The Dark Knight: Anatomy of a Flawed Action Scene

There are many ways to make a movie, says film crit­ic Jim Emer­son, and many ways to make a mess.

The truck chase scene from Christo­pher Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight is frankly a mess, as Emer­son demon­strates in a fas­ci­nat­ing video essay (above) pro­duced as the first in a three-part series on the lan­guage of action sequences for the Indiewire blog Press Play. “We notice laps­es in visu­al log­ic whether our brains reg­is­ter them con­scious­ly or not,” writes Emer­son. “I found this scene utter­ly baf­fling the first time I saw it, and every sub­se­quent time. At last, I now know exact­ly why.”

After study­ing the sequence shot by shot he real­ized that Nolan had vio­lat­ed fun­da­men­tal rules of film gram­mar. You can fol­low along as Emer­son, a Seat­tle-based crit­ic who writes the Scan­ners film blog for the Chica­go Sun-Times, sorts out the con­fu­sion. (There is an accom­pa­ny­ing anno­tat­ed tran­script on Scan­ners.) And be sure to watch Emer­son­’s fol­low-up essays (below) which offer shot-by-shot analy­ses of action scenes that are clear­ly intel­li­gi­ble.

In Part II of his series (above), Emer­son breaks down the high­way chase scene from Phillip Noyce’s 2010 film, Salt. The sequence is easy to fol­low because Noyce is care­ful to estab­lish the spa­tial rela­tion­ships between the var­i­ous ele­ments, both with­in the frame and between shots. Writes Emer­son:

There are cer­tain direc­tors I think of as “one-thing-at-a-time” film­mak­ers. That is, they seem to be inca­pable of com­pos­ing shots that have more than one piece of infor­ma­tion in them at a time. This makes for a very flat, rather plod­ding style. You see what the cam­era is point­ed at in each shot, but you get very lit­tle sense of per­spec­tive when it comes to relat­ing it to oth­er ele­ments in the scene. Noyce’s tech­nique is much more flu­id, organ­ic and sophis­ti­cat­ed. He keeps things from one shot vis­i­ble in the next, even when shift­ing perspective–whether it’s only a few feet or clear across sev­er­al lanes of traf­fic.

In Part III (above), Emer­son revis­its clas­sic chase scenes from three films: Don Siegel’s The Line­up (1958), Peter Yates’s Bul­litt (1968) and William Fried­kin’s The French Con­nec­tion (1971). In each case the direc­tor takes you on a chaot­ic, bumpy ride–but nev­er los­es you.

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Comments (28)
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  • Louis says:

    I hope no one is using this to learn. It’s sad real­ly he used great quotes but just does­n’t get it.

  • Isaac says:

    I’ve learned a cou­ple of things. Thank you!

  • Dunleavy says:

    Jon Favreau is anoth­er who has no idea how to stage an action sequence. Iron Man was visu­al­ly stiff and full of unre­al moments like Stark remain­ing unharmed after smash­ing into the ground at full speed.

    Michael Bay set the action set piece stan­dard with the robot scor­pi­on attack scene in Trans­form­ers. But, unfor­tu­nate­ly, by the end of the same movie he was pulling a Nolan, cut­ting so quick­ly that the action is unfol­low­able.

  • Thomas Lines says:

    I’ll be hon­est, I watched and rewatched his expla­na­tion of the bit with the lor­ry and I still can’t see where he’s com­ing from there. Three lanes, the lor­ry head­ing hor­i­zon­tal­ly smash­es into the van and since the lor­ry is head­ing hor­i­zon­tal­ly the van has to be forced back­wards away from the path of the lor­ry which is the direc­tion we see it hit­ting the water. The lor­ry fol­lows turn the oth­er way and into the third lane. (and from when the van hits a pil­lar there are obvi­ous­ly three lanes at least). But I always found this scene a lit­tle con­fus­ing and the recut of the bat­mo­bile smash­ing into the truck looked so much bet­ter than the actu­al thing

  • Matt says:

    I saw both movies when they came out and when I read this arti­cle I remem­bered the Dark Knight Chase scene vivid­ly and did­n’t recall the Salt one at all. Despite its poor gram­mar the Dark Knight seems to have got­ten its point across much bet­ter.

  • Thomas Lines says:

    The only oth­er thing, was I the only per­son who found the mid­dle shot of the five shot jumps real­ly jar­ring? The cam­era swings round in a U real­ly quick­ly but both time it flips around at the bot­tom and then car­ries on with the U. But any­way these were a real­ly inter­est­ing series and I’ve nev­er even thought of films like that before, it makes their cre­ation seem a lot more excit­ing :D

  • Tommy says:

    Before I get into this, keep in mind I’ve only had time to watch the Dark Knight video before post­ing.

