At the end of 2010 we counted down the ten best action films of the year as an introduction to this column, the (almost) cleverly titled Bullet Points, our newest, most explosive column focusing on the action world. Beyond just reviewing action films, Bullet Points sets its sights on the genre as a whole- from stunts to guns, ass kickings to wire-fu and even just what the hell makes action films so great in the first place.
In what is effectively our first official Bullet Points entry we wanted to get right to the ignition point of the explosion and discuss the ultimate principle of the action universe. That is, what makes a damn fine shoot ‘em up, beat ‘em up, blow ‘em up?
Defining an entire genre and explaining what makes it great is probably beyond difficult and bordering on impossible. After all, everyone likes a little something different. Attempting to explain exactly what an action film is less intimidating, but still open for debate. In an overly broad definition, we would just say that an action film is a motion picture that is “full of action sequences.” Though since you’re all pretty smart, you probably know you’re not supposed to use the word in the definition of the word. So an action film would perhaps best be defined as a “motion picture that features exciting physical acts.” Then again, my personal favorite definition of an action film would probably include a lot more references to guns, bullets, explosions, car chases, martial arts, slow motion running, and sweaty women. But that’s just me.
Rather than prattling on any further, let’s just attempt to break down the hallmarks of a good action film. No matter what differences they may have, action films share a lot of things in common.
Unlike other films, we often can’t refer to the star of an action film as the hero, despite the fact that he’s the one we’re rooting for. The Punisher is definitely a bad person, but not a bad guy. He’s the one who is supposed to win, though his willingness to murder, torture, and execute people preclude him from being a hero. John McClane is more of a traditional hero despite just being in the wrong place at the wrong time (usually on Christmas), though with his foul language, smoking, drinking, and general disregard for police procedure and safety, he’s not exactly a role model.
While we often love flawed heroes, we’re not afraid to cheer for the boyscout either. Captain America is the ultimate boyscout and Spider-Man doesn’t have a bad bone in his body – though he does have a bad movie in his history. Fuck you, Sam Raimi.
Our hero must be sympathetic in someway. He either has to be infinitely likable a la Peter Parker or completely understandable. Frank Castle is not relatable, but he is understandable. I would consider waging war on the world if someone kicked my dog, much less killed my family. Beyond this, our protagonist could just be so fucking cool that we want to be him: Indiana Jones, Neo, John McClane or John Matrix in Commando. These guys aren’t lovable, or even understandable at times, but they’re just so damn cavalier. And as you can see, your protagonist should probably also be named John.
Also known as the physical action. Movies can be full of car chases, dog fights, or any other mechanical awesomeness, but the best will feature some good old fashioned athleticism. Whether it is Indiana Jones using his whip to traverse a crevice or Ethan Hunt making a death defying leap away from a fireball, we want to see our hero push his body to limit. Jackie Chan can stick his head through a ladder and whip it around to knock people out or Tony Jaa can leap through a barbed wire hoop that is inexplicably on fire. We want to watch these guys do things we can’t.
Deep inside every man there is a primal beast that wants to beat the shit out of someone. If the meekest amongst us have within them the desire to take an asshole by the collar and slap him silly, throw him through a plate glass window and then return to his meal at the diner counter.
Violence in action films comes in different styles and in different levels of harshness. Increasingly common today is fancy, yet seemingly practical, hand to hand ass-whooping. Watching Jason Bourne use a book to bat around another spy is exciting, just as watching Bruce Willis and Karl Urban destroy an entire office with each other’s faces is brilliant. Fans of Asian Cinemas have been watching incredible displays of speed and power and violence against some more sap’s center of gravity, knee caps, and face.
The defining action characteristic of my favorite decade, the 1980s, was gunplay, still quite popular today. When a giant mountain of a man, named John (Matrix or Rambo), grabs a machine gun and lets rip against an entire nation of enemies, we cheer. When one of those same guys (Rambo), swings a massive .50 caliber machine gun around and literally blows the limbs off of people, we get erect. The Kingdom, Heat, and The Town are all good examples of recent movies that embrace the way of the gun and in doing so shun fisticuffs, but it’s still action as hell.
