely question the meaning of all this when he decides to bring in the “calvary” and flex off his cast. The lack of fear introduces him as an utter badass, to begin with, but when the hype settles, takes away our need to worry about our protagonists.
A suitable comparison is another ridiculous car chase where impossible things happen. The Moscow car chase in the Bourne Supremacy remains the favourite car chase of all time because of its staggering level of detail, and the amount of genuine emotions expressed by the similarly unstoppable agent. He’s done plenty of badass things, but this scene is so intense because he gives us no reason to take survival for granted.
While cars in Fast would simply turn the wheel to execute complicated actions making it seem easy, the cinematography in Supremacy goes to great lengths to capture the difficulty in any equally impossible manoeuvre. The Moscow chase’s most intricate – and crazy – stunt is the finishing T-bone against a road divider in the tunnel. It is an elaborate sequence packed with skilful techniques and moments of genius. This involves Bourne’s taxi and the asset’s off-roader trading paint (gotta love Burnout) upon entry, followed by a nudge from the asset that brings Bourne’s car sliding perpendicular to the flow of traffic. The editing is lightning quick, and the camera is hysterical, but the filmmakers communicate Bourne’s decisive actions so clearly – changing gears, turning the wheel, firing at the asset’s wheels – all to cause his own taxi to spin, niftily positioning the asset’s vehicle in the T-bone, only to slam it against an approaching divider. It’s a masterful sequence with a supreme level of detail and vision. An eye for detail – not skimming over action procedures – goes a long way to let viewers know that the film doesn’t dish out the ridiculous casually. It earns its outrageous outcome by creating a logical process by which it could be possible.
It isn’t just detail that lends credibility to the absurd; as countless vehicles slam violently into Bourne, the film bothers to capture genuine fear and panic. He doesn’t purse his lips and flex his muscles as if to absorb the impact, instead, he is gritting and frantically spinning the wheel to reposition the car because his life depends on it. He is clearly nervous and unsure. The camera frequently observes his eye movement, he’s not taking his options for granted but constantly identifying outlets to evade the persistent asset, whom he never underestimates. Bourne lends drama and believability in terms of character to an implausible action set piece. So much so that we invest in it and desperately yearn for his success. It is the reason why the Bourne films are able to frequently deliver ludicrous action sequences while we buy into it and ask for more.
Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a massive submarine storming down a frozen lake in pursuit of our heroes? It didn’t have to happen, but it did. Much of the action in Fast and Furious seems for the sake of spectacle. It’s a treat for viewers, but becoming a trend over the past few films have inculcated a taste for excess and exaggeration that is manifested from its action to its plot. Gratuitous as set pieces can be, it’s important that this time is used productively in a way that informs the plot, otherwise it disrupts the flow of the story with scenes completely irrelevant.
Plot progression amidst action is essential in Mad Max: Fury Road. Any prolonged action sequence runs the risk of disengagement, even more so if your film is basically a 2-hour long chase. In spite of the chaos, Fury Road masterfully builds the narrative through visual cues and informative dialogue. As Max and Furiosa battle through the canyon, there is constant development in their relationship, as these two damaged individuals with trust issues depend on each other’s ability and sincerity to survive the punishing pursuit. They’re constantly engaged in action, but plot-wise, every action furthers the plot; we see the two exchanging tools, modifying each other’s weapons on the go, and literally providing support (Max lends her his shoulder to stabilise her killer snipe). Action and character development go hand in hand. Plot advances.
Plot takes a pause whenever action breaks in the Fast and the Furious. Those who were family before the action remains as family afterwards – there is no development injected into these scenes that value-add to our knowledge of any character. They morph into unbreakable punching bags for action to unfold upon. There is little to surprise us, based on what we already know about the characters. Tej is nerding out, Roman is whining, Dom is being a badass and is gonna jump out of the car soon to save someone in mid-air and the Rock is unbeatable. In the end, everyone celebrates. They do what they are expected of them, and little else. For most of the action, you can literally switch channels and return once it ends. You wouldn’t have missed out any crucial plot points.
Finally, factors that motivate and drive the action are just as important as its execution. Audiences need to be invested in whatever characters are fighting for – to root for them. This way, there is more at stake; scenes will become that much more interesting.
Let’s shake things up, we are gonna compare the stakes of the Fate of the Furious with one of its own, the fantastic Fast Five. Fast Five is proof that with effort and a real incentive to innovate, the Fast franchise has actually got what it takes to do brilliant work. Fast Five finds our crew in a desperate place. The crimes of the past are catching up and they need a fresh start – the clichéd clean slate. They decide to steal from a big drug lord – not the most moral thing to do – but nevertheless, the deep connection we feel for these characters who want a fresh start to do good makes us root for them (who would’ve known it kick-started their career as driving superheroes).
As for the Fate of the Furious, the whole betrayal gimmick is problematic from the start. Having preached the value of family from the get-go, it seems pretty amazing that the claim of a child would send Dom rogue. Not just rogue, but he displays a clear willingness to put his real family’s lives in danger. Characters in the film may be immune to collisions, but we are pretty sure flipping cars (Letty’s car!) onto each other runs the risk of severe injury.
Simply put, Dom was willing to kill Letty for Elsa and his child. Its entire premise spits on the face of the family and provides no foundation that should drive the action. Therefore the action builds with little at stake, while we become increasingly infuriated at Dom’s moral laxity and question his loyalty to his family. Personally, we didn’t care if he made it anymore.
So there we have it: these are our issues with the factors that drive the action in the recent Fast and Furious films. We are car-nerds ourselves and are all for car chases – often our favourite action scene in films. It’s upsetting to know that the world’s go-to franchise for thrilling car chases is producing action that’s substandard.