'Baby Driver' And The Ongoing Evolution Of Cinematic Action

As a die-hard action junkie, I constantly find myself pondering how this genre fights creative staleness. After decades of pulverized bodies and eviscerated landscapes, you'd assume filmmakers would be spinning the same bloody chainsaw blades by now. Can Hollywood forever recycle an "Expendables" formula by plugging in different renegades, a new villain, and loads more henchman deaths? At what point do franchises like Fast and Furious push too far and become ridiculous farces? How do you sustain a genre founded on punches, kicks, guns and explosions, without sleepwalking through the same motions?

These are all valid questions that can be answered with a single word: adaptation.

In the Beginning... (AKA the '80s)

In the '80s, when effects were minimal, but pyrotechnics could outshine the sun, studios turned to the Arnolds and Sylvesters who would become camo-clad icons. These hulking he-beasts drank from Olympus' fountains and could flex their way out of any trouble. Look at Predator – a movie made famous by biceps, chewin' tobacco and quite possibly the most blatant homosexual undertones in any action movie...uh, I mean masculinity. There were no warehouses of CGI monkeys working tirelessly to redefine the bounds of visual cinema. Just grit, brawn, and beads of sweat dripping down clasped handshakes.

Years later, animation and post-production magic ushered in this digital takeover. A little movie called The Matrix came along and introduced an overnight "bullet time" craze. Action heartthrobs became all about agility and acrobatics overnight. You no longer needed weight-lifting ogres when characters were now backflipping at the slowest rotation possible. Ammo streams spiraled like smokey little trajectory paths with artistic appeal, like a 3D Jackson Pollock painting that floated in zero gravity. Pretty 'effin cool, right?

It goes without saying that these are two far-plotted trends in action cinema, but I wanted to use them as a primer for a bigger discussion. One that delves into today's genre nuances and those that dare defy established norms. "Adaptation" is the name of the game – so what are new-age filmmakers dreaming up to keep audiences excited?

The Thrill of a Music Video

Let me start with this article's inspiration – Edgar Wright's Baby Driver. As you may know, this is a heist thriller where every single movement is scored to a non-stop soundtrack often only heard by the film's main character – Baby (Ansel Elgort) – and gleeful audiences.

Action movies have long utilized musical composition to tap a beat of symphonic destruction (get excited for Atomic Blonde), but not on Wright's level. Every single shift in gear, pulled trigger and prepared meal syncs with background rhythms. As Elgort passes time in a getaway car, he goes all OK GO and performs his own little music video – and that's just the beginning. As Focus' "Hocus Pocus" blares during an endorphin-spiked chase scene, Wright brings melodic mayhem to a psychedelic rock track with absolutely no balance in tempo. A challenge no doubt, but to execute almost two hours of similar feats with car-crunching choreography? Destruction doesn't have to be primitive. It can be a sophisticated ballet (with evil Jon Hamms and Drive undertones).

Fists and Firearms

Speaking of brutal ballets, let's highlight a mag-freaking-nificent trend across the globe – highly choreographed fight sequences featuring new (on-screen) forms of martial arts. Sure, this is something that Bruce Lees and Jackie Chans have been doing for decades. But like in Gareth Evans' The Raid franchise? Or the Timo Bros' Headshot?

The Indonesian fighting style of Pencak Silat has catapulted masters like Iko Uwais into mainstream fame thanks to a majestic combat style that's both fluid and bone-crunching. American audiences have their Frank Grillo and Scott Adkins clones, but they're chumps compared to the final three-way battle in Evans' The Raid: Redemption (jk, please don't bash me in ,Mr. Grillo). Two brothers double-team a man known as Mad Dog for a performance that's best described as recklessly poetic. They land every punch. Audible thwaps and concrete thuds resonate through your body with shattering impact. These new Pencak-first franchises are a tornado of snapped limbs, thrown chops and long-takes that'd make Chan-wook Park blush.

While Indonesia focuses on hand-to-hand, America has turned to mastery by weapon. Guns, specifically. John Wick and John Wick 2 have coined their action style as Gun Fu – like Kung Fu, except firearms are always involved. Whether Keanu Reeves is beating someone with a blunt pistol butt or blasting twenty headshots in a row, it's Deadshot-level aim paired with onslaughts of deceased henchmen. Stamina is required and motion continues forward, rarely opting for duck-and-pop shootouts from cover. Finesse is stressed in a way that accentuates marksmanship like never before seen – now the question is, can anyone replicate such pin-punching calibration?

The Video Game Effect

Or you can look at society and echo popular trends. Say, video games? And what popular title comes to mind when you think multiplayer franchises? If you were a college gamer like myself, Call of Duty probably rings a bell.

