Zoe Saldana is a vengeful force in “Colombiana,” where she plays a fearless assassin named Cataleya, although she’s really just pure energy. The movie follows her on an incessant journey to knock off the men responsible for her parents’ untimely demise. With a nimbleness matched only by her perfect hair, she scales walls, lays homemade explosive charges, swims with sharks and never hesitates to pull the trigger. Short of the end credits, nothing can stop her.
It’s hard to keep track of everything Cataleya does, which puts her in familiar company. In an excellent two-part video essay posted this week on Press Play, Los Angeles scholar and filmmaker Matthias Stork details a trend in modern action movies — as well as musicals, another genre devoted to intense visual stimuli — that he aptly labels “chaos cinema.”
Stork juxtaposes the frenzied and often incoherent technique that plagues many modern-day blockbusters with the comparative lucidity of earlier efforts. He lays out a clear distinction between the “riveting and stabilizing” rhythm of shots and cuts in “Die Hard” with the garbled montage of gunfire and explosions in “Quantum of Solace.” Combining a detailed voiceover with a vast selection of clips, Stork’s fine-tuned essay combats the exact tendency to “trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload” that he critiques.
At the same time, I fear that the “chaos cinema” label casts too wide a net. “Colombiana” certainly trafficks in a form of visual mayhem, but there’s an underlying fluidity. From one shot to the next, an interior logic drives Cataleya’s impossible maneuvers. “You don’t have to understand,” her father says shortly before his execution, giving her instructions that allow her to escape the country. “You just have to listen.”
His advice extends to viewers: With each proceeding cut, there’s no time to pause and comprehend whether Cataleya’s gravity-defying antics and apparent invincibility add up. Like so many action movies, “Colombiana” offers up a premeditated plea to just go with it. This kind of chaos comes with a plan.
And that’s exactly what Stork’s analysis maps out. In essence, the conversation about “chaos cinema” (which has, since the publication of Stork’s essay, continued in other lengthy riffs and extensive blog comment threads) focuses on moving pictures as a ride. In “Colombiana,” which opens this weekend and thus provides the handiest example, the initial exposition during Cataleya’s violent childhood functions like the early undulations of a roller coaster. When the story jumps forward 15 years, it prepares for the big drop. Still on the hunt for the druglord who ordered the hit on her folks, Cataleya keeps churning along.
The character is first seen using her feminine prowess (a skill that even the very modern, very versatile Jason Bourne can’t muster) to con her way into a prison and knock off one of her target’s main men. Even as the body count rises, it can’t match the number of hits Cataleya has piled up before the contemporary scenes of the film even begin. It turns out she started her hunt long ago and never missed a shot.
The presumption that this sleek femme fatale in her late 20s could knock off 22 men while evading capture already elevates her to a level of fantasy that audiences easily take for granted. “You won’t see her until it’s too late,” a detective warns his team. “She’s that invisible.” As opposed to partly invisible, of course. But you know the drill: Shoot first, ask question later. Or, in this case, don’t bother asking questions.
This automatic suspension of disbelief excuses the kind of spatial discontinuity that Stork discusses in detail. “Rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths and promiscuous camera movement now define commercial filmmaking,” he says in the video. “The result is a film style marked by excess, exaggeration and overindulgence: Chaos cinema.” It’s a format that runs in opposition to the clean, uniform editing strategies that can never be mentioned without paying heed to scholar David Bordwell, who coined the term “classical Hollywood cinema.” On this front, Stork’s argument has stable footing.
However, I worry that the “chaos cinema” moniker risks implying that all perspective disorientation lacks aesthetic merit. On the contrary: Fast and furious filmmaking necessitates control over the material in question. When a director relaxes that control, a movie can understandably fall apart, but the best contemporary action movies know exactly when they want their rhyme and reason to crumble.
An ideal example is “Shoot ‘Em Up,” Michael Davis’ sorely underrated 2007 Clive Owen vehicle, and a movie that Stork includes (without additional comment) as one of the clips in his collage of modern chaos cinema. This is a movie that knows the boundaries of the action genre and shrewdly pushes them to their wildest extremes. In the opening sequence, Owen impales a baddie with… a carrot.
That absurd maneuver is not unlike Jason Statham’s ability to juice himself by constantly pumping his chest with a defibrillator in the phenomenal Neveldine/Taylor cult hit “Crank,” or the stars of recent reboot “The A-Team” figuring out how to fly a tank as it falls from a plane. These are the rightful inheritors of the action cinema mantle. Purposefully erratic, they either deconstruct diminished expectations or subvert them.
Of course, great movies are in the minority at the multiplex. Breaking no new ground, “Colombiana” more or less plays it straight. Energetically directed by Olivier Megaton, the new movie is economically paced but fairly uninspired. Within its first minutes, Cataleya’s ill-fated dad says, “we have an hour” and begins dashing through downtown Bogota to evade his assailants. (Seemingly moments later, he clarifies: “We have 10 minutes.”)
Unremarkable action movies like “Colombiana” didn’t come out of nowhere. To understand their genesis, look no further than the film class that is Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” opus. The synthesis of parts one and two, set at various points in Hong Kong and somewhere in the Midwest, create a vivid statement of the modern state of action cinema. In short, Tarantino displays its DNA — a hybrid of eastern cinema (primarily martial arts films) and the grimy, virile atmosphere of the postmodern western.
These dual traditions embolden the action genre much in the same way that innumerable thoughtless counterexamples, the paragon being “Transformers,” drag it down. Yet the dialogue about “chaos cinema” doesn’t engage with issues of provenance. As a result, it turns action movies into an easy target, since the conversation entirely revolves around the how, not the why.
Like anything else, solid action movies need a reason to exist. Sometimes, understanding that reason requires a conversation not exclusively related to formalism. Themes, desires and implied argumentation allow cinema to become a window into the way the world works — and sometimes, as with the liveliest spectacles, to provide an escape from it.
That doesn’t come with a guarantee of ingenuity. As an example, consider the single line repeated like a mantra throughout the trailer for “Colombiana” that lays bare its purpose. “Never forget where you came from,” whispers Cataleya’s father, a statement that eternally echoes in her head. Like the character, the movie never forgets its roots, doggedly adhering to formula in a way that underscores chaos cinema at its most banal: Utter predictability.