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The 5 ingredients of good action film


This article was published March 14, 2014 at 2:30 a.m.


Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) hang out together in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

Essential lesson in entertainment journalism: If you want to annoy a Hollywood B-lister, suggest gently that the new movie he’s starring in is deeply, tragically flawed. Early in my career, I had such an encounter with a fairly big-name actor, a man (rightfully) celebrated for one specific earlier work and who had since proved somewhat shaky outside of his lone hit. He was making the press rounds for a brainless action film, a kind of big-budget vanity project in which he got to play a completely over-the-top psychopathic villain on the loose. Nicolas Cage must have been busy the day the film got cast.

In any event, when this actor spoke with me, he was full of swagger and aggressive confidence. When I asked him about the nature of his role-selection process, he intuited (I must say correctly) that I was asking because I had found the film - and his role in it - supremely lacking, which set us off on the wrong trajectory from the get-go. Before long, he was challenging me to give my full and unvarnished opinion about the film and wasn’t letting me get away with my standard dodge (“I thought there were interesting things about it”). After listening to me stammer my objections for a few seconds, he came to an abrupt, shattering conclusion: “You just don’t like action movies.”

It bugged me then, and continues to bother me now. Point of fact, it wasn’t true - I didn’t dislike the entire genre, just his idiotic film, it was like being told you hated Mexican food if you didn’t like a Taco Bell chalupa - but it did get me to thinking about what might be included in an Action Movie Manifesto, identifying those elements prevalent in the best examples of the genre. Those things, in other words, that make the best action films so intense and deeply satisfying.


Of all the elements I identified, this one might be the most significant, and it’s certainly not all about numbers: It’s not enough to have 50 skilled assassins for our hero to defeat, especially if they all fall like ninepins. You have to make the audience actually scared for the character, fearing for his survival in the face of such obvious doom. It’s easy to send waves of highly trained stuntmen at an action star, but unless the outcome is in serious doubt, it’s only so much cotton candy.

Positive Example: The Matrix - The moment near the end when Neo finally locks on to his true abilities and toys with the formerly terrifying Agents in front of him remains a high-water mark for the genre.

Negative Example: Commando - Unsurprisingly, Arnold makes an appearance in this field. I believe the official body count in the film stands at 88, with Arnold killing all but seven of them. Not once do you care in the slightest.


CGI has legitimately created a revolution in the industry. Stunts and action scenes previously unthinkable are easily attained with super-high-powered computers and a team of dedicated graphic artists. The downside is that too many directors turn to CGI to solve all their problems, and end up producing a series of entirely-too-perfect maneuvers and ludicrous looking “stunt work” that actually breaks the laws of basic physics to the point where deep inside our brains, we stop believing what we’re seeing. If the hero is shown barely holding on to an outcropping of rock above a terrifying vast gorge, it is essential that we feel the actual peril he/she is in, not the gnawing sense that the actor is in front of a green screen, hanging on to a piece of fiberglass three feet over a crash pad.

Positive Examples: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Raid: Redemption - In the case of the former, CGI wasn’t even invented yet, so that heart-stopping truck scene is entirely practical (and legendary). As for the latter, I’m sure some CGI was used in places, but by and large that’s live, incredibly intricate stunt work you’re watching in all its glory.

Negative Examples: Sadly, too numerous to mention, but recent examples include The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and 300: Rise of an Empire, as regular readers will remember my carping about before. When things look too perfect to believe in, we simply don’t, and a good bit of cinematic magic dies with it.


Sure, the story is the last item most people care about on their action movie checklist, but even action films can benefit from a plot that keeps a couple of steps ahead of you. You don’t have to craft Chinatown, you just need to be resourceful and clever. A hero who actually outwits his opponents - as opposed to just overpowering them - is 100 times more resonant than yet another Schwarzenegger-esque strongman laying waste to a nation-state of mercenaries.

Positive Examples: Speed, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol - Here are two films that could easily have settled for lame and brainless, but instead became hits by actually caring enough to surprise the audience with their ingenuity.

Negative Examples: Con Air, Knight & Day - Two star-stuffed films with belabored, dull plot lines that become more and more exposed as the films unspooled to their ludicrous conclusion.


This ties in pretty directly to No. 1. The damnedest thing about human beings is there is always room for self-doubt and shaken confidence. A film that can employ actual human emotions and reactions to the sudden peril they find themselves in is far more compelling - and relatable - than the supreme hitman/assassin archetypes who never miss their victims and smirk all the time about it. James Bond is, of course, the exception to this rule, but I would still prefer the beaten, bruising Daniel Craig version to the never-a-hair-mussed out-of-place Roger Moore: One is compelling, the other is a cartoon.

Positive Example: Die Hard - Perhaps the big-hit action film that really set the course for this kind of hero. Bruce Willis plays John McClane with just the right amount of sneer and pathos (who can forget his bloody, torn-up bare feet having to run across an aisle of broken glass?). Naturally, in subsequent sequels, the producers made him absolutely invincible, totally defeating the purpose of the original character.

Negative Examples: Salt, Tomb Raider, Mr. & Mrs. Smith - Before she turned her attentions to humanitarian purposes, Angelina Jolie had just about worn out her welcome as an action star, playing a series of increasingly irritating, perpetually smirking assassin super-agents who never missed a shot and never experienced the barest flicker of self-doubt.


Unsurprisingly, this also ties pretty closely into No. 1. In order to really enjoy the climactic showdown between your hero and your villain at the end, it helps immeasurably if you’ve really worked up a fear and hatred of said villain. It’s not enough that they wear expensive clothes and laugh at their own terrible jokes - idiotic laughter such as this is one of the first signs that the villain in question is an unhinged moron, and therefore not a real challenge to the hero - they have to be truly enthralling and horrifying in equal measure. It can help if you give them some sort of unique impediment - Vincent D’Onofrio’s noseless drug baron in The Salton Sea remains a hallmark, or think Keifer Sutherland’s haunting portrayal of the half-faced pedophile in Freeway -and/or a masterfully twisted mind, a la Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), the dancing ear-slicer from Reservoir Dogs.

Positive Example: Misery - There’s certainly a level of misogyny prevalent in Rob Reiner’s film, but Annie Wilkes (played to vexing perfection by Kathy Bates, who won the Academy Award for her efforts) is both so namby pamby (“oogy”) and cruelly merciless simultaneously, she’s absolutely hateful.

Negative Example: Total Recall (reboot) - Look, I like Bryan Cranston as much as the next guy, maybe more, as Breaking Bad and Seinfeld are two of my favorite shows ever, but there’s no way in hell the guy - playing a 50-plus, slimy career politician - is able to go toe-to-toe against a young, highly trained super agent (played by Colin Farrell), even if the younger guy has lost his memory. It ain’t happening, and neither is that climax.

Got all that? Let’s hope more action directors take the lead of The Raid’s brilliant Gareth Evans and treat the genre with respect and admiration, and not just the fastest possible way to the blood bank.

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 03/14/2014

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