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The Column

Thou Shalt Not Save the World and Get the Girl
10/20/02

I was sick recently, so I did what any sick guy in his early 20s would do. I watched action movies for three days straight.

I watched fourteen action movies, only pausing to sleep, eat, and un-eat. By the end of it, I was left with a High Fidelity-esque question: was I watching action movies because I was sick, or was I sick because I was watching action movies?

A good action flick is like high school. It requires little brain-power, there are plenty of bad guys to deal with, and despite the tough spots, it always ends well. I love a good action flick. Unfortunately, most screenwriters don’t.

The majority of action flicks don’t even have much action anymore, relying on one or two fight scenes with poorly choreographed moves that we’ve all seen before. Instead, of good action, “action” movies have come to rely on artificial drama and a half-baked love story to fuel them. But that doesn’t make a good action movie. Hell, that doesn’t even make a good after school special.

To help aspiring screenwriters (and movie goers everywhere), I’m going to use my newfound knowledge and present to you, the reader, the ten commandments of a good action flick.

10) Never name the movie with “The” followed by a word ending in “er.” The Eraser. The Negotiator. The Peacemaker. The really crappy movie-er.

9) Don’t make the plot more complicated than the characters. When Samuel L. Jackson’s supposedly idiot Ordell Robie figured out the plot in Jackie Brown, I was shocked. I was watching the damn thing, and I couldn’t even follow it.

8) If you’re going to rely on drama, build. There shouldn’t be any action for the first twenty minutes. The corollary to this commandment is when you put a regular dude in a hero situation, he needs to build up to killing everyone he sees. In Die Hard, John McLane was hesitant to kill at first, and this made him a real character. If you sold tires for a living and someone tried to rob your store, you’d probably let them, no matter how convinced you were that they were international terrorists planning to hide stolen nukes in your radials.

7) A love story can be thrown into a good action movie. Terminator II, Total Recall, and Die Hard are all examples of this. But it has to be an actual story. If a guy and a girl meet and happen to save the world together, that does not make them perfect for each other. Especially when they’re horrible actors. (See Broken Arrow). Actually, you’re better off not seeing Broken Arrow.

6) Every good movie needs a really cool villain. This can almost never be someone famous. In Star Wars, did anyone know who played Emperor Palpatine? Does anyone now?

5) Sequels work best if the story does not rely on an earlier movie. Look at Indiana Jones, perhaps the best example of a successful series of action movies. You don’t have to see them in order, and you don’t have to see them all to enjoy any of the others. If you watch all three, sure, you’ll get a few more of the jokes. But you shouldn’t need to look up what happened to the characters before to understand their motivation. Their motivation is to kill bad guys. Simple.

4) Be consistent. Even Die Hard (and you know how much I love Die Hard) had its flaws in the sequels. McLane was not terrified of technology in the first movie, yet it’s a big joke that everyone keeps bringing up in number two. Oh, I get it, he’s old fashioned! That makes his sudden willingness to use a fax machine high-larious.

3) If you’re going to foreshadow, don’t make it obvious. Van Damme’s Bloodsport did a great job of surprise foreshadowing. Van Damme’s Sudden Death was some of the worst foreshadowing I’ve ever seen. And here’s a note to the audience: if you’re in a movie theatre and you do discover foreshadowing, keep it to yourself. I’m not worried about you ruining the movie for everyone else. You’ll just be the idiot who says “Oh!” fifteen minutes after the rest of us figured it out.

2) The only person alive who can say “I’m too old for this,” is Sean Connery, since he really is too old for this. Anyone who has died can also say it, since they are definitely too old for this.

1) Your movie is not the non-stop thrill ride of the year. Stop calling it that.

If obeyed, these commandments will produce movies that will please anyone looking for a little bad-guy butt-whoopin. And though the corner I have backed myself into with this column prevents me from giving an eleventh commandment, I do have one more piece of advice. Running away from explosions has been overdone. Next time, try running into the explosion.

Especially if you’re the screenwriter.

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