FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
A few summers ago those of us the critics refer to as "indiscriminate action fans" (nothing could be further from the truth) had a potential treat with the all star action flick THE EXPENDABLES 2 starring Sly Stallone and Dolph Lundren and Bruce Willis and Eric Roberts and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jason Statham and Jet Li and...
A couple of years ago we got EXPENDABLES 3 with even more old action stars!
Hey, the last time Jason Statham and Jet Li were in a movie together (except for EXPENDABLES movies) was a few years ago, a film called WAR that was chock full of big action scenes... and boring as hell! You would think that car chases and explosions would be exciting, but they are meaningless if there's no emotional content to the scene.
I am a fan of movies like WAR... but having seen it, I am not a fan of WAR. It's like the worst written, worst directed version of movies like this. The film has one good plot twist - but completely not set up, so once they do the twist, you want to yell "Fake!" at the screen. No way this twist could be real.
DO WE CARE?
If we do not care who lives and who dies, we won't care about any of the action scenes - they become shiny pretty things that we might appreciate for stunt value, but we won't be *involved* in the action at all. If there is any lesson TOY STORY 3 teaches us, it's that when we care about the characters the action scenes become emotional and visceral and exciting. We do that thing I call the "skin jump" where we imagine ourselves as the character and imagine that these action scenes are happening to *us*. When a cartoon about plastic toys runs you through an emotional ringer during an action scene, and you actually worry that the cartoon of the plastic toy may be hurt; that's a great action scene!
But WAR makes a huge rookie mistake - by having stars play hero and villain and giving them equal screen time, so that you just become confused as to whose side you are on. In fact - neither is ever identified as hero or villain, so you really don't know who to root for! Do I want Jason Statham to kill Jet Li, or Jet Li to kill Jason Statham? I don't really want either, and didn't care about either character. Whose skin am I supposed to jump into? Who am I supposed to be caring about? Who do I want to win the fight scene between the two stars? By not having a clear-cut hero and villain, we don't know who we are supposed to identify with and pick *neither*... making the action scenes dull. No one to root for. It's like watching a horse race where you have no horse in the race - nice how they go around the track, and there may be some cool come-from-behind riding, but if you don't care who wins... well, it's just something that you *watch* instead of participate in. Actually, it's worse than that horse race - because you don't want either Jet Li or Jason Statham to win... and you also don't want either Jet Li or Jason Statham to lose. You don't want the fight scene to happen - but it does - and now you don't want there to be any resolution.
But the worst thing about WAR... it didn't even work as "action porn".
"Action Porn" is the term I use for really cool action scenes in a film that may not make any sense. Just like with porn, you can fast forward to the action scenes and not really miss anything. The story and characters do not matter - they are there to service the action (not the other way around). There are all kinds of low budget action films that have great car crashes or great hand-to-hand combat scenes or amazing stunts... but not much in the way of story. Um, I can watch those films. Just for the action part. I *prefer* action that is all about character and story, but just like those cool moments in the horse race that you don't care who wins - sometimes it's just pretty shiny explosions.
But in WAR the action scenes were bland and mis-directed and we'd seen them all before. When you're dozing off during a shoot out, something is wrong with your action movie. One of the biggest problems with bad action scenes is that they are often scenes we have seen before. Nothing unique and cool about this scene. No high concept to the scene. Not even an original twist on some action scene that we have seen before. I have a list of car chase ideas - car chases that we haven't seen before. Well, half the list is crossed off now, as other people have come up with those car chase ideas in their movies. When I talked about coming up with original action scene ideas in that out of print book of mine, SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING, my example was a rooftop car chase. A car blasting out of a parking structure onto the roof of a building and then jumping from roof to roof as it is being chased. Hadn't seen one of those before... But now there's one in BATMAN BEGINS. Pretty much exactly as I described it. Rats! That gets crossed off the list and I have to come up with some new unique car chase ideas to replace it. You always want your action scene to be something we haven't seen before. Think of all of those great Jackie Chan action scenes from his Hong Kong movies - no two are alike!
Another way to remedy boring action: just add *emotional* conflict. Some difficult decision that the protagonist needs to make. You've seen a million car chases, and you'll see a million more. It's one machine chasing another... how can you possibly make that emotional? Finding the emotional conflict within the physical conflict transforms the cliche car chase into something exciting and imaginative.
Let's say our hero's emotional conflict is that he puts his own well being before others... and let's create a car chase that illustrates that.
Our hero and the sidekick are being chased on foot by the villains.
The hero and sidekick run across the parking lot to their car, villains right behind them! The sidekick is a few paces behind the hero, yelling "Wait up! Wait up!", but the hero doesn't slow down. He jumps into the car, starts it up...
