Variation and Innovation in Action Cinema

With “Everything Everywhere All At Once” sweeping the boards at this year’s Oscars, the vein of groundbreaking action movies is both rich and clear to see. But what is the secret formula that makes movies such as EEAAO and “The Matrix” what they are? What is the key to not just selling millions of cinema tickets worldwide, but achieving the “Holy Grail of Hollywood” in repeat viewings and legendary status?

The answer is simple. Modern audiences want to experience something new. Something different. Something clever and unexpected. Something that makes them realize that the bar has been raised and they were lucky enough to be there to see it happen.

What they want, deep-down in their popcorn-encrusted hearts, is variation and innovation in their moviegoing experience.

The action genre might, at first inspection, look like it has little to offer when it comes to variation. At least from outside spectators anyways. This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth.

The year 2022 alone showcased a variety of different types of action movies. We had the more traditional “spy vs. spy” film in The Russo Brothers’ “The Gray Man”, followed by the box office juggernaut aviation sequel in Joseph Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick”. James Cameron brought us back to Pandora with “Avatar: The Way of Water”, while Baltasar Kormákur’s “Beast” and Dan Trachtenberg’s “Prey” brought back the action survival film. Each one of these films gave audiences a different experience and greater level of excitement.

What we are seeing is a rich variation in terms of the type of action film, but audiences also love to see variation in the action itself. Avatar: The Way of Water, for example, could have fallen into the trap of just delivering a familiar flavor of action sequences as its predecessor (a mech suit battle against nine foot tall Na’vi, flying banshees taking down gunships, or even escaping a burning forest) but the filmmakers decided to go for a different approach.

There are scenes revolving around the ocean including a fight on a sinking ship, a giant whale-like creature attacking another ship, and a rain-soaked hunt in the forest. Variation in the action leaves the audience surprised. It heightens their excitement.

This is why it is always best to showcase these sequences in the trailers to garner more interest. “John Wick Chapter 4” features at least five distinctly different sequences (a fight in a Japanese hotel, a fight in a club, a shootout in the Arc de Triomphe, an overhead shootout in an apartment complex, and a stairway shootout/fight). While many of the kills are attributed to gunshots, there is never any repetition in the different sequences themselves. There are no two stairway fights or two club fights.

However, sometimes variation in the action doesn’t quite work for audiences. The Fast and the Furious franchise has faced its own criticisms for expanding its action sequences into near nonsense (like driving a car off of a cliff and having it swing to the next cliff via rope). This leads into our next discussion about the importance of innovation in action cinema.

Tom Cruise has made a name for himself with the amount of crazy stunts that he comes up with for his films, but it’s not the crazy stunts that get all the attention. It is the authenticity and innovation of them. For the upcoming Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One, Cruise drives a motorbike off of a cliff which is then followed by him jumping off of the bike. In order to train for this stunt, Cruise practiced over a year of base jumping and motocross jumps. This would sometimes amount to 300 jumps a day. In order to capture the stunt, new cameras were used that would be able to stay focused on Cruise.

This type of innovation might not be known to most audiences, but it only ensures the future of the genre and what can be possible. “Avatar: The Way of Water” utilized brand new technology that allowed for motion capture to be performed underwater for extended periods of time. This led into the actors having to learn to hold their breaths for a long time. Once again, the authenticity of the project couldn’t be more felt than it is when actors are performing the actions under real circumstances and real stunts.

As action in cinema continues to evolve, there will be a greater need for variation and innovation to keep things interesting. Audiences are smart and not easily manipulated. J. D. Dillard’s Devotion released shortly after Top Gun: Maverick and featured the same actor (Glen Powell), but in terms of box office performance, it couldn’t compete. One of these reasons was that it didn’t offer anything new in the action displayed on-screen.

Variation and innovation are essential to a film’s success. Otherwise, we’re just watching the same film time and time again.

This article is written by Kyle Arking celebrating the cultural impact of the action genre in cinema & TV, and promoting THE LONDON ACTION FESTIVAL taking place in London from Wednesday 21st – Sunday 25th June. Sign up to the newsletter to receive all news, updates, and Early Bird ticket release.