“Clock tower/Train fight” from Spider-Man 2, directed by Sam Raimi

Act one begins as Spider-Man meets the villainous Dock Ock at the top of the clock tower to try and save Mary Jane, the two titans clash with each other and wind up toppling off the building onto a subway train and continue their fight on the roof as the train speeds through the city bringing us into the second act of the fight. When Dock Ock needs more leverage he begins grabbing passengers out of the train and throwing them out, forcing Spider-Man to take focus off him to save the innocent people. Dock Ock then destroys the brakes on the train, changing the stakes again and forcing Spider-Man to save the train. The third act sees Spider-Man pushing himself to the limit to stop the out of control train.

The Action Sequence

Today I want to examine the idea of the action sequence. Whether it’s the action genre or a drama or comedy with action elements, a well put together action sequence will satisfy anyone. We’re at the point now where most everything has been done, and the use of dazzling special effects just for the sake of having them is boring without some great stakes for the action.

There have been lots of great simplistic fight scenes and car chases, but the best action scenes are the ones that have their own story within the action – where the geography and unexpected variables that come up affect the action and ratchet up the stakes even more.

I have selected three of my favorite action scenes as an example of what I mean. If you take the actions scenes apart, you will see that they even have their own three-act structure, like a symphony with three movements.

“Freeway chase” from The Matrix Reloaded, directed by the Wachowskis

With the key maker in their possession, Morpheus and Trinity make their escape from the Merovingian’s lair. With Neo unable to help them, Morpheus makes the grave decision to take the freeway, even though it’s something nobody should ever do. Not only do they have agents chasing them who can take over the bodies of any driver on the road, they are also being pursued by the twin viruses that work for the Merovingian. The second act begins as the chase hits the freeway, and the mayhem begins. In what I consider to be the greatest car chase in the history of film, Morpheus and Trinity have to fight off the twins and the agents while switching vehicles, all the while protecting the key maker. The third act begins when Morpheus is trapped on the roof of a speeding truck and is forced to confront an agent in combat, much like Neo did in the first film.

“Batpod chase” from The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan

This is my second favorite chase of all time. The first movement of the action scene begins as the police are escorting Batman-suspect Harvey Dent across town in an armored caravan. The second movement begins when Batman shows up to defend the caravan as the Joker and his men attack and take out most of the escorts. After the Joker succeeds in blowing up the Batmobile, Batman explodes out of the destroyed vehicle in a high-powered motorcycle called the Batpod. He catches up with the Joker and manages to flip his truck upside down using cables and save Harvey’s life. The third and final act of the sequence sees the Joker, armed only with a machine gun go head-to-head with Batman, tempting him to break his rule of not killing.

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