It’s been a suspenseful, exciting action sequence. Whizzing bullets, the throwing of fists, death-defying jumps and lightning fast vehicles. How intense is this! There must be a final punctuation to this scene. Something to really top it all off! And the standard way to put a final cap on it is to end it with some big glorious explosions. Perhaps the bad guys hideout blows up. Or maybe it’s the bad guys car. There’s something that’s going up in flames.
Our cool, no-nonsense hero has been forced to take care of business with these bad guys and has just successfully rained down much deserved justice and destruction on our antagonists. Our hero doesn’t break a sweat as he’s framed in one of the most clichéd action shot of modern times. They casually walk away from the burning fireball not looking back with a look in their eyes that says ‘they shouldn’t have messed with me’ and we can see they’re this unstoppable action force.
Ladies and gentlemen let’s hear it for another ‘walking towards the camera slowly with explosions in the background’ shot, ie the explosion walk.
There used to be a time a long time ago when action heroes would run away from a device that was set to explode. I recall many instances when Murtaugh and Riggs, John McClane, Dutch in Predator, even Rambo would be scrambling and running for cover from a big dangerous explosion.
It would be an intense scene. We knew the place was going to go up in smoke. Perhaps a big digital countdown clock would be intercut with our hero trying to get out of harms way. Today, no longer. They embrace having a bright yellow and orange explosion going off close to them. Their only way of protecting themselves from it is turning their backs and giving off a steely stare.
Nowadays that ‘running away’ thing action heroes used to do is just so passé. Action heroes must walk towards the camera with the explosion erupting behind them as they look unfazed by it. This is how the action scene must end. It’s become the cinema equivalent of the curtain coming down at the theater between acts.
This Explosion Walk cliché combines a few things that are ‘cool’. We get a big explosion. An actor gets to do a badass stare. Occasionally this will be done in awesome slo-mo so we can enjoy every marvelous second of it. And it’s a perfect shot to use for trailer and advertising to let audiences know – ‘hey, here’s a badass hero you’re going to want to see!’.
What would modern movie audiences think of an action hero that actually runs for cover when a bomb goes off? What a wimpy action hero! Even having to dive out of an explosion nowadays looks like a lame escape. Fans of Pierce Brosnan will notice during his tenure as 007 he was diving out of explosions almost every other scene. Then in his post-Bond work and to play a grittier action hero there’s was no diving or taking cover anywhere to be seen! In The November Man the big shot is him casually walking away from an explosion. Man, that shot was used an awful lot in the trailers and commercials.
I don’t know where the genesis of the explosion walk began. There are instances from movies from the far away past where I can recall heroes doing a similar bit of this cool walking/backs to the action/explosive moments.
Kirk Douglas navigating endless trenches while explosions go off around him in Paths of Glory. Sean Connery cooling lighting his cigarette as an explosion rocks a restaurant in Latin America at the start of Goldfinger. Mel Gibson driving away from an exploding bad guy car after the guy couldn’t manage to saw through his ankle bone in Mad Max. Robert Duvall philosophizing while the landscape around him burns in Apocalypse Now. Peter Weller continuing to unload his gun after a bad guy on a motorcycle while a gas station explodes he’s standing right in front of in Robocop.
Ok, maybe these aren’t exactly like the Explosion Walk we’ve all become familiar with today, but it’s the most research I’m willing to do into this. Perhaps one can argue these are the earliest forms of this cliché. It would make a great research study to chart the progress and evolution of the Explosion Walk in action films. Well, I don’t know if I should use the word ‘great’. I’m sure there are much more important matters to research, but I’d be curious to read it.
My suspicion is that although variations and early examples of the Explosion Walk could be found in plenty of films before 1990, it was John Woo that really cemented its status as a quintessential cool moment to have in an action film. Woo was the rage in the 90’s and so many of films consisted of sequences involving slow-motion, diving double-barreled shoot-outs, explosion backgrounds and pigeons. The pigeons were dropped, but filmmakers fell in love with the rest of it.
It could be that special effects artists were able to control movie explosions much better and could guarantee the actors safety a bit more as time went on. Or maybe better cameras were able to film an explosion in much better detail, allowing us to admire every little licking and rolling flame while also keeping the actor perfectly in focus too.
I’m sure the use of specific lenses would also help trick us that the actor is much closer to the fireball than they actually were as well. Then once the use of CGI came along they could accomplish this shot probably without even having a match on the set.
The Cinematic Explosion Walk has become such an overused popular trend long enough now that audiences are clued in on it. It even gave birth to the parody song ‘Cool Guys Don’t Look At Explosions’. It doesn’t seem like it’s slowing down. I was watching The Equalizer and was somewhat surprised when I saw Denzel do the Explosion Walk. I was thinking to myself – “Aren’t we done with this yet?”
I always thought it would have been a funny gag in a Naked Gun movie to see Leslie Nielsen do this dramatic ‘Explosion Walk’ and as he continues walking past the camera we see the back of his suit completely engulfed in fire and smoking. That’s such an easy gag I know, but it’s one I still think about each time I see these Explosion Walks in movies.
So since I’m too lazy to do it on my own, lend me a hand making a list of all the Cinematic Explosion Walks or loose variations of it that you can think of. Maybe we can finally find the point of its birth and how it has evolved into the most overused cliché in action movies today. It will have to do until someone does that research paper on this.