One Shot (James Nunn, 2021)

I suppose it’s an inevitable consequence of Hollywood’s adoption of hyperactive action editing in the 2000s that we’d eventually be inundated by films zagging in the opposite direction. First it was long steadicam shots like the one in Tony Jaa’s The Protector, where the hero marches up a long circular ramp dispatching enemies left and right, handheld camera following close behind or swinging around to the front, as the action dictates. The sequence shots became somewhat of a norm in 2000s action cinema, at least outside of the big Hollywood productions. A counter-norm I suppose. Though the aesthetic is slowly establishing itself there too (for example a relatively delightful sequence in the third episode of Disney/Marvel’s Hawkeye TV series). 

It was only a matter of time before advancing digital technology, and the spirit of one-upmanship inherent in all great stunt performers and directors, that we’d get full features made up of single sequence shots. This year brought two of them: Crazy Samurai Musashi, in which Sakaguchi Tak sliced up an endless army of faceless samurai on a crisp autumn afternoon; and One Shot, in which Scott Adkins shoots and stabs and punches an endless army of international terrorists on a remote CIA black site. The difference between the two is that Sakauguchi’s shot abstracts the violence and destruction, emphasizing the mindless brutal waste that is war and murder, while Adkins’s tries to be an actual movie, with characters and plot and stuff, the sequence shot eliciting not the useless boredom of violence, but the exhausting chaos of it all.

It’s not much of a plot, of course. A team of SEALs escorts a CIA analyst to an island in Poland to pick up a detainee. While they’re there, terrorists attack, trying to either rescue the guy or kill him before he can reveal the secret location of the nuclear bomb they’re planning to detonate in DC during the Sate of the Union address. The Americans are quickly overwhelmed, despite shooting a whole bunch of bad guys. The terrorists arrive in one truck, but dozens of them get killed over the course of the film. Probably there was a second truck or something, but I like imagining hundreds of terrorists smooshed together in the back of one truck, like a clown car full of heavily-armed Eastern European extras. Anyway, Adkins is the leader of the four man SEAL team and he’s just a perfect bundle of action, all process and following orders. There’s nothing extraneous to him, he is only the job.

The good guys (such as they are) are quickly cornered, arguing amongst themselves about whether or not to kill and/or torture the detainee (the CIA says no, the head of the black site, played by no less than Ryan Phillippe himself, says yes) while a variation on Assault on Precinct 13 plays out around them. Only Adkins of course can break out of the trap, tracking down communication equipment and knifing bad guys in stealth mode and resorting to fisticuffs and wrestling holds when the weapons fail—the full array of the violence our greatest underground action hero is capable of performing. The sequence shot is seamless: director James Nunn, who made Tower Block and both The Marine 5: Battleground and The Marine 6: Close Quarters as well as something this year called Jetski, moves the camera around well. The action is always clear, the crew doing admirable work blowing up the set and applying bloody makeup as necessary in real-time. If nothing else, it’s both more sensical and much cooler than 1917, and in a better world would be earning all the awards plaudits that film received.