Doug Thompson

A Ballet of Violence

By Doug Thompson
“Wanted” is a ballet, sort of, and a prime example of what I call a “Ballet of Violence” movie.
Unfortunately, I started using that term too late. The “Urban Dictionary” ( defines “Ballet of Violence” as “homage to aggression and male bloodlust that a championship ultimate fighting event is.”
I respectfully disagree. A real fight’s not a ballet, or something that draws any inspiration from ballet. A fight is a fight. It follows the logic of defeating a real opponent, not a dance aesthetic.
“Ballet of Violence” should be the name of a movie genre that drew its inspiration from Hong Kong action films, grew to maturity with directors like John Woo and flowered for the American popular audience with “The Matrix.” It is clearly inspired by dance, which is an art that looks for beauty in movement. But the dancers have guns and people to shoot. Even the targets do ballet as they’re slammed with bullets, flying at the impact.
The term popped into my head while watching the hero of “Wanted,” a dweeb starring in an empowerment fantasy. He sailed forward through the air while sweeping him arms back like wings, shooting two people dead as he’d already passed them by, all in elegant slow-mo.
This isn’t art, but it has artistic sensibilities and inspirations.
Ballet — real ballet — is a series of extremely difficult dance steps and poses struck in rapid succession. Great ballet is seamless, with no pauses as the steps and poses string together into a beautiful, flowing thread.
Art flows, even if it’s a painting or sculpture.
“Ballet of Violence” movies can’t really claim that. An actor strikes a pose or takes a step. It’s filmed, and the next sequence is shot. The film’s editors make it into an illusion of a flowing dance. The process would be like me hitting a bunch of cords on the piano after somebody had shown me each one. The sound editors would then string my bits together into a flowing, seamless piece.
The finished recording might be beautiful, but that would not make me a great pianist.
When the editing is done well, these movies look very much like good ballet, only bloody.
So many of us who wouldn’t be caught dead at a performance of “The Firebird” will pay good money to watch a reasonable facsimile of it with rounds being fired.
The scene that struck me most in “The Matrix” was the shot from under a helicopter. The hero is firing a mini-gun into an upper floor of a skyscraper from the helicopter door. A mini-gun is a Gatling gun driven by an electric motor. The weapon fires about 3,600 rounds a minute.
This unapologetic action movie took several seconds to cut to a shot taken from far beneath the helicopter. It showed a glittering cascade of bright, spent brass cartridges flowing from the mini-gun toward the ground.
No dumb, violent movie does that. Dumb, violent movies show you more people getting chopped up by the gun’s bullets.
Somebody could argue I’m wrong and that these movies are art. Fine, but I’m not likely to change my mind or pursue the discussion much. Some guy being interviewed on public radio about real art summed the situation up very well. He said, as best as I can remember: Too often, the discussion about whether “Is it art?” pushes aside the discussion over whether it’s any damn good.
All I’m saying is that there is a genre of film that portray violence as graceful and will abandon physical reality, if necessary, for artistic effect, and that these movies’ debt to high art is worth noting.
The plots of these movies are as silly as any opera’s libretto, too.
There’s scene in “Wanted” where the hero ramps his Ford Mustang into a spin and jump, flies over a Mafioso’s speeding limousine and shoots him through the Ford’s open passenger-side window and through the limo’s open sun roof.
It’s beautifully done, but that’s comedy. I’d expect something like that in an Austin Powers movie.
Still, a “Ballet of Violence” shows craft and inspiration, even if it’s not art by my definitions — or prejudices.
I’ve begged the question, haven’t I?
If something shows craft and inspiration, why isn’t it art?

Categories: Features