The villains get into their car and start it.
The sidekick gets to the car, throws open passenger door.
Villains car roars to a start and gives chase... before the sidekick can climb in!
The hero throws the car into gear, speeds away, with sidekick running next to open door! "Jump in!" "Slow down!" But the chase is on. The sidekick can't find the right moment to jump through the open car door. The villains are speeding up.
The hero speeds up... and the passenger door closes. Now the sidekick is running beside a car with no way inside... and the villain's car is closing in.
Sidekick jumps onto the back of the car, hanging on to that slot between the back window of the car and the trunk. He's hanging on to the outside of the car! Hero sees that sidekick is there... and the villains in their car are closing in on them! Hero floors it. Sidekick hangs on for dear life.
Now we have standard car chase #53B... except the sidekick is hanging onto the back of the car for his life, feet dangling off the edge of the car!
If the hero drives too fast, the sidekick may fall off (and get run over by the villain';s car)...
If the hero takes corners so fast that the car "fish tails", the sidekick might lose his grip and be thrown into the ditch (or oncoming traffic)...
If the hero drives too slow, the villains may catch up and slam into his rear bumper (except the sidekick's legs are in the way, and will be crushed between the cars)...
Every cliche from every car chase is now even MORE exciting... and the hero doesn't know what to do. If he drives carefully (so that the sidekick doesn't fall off), the villains catch him. If he drives like a mad man trying to lose the villains, the sidekick could fall off into traffic. There's an EMOTIONAL CONFLICT in the middle of the car chase! It's a more exciting action scene BECAUSE of the emotions. Now the sidekick's life is tied to the car chase, and whatever the hero does will be tied to his emotional conflict - putting his well being before others. Plus, we give the audience what they don't expect - a car chase they haven't seen before. A car chase with built in HUMAN emotions. A car chase we can CARE about. Plus a darned exciting scene that helps illustrate the theme and emotional conflict of the story.
Do you have an emotional conflict in your action scenes? Something that makes your car chase more than just metal chasing metal?
Cars don't buy movie tickets, humans do, so make sure there is a human conflict in your car chases!
Without emotions what we end up with is one of those boring science movies from high school where the dispassionate narrator drones on and on and on. Those things put me to sleep. You want your action script to have juice, excitement, sparks. Big drama, big emotions... move the audience as much as you can. Action films 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. The problem with WAR's action scenes is that they were not only unoriginal, they were also unemotional... and not character or story related at all. That leaves us with nothing involving in the action scenes - and they don't even work as action porn!
THEME IN ACTION
In TRUE LIES the theme is trust, and the emotional conflict revolves around Ah-nuld lying to his wife Jamie Lee Curtis about almost everything: his job, his identity, his true self. The only thing that ISN'T a lie is his love for her... But when you spend your entire marriage thinking your husband Harry is one guy, and find out he's the total opposite guy, it's difficult to trust him ever again. So James Cameron came up with an action scene that DEMONSTRATES this emotional conflict... He puts Jamie Lee Curtis in an out of control limousine on a bridge with a premature end and puts Ah-nuld in a helicopter zooming overhead. For Jamie Lee to survive, she must TRUST Ah-nuld by climbing out of the sun roof of the limo and grabbing hold of his hand as he zooms past in the helicopter. She has to put her life entirely in his hands. Ah-nuld must dangle out of a zooming helicopter, risking HIS life to save his wife. He is SHOWING that he will risk his life for her love.
This creates a strong emotional component at the center of the action scene: This is the woman he loves - the most important person in his life. What if Ah-nuld can't reach her? Or can't grab tight enough to her arm? Or drops her? What if Jamie Lee can't reach his hand? Or can't hold on? There are EMOTIONAL consequences for failure. This is a scene that explores the theme of the script, is filled with emotions, and is also pretty darned exciting.
Most of the action scenes in TRUE LIES explore some aspect of trust - the action scenes are critical to the story!
Remember that action is character. Action scenes EXPOSE character. That is one of the primary purposes of any scene - to expose 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 high school science movie. Our job is to provide emotions, to move the audience the way TOY STORY 3's action scenes do - we want *exciting* action scenes!
Once you have your hero's emotional conflict (character arc), come up with a list of action scenes that will force him or her to deal with that conflict. Scenes that force them to solve that inner conflict in order to survive. Remember, we're writing EMOTION pictures! Then find the really unique and usual ones - or find a way to twist a scene we have seen before into something we have never seen. Don't make the mistakes of WAR!
WAR - what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!
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