Ken Harrison 8:30 a.m., May 27
Filmmaker's Lexicon: ATF
No, not Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms - though that should probably get its own entry in this little lexicographical effort (just one of The Big Screen's new features in 2012!) Rather, Arbitrary Toughness Factor.
The first thing about ATF is that it robs fight scenes of their drama, and instead makes them exercises in curiosity - "I wonder if this is the kind of movie where a baseball bat to the side of the head is enough to take a guy down, or if it's the kind of movie where even a baseball bat studded with nails to the side of the head is only enough to make a guy stagger back a bit before throwing another punch."
Sadly, many directors employ variable ATF within a given film - I'm looking at you, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Ethan Hunt can fight his way out of a Russian prison, but he has trouble taking on an aging academic with dreams of grandeur?
Part of the reason for ATF is the general reach for the extreme in the effort to hide the space where humanity should be. Consider the final fight scene in Immortals, wherein Mickey Rourke pounds the ever-livin' snot out of Henry Cavill for about half an hour, including, if memory serves, running a gigantic knife into his guts. I can recall films where that would mean the end of a man, and rightly so. But instead, Cavill lies on the ground and gushes blood for a while, then gets up and kicks the crap out of Rourke. At length. With gusto.
Now there have been lots of films in which the hero is beaten and bloody and then finds the strength for one last assault. Rob Roy, for example, did it brilliantly, and believably. But what happened in Immortals was ridiculous. And, finally, boring. Because it's impossible to care when you have no sense of anything being at stake, and impossible to tell what's at stake when the toughness is arbitrary.
Put it this way: you don't fret about whether the hero will save the lady tied to the train tracks if you aren't sure that being run over by a train will really do any damage to her.