An ordinary enough looking tree, but the race to avoid a terrible fate began here.
Here we are now on The Champs Elysees where the chase reached a fantastic speed. There was honking and screeching and cars flying everywhere. Quite a kerfuffle. It's not nearly as noisy now, of course.
This is one of the trains that runs through Paris. Actually, our heroes ran through it too...the train I mean...
They came through the lobby of this office block, pursuing the villain. The carnage that took place, what with the glass, y-you can't imagine...well maybe it's best you can't. They've cleaned it up nicely, anyway.
The Eiffel Tower. This was a very important landmark. Many people converged here during that terrible business...it's not a nice...I mean...the sound of twisted metal and the st-st-strangled screams of the pedestrians well...oh...it's too horrible to think about. Of course it's all been restored now. Quite a feat really if you think about it...
Setting the Scene
The bad guys (part of the organisation Cobra) are in a car en route to the Eiffel Tower, ready to fire a metal-eating missile at it. The good guys, the Joes, give chase in their own van. As the scene progresses two follow on foot in powersuits, one on a souped-up motorbike and one clinging by his fingertips to the roof of the bad guys' car.
The Scene Itself
Usually the development of secondary narrative strands is put on hold while a fight or a chase takes place. These scenes can put an end to a particular story thread, achieve nothing in altering the fate of the characters, or complicate matters in a way requiring resolution in another fight or chase scene further down the track. Generally these action scenes streamline the narrative, shaving off subtext and depth for a focused rush of adrenaline.
This scene, however, moves the relationships between two couples forward. Before the chase Ripcord and Scarlett are slowly building a relationship whilst the relationship between Duke (of the Joes, played by Channing Tatum) and his estranged ex-fiancee Ana (leading the enemy, played by Sienna Miller) seems doomed and done. What we have, slyly slipped into the thunderous action, is two flirtations of two distinct kinds.
Ripcord's (Marlon Wayans) clumsy courting of Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), on the arrogant and sleazy side, is beginning to mellow and mature before they take to the streets of Paris. It reaches some sort of fruition though in a moment in which Ripcord can bring his two sides - self-proclaimed Superman and old romantic - together. Scarlett is thrown off her bike by an explosion and flies through the air. Ripcord leaps to catch her. After he calms her down with his gaze and his embrace, he knocks his helmet against hers:
It is a tender moment.
The relationship between Duke and Ana, conversely, is going nowhere, tinged with bitterness, guilt and resentment. Before this scene we learn that Duke 'allowed' her brother to be killed when they were soldiers and failed to comfort her as she mourned. We are also aware that she is under a sort of mind control that suppresses or mutates some of her memories.
The flirtation that takes place is one of mockery (which is not far from teasing) studded with little barbed comments and sarcastic waves. The high intensity scene gives them an opportunity to interact closely and provides an opportunity / excuse of sorts for Duke to chase after her in an ostensibly non-romantic way.
The chase ends with Duke leaping into a craft as it is about to fly away with Ana on board. He catches her and is able to disable the bomb (it is made of organic/synthetic beings called Nanobites that can be deactivated remotely). He reaches out and presses the button strapped to her waist.
The physical contact is cruder, closer and more abrupt
than in it is for Ripcord and Scarlett. It is sexually charged. Ana's gasp, visually at least, can be read in more than one way. Unfortunately, the Eiffel Tower had already been hit and the huge phallic symbol droops and falls. The relationship is moving in the right direction but it still, clearly, needs time:
Nevertheless, one image remains in our minds, a Close Up that speaks volumes about the outcome of both chases. The bomb, and Ana, have been:
Caring about Characters
What makes a chase is less the kinetic thrill of fast-moving objects, explosions and near misses (and this chase is full of them) than caring about the characters involved and what they are chasing for. Character must never get lost in the chaotic melee, but rise.
It is very important that we know enough about Cobra to care for them too. Knowing about someone, even if it is knowledge of evil deeds, will always bring a greater attachment and emotional investment. We are aware of Storm Shadow's (Byung Hun Lee of A Bittersweet Life) background and the reasons behind the rivalry with his de facto brother, the Joe Snake Eyes : he killed their ninja master out of jealousy when they were young). For us Ana is little short of an honorary Joe who we hope can be turned back to the side of good. The fact that there is danger in eliminating the target, with Snake Eyes battling on the roof too, creates an extra dimension of tension and excitement. Emotional confusion, friendly fire.
By giving us investment in the chased as well as the chasers the scene can unfold from two dynamic perspectives - looking ahead at the people who wish to use the missile and looking back at the Joes. The fact that the bad guys aren't just one-dimensional opponents pays dividends in freeing up the camera. If all the characters on screen have an attracting presence then a Director will be able, while retaining our interest, to put his camera wherever he wants along the 180 degree line of chaser and chased and spin between the ends to make 360 degrees. One dimension to two.
