Frozen for 70 years, supersoldier Steve Rogers wakes up in 21st century America and tries to adapt to modern sensibilities in Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I doubt the directing duo intended it intentionally, but it turns out the film’s style mirrors Captain America’s own struggle.
To steal a word from Nick Fury, I would say my enjoyment of The Winter Soldier was “compartmental.” There were aspects I thought worked really well (Captain America’s old-fashioned heroism), some pretty well (the big plot twist, although it has some massive logic gaps), and some not at all. Rather than write a full review, though, I want to focus here instead on the part I thought didn’t work at all: the switch to browbeating, senses-assaulting modern Hollywood action film techniques. “Chaos cinema,” if you will.
I was really looking forward to The Winder Soldier, mostly because I loved Joe Johnston’s The First Avenger, which I often describe as a better Indiana Jones movie than the last Indiana Jones movie. That’s no accident – Johnston is an old-school filmmaker, having started in the business as a special effects artist on classics like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He pays homage to Steven Spielberg in The First Avenger, in fact, both in dialogue (“And the Fuehrer digs for trinkets in the desert…”) and with images. Compare the opening of the movie with the opening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I was never a big fan of Johnston’s past films, but he was at his best with The First Avenger. It’s an exemplar of what I suppose you could call the “old way” of making these flicks, with care put into crafting great images and then, ya know, actually showing them on the screen long enough to soak them in. It’s a hugely underrated movie in my opinion, and still my favorite in the Marvel canon. So it was a great disappointment to see The Winter Soldier thrown giddily into the hyper-cutting, shaky-cam cyclone that is the modus operandi of modern action filmmaking.
Study the above clip from the first action scene in the film for a prime example. Skip to 2:22 in and pay attention to how many different shots it takes to show Black Widow beat up three dudes: the movie cuts 23 times in 16 seconds. That’s an average shot length of 0.69 seconds. And even going through the sequence one shot at a time to count the cuts, I’m still not entirely sure I know what she’s doing to these guys at every moment. Compare the sequence even to this clip in Iron Man 2 – hardly a go-to model of great action filmmaking – which manages to show Black Widow doing a similar move to take down two guys within eight cuts.
And I’d say you could do it in even less. In fact, the most absurd part of all this is that the fight sequences in this Winter Soldier behind-the-scenes footage does a better job than the movie itself, showing bouts in lengthy, medium shots that actually let you see and appreciate the athleticism and choreography involved. Imagine that!
Look, I’m not saying this style is entirely illegitimate and anyone who turns to it is a hack who should be banned from all movie sets. It’s never been to my taste and I’ll always prefer a steady camera and long takes, but it’s here to stay, and like anything, it can be done well or it can be done poorly. The biggest problem with The Winter Soldier is that the Russos do it poorly. We can probably blame Paul Greengrass for cementing this style into the Hollywood visual landscape, but at least in his Bourne movies, he had a real method behind it.
Check out this clip from The Bourne Ultimatum. Greengrass may cut nearly as often as the Russos do, but there are some crucial differences. For one thing, the movie’s not cutting between eight different camera angles for no reason. For another, it still manages to slow down a little bit, when necessary, to make certain moments stick (when Bourne starts to choke the dude out, for instance). The result is a scene where, if you’re not able to make out all the details, you’re at least able to get a sense of what’s happening, and why, and who’s doing what to who, and what it is they’re doing.
As you can see above, even though Greengrass cuts six times within four seconds, he’s never jumping on the other side of the action, maintaining the classic 180-degree rule, and the frame is mostly maintaining its momentum in the same direction across all of the shots. This keeps us oriented in the action and helps us understand where the two participants are in relation to each other the whole time.
Compare this with that Black Widow clip from The Winter Soldier, where the camera is behind her, then to her left, then in front of her, then to her right, then…we’re just seeing her head for some reason? I dunno, dude. And all just for one quick leg-spinny takedown move against one guy. Could you tell precisely what the hell it is she did the first time you saw this? I couldn’t.
And you know who gets this? Well…the Russos, apparently. “We are action fetishists. We love action movies. We study them,” said Anthony Russo in an interview with Zap2It. “My Apple TV lives at quarter speed, where I just go through sequences in slow motion and I’m studying the edits and I’m looking at what they’re doing with the camera.”
They cite Heat, Ronin, and The Raid as inspirations for The Winter Soldier’s action sequences. Maybe they should study them more. As you can see for yourself, Michael Mann, John Frankenheimer, and Gareth Evans don’t cut every 0.69 seconds.
So why, then, does the final result in The Winter Soldier look so slapdash? Hard to say, but my guess is it’s because there’s a difference between wanting to do something and actually being able to do it. For example, if I ever made an action movie, I’d want to avoid everything I feel the Russos did wrong here, but there’s no telling that when it came down to it my results would be any more successful. “Those who can’t, teach,” and all that.
There’s often an argument made that this style creates a “you are there” immediacy, placing the viewer “in the middle” of the action. I would argue the opposite. I don’t know about you, but I don’t experience events in my life by jumping between eight different camera angles within five-second bursts. I’ve never seen an action flick done in this style that I found more involving, or to have created a stronger sense of verisimilitude, than one crafted with shots that let us clearly see what’s happening, and let’s us stay with them long enough to blink more than once before cutting to the next image.
I’m going to leave you with one more clip that has nothing to do with Captain America, but I’m including it here because damn it, this is my blog and I want to. Because when it comes to using a steady camera and long take to film a kick-ass action scene, it does not get any better than this.