The success of First Person Shooter (FPS) titles has long been chronicled (is Counter-Strike considered old school at this point?), and technology has finally granted filmmakers a way to handily replicate such points of view. We're not talking about found footage or POV, either. Peeping Tom rewrote that game a while ago, or if you want a specific action example, you need only look to Aliens. I'm talking gun-in-hand, balls-to-the-wall warfare that puts you inside the character's body for long periods of time. Kickin' ass and chewin' bubble gum.

Doom, for example, constructed a pretty damn perfect homage to id Software's pixelated hellscape. Karl Urban has enough demon hatred for one day, and with cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts' flip of the camera, we become a pissed-off John Grimm (you know, the name of Urban's character). It's only for a single scene, but it's a tonal kick in the behind. This is the first moment that really asserted first-person as a viable cinematic technique, even if it'd been done/attempted before.

Other recent films have crafted the same kind of eye-to-eye thrills, such as Mark Strong's introductory shootout in The Brothers Grimsby or a jungle spider takedown in Kong: Skull Island. With the development of GoPro units and advancements to similar digital camera technologies, we're given an amusement-park-ride glimpse into a hero's mindset through some pretty crisp perspective swaps. Yet, no one believed entire action movies could benefit from such a jarring-at-times POV.

Well, almost no one.

Dwelling on Hardcore Henry

Ilya Naishuller kicked the stinkin' door off its hinges with his bombastic, fully-FPS action feature Hardcore Henry – the first stunt-heavy attempt of its kind (he directed that headbanging Bad Motherf***er music video, did you expect anything less?). A smaller-scale invasion flick titled Pandemic did the same, and, for an indie, succeeded quite well at being a better Battle: Los Angeles. However, it lands more on the "found footage horror" scale. The same can be said about [REC] 2 ([REC] follows survivors, [REC 2] goes SWAT team). Hardcore Henry may not be alone, but it's the first true action-spectacle audiences witness as a participant, not onlooker.

Say what you will about success (Hardcore Henry bombed unceremoniously), but Naishuller's achievements opened doors that action filmmakers never dreamed of entering. His marriage of gunplay, parkour and complete video game immersion acts as an adrenaline shot to the heart. Numerous sequences show what perspective can do when raising tension. Like how Cloverfield makes the audience feel insignificant via size comparisons, Hardcore Henry locks viewers inside a free-falling escape pod to elevate danger and anxiety. Or peers over a building ledge for height recognition.

By implanting viewers into Nailshutter's lead character, we're equally blind to the dangers around each corner. There's no spliced cuts or dueling angles. No alerts or giveaway framing. Older generations may not understand the appeal of X-Games filmmaking, but as someone who's fought his way through countless FPS realms, Hardcore Henry is like a beta for what could be next.

The Wrong Moves

Now, not all advancements are necessary. As we near an age of picture-realism on the screen, one has to balk at zero lensing "imperfections." Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk showed a side of action filmmaking I'd never care to see again.

In utilizing the crystal-clear projection rate of 140fps (frames per second), Lee promised uncompromised theater quality. Well, mission accomplished. The only problem? When Billy Lynn would flashback to wartime combat, there was no hiding the fakeness of props or settings. In vivid clarity, exploding rock walls were outed as painted foam bits that displayed no natural characteristics (chunks of wall floated with no density, for example). Blemishes that darkness or camera grit could cover became highlighted, all in the name of realism. Except, these movies aren't real – and such a glaring reminder yanks us from a director's spell.

Also on the negative spectrum is Act of Valor, a military action drama that exclusively features active-duty soldiers. Truthfully, there's nothing wrong with the idea. Good on studios for employing military heroes. That said, audiences are less willing to gamble on features without at least some recognizable cast names. I'm not even saying the acting was detrimental to process – most of the parts were played with passable chops. It's just that the common viewer isn't going to notice the most intricate "professional" detail, and would rather see someone like Jake Gyllenhaal perform his researched take on whatever action title he's headlining. It's telling enough to know this "real soldiers!" pivot hasn't been pushed since.

Looking to the Future

The action genre will always have its dependable mainstays – Jason Statham's next outcast-on-the-run story or another impossible mission. While acknowledging these expectancies, one must understand that bigger ideas exist outside of the expected. Who knew we needed another xXx movie until xXx: Return of Xander Cage skied its way down a muddy mountain and into our hearts (more Fast and Furious than Fate of the Furious)? Director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland drew heavily from The Raid and whipped up their own sci-fi drugdream for Dredd. Hell, Ben Wheatley stages a hilarious single-setting shootout that shouldn't work in Free Fire – but his sole location bursts at the seams with cold-cocked character. These types of movies are the future of cinematic fighting.

Now the only question is what comes next...and when can we see it?