    Any­way, I appre­ci­ate what you’ve done here and I think it can be real­ly help­ful to both edi­tors and direc­tors. I think the prob­lem here is the sheer scale of this scene. When I saw the scene for the first time, I was blown away by the action all done with lit­tle CGI. And that there is the down­side to not using CGI: it’s going to be hard to repli­cate a scene again and again. And we’re not even tak­ing into account logis­tics of how a truck may hit anoth­er truck–I imag­ine we’re talk­ing about mil­lions upon mil­lions of dol­lars for shots that might be record­ed for six­ty sec­onds.

    And yeah, the actu­al usu­al space and gram­mar is pret­ty hap­haz­ard­ly done, but I don’t think it dis­ori­ents most nor­mal view­ers or even view­ers who might be more well versed in film tech­nique. I think what a lot of review­ers were refer­ring to with some of those crit­i­cisms was with some of the fight scenes where Nolan seems to favor CU’s fol­low­ing CU’s which make it real­ly hard to fig­ure out who’s punch­ing who. It’s the Bourne style not done near­ly as well.

    I mean, this scene isn’t per­fect, but I think con­sid­er­ing the very lit­tle room for mis­takes they had, I feel the edi­tor did pret­ty damn well in keep­ing the space rel­a­tive­ly clear.

    Still, great arti­cle and I agree with you, but I def­i­nite­ly think that with a large scale scene like this, where lit­tle to no CGI is used, edi­tors have to

  • Tommy says:

    Got cut off some­how. Long sto­ry short: good arti­cle, nice video. I just think with a scene where so much mon­ey was run­ning on every sin­gle shot, edi­tors are forced to be cre­ative and break rules in the least dis­ori­ent­ing ways.

  • EMD says:

    I would argue fight scenes are in much more per­il with spa­tial­ly-destruc­tive hyper edit­ing than chase scenes. At least most chase scenes have to hold a rel­a­tive­ly lin­ear path to make sense (thus a ‘chase’) where­as fight­ing sequences can occu­py any type of space.

    Guy Ritchie assaults the sens­es with his Sher­lock 2 fight shlock­ery. He almost redeems him­self with the well played flight-into-the-woods chase sequence, but not quite.

    Ronin is a mod­ern piece that seems to hold togeth­er as an excit­ing chase set piece that keeps its self-con­tained nar­ra­tive intact. A lot of directors/editors fail to real­ize that action set pieces are sto­ries with begin­nings, mid­dles, and ends all their own with­in the con­text of the larg­er sto­ry. It’s sad to see them over­ly-manip­u­lat­ed in a vain pur­suit of style.

  • Jake says:

    I have only seen the dark knight video but i thought it was an inter­est­ing study of a big bud­get action scene. How­ev­er, many of the points raised, despite claim­ing oth­er­wise, are about con­ti­nu­ity errors as opposed to use of space. The key com­po­nent of this scene is the close con­fines of the loca­tion. There­fore, when shoot­ing an action scene in such close quaters close ups, quick cuts and a sense of chaos is play­ing to the strengths of your sur­round­ings and cre­ates a thrilling, kinet­ic scene. And the logis­tics of the tight space means it is impos­si­ble to stay true to the 180° rule, which very few films stick to reli­gious­ly any­way. It is a guide­line to ensure audi­ence ori­en­ta­tion, if it is bro­ken but ori­en­ta­tion is main­tained and the rhythm is con­stant, job done. Extra vehi­cles, posi­tion of vehi­cles etc are an issue of con­ti­nu­ity and there­fore are irrel­e­vant com­pared to the larg­er con­text of this film. I will use this video as a resource for film stu­dents that i teach for you put your opin­ion across well and the film explores the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of an action scene in detail.

  • Tim says:

    What if it was com­ic book gram­mar and not film gram­mar?

  • Kazz says:

    total waste of ener­gy try­ing to crit­i­cize great­ness — what has this guy done late­ly?

  • yurenchu says:

    Nice analy­ses in those clips. How­ev­er, the prob­lem in that scene from The Dark Knight when the truck hits the SWAT van is not a con­ti­nu­ity error. The tra­jec­to­ries of the vehi­cles do match up, the SWAT van sim­ply made a more than 90 degree turn to its left, while the truck makes a 90 degree turn to its right after cross­ing the sec­ond lane into the third lane. The com­po­si­tion also match­es up: when it’s hit, the SWAT van moves from left to right, and when it heads into the water, it is also mov­ing left to right. The con­fu­sion aris­es from the cam­era move­ment when the SWAT van crash­es into the water: the cam­era is zoom­ing in/moving into the SWAT van but should have zoomed out/moved back from the SWAT van (because that’s the direc­tion where the rest of the pur­suit, and hence the action, was going).

