Why this might not seem so easy
“When you have an action sequence,” said Brian De Palma in a recent interview, “you’ve got to lay out the geography. The trouble is with 99% of directors, they don’t. Hitchcock knows how to do it. I know how to do it. Spielberg knows how to do it. Kubrick knows how to do it. You have to lay out the geography of the location so the audience knows where everything is before you set the action going.”
It would be overstating the case to compare the muscular studio B-pictures of Jaume Collet-Serra to the titans cited above. And yet, at his best, the Spanish-American filmmaker warrants consideration for De Palma’s elusive 1%. Across nine features to date, this slick purveyor of no-nonsense pulp has demonstrated a keen eye for action spaces, orientating the viewer and familiarising them with the rules of engagement with a clarity of intent that’s all too easy to take for granted in a dystopian blockbuster landscape ruled by split-second cuts and compositional tremors.
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The best place to start – The Shallows
With The Shallows (2016), Collet-Serra’s directorial agenda is – on the surface at least – pretty straightforward. An injured surfer (Blake Lively) is stuck on a rock, a couple of hundred yards out from a deserted beach. Her objective is to reach the safety of the shore. Over a crisp 86 minutes, Collet-Serra gives audience and protagonist alike everything they need to know about the action stage: the distance between a nearby buoy and festering whale carcass, the times of the rising and falling tides, how long until Lively’s lacerated leg turns gangrenous. With the geography of the single-location lucidly laid out and the stakes set, our focus turns to the obstacle – the one unpredictable parameter within the fixed points of the space: a circling shark.
Orientation. Obstruction. Playtime. With an opening 20 minutes of expositional, character-forming guff – telling us why Lively is at this particular beach – out of the way, Collet-Serra swiftly gets down to business, serving up a streamlined masterclass in physically-driven, obstacle-riven, spatially coherent suspense. What more could you ask of a Friday night at the pictures?
What to watch next
Liam Neeson has churned out so many punching-pensioner flicks since collecting his freedom pass that they probably warrant a Where to begin feature of their own. Suffice to say that his four films with Collet-Serra would feature heavily in any list of recommendations. Their most recent collaboration, The Commuter (2018), is the best of the lot. Opening with a thrilling exercise in expositional economy, the film’s credits sequence lays out Neeson’s everyman credentials, condensing years of the salaryman’s immutable morning routine into a few minutes. Seasons change, and his son grows, but Liam just makes his coffee and heads out to catch his daily train.
Once we’re aboard, the economy continues as Collet-Serra sets up his conceptual framework and the restrictions of the space. Like The Shallows, it’s another feat of single-location staging, this time the forward-propelled, horizontal space of the train carriages. We meet all the players – fellow passengers that serve as pawns in a Hitchcockian mystery – before the show starts with a simple set of instructions: find a passenger “who does not belong” and receive a $100,000 reward. Cue the search, and the various obstructions that culminate in a blistering single-shot axe vs guitar fight.
Collet-Serra does incredible work in confined spaces, our familiarity with the layout of a series of train carriages, say, giving him a headstart on De Palma’s geographical terms. For more of the same, turn to Non-Stop (2014), which swaps train for plane. This time, Neeson is an air marshal – alcoholic and emotionally wounded, natch – who starts receiving text messages detailing a bomb on board and demands for $150 million.
The messages are coming from a passenger on the plane, but which one? An action-whodunnit ensues as Collet-Serra playfully interrogates the possibilities of the space. He fondly indulges in his penchant for electronic devices as investigative tools, highlighting phone screens as frames within the frame. It’s all marvellously over-the-top and melodramatic, but Collet-Serra maintains our focus – just like in The Shallows and The Commuter – through subjective consistency (he never cheats with a perspective on the action that doesn’t belong to the protagonist) and spatial legibility.
There’s fun to be had with Unknown (2011), another Neeson vehicle that plays like a tackier version of Roman Polanski’s Frantic (1988). A step up from the Eurotrash likes of Taken (2008) and its sequels, it’s a gleeful romp through the streets of Berlin that trades in amnesia, spycraft and the furrowed charisma of its leading man.
Collet-Serra’s breakout hit is a hoot and a half, and saw him return to the horror genre with which he’d begun his career. Orphan (2009) follows in the well-travelled footsteps of the psycho-kid movie, and while it’s too reliant on well-oiled jump scares by half, it’s a wickedly effective early exercise in suspense with a doozy of a final act reveal.
Where not to begin
Goal II: Living the Dream (2007) is the anomaly on Collet-Serra’s CV, a sequel to the rags-to-riches 2005 sports movie Goal! Following the early-career success of a premiership footballer, there’s really little here to recommend.
Another of the director’s collaborations with Liam Neeson, Run All Night (2015), makes some interesting attempts at mapping the New York neighbourhood in which its action takes place. Speeding between locations in CGI swoops, the gambit doesn’t really pay off – it’s just too large a sandbox for Collet-Serra to effectively marshal. Still, it’s an engaging enough character-driven thriller with committed turns from Neeson and Ed Harris, the latter playing a mob boss after the perennial running man for offing his son.
Better to turn to Collet-Serra’s debut, House of Wax (2005), especially for its final set-piece. At nearly two hours it’s overlong, and packed with terrible performances – Paris Hilton being the lone exception – but this second remake of Michael Curtiz’s Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) builds with gooey panache to a finale in which the titular building is set ablaze and meets its molten demise.
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