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NON-ORGANIC ACTION


TOM CLANCY'S JACK RYAN season 3 has been pushed to next year due to Covid-19, so I thought we might look at the movies. The Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford movies were hits, but then something happened. Every time they tried to reboot the series... the films flopped. Let's look at why that happened....

Action scenes should grow organically from the characters and story - not be pasted on just to provide cheap thrills or help the pacing in a slow stretch of the script. This is one of those things that can kill a movie in its tracks - inorganic action. Also something that doesn't get much thought in Holllywood - those development executives need to read my book! JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT flopped at the box office, but first let's look at the action scenes from the previous attempt at a series reboot... SUM OF ALL FEARS. Action scenes are all about life or death situations, and those are about the most emotionally charged situations I can think of. When you are writing an action scene, remember to make it emotional as well as physical... we're exploring character through actions. We also don't want to just throw in some action scene because nothing has happened for a while and we need to spice things up. We want our action scenes to be part of the story, *organic* to the story. Every scene needs to be part of the story... required to tell the story.

We not only want to create a balance between action and character, we want to use action to EXPLORE character. We want the action scenes to be ABOUT character - to demonstrate character through actions and reactions to events. That is one of the primary purposes of any scene - to explore character. Scenes should also advance the plot, illustrate the theme (if possible) and entertain the audience. Yes, that's a lot of work. But if your action scene isn't telling us anything about the character, isn't emotionally involving, it's just a bunch of pointless truck explosions.

Once you have your hero's emotional problem (character arc), come up with a list of action scenes that will force him or her to deal with that problem. Scenes that force them to solve that emotional problem in order to survive. If two people are running away from an escaped tiger, and one trips and falls... does the other go back to rescue them (and put his own life in peril for a stranger)? By creating a situation where PHYSICAL ACTIONS show decisions we can explore character through actions.

Though PATRIOT GAMES and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER managed to integrate character into their action scenes turning them into "quality action films", THE SUM OF ALL FEARS came off as just another dopey action film. Why? Part is probably due to Ben Affleck, but some of the problem is that the protagonist doesn't seem to have any emotional conflict and the action sequences often seem pasted on rather than organic. Because the action scenes have nothing to do with exploring the character of Jack Ryan they come off hollow and bland.

A good example of the pasted on action scene has Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) racing across town to prevent a disaster from happening. While driving down the street at high speed, a truck turns the corner in front of him, cutting him off... Ryan's car CRASHES into the front of a building! Ryan tries to get the car started as time ticks away. Finally he gives up, gets out of the wrecked car and starts running across town, dodging cars and other obstacles. It's one of Jack Ryan's big action scenes... but it seems silly and gratuitous. Even though there's a big car crash, and lots of running, it's downright boring and perfunctory. Why? The scene has nothing to do with Jack Ryan's character - he has no emotional problem to overcome nor does he have to call on reserves of strength or faith or anything else. He has to do a little running, but that's not emotional at all.

And the truck that cuts him off? Completely arbitrary. Sure - trucks can cut you off on the road and cause an accident. But why this truck and why at the very time Ryan was racing across town to prevent a disaster? It's contrived! A negative coincidence dropped into the story to create an action scene. If that truck had turned thirty seconds earlier or thirty seconds later there would be no action scene. Because we know (consciously or subconsciously) that they dropped that truck into the scene just to artificially create an action scene, we have trouble believing the scene. It seems false. In another tip I talked about how good plotting is like a game of tennis - things don't just happen, they happen as the result of the central conflict. Your antagonist does something that directly creates conflict for the protagonist. The protagonist deals with that conflict. knocking it back into the antagonist's court, and the antagonist knocks it back to the protagonist. The problem here is that the truck going out of control may have been indirectly caused by the explosion (antagonist) but it's timing was pure coincidence. If the explosion didn't cause the truck to cut him off - it was driver error. How could driver error be the result of the antagonist's escalating plan?

It was a *negative coincidence*, which is still a coincidence. You want your story to be cause and effect. You want the protagonist to be dealing with problems created by the anatagonist. Like having that explosion block the road or fry every car's computer or something else that would create an action scene based on our protagonist being forced to react to the antagonist's "volley".

So even with a basic emotional connection we might have with our hero just because he's in a dangerous situation are negated. We don't believe the situation! Plus, it contains no emotional conflict to create involvement with the character. Remember that action scenes are character scenes. Your action scenes should be designed to explore teh character. If this had been the only unemotional pasted on action scene in the film, we might have let it slide... but NONE of the action scenes were used to explore the protagonist's emotional conflict. All of the action scenes seemed flat and uninvolving... and many seemed pasted on as an after thought.

CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER did a great job of taking CIA Informational Analyst Jack Ryan, who is known as a "Boy Scout" and believes the world is Black & White, Right & Wrong, and sending him out in the field where the world is about as gray as you can get... and place him in action situations where he gets his hands dirty. This is a great dramatic concept, and it's the core of what makes Jack Ryan a great character: he's a desk jockey who ends up out of his element in the field. When you put an action character in an action situation, you lose all drama and suspense, and the action is meaningless. Hey, they can take care of themselves! We don't worry much about them. When you take a non action character and put them in an action situation, they could easily die. The character knows they could easily die. So we have no end of drama and excitement in the action scenes. When Harrison Ford is sent to Colombia to check on a possible connection between two Americans (friends of the President) who where murdered on their yacht and the Cali Cartel, he ends up in the middle of a war zone. He goes from sorting through paperwork to the middle of an ambush where the Cartel is firing *rockets* at their motorcade, and Jack's long time friend Don is killed ten feet away from him. This is a story about *responsibility* and *honesty* and all of the action scenes not only explore Jack Ryan's character, they are required by the story. Nothing pasted on from the outside just because we need an action scene to wake up the audience. The action scenes involve Jack Ryan and are part of the story.

What is interesting in this story is that Jack Ryan has two mirror characters: the drug cartel's Information Analyst Felix Cortez (Joaquim de Almeida) and his rival Ritter at the CIA (Henry Czerny)... both are very much like Jack Ryan and his antagonists. Cortez is even called "The Latin Jack Ryan" at some point. Where Ryan is all about doing the right thing even if it costs him, Ritter is all about doing whatever is necessary to further what is best for himself. That includes having Jack Ryan killed in Colombia once it becomes apparent that he will not lie and be part of the cover up. Putting our protagonist *organically* in the center of the action again. Later, when Ritter and the Washington conspiracy has left the secret US military force behind in Colombia, Ryan feels that he is responsible for them and partners with Clark (Willem Dafoe) to get them out... again putting him in the center of the action as part of the story. No pasted on action scenes, and all of the action is character oriented. Also, it's scary as hell because Jack Ryan is a desk jockey, not an action guy.

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT makes the mistake of making Jack Ryan an action guy, which makes all of the action scenes bland and unexciting. Though there's a line in HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (from Fred Dalton Thompson) about Ryan being a Marine who was shot down in a helicopter where all of the other Marines were killed and he spent a couple of years learning to walk again, SHADOW RECRUIT has him *rescue* all of his other Marines turning him into an action hero in the opening scene! This is the first Jack Ryan film without James Earl Jones as CIA Director Greer... instead we get a CIA Field Agent played by Kevin Costner, and instead of Jack Ryan being an Information Analyst who ends up out of his element in the field (Moscow this time), Costner gives him a gun and tells him he's been activated as a Field Agent where he's expected to do the James Bond thing... making the action scenes *expected* and kind of dull. And even when his fiancé Kathy (Keira Knightly playing the role that Anne Archer and Bridget Moynahan have played in previous films) shows up unexpectedly, and you think we have an innocent in the middle of the action and maybe *this* will bring some "out of element" to the action scenes... Costner briefs her and tells her the whole mission so that she's now part of the action on purpose. She knows everything, so there is no drama or suspense.

Where SUM OF ALL FEARS often seemed like a dopey action movie, SHADOW RECRUIT actually *is* a dopey action movie. Once Jack Ryan is "activated" he's killing huge bad guys and running and jumping and speeding around on motorcycles and we never worry that much about him. Unlike RED OCTOBER where we get the cat and mouse with the Russian submarine that may either be part of a first strike against the United States or defecting, or PATRIOT GAMES where our strike has repercussions we never expected and now the shoe is on the other foot, or CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER where the story explores responsibility and honesty; SHADOW RECRUIT isn't about anything in particular... it's just a stop the bad guys movie. The story doesn't even explore anything political. Hey some Russian guy is gonna sell off a lot of stock and throw us into a new Depression (um, aren't we still kinda in one?), this is the boring new villain's plan for the new millennium! He is also going to blow up Wall Street, which some percentage of the audience probably thinks is a *good* idea. A few people may die, but mostly banks will blow up. Heck, at least SUM OF ALL FEARS was going to blow up the Super Bowl! But this Wall Street plot has no twists or turns and even though Jack Ryan is clever enough to figure out how they're going to do it and single handedly go to stop them, he's mostly just a generic action dude in a generic action plot. I suspect the film flopped because the *trailer* didn't show the audience anything they hadn't seen before and had no real hook. And not a single memorable line.

Remember to make your action scenes emotional. To use them as a way to show decisions. The conflict in an action scene is the conflict in the screenplay is the emotional conflict that your protagonist is struggling with. They're all connected.

So here is the trailer for season 2 of the TV series...



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