Rambo is an example of some fairly harsh violence. While we may cheer and laugh at times, when you really pay attention, the film is gritty and unkind. This can be wildly entertaining, as often the people being punished beyond reason are terrible assholes, so fuck ‘em. On the flip side, there are films more like The A-Team that are action oriented but pretty playful over all. In between there is a movie like The Losers, an action film that takes the ass whooping serious most of the time, but isn’t afraid to flash some ass and make you laugh.
These films are almost unfair to compare to one another as they have completely different approaches to the aspect of violence, but one thing is certain: violence is action. Action is violence. There’s got to be a little bit of pain to make us feel this good.
A hero, or a protagonist, is often only as strong as the opponent he faces. Often we look for a singular villain to fill this role: Darth Vader, Blofeld, Agent Smith, Max. Surely, these can be great villains and often lead to a climactic hand to hand fight that levels an entire city block: awesome. In doing this we can’t overlook the great “villains of mass,” the swarm of faceless bad guys that give our hero, or heroes, dozens of enemies to dispatch. COBRA, The Foot Clan, The Russians (1980s), the Chinese (this post is now banned in China), terrorists, Burmese genocidal dickheads, ninjas, or today’s most popular villain private security forces.
A good swarm of bad dudes is just as good as a singular strong villain. The lone antagonist makes for a great final showdown, but if there isn’t enough cannon fodder between points A and C the journey is a bit boring and a bit too clean.
Sometimes a hero is a lot stronger than the opponent he faces. He might not be smarter, but he might be able to utterly crack the shit out of his face without breaking a sweat. In this case, the hero is only as strong as the quest he is on. This may mean his quest is cutting through 387 members of a guerrilla army or it may mean completing a series of complex puzzles while also shooting people in the face. At the end of the quest is his reward: vengeance, a kidnapped family member, or perhaps even justice.
While we can talk action without talking about women, a woman can make things better – and generally more complicated. ZING. Generally our female has someone out to kill her. Maybe she saw something she wasn’t supposed to or unearthed some secret information. Maybe she was kidnapped to get at our hero or to get him to do something he doesn’t want to. She can be a child or a lover or even in some instances, the ultimate ass kicker. There was once a time when the strong female was some of a rarity, but after Ripley proved that having a pair of breasts didn’t preclude blowing the fuck out of living things, they’ve become much more common place.
In some instances the woman is the hero – and hey, that’s fine by me. I don’t mind watching beautiful ladies kick dudes, or chicks (ooo-la-la) in the face. Though most often she is part of the quest, kidnapped as an excuse for our hero to royally bring some pain on some bad people. In any case, she’s often statuesque and beautiful, with a bit of fire to her.
Or, as I mentioned, she can be the complete opposite of that. In perhaps one of the greatest action films of all time, John Matrix embarks on a quest after his young daughter is kidnapped. Sometimes it’s just that simple.
The Memorable One Liner
Optional, but nice. From “Hasta la vista, baby” to “Yippee ki-yay, mother fucker” the one liner can be comical and flavorful or it can be a deadpan joke like “He’s dead tired.” Then again, sometimes simpler is better, like when you promise someone you’ll kill them last and you throw them off a cliff. What’s the perfect one liner then? “I lied.”
Plotting the Perfect Film
When it comes to action movies, I think nothing speaks louder than Commando. First up, we have our Protagonist, a hero with a bit of a dangerous, no rules streak. He enacts great physical feats, like flipping over cars with his bare hands, and he goes on a quest to rescue his daughter. When threatened, he refuses to play by the rules and just plays by bullets. He enacts amazing amounts of violence against those in his way – both faceless soldiers, an evil dictator, and his ex partner. He also delivers 17 one-liners. Instead of me writing on how to plot the perfect action film, just go watch this movie again.
The Tao of the Action Film
In 1700 words we’ve rambled on about action films, but in doing so I think we may have come up with my favorite definition. In an action film, a cool, cavalier protagonist embarks on a quest against a menacing threat, performing feats of amazing physicality and athleticism while enacting violence against those who stand in his way, all while delivering witty one liners before dispatching opponents.
But really, all it takes to make an awesome action film is nail biting exciting, awe inspiring acts, and lots of loud noises and bright explosions.
What makes a good action film to you?