I like action and adventure, in books, in films, in video games, in shopping (if you’re not prepared for hand to hand combat, stay away from the remainder bin–I didn’t get this awesome collection of B-movies on DVD by being a nice guy.)
Unfortunately, a lot of writers and filmmakers tend to lose my interest just as things are getting to the “good part”. The clock is ticking, the heroes are rappelling from a burning helicopter onto the roof of the old castle, minions are running hither and yon, shooting at anything that moves, and any minute now the big bad will go boom and blow up the whole freakin’ world–and I’m checking my phone to see how long I’ve got before I can go out for a cigarette.
Why is that? What makes a scene that’s supposed to put me on the edge of my seat put me to sleep? I don’t really think that I’m that tough an audience. I believe in meeting artists halfway–I’ll offer just about anyone my willing suspension of disbelief. I like being entertained.
There are a few things that I find will kill the moment for me, and unfortunately, they are pretty common. I don’t like dissing media in this blog, so I’m going to offer examples of works that get it right and leave it as an exercise for the reader to come up with examples of works that don’t.
- Show me what’s at risk. Don’t just tell me that world is going to end, show me that world and make me care if it ends or not. Too many action films don’t take the time to set out a world that is worth saving. Yes, it can be assumed that your audience has things that they will miss when Earth goes boom, but throw me a bone here, guys. The Lord Of The Rings, in my opinion, is a perfect example of how to do that right. The reason that both Tolkien and Jackson spend so much time in the Shire is that the Shire is what is at stake. Yes, so is the rest of Middle Earth, but the Shire typifies what is worth saving, both for Frodo and Sam and for the audience. Show me what’s good before you show me the evil that could engulf it.
- Show me that the heroes are pushing themselves. Being heroic shouldn’t be just business as usual. Yes, it’s fun to have a wisecracking tough guy as a hero, but when things get serious your hero should, too. I want to see her or him going past the usual limits and making an extraordinary effort for an extraordinary situation. Show me what Joe Darion called in Man Of La Mancha “his last ounce of courage.” If it looks too easy for the heroes, I won’t get scared that they won’t make it. The Usual Suspects is one of my favorite examples of this. This is a bunch of hard cases, professionals who can take out gem smugglers and drug dealers without breaking a sweat, but the big job on the boat is something else altogether. The characters are scared, they know it’s suicide, and so I’m scared.
- Make me care about the heroes. This is one of those rules that a lot of people think they are following. Unfortunately it’s harder than it looks. One scene with an estranged child isn’t going to cut it for me, if the character never refers to the child again until the tearful reunion at the end. I want to see a person that I care about, not an event that is supposed to get my sympathy. Ghost Dog does this beautifully. Forest Whitaker’s character is a man out of time, a samurai in modern America, and his entire life is bound up in his sense of honor. What makes him a badass is the same thing that makes the audience want him to be able to live his strange life undisturbed, and the same thing that ensures that he can’t.
- Show me that the villain makes sense. This is a big one. Someone goes to a huge amount of trouble and expense and time, and for what? Nothing will kill an action scene for me faster than realizing that the evil genius could have avoided all this mess by simply investing all those millions of dollars in a high yield hedge fund. I don’t expect to agree with the bad guy, but I really need to be able to see that it makes sense from her or his perspective, as twisted as that perspective might be. Perfect example, Ed Harris in The Rock. What he wants is justice, even if the way he goes about trying to get it is, well, extreme. You can understand how he felt that he was driven to this extremity, and that’s a big part of what makes the movie work.
- Make the rules simple and clear and STICK TO THEM! If you tell me in act one that kaboomium is an unstable element and it can’t be jostled without exploding, don’t have your hero pick up a canister of the stuff and run across the room with it in act three. And don’t try to insert a quick scene with the scientist explaining that kaboomium can be rendered temporarily stable by dousing it with water–not then. Once the countdown starts, it’s too late to change the rules–you don’t want me to have to do too much thinking, I’m supposed to be feeling. I should know everything I need to know about the threat before the showdown. One film that I think does this well is Volcano. Ann Heche’s character lays out all of the geological background well before the La Brea Tar Pits go ballistic, and we don’t get any more significant exposition after that. (Yes, she does do some science chatter in a couple of later scenes, but that’s to remind us that she’s a scientist, not to change the rules. And I have no idea how accurate the geology is in terms of the real world–I’m just talking about internal consistency here.)
Okay, that’s my thoughts, and as usual the opinions expressed here are those of me, and I could be wrong (I never am, but I could be.) Thoughts?