    The oth­er com­plaints do hold up though.

  • Shaun Pearson says:

    I’m watch­ing the film for the 6th or 7th time right now and was com­pelled to search for com­ments on the god-awful writ­ing for this part of Dark Knight. For me I have always some­what dis­liked that same sequence in Dark Knight, but not for the rea­sons Emer­son goes on about. For me the writ­ing was awful. The stu­pid cliched one lin­ers I’ve heard in count­less oth­er films just jump out and insult my sense of taste. And by the way — the shot of The Jok­er hang­ing his head out the cop car with hair blow­ing & neon lights reflect­ing off glass & met­al, all done in slow motion is an amaz­ing moment.

  • HammerHead says:

    Moral of the sto­ry:

    Sto­ry­boards. Use ’em.

  • Xtalline says:

    This arti­cle is pure crap and pon­tif­i­ca­tion by a noth­ing who reads a lot of hacky “art the­o­ry” and just regur­gi­tates this bull­shit. Half the points you try to make are just flat out wrong, from try­ing to claim that a car get­ting t‑boned by a fuck­ing 18 wheel­er would­n’t spin out to try­ing to act like shoot­ing an RPG out of a mov­ing truck would be easy (hint: RPGs have propul­sion and don’t move near­ly as fast as a bul­let so he was try­ing to lead the truck and did­n’t get it right the first time; you would know this if you ever shot one before). You try to insert a lot of this pseu­do-intel­lec­tu­al bull­shit into the scene about lines of action with­out real­iz­ing that the entire point of the scene was to con­vey a sense of chaos; Har­vey’s inside a truck that he can’t see out­side of and they were try­ing to instill that ver­ti­go because when you’re hit at high speeds it’s not as appar­ent as you’d think where you were hit from or what’s even going on out­side. This video is pure trash; you’d have been bet­ter off cri­tiquing some of the hacky fight scenes he had where Bat­man would put a grown man down with a weak karate chop, but even those sil­ly things were few and far between.

  • Marc says:

    Great videos. I’ve always hat­ed Nolan’s action sequences. He real­ly can’t shoot action to save his life.

  • WC says:

    This is the most pet­ti­fog­ging BS I’ve ever heard about a Nolan film, or any film. I hon­est­ly had to stop watch­ing because of how stu­pid it is. I guess I’ll begin where I stopped watch­ing: your com­ment about you not under­stand­ing why they had the 2 sec­ond Jok­er cut. You see, the heli­copter fad­ed out to the Jok­er motif. Motif: a dis­tinc­tive fea­ture or dom­i­nant idea in an artis­tic or lit­er­ary com­po­si­tion. This is build­ing up the sus­pense. “It’s so brief it’s not real­ly effec­tive.” It is effec­tive because that 2 sec­ond scene implies that they’re run­ning into the Jok­er’s trap, and he’s behind it all. I don’t real­ly know how that’s so hard to under­stand. That 2 sec­ond shot after the fade in to the Jok­er motif and the wide shot of the con­voy tells us every­thing we need to know before head­ing into the tun­nel: the con­voy is set to trans­fer Har­vey Dent and he is in a vul­ner­a­ble state, and they are head­ing straight in to (lit­er­al­ly) a face-off with the Jok­er.

    I tried giv­ing it one more shot, but then you made that ter­ri­ble com­ment about the impre­ci­sion of Nolan’s per­spec­tive shot of the con­voy as they pass the burn­ing fire truck. Sure, it’s a lit­tle incon­sis­tent maybe by 20 feet, but that’s prob­a­bly because they’re dri­ving by it.

    I don’t mean to be dis­re­spect­ful, because usu­al­ly I enjoy cri­tiques of movies dei­fied like the Dark Knight, but this video essay is flat out not worth the time.

    • Rude says:

      “Not worth my time” is pre­cise­ly the judge­ment made by those who did­n’t take the time to watch it and there­for the least qual­i­fied to judge.

  • Ed says:

    Kazz: Total waste of ener­gy try­ing to crit­i­cize a great cri­tique with an ad hominem attack. You don’t have to be Richard Halsey to write a good arti­cle on edit­ing; it stands on its own mer­its, not on the rep­u­ta­tion of its author.

