I recently started showing my fiancee the Richard Donner Superman movies for the first time. She's never been a huge fan of the big blue boy scout, but we both got sucked into Smallville over the summer so now she's got a better appreciation for the characters and the world of Metropolis. Her biggest complaint with the Donner movies is a well founded one: that there seems to be little logic to Superman's powers throughout the films. While his most iconic abilities are all present, other, seemingly random (and often absurd) abilities manifest for seemingly no other reason than it's a convenient way to advance the scene or show off some sort of effect. (This problem is most famously exemplified by the giant cellophane "S" shield.) Whenever something like this happens, my fiancee usually responds with something along the lines of, "Thank god audiences are more discerning and they demand that a movie follows the rules of its own universe. This kind of thing just would not fly anymore."
While I largely agree with her, (Certain parts of Superman II would get laughed out of a theater these days, and I'm not just talking about dated effects.) I think it's interesting to think about the standards of the contemporary movie-goer, namely what they will and will not buy on screen. The Transformers movies are a great example, as there are clearly millions of people who enjoy watching the assorted scenes of giant robot-rumbles, despite the fact that even the most basically educated film student can tell you that they are an absolute mess of incomprehensible action wrapped in the vaguest shadow of plot.
But Transformers has become a fairly polarizing franchise and is probably too easy a target. How about Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight? Not only is it the third highest grossing film of all time, but it was generally considered a critical success to boot. Over the years, plenty of people have criticized Nolan's style of shooting action sequences, but critic Jim Emerson really dug in deep and put together the following short video. He breaks down the scene where the Joker attacks Harvey Dent's police convey beat by beat, closely inspecting the geography of the scene, Nolan's camera movement/placement and the editing choices that tie the scene together.
Let me say this: Emerson is not nitpicking here. This stuff is Film-making 101, so he has every right to call Nolan out on what he sees as flagrant violations of the basic tenants of how to shoot a movie. While I think he makes plenty of valid points here, it also feels like he can't see the forest for the trees. Continuity errors (like the phantom third cop car) aside, yeah some of Nolan's choices are a little vague in terms of spatial relationships and direction of movement when you look at the scene one shot at a time; yet, when the scene is taken as a whole (and certainly when watching it in the middle of the film), it doesn't actually feel nearly as disorienting as Emerson claims. There's an intangible element to this scene, and I think to action shooting in general, that Emerson seems to be missing.
Enter Joseph Kahn!
Kahn is a director whose work consists primarily of music videos, but he also masterminded the 2004 motorcycle insanity that was Torque and his next, Detention, has gotten a wide range of strong reactions from the festival circuit. Either way, Emerson's critique clearly struck a chord with Kahn, and he penned this very detailed response. I kind of love it. I particularly value his inclusion of sound design and the way that Emerson's seemingly sacred rules can be bent or even ignored to achieve an immersive effect without compromising the clarity of the scene. Some of Kahn's rebuttals sound somewhat juvenile, but most sound like the voice of someone who's actually planned and shot a feature film and knows from experience that there's no way that Nolan could be as incompetent as Emerson makes him out to be.
As with most things in the world, I think the truth lies somewhere betwixt the two. Is Nolan the best action filmmaker out there? Certainly not. But the guy is more than capable behind the camera and I believe that if/when he decides to break the 180 degree rule, it's not because he doesn't know any better.
You want an oversized cherry on top of your film-crit sundae? Check out the massive, three-part treatise on action film-making by the brilliant @FilmCritHulk here, here and here. Yes, it is extremely long, but if you at all consider yourself to be a film geek then it is 100% worth your time. Not only is it incredibly well reasoned and researched, but the entire thing is presented in all-caps with "HULK SMASH"-style grammar, which only adds to its brilliance. Plus his co-writer is Tom Townend, the cinematographer of the beyond-excellent Attack The Block, which had some of the best action I saw in a theater all summer.