Elements of Action
Like any genre, action movies have a very specific list of criteria that must be applied to make sure said movie belongs in that genre, and if it’s any good depends on whether or not it fills the criteria.
You can make a tight, well-paced, well-acted comedy, but if no one laughs, it’s a failure. If you’re horror movie has original characters, an interesting premise, and excellent gore/mood (depending on what kind of horror you’re going for) but if no one’s scared watching it, you’ve failed.
Upon the release of the throwback to the films that started a genre, let’s examine the crucial elements to making a blockbuster action film.
Action (duh): This is a gimmie, but let’s be clear and actually define action movie action. Michael Mann’s Heat has one of the greatest shoot-outs, ever. It’s so good, that some armed forces (I want to say the Marines, but I can’t actually remember where I read it) use the bank heist as an example of falling back under fire and group tactics.
And that’s why Heat doesn’t count (aside from, you know, only have [technically] three, action sequences), they do it right.
Doing things right is not what the action genre is all about.
Let’s look at genre hallmark Commando starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. At no point does he put the stock of any gun into his shoulder to stabilize it. He never uses the sight on any gun in the entire movie. The only exception is he puts the rocket launcher on his shoulder, but he makes up for it by having the rocket launcher being a quad rocket launcher. The last half of the movie is basically him killing the same six guys in different uniforms while running and firing a belt-fed M-60, firing from the hip and using a shotgun to kill people who are 30 yards away.
John Woo is the poster child for not only improper gun etiquette, but also for having ridiculously over-powered guns. There’s a line in Hard Boiled, arguably one of the most ardently action movies ever made, “give a guy a gun, he thinks he’s Superman. Give him two and he thinks he’s God.” Which is true.
Chow Yun Fat, whether a hitman with a heart of gold or a good cop pushed to the edge, rarely aims. He simply points his pistol in the general direction of what he wants to die, and the victim obliges by not only exploding in a hurricane of squibs and red corn syrup but flies back thirty feet.
I’m not saying modern pistols lack stopping power, but that is one goddamn powerful handgun. Shotguns are closer to bazookas. In the same movie, Chow’s Inspector Tequila uses a shotgun on a series of dirt bikes causing them to explode into a shower of fire and sparks.
It is awesome.
The first step to having a good action movie is people firing from the hip, running, and yelling at the same time. It is essential that people do not actually use guns correctly like us mortals. Thanks to years of ambiguous, barely hinted at training, they can effortlessly use guns with no muzzle rise, shock, or aim.
Ass ‘n’ Titties – There must be a woman. And the reason there must be a woman is because that’s the only way the cast, crew, and audience can convince each other that the film in question is not super gay.
Most action movies star strapping, hairless men, who don’t sweat, they glisten. They prove their manhood by firing large, long, hard tubes at each other. Again, let’s look at Commando and it’s lingering, nearly longing, close-ups of Arnold stripping down and painting his body, paddling ashore, and then another series of close ups as he gets to shore and puts all his clothes back on before murdering an entire island.
Stallone’s no better. The Rambo* series (just the first three, actually) get worse and worse, spending more time on John Rambo’s shockingly hairless body considering each movie finds him as a homeless drifter, a convict, and pit fighter, respectively. The opening credits of Demolition Man are spent with the camera traveling around his frozen naked body rather than summing up the events led to the utopia he wakes up in 2032.
*I realize there are no women in First Blood, but that’s barely an action movie by our established criteria
So we add a love interest, always to inspire our hero to greater feats by the promise of her love or to avenge her life. Why is Rae Dawn Chong in Commando?
She adds nothing to the plot except breaking him out of paddy wagon and flying, both things that Arnold could do himself or build into his backstory. Or Maria Conchita Alonso in the Running Man?
Yes, she is the device that gets Arnold put into the game, and she finds the video that proves his innocence, but why do they kiss at the end? There’s no romantic tension or anything throughout the entire movie, but they kiss at the end because we need to know that we didn’t just spend two hours watching a bunch of guys who work out all the time chase each other in colorful spandex.
So yeah, young, straight males love attractive women, but they mostly exist in action movies as one giant “NO HOMO.”
Explosions – Let’s get one thing straight, Michael Bay didn’t invent the explosion, he perfected it.
Everything explodes in action movies, it just has to, it’s the only way you really know something’s done, dead, and gone. The bad guy can’t just die, he has to be shot, thrown out of something or hit hit by something else, and then explode.
Jesus, they even put explosions in “historical epics” like the Scorpion King and the entire battlefield is one fire in King Arthur.
In the language of action, explosions are the punctuation. They are the exclamation points in the midst of action sequences; they are the period at the end of the climax. The only part of the movie that doesn’t end with an explosion is the denouement where the hero gets the girl or we hear about how his superiors were wrong about him and he changed the world.
There are a ton of great explosions, but my favorite unnecessary one is in the Last Boy Scout. The bad guy’s car tumbles down a hill, lands upside down in a swimming pool, and bursts into flames. THEN Bruce Willis shoots it. Amazing.
Mythbusters broke my heart when they proved that shooting a car’s gas tank won’t explode and you can’t throw a gas canister over a group of goons, shoot it, and let it rain down fire.
C’mon, leave me something to believe in. Assholes.
Stakes – There are only two kinds of stakes in action movies, deeply personal or impossibly huge. A cop can never just take on the mob because they’re the mob and it’s his job. He mostly just collects his paycheck and drives around until they either A.) kill someone close to the cop, family member or partner, or B.) the threat must be so large that it threatens all of humanity and one good man must step up.
Bonus points if the bad guys are threatening an entire city and the hero’s family is there (the Rock) or they kill someone close to the hero and jeopardize everything the heroes stand for (Bad Boys). To a true action hero, you never do the right thing because it’s the right thing. It must be, not just this time, but every time, be personal.
Otherwise you’re just some guy collecting a paycheck and fuck that.
Banter and Quips – No matter how bad shit gets, surrounded by automatic weapons, trapped in a burning building, in the middle of a car chase, or mere seconds after cheating death for the nth time, you must, must, must say something. Everyone else would be steely-eyed, teeth gritted in determination, but that’s because they’re about to die, an action hero, however, is cool under pressure, because he, in fact, “lives for this shit.”
Frankly nothing shows more raw contempt for a vanquished enemy by extinguishing their life and then firing off a quick one-liner as their eulogy.
I mean, if you throw a pipe through someone so hard they are impaled against a water heater and steams comes out you have to say “stick around! Bennett!”
Or you could make your witty quip the last thing they hear before you send them to hell.
“You forgot your boarding pass!” *plane explodes* *Martin theme song*
If you want to get across to the audience that a comically mismatched, but still ruthlessly efficient team has been together awhile, present a bonding moment while Haitians voodoo gangsters shoot at them with shotguns, and the heroes scream good natured insults and criticisms over the gunfire.
There’s no danger, guys, we’re just too goddamn good.
See you kids at the theater.
Posted on August 13, 2010, in History Lessons, Lists, Matt Loman, Movies, Pop Culture, Uncategorized and tagged action, Arnold, Bad Boys, Commando, doubtful, explosion, genre, Maybe he'll write about something else after the Expendables lets him down, movies, Rambo, Running Man, Sly, Smith, the Last Boy Scout, Willis. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.