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Advice to Action Heroes Everywhere

John on April 2, 2010 at 10:55 am

I just read John Nolte’s review of Clash of the Titans. I was struck by this bit:

As Perseus, Worthington is a problem. Hollywood has embraced him as the Next Big Thing, and while it’s nice to see masculinity making a big screen comeback, he’s a bit of a blank slate. It’s like someone grabbed a faceless henchman out of the chorus line of a James Bond movie and made him a star. “Titans” is a film in desperate need of a leading man with personality. 25 years ago, Schwarzenegger would’ve turned this into an instant pulp classic.

This touches on some things I’ve thought about for a while now. Why do some action movies work and some just suck? It seems like it shouldn’t be that complicated, right? So why are so many of these films terrible. Well, I think I know and I’m going to lay it out.

The Discipline of Steel

Why is steel stronger than iron? Because steel has carbon in it and, in the case of stainless steel, about 10% chromium. What does this have to do with action movies? Well, I’m convinced that one thing that separates the sheep from the goats when it comes to action films is alloy. There are lots of bad, low budget action flicks that are all about gun play and tough guy lines…and they don’t work. They are brittle like iron. Too much of one element. They don’t wear well. After a while, even the best sequences begins to feel mechanical and just boring. In order to reach the elite level, you have to add something else to the mix. This is my observation:

The great action films are alloys.

All of the good ones, or very nearly all, have something besides violence and spectacle going for them. Let’s look at a few of the options:

Humor – Think of Arnold in True Lies (“Yeah, but they were all bad.”) Or think of, well, Arnold in Terminator 2 “No problemo.” Was there a moment of humor in Terminator 3? Maybe but I don’t recall it. I remember Arnold pounding a truck into the ground and that’s about it.

But without even trying very hard, you can recall humor in Aliens (“Game over man, game over!), in Raiders (“It’s not the years, it’s the mileage”), Jaws (“You’re going to need a bigger boat”), Star Wars (“Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way!), Empire Strikes Back (“I know”).

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My favorite sequence in any action film ever is the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s great in every way, the staging, the music, the stunts…but the thing that makes it better than the competition is the enjoyment Harrison Ford has as he scrapes each Nazi off the sides of the moving truck. There’s a moment early on when an Arab worker falls on the hood and looks surprised. Indy and the Nazi driver look at each other and laugh. Then Indy knocks him out of the truck. Right there in the middle of this deadly serious action sequence, or what could have been deadly serious, Spielberg has introduced all sorts of humor.

Can it be done wrong? Sure. Witness the burping Saarlac in Return of the Jedi. The humor has to be funny, not just juvenile. But when it works right it’s a much stronger product than action alone. Humor makes the action stronger. That’s counter-intuitive I guess, which may be why so many bad action movies don’t seem to get it.

Love – It’s not just humor. Romance works as an alloy just as well or better. Think of The Terminator (“I came across time for you, Sarah.”) or The Matrix (“You can’t die because I love you.”) or Gladiator or Die Hard or The Adventures of Robin Hood. None of these movies work at all without the central romance that provides motivation and grounding for the hero. In fact, I’d argue it’s a necessity for a really good hero.

When you boil it all down, villains always want money, power or both. In fact, wanting that and being willing to do whatever it takes to get it, is what makes them villains. By contrast, heroes want love (and usually some sex). Bad directors and writers sense this. This is why the really bad ones will sometimes give the hero the sex but can’t be bothered with the romance or love. They seem to think it will make the hero weaker. We all know they’re wrong. Die Hard was about protecting John McClain’s wife from terrorists. The fact that he loves her doesn’t weaken the story, it’s what makes the whole thing work.

Justice – This is probably the most overused hero motivation in actions films, i.e. revenge. “They killed his second cousin on his mother’s side…this time it’s personal.” When done badly, without humor or romance, this can be really stupid indeed. But it can work.

I mentioned Gladiator already. That’s basically a revenge plot. But what makes it better than just another revenge plot are the flashbacks that reinforce how much Russell Crowe loved his family. They were his solace in life. And ultimately, he doesn’t just want revenge, he wants to be with them again. It may sound like a minor point, but imagine Gladiator had ended with Crowe killing the Emperor, raising his arms in triumph and celebrating his revenge. No death for him, no hint of being reunited with his wife and child. I submit that the whole film would be significantly less good overall with this one minor change. For him to be a hero, it had to be about love not just victory. Bad action movies just don’t get this.

A Higher Calling – This can go wrong too, but sometimes the hero just needs to be selfless and ethical. There’s a bit of this in the Matrix, where Neo is a kind of messiah figure. And you see this in all those old Chuck Norris movies where he travels to Asia to free prisoners of war. Chuck isn’t just there to kill bad guys, he’s got a higher calling. He’s there for justice more than revenge. That’s true of Rambo films as well. It’s about justice for vets who served but got treated like crap when they came home. Rambo doesn’t want payback, he wants justice.


I haven’t seen any of the big summer action movies yet (sadly they don’t send me screeners) but I can already tell you which ones look like they understand how action works and which ones don’t.

  • Iron Man 2 looks really promising. Why? Because it has romance and humor and you can see that prominently displayed in the trailer (“You complete me!”) This is the gold standard at the moment.
  • Robin Hood – Looks like the Gladiator formula. Romance plus action works.
  • Knight and Day – Lots of action, lots of humor. This could be good.
  • The A-Team – Action and humor. This could be good stuff.
  • Tron Legacy – Action looks great. I’m not seeing humor or romance yet. That has me worried.
  • Predators – Action. No romance I can detect. The original had humor. (“You are one ugly…”) Will this one? If not, it will flop.
  • Kick-Ass – Action looks good. Will it be funny or just smug. It’s success with a broader audience will turn on this question.
  • The Last Airbender – The hero is a kid, so no romance. Don’t see a lot of humor here either. It looks very earnest. Will it work on the higher calling level? Maybe.

We’ll see. Sometimes the trailers don’t capture the film very well. Maybe Iron Man 2 will be a dud. Maybe Tron Legacy will be a masterpiece. But the rules are more or less inviolable. A hero without something going for him besides one-liners and martial arts skills is a bore. Hence, Ninja Assasins.

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