Style, Slow Motion and Perfect Angles
The camera retreats from chaser to chased. It follows a crossbow from chaser to chased, then spins through the car to follow a blast back from chased to chaser. We even, innovatively, track above the chased car right and then left around two corners (the cafe on the corner (image 4) cuts across the line of the chase, making the dash somehow more forceful). This uninhibited filming style goes hand in glove with the cartoonish, hyperreal energy of the action it is depicting.
From beginning to end we are given the best views, the best chance to see what is happening, who is causing it and who is being affected by it. The editing is fast and always geared to showing rather than hiding. A stunt or a computer generated insert aren't shrouded out of embarrassment or a lack of faith in the verisimilitude and effectiveness of the material. They stand proud. The editing isn't meant to give us a mere sense of the action or to jump-start us with a shallow jolt. It wants to catch every detail.
The angles and perspectives, too, are brilliantly chosen. The still compositions are as dramatic and impressive as the moving ones. Take these four shots that chart the journey of the fired missile towards its target:
The enclosed spaces of the first (narrowed all the more by the two black lines of the window pane's frame) and third image create a tension and an anxious expectation. Image two is a quiet shot of detached awe neatly sandwiched between the two. It is a vacuum for the tension to rush into. The canted angle of the fourth image feels uneasy, as if the world itself has been set off-kilter.
Equally impressive in the chase is the application of slow-motion. It is only used twice. The first time is to make the missiles, and the acrobatics of the Joes to avoid them, visible. The second time it is used to, just for a short moment, give a rolling car extra weight and gravitas. Two good reasons: to make the invisible visible (enhancing our eyes) and to add life and sentiment to something lifeless (triggering a deeper perception). In other words, the slow motion is present neither as a crutch nor as a display.
There should be no negative connotation when stating that the scene is ludicrously inflated. Within the rules of engagement set out by the film, it is a cartoonishness that is perfectly acceptable.
An action scene functions on all cylinders when these two factors are aligned - over-the-top and harmoniously integrated. The sight of two grown men bouncing about Paris like rubber balls, half Robocop half Tigger, is hilarious. It is a game. A dangerous and life-altering game, but a game. There is no holding back. Characters leap through train windows, spin off airborne vehicles, send sonic missiles clattering through cobbled alleyways.
Speed is of the essence in a chase. Car chases in films can be blighted, even in those most interested in the chase such as The French Connection or Death Proof; It takes one look at the side of the road to calculate the true speed as far below that which we are asked to believe in. In film pursuits there is an invisible elastic cord linking both parties, tightening and snapping back when they are too far apart and slackening when they are close. This chase is fast, not least because computer generated imagery can take up the baton when the stunt drivers and Director themselves are unable to go any further. The elastic never snaps and is never cut.
A wacky race, that is what this is, with traps, hazards and sniggers along the way. Look at the manic grimace on Storm Shadow's face as he rushes to fire his missile. He is a baddie, no mistake. Look too at how bright and green it is, the thing they are all interested in, the most eye-popping and the most visible. We watch the film like an over-stimulated child. With a forever young gaiety:
One could say that the film goes too far. Moments before the chase proper begins, Ripcord is struck by a car which is going at full speed and honking. However, there is no plausible reason why it would be going at that speed and why it would be unable to stop when there is a wall not twenty metres behind it! Maybe that adds to its charm. It breaks just that once through the barrier of credulity into the nonsensical as if the film cannot contain so much harebrained energy.
Chases are, by and large, dry affairs. The flirtations mentioned above add the nuance and humanity, the rhythmic rise and fall normally left to quips meant to stand for meaningful reaction. There aren't quips during the chase as such, but instances in keeping with character rather than removed from all context. There are funny asides that are derived from centre stage:
"There was training?!"
"There's no door"
There is a great mix of characters at play here: one is quieter, one more intense, one bubbly, one nervous, one single-minded. At the same time they are of one mind, segments of one body. They understand each other and at various points the others' personalities spur them and rub off on them.
There is speed and a terrific sense of geography. Any part of Paris (the greatest most seductive stage of all) can be smashed up and torn down. We care for chasers and chased alike and feel that anxious haste that separates mind from body. It is hilariously exaggerated and contrived yet altogether believable, a textbook example of controlled disorder. It is innovative and conventional, overturning and fulfilling expectations. It ends with a giant smile on our faces, and an exhausted sigh. Best of all, it ends with neither a clear victory nor a defeat. It ends on a chord that we can neither describe as major nor minor.
The scene isn't a break on the development of the story but an outrageous boon. It makes the film.