  • IO says:

    Emer­son did­n’t need to make three sep­a­rate 10minute+ videos to talk main­ly about con­ti­nu­ity and spac­ing (there were moments when he was being opin­ion­at­ed about styl­is­tic choic­es that made him come across a bit crass). After watch­ing ‘Every Frame A Paint­ing’ it’s easy to see how these kinds of videos fall flat at get­ting their point across.

  • Micheal Lunny says:

    These are ter­rif­ic essays and the exam­i­na­tion of the pur­suit scene in The Dark Knight real­ly helped me pin down why I dis­like Nolan’s action direct­ing so much.

    Since then Nolan’s action scene direc­tion has improved a lit­tle (apart from his fight scenes) while his writ­ing abil­i­ty has dete­ri­o­rat­ed. Inter­stel­lar is a car crash of a film.

  • JSL says:

    Just goes to prove that if a film is work­ing emo­tion­al­ly and vis­cer­al­ly, an audi­ence will over­look poor filmic gram­mar, if they even notice it at all.

  • Brandyn says:

    Thats what I’m find­ing so frus­trat­ing about this guys break­down of the chase… I can see the van hit­ting the water may have been trav­el­ling too fast to have just recent­ly been turned around 180 degrees, but good lord this guy seems intent on not under­stand­ing the scene. What do you mean the truck should be in the same lane as the con­voy? No there was always a lane to the con­voys left, because they are in amer­i­ca, and amer­i­ca dri­ves on the right. So now the semi (Lor­ry) is just next to the con­voy… it isn’t a super easy to fol­low sequence, but damnit if he isn’t mak­ing it even more com­pli­cat­ed with his assump­tions and just seem­ing­ly inabil­i­ty to think spa­tial­ly

  • Eduardo says:

    No won­der cin­e­ma is so bor­ing these days. And this video is the per­fect exam­ple of why this is going on. Have film­mak­ers (and appar­ent­ly Emer­son) for­got­ten that movies are fan­ta­sy? I’m def­i­nite­ly not a fan of Nolan’s, but c’mon peo­ple, are you real­ly gonna say that when you were watch­ing this scene you were like “oh, there’s some­thing wrong with this scene”? Please, you’re not that spe­cial, I know you were on the edge of your seats. The scene is flawed, of course, but the fact that some­one actu­al­ly took their time to break the scene into stu­pid con­ti­nu­ity issue is ridicu­lous. As an edi­tor, I feel that try­ing to make these type of argu­ments is ridicu­lous. What mat­ters it what peo­ple feel watch­ing the scene and I’m pret­ty sure that a con­ti­nu­ity issue that isn’t jar­ring enough for peo­ple to laugh at is not enough rea­son to say that a scene is bad­ly cut. I wished Emer­son played the whole scene after his “review” and I’m pret­ty sure peo­ple would­n’t remem­ber half of the things he said. Please stop pick­ing at sim­plis­tic stuff to make you look smart. This is not smart, it’s real­is­tic at it’s worst. There are so many exam­ples of ter­ri­ble film edit­ing in action scenes, just look at Casi­no Royale — the edi­tor does­n’t give the view­er enough time the under­stand what’s going on, so you nev­er under­stand the dynam­ic of the action scenes.

  • Jak says:

    I come back to this every cou­ple of years, I real­ly like these videos. The first one helps cement why I find The Dark Knight so frus­trat­ing (although it’s worth a watch for Heath Ledger’s per­for­mance).

    I real­ly enjoy action and when it’s done cor­rect­ly it tick­les part of my brain. I’ve made a few action sequences myself and any knowl­edge I can gain on the sub­ject is invalu­able.

    Thanks for your great vids!

  • Ben says:

    -Agree with an approach- tricky per­son, there­fore slow time right down, and explain. May CN be hap­py, well, free of suf­fer­ing, mak­ing progress btw.
    ‑Dis­agree with 09:41. Giv­en the legit­i­ma­cy of much of what you say, I’m going along with what you are say­ing. But this bit pos­si­ble expla­na­tion was the brain had got its set­ting as fault find­ing- but to me it did­n’t seem a glar­ing error because the force of the blow could have spun the swat truck a bit around. You’re on about gram­mar- this feels not ‘its/it’s’ rather ‘focused focussed’. Thank you! though.

  • Mfundo says:

    Love this com­ment — you’ve just won the debate. I think if peo­ple also took time to under­stand Nolan’s vision of how HE want­ed the movie to be like and the direc­tions he took then we would under­stand. I don’t agree with Jim on a lot because I have seen a cou­ple of reviews on the Dark Knight and I under­stand the ori­en­ta­tion of the scenes.

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