For this purpose, by 'action movie' I refer to man-against-man conflict, as distinct from natural disaster stories, monster movies, caper flicks, and so on.The reason action movies, books, games, and the like are so tedious for so many is not because these people categorically dislike action stories (although some people do). The problem is, action for its own sake is nothing but sport -- like football, cricket, or baseball. No authentic problem is solved by the outcome except someone is declared the winner.
Men shooting at each other with guns -- using machines to throw pieces of metal back and forth until one of them is incapacitated -- is a bizarre form of entertainment. I've seen thousands of action movies from every corner of the world. I own hundreds of them. Not just gunplay, but swords, fists, rocks. People smashing other people, breaking their bodies. What is going on, fundamentally? What are we really watching? Again and again, it is failure.
We are watching failure. It seems like success -- the meanest, toughest guy kills all his enemies -- but we are watching intelligent beings reduced to their most primitive form. They have become pathetic: they have abandoned reason, the most important tool human beings possess, as they try to smash each other because they cannot arrive at a satisfactory resolution to their differences. We might as well watch dogs tear each other to pieces. There is nothing human in it.
That's why the best action stories are those in which we are most interested in what the characters involved think about, what their hopes are, and why they are willing to risk everything. The most successful are not necessarily the best, of course.
Let's look at a couple of examples from the golden age of meathead action movies, roughly 1980-1995.
Predator is a movie about a bunch of mercenaries in a jungle shooting at a homicidal alien for 60 minutes. It's a movie about about killing with machines. That's all. Nobody is solving a problem or righting a wrong or coming up against their own demons. But it was a commercial success because it had an interesting new kind of enemy -- and, if truth be told, because it hit the campy latent homosexual note that appeals to young males. As storytelling, it had little to offer.*
One of the earliest of that generation of action movies is Rambo, a story about a misunderstood Vietnam veteran going on a flashback-fueled rampage against the authorities. Obviously inspired by Deliverance and The Deer Hunter, it's better than it ought to be. The real fight is inside the tormented veteran's head; it is externalized as he fights back against the aggressions of the local police.†
The narrative connection between Rambo's inner conflict and the outward violence is what makes the story interesting; the domestic reenactment of the Vietnam War gave critics something to admire when it premiered. Otherwise, it's just some psychopathic asshole running around in the woods going primitive on a bunch of rednecks who were asking for it.
The trouble is, action movies usually devolve into 'he who shoots the biggest gun/ swings the biggest knife/ flexes the biggest biceps wins," so you end up with Eraser, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger wanders around shooting people with guns the size of Jeep transmissions that blow them a hundred feet in the air. You can almost hear the pitch, delivered by some pasty, mantitted 22-year-old fresh out of the UCLA film program: "...And then he shoots these guys and they fly a hundred feet in the air!!!" "Fifty feet?" "No, A HUNDRED!!!"
Consider the Die Hard or Lethal Weapon franchises. They started off with at least a nominal interest in a set of character problems that could be solved nonviolently: one guy has marital problems related to his duty-bound, personal-life-last nature, the other is suicidal because of the death of his wife. But there is a common thread to many action movies that pretend the protagonist has genuine character dilemmas: they use the character's weaknesses to make him invincible.
Especially in franchises, this becomes more obvious with every film. The hero of Die Hard is so duty-bound, so personal-life-last, he would rather die than fail to spank the bad guys. The hero of Lethal Weapon is suicidal, so doesn't fear death or consequences; hence he's unstoppable.
Write action movies. Please do. But figure out what the characters stand to lose, other than some largely abstract thing like 'freedom' or 'the kidnapped president' or whatever. Is the protagonist clinging to his crumbling sanity? Does he see the inherent unfairness in the system he's tasked to protect? Is he torn between obligation to his violent cause and a desire to find something gentle in this world? I mean whatever, it's your story, but please. Give us something to care about. Make it more than pro wrestling.
Otherwise, all there is to do is solve the problem in the story with escalating violence (they fly A THOUSAND feet in the air!!!!!!!) We've seen all that. Ask yourself this: if nobody hit anybody, shot anybody, or exploded, would you still have a story?
* Predator, if viewed as a parody of action films, is brilliant. Otherwise it's the 'Arena' episode of Star Trek, without the moral at the end.
† A friend of mine, Dave Crowley, played the cop who is wired to a tree in Rambo.
2 weeks ago