They don't clean up at the Oscars or make the critics swoon, but action movies make big money at the box office and when executed well, can often become a favourite amongst movie fans. The likes of Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Predator and Kill Bill Vol 1 are of the once seen, never forgotten breed that any budding screenwriter should get their hands on and study front to back.
If you watch these kinds of movies, you understand straight away that they all have similar features, but if these features are well written and steer clear of clichés, caricatured characters and pointless, booooooooring exposition and storylines, you could have a classic on your hands. Here are a few rules to follow that should set your action film on the right foot.
A Real Hero
Every single action film needs a great hero to take it to the higher plateau where the likes of Die Hard and Lethal Weapon live. This doesn't mean that you have to create a larger than life beefcake who eats bullets for breakfast and walks through walls. The best action heroes have flaws and issues, that's what makes us root for them - the fact that they're just like us.
The audience doesn't care about invincible war machines without any personality; they care about ordinary Joe's doing extraordinary feats. That's why there are five Die Hard films and counting... John McClane is an ordinary cop - and a bit of an asshole - who gets put in harm's way and manages to beat the bad guys, usually by the skin of his teeth. It's why we love him, and why he keeps coming back. The sequels may be nowhere near as good as the original, but the audience keep buying the tickets to see him.
A Worthy Adversary
Every hero needs a great villain to make him up his game and keep the audience tuning in. If the hero is just blowing up faceless goons and firing bullets at stuntmen, it all becomes very boring very fast. What takes an action movie from a violent bore-athon to an epic action classic is having the villain come up against somebody who can fight as hard as him, outsmart him and be interesting enough for the audience to stay intrigued until the inevitable final showdown.
The worthy adversary can be a shadowy reflection of the protagonist, a sharp-suited intellectual or a silent assassin, but they have to be well written, rounded individuals or the audience won't care about the conflict. Take Lethal Weapon as an example. The main villain's right hand man, Mr Joshua, is the perfect villain. He's a cold, quiet type, but deadly. By the time he comes up against the fast-talking but mentally unstable Martin Riggs, the audience is fascinated about the outcome, which is uncertain from the moment they come to blows until the last man is standing.
Dialogue and One-Liners that Zing
The best action movies have explosions, amazing action scenes and gun fights galore, but all of that means nothing without having well written characters that have been given fantastic dialogue via the pen of the screenwriter.
If you think of every action movie classic, you can associate at least one incredible line of dialogue from it. The films of screenwriter Shane Black are notorious for their incredible dialogue and one-liners. Here are just a few great examples of one-liners from his films:
B-Movie Actress: So what do you do for a living?
Harry: Uh, I'm retired. I invented dice when I was a kid. How about you do?
Harry: Do you think I'm stupid?
Perry: I don't think you'd know where to put food at, if you didn't flap your mouth so much. Yes I think you're stupid.
Martin Riggs: That's very thin.
Roger Murtaugh: What the hell, thin's my middle name.
Martin Riggs: Your wife's cooking, I'm not surprised.
Joe Hallenbeck: This is the '90s. You can't just walk up and slap a guy, you have to say something cool first.
Jimmy Dix: [to himself] Okay, what would Joe do at a time like this? He'd kill everybody and smoke some cigarettes
Great dialogue and one-liners are great to break up the action, give the audience room to breathe - not to mention something to laugh at - and can reveal a lot about a character. Keeping to Shane Black's writing as an example, the character of Joe Hallenbeck in The Last Boy Scout is a washed-up Private Eye, but we also know that he used to be a top U.S Secret Service agent, so when he's wise cracking to bad guys, the audience knows he can reach back inside himself and back up his words when he has to. It makes the character intriguing, not to mention hilarious.
There's No Such Thing as a Secondary Character
This is a really important point to remember, because so many writers don't. Your protagonist - and your villain - aren't enough to sustain an entire film, or keep the audience's attention for an entire film. Even the very best action films need back-up, and they come in the form of the other characters. The term 'secondary character' can be seen as a derogatory term, because in a good film, there aren't any secondary characters. Every character should serve a purpose, even if it's just for a set-up and pay off for a joke. Con Air is a perfect example, as this great article from Bang2Write explains.
A great example of this is in Martin McDonagh's In Bruges. The character of the Ticket Seller has just two scenes, but they're integral to the story. Towards the beginning of the movie, the miserable Belgian is so anal that he won't allow Brendan Gleeson's Ken to break a 100 Euro note to go to the top of the Tower. Later on in the movie, psychopathic gangster Harry (Ralph Fiennes) wants to go to the now-closed Tower for a final shootout with Ken. When the Ticket Seller gets in Harry's face and denies the crime boss access to the Tower because it's closing for the night, he's pistol whipped to death by a furious. It always elicits nervous laughter from the audience. Perfect set up and pay off, and it tells you everything you need to know about the enigmatic Harry in a single moment.
Set Pieces That Stay in The Memory
You can have the best protagonist, antagonist, storyline and plot points in the world, but for an action movie to join the ranks of the classic, there has to be at least one set piece that blows the audience away. The term 'set piece' implies that it has nothing to do with the story and is just there for the purpose of wowing the crowd, but this is just one of its main purposes. If the set piece exists for no other purpose than just to spend $150 million, it'll be get forgotten pretty quickly if the rest of the film sucks. There's been a lot of movies made with the sole reason for their existence being to blow shit up in cool ways, but they don't appear on Top 10 lists, they get played at 11pm on Channel 5.
Action set pieces should drive the story forward and include character development within them. A classic example of the perfect action set piece is in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. In the scene, Harvey Dent is getting a police escort across the city, but The Joker has an ambush ready for him. The scene has everything: Exploding helicopters, car chases, a great villain against a great hero... and bazookas fired at cop cars.
The scene tells you everything you need to know about Messrs Joker and Batman when the two men collide, with The Joker on foot and Batman on the Batpod. The Joker doesn't care about living or dying, and is prepared to be run down by Batman when The Dark Knight. But Batman has one rule: He won't take human life. His moral code makes him better than a criminal, but it loses him the fight. The 'set piece' ends with Batman swerving out of the way of The Joker and colliding with another vehicle. It's the perfect end to the perfect set piece, and means so much more than spending millions on blowing up cars.
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