ACTION MOVIE — Part Two
A three part article about Action Movies & The Expendables 2
I orginally wrote this article after seeing The Expendables 2 in the theater in 2012. It highlighted some of the key aspects of a good action movie as well as some of the key failings you can see time after time in the genre. In the spirit of summer and the Fourth of July week, I’m updating it and reposting here. SPOILERS!
DEUS EX MACHINA
Latin for Machines of God, Deus Ex Machina were used in early theater to solve the central problem of the plot. The Protagonist of Medieval Plays would be in a tight spot and then God or the Angels would descend and save him. Today we also use this to refer to cases when a writer cheats. The writer wants to go into one direction or another and has no way for the Protagonist to get there unless a coincidence happens or the writer gives them a hand. Never use this technique, it’s a mark of poor writing. Any script with this won’t get past the first reader for a competition or production company.
The Expendables 2 features a Deus Ex Machina about halfway through. The Expendables are camped in Bulgaria in a fake American town once used for training maneuvers. The gang they are tracking (the Antagonists) somehow find them and attack them. The Expendables run out of bullets, they’re pinned down by thirty men and a tank. There’s no way they can get out of this one alive… and then Chuck Norris shows up. Chuck Norris plays Booker, a walk on character who serves as a Deus Ex Machina to save the Expendables. From off screen, he fires a rocket launcher to blow up the tank and then uses machine gun fire to kill thirty of the Sang gang. Later on in the movie there’s another instance when the Expendables are trapped with no way out and Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up and saves them. Again, there was no way his character could’ve known where they were and helping the Expendables escape only serves to move the plot forward. These two Deus Ex Machina in the form of the walk on character are cheats. In good story telling, we expect to see the protagonist resolve the conflicts with their own choices. The Expendables needed some extra help.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Another striking problem with The Expendables 2 was low stakes. The antagonists dug up a few tons of radioactive material which they planned on selling to terrorists, however there was no immediate threat to the Protagonists. Once Billy got killed at the end of act one it deflated the stakes.
The stakes should always be life and death, literally… especially for an action movie. For a drama the stakes can be figurative or metaphorical life and death.
Take Mission Impossible III. Ethan Hunt falls in love and gets married. The Antagonist excellently portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman finds out who Ethan is and kidnaps his fiancé. Ethan has to find the Rabbit’s foot or his fiancé will die. Ethan doesn’t know what the Rabbit’s foot is or if it even really exists, the IMF team captures Ethan for rouge actions, and the love of his life could die in 48 hours. The stakes build with each scene.
Here’s a simple illustration of stakes. Take the glass of water scene. John is in a room and there’s a glass of water on the table. He wants to drink the glass of water. But Michael is in the room with him and doesn’t want John to drink the water, now you have conflict. John wants something, but Michael won’t let him have it. Now, what if John is poisoned and is going to die? The only way he can survive is if he swallows the antidote with the glass of water. That’s stakes, life and death.
If the stakes are not immediate, if the threat isn’t immediate there won’t be tension. The Expendables are a tough group and it’s hard to imagine a threat that could offer them real stakes. Unfortunately in The Expendables 2 the stakes were too low. And when there was a threat they couldn’t handle themselves, they were saved by a Deus Ex Machina.
LACK OF GOALS / FATAL FLAW
Heroes should never be fully formed when we meet them on screen. There needs to be an interior flaw that they are struggling with, whether it’s over arching ambition, addiction, obsession, or an inability to tell the truth. While the Hero is unable to see it, by pursuing their goal they are inching towards correcting their emotional damage.
The Expendables are fully formed. They are a bunch of regular guys who like to go out and shoot people up and they have found a profession where it’s acceptable to do that. They have feelings and are able to talk about it. They don’t really have a problem with alcohol or addiction. For the most part in The Expendables 2 they are all fully formed.
Compounding this problem, their goals are unclear. They go through the movie from one thing to another trying to get back at the Antagonist for killing their buddy and youngest Expendable, Billy. Is the goal revenge or stopping terrorism?
Contrast this with Lethal Weapon, you have two protagonists, Riggs who doesn’t care if he lives or dies and Murtaugh who days away from retirement is terrified of dying and unable to live his life fully. Both of them have definitive flaws and while their goals of stopping a drug ring seem like window dressing, it’s easy to become captivated by their journey. As the film progresses, you see them grow and change as characters. Each of them learning from the other and gaining a reason to live.
BAD OR THIN CHARACTERIZATION
Again, without a fatal flaw, emotional damage, or an internal journey your Protagonist will seem one dimensional. The Expendables are a group of mercenaries who look like they came off of muscle beach and don’t really have much to set them apart from each other.
Again with Lethal Weapon, you get a great sense of the two main characters. Riggs lives with his dog in a trailer, Murtaugh is a family man. Each character should have a backstory and Lethal Weapon gives you a sense of each man’s unique back story.
The Expendables backstory seems to be the first Expendables movie. The audience needs to know what demons the Hero must face. Where did they come from? What’s their motivation? A good backstory revealed over time can inform what drives the Protagonist.
Baby Driver does a good job of revealing Baby’s (played by Ansel Elgort) backstory over the course of the movie. Part of it is done through exposition (unfortunately twice) and flashbacks. The key to his story is revealed by Baby when he tells Debora (played by Lily James), his love interest what happened to him at a key point in the movie and their relationship. Baby Driver does a good job of characterization and each of the characters goes on a journey through the course of the movie.
END OF PART TWO
Call to Action
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Next on Deck!
Tomorrow I will post ACTION MOVIE — Part Three.
Part Three will cover:
- ONE LINERS AND HELL YEAH!
- BULLETS DON’T HURT
- SHOW DOWN
- TO SUM UP
In two weeks we will be releasing a new short film! You can check out the first web series I worked on at: Vimeo.com/bridgeportfilmclub
Check out my previous article: ACTION MOVIE — Part One
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