Crafting Action Locations

John Wick - Parabellum vs London Has Fallen

28 August 2019

Of the two ‘action flicks’ of the summer, both heavily marketed, both third in a trilogy, both featuring sole protagonists taking on incalculable odds, how is it that the action sequences of one are so captivating and the other amounts to a snooze-fest? The release of John Wick: Chapter III - Parabellum was, akin to its predecessors, met with critical acclaim and currently averages 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. By contrast, Angel has Fallen is almost universally panned, described as "forgettable" and "mediocre". The difference? The former understands the value of a real basic of the action movie: the setup of the location before the payoff of the action sequence.

Parabellum establishes location masterfully with an effective and satisfying result for the audience’s viewing. The titular character John Wick, played by Keanu Reeves, walks us through the opening scene of the movie set in the New York Public Library. Wick staggers through whilst injured, giving the viewer valuable time to visualise the environment - every room, every piece of furniture, every bookshelf. The payoff is clear when Wick’s adversary arrives, duelling across the library, crashing through the self-same bookshelves, breaking every piece of furniture shown before, and ending with a subdual with a library book, which Wick is earlier shown perusing. This formula is applied dogmatically throughout the film. A critically acclaimed knife-throwing fight scene is preceded by Reeves’ character walking through the antiques shop, past glass cabinets that will be later be raided, through deliberately colour-coded rooms, to the shop floor, at which point the action sequence plays out through the locations in reverse. The same is noted of the final fight at the Continental Hotel, a set piece shown throughout the film series and filmed ever-more exquisitely right before a gun-fight breaks out through its chandelier-lit halls and mirrored meeting rooms, through all of which the audience is deeply satisfied to be guided.

Parabellum is by no means a perfect film. It’s weakest action sequence comes when it fails to provide adequate set-up for a sequence featuring both Halle Berry and Reeves in a coin mint; the subsequent action feels meaningless and bloated as the camera tracks to stairway and balconies the audience had never yet seen before. This is the only blemish on an otherwise honed craft. The series has grown in this respect; it opening film featured sharp cuts to Wick’s raid of his adversary’s fortress and the final sequence on the docks; they feel empty as a result. Wick Chapter II is a notable improvement, a beautiful sequence showcases Wick creeping through an assassination mission through catacombs under the Vatican; he later fights back through the same pursued by several dozen assassins. Chapter III only builds on previous experience and is well-deserving of its positive reviews.

Disappointingly, progress is quite the reverse for the Has Fallen series, which narrates Gerald Butler’s CIA character Mike Banner. Moviegoers might remember the breakout success of its first instalment, Olympus has Fallen, which took place in a single location of the White House. Whilst not as meticulously crafted as Wick’s consistent pre-fight walk-throughs, the environment is here introduced early and well; providing a satisfying sequence as the initial attack begins on the White House lawn and throughout Butler’s individual fight scenes through the White House rooms.

London Has Fallen, the less well-received sequel, declines in this principle. The only memorable sequence is the initial devastation shown through London where various world leaders are shown candidly arriving at the scene in their own fashion; they are subsequently assassinated in their respective locations, again in their own way. The rest of the film invests no-such time for set-up: the final sequence runs through never-before-seen dimly-lit tunnels in an unidentifiable Arab country; the emotional appeal of this climax is non-existant to the point of frustrating.

Angel has Fallen takes the fallacy further. The film presents the introduction of Banner’s father, played by Nick Nolte, as a highlight of the film; it is anything but. The pair trigger explosive traps around a woodland cabin to slaughter oncoming henchmen. Whilst both characters are visibly laughing on screen, the audience feels no such satisfaction - there was no suggestion beforehand that such devices even existed; the audience actually feels cheated that a solution previously not intrigued here provides an escape. The film’s final fight is a worse offender: while investing several minutes in establishing shots of the hospital in which the Morgan Freeman’s President is bedridden, the film unexpectedly sidetracks to force everyone out of the building; the action is instead diverts to the streets and a nearby office block. The film kills all sense of build-up established and loses any emotional connection. It’s not a wonder that Has Fallen is dogged by a sentiment of fatigue whilst audiences have flocked relentlessly to each instalment of Wick.

This principle of environment set-up and payoff is so basic to an action sequence that one should never mistake Wick as novel for employing it, though it is exceptional. Rather it is the case that Has Fallen should be disparaged for getting it so wrong. The technique is easily visible throughout action movies, from the marketplaces, massage parlours, and office blocks featured in Jackie Chan’s films in which Jackie’s characters tend to pick items from the established surroundings - chairs, buckets, stepladders - and employ them against his enemies. 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World, wildly recognised as one of the best comic book action movies put to film, offers audience a whole concert as the band rocks out a song before each fight to establish its settings. Even the likes of Max Max: Fury Road, despite featuring an unending, sand-filled desert as it’s set environment, confidently employs this technique by having its protagonists drive the entire route of the movie through the first half before driving back in the opposite direction in the second, this time framed as an hour-long action sequence. Such a technique is fundamental to audiences investing attention.

Plans are already in the works for a fourth Wick movie which will no doubt have its set pieces as carefully considered as at its predecessors. With Butler expressing intentions to continue his series, we can only hope that action in Has Fallen might start to reconsider where it came from.