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Action movies just aren’t what they used to be. On Saturday night, I watched the film version of the hit 1980s TV show, the A-Team. A part of me hoped for an enjoyable experience, but, just as I had expected, I found the film to be cliched, formulaic, and predictable.
It became evident early on that the filmmakers had taken little to no effort in the making of this story. The plot was boring and predictable, and the characters were two dimensional. Indeed, it seemed that most of the film had been devoted to bad digital effects and over-the-top action sequences.
This is the kind of thing that passes for action movies nowadays. It is a far cry from the greats of yesteryear which, at least in the best of cases, were willing to combine action with intelligence. It is certainly true that these films featured death-defying stunts, mind-blowing special effects, and well-choreographed action sequences. However, it is also true that the best among them also featured complex, three-dimensional characters and clever, intricate plots. Yes, these films often pushed the boundaries of disbelief, but we were more than happy to suspend our disbelief for them anyway.
Any successful movie, particularly an action movie, requires two things: a good plot and good characters. One of the biggest problems with the modern action movie is that they are often boring. The audience finds it difficult to engage with the story because there is no character or plot for them to care about.
Great action movies have great, exciting stories. The problem is that modern action movies have a tendency to recycle the same tired stories over and over again. Audiences have been subjected to an endless array of reboots, remakes, sequels, and prequels. Audiences crave originality. What we need is original stories, not a rehash of a television show that ended over thirty-years-ago.
It’s not as though an action movie’s plot has to be entirely original, either. Most of us are willing to accept a familiar, or even cliched, story provided it’s presented in a new and interesting way. Take, as a case in point, the film Speed. Its plot is essentially a rehash of the Die Hard model, but by placing the action on a bus, the filmmakers managed to gain the appreciation of their audience by presenting them with something novel.
In addition to the importance of plot, it is also equally important to discuss the importance of character. Modern day action heroes often lack interesting character arcs. The audience has not been allowed to care about the characters as people and therefore have little reason to root for them. People like to see characters go through a personal journey. They like to see them grow and develop as a character. Good action heroes have some kind of flaw, whether it be a bad attitude, debris from their past, poor self-esteem, or any one of a thousand different things, that he or she must overcome to complete their mission.
The heroes of great action movies were relatable. The filmmakers knew they had to combine the right amount of vulnerability with the right amount of grit. We had to believe that these people bled, made mistakes, and felt pain.
In other words, these heroes had vulnerabilities. They were not invincible. The audience could believe that Axel Foley (Beverly Hills Cop) spent most of his time busting low-level crooks in downtown Detroit and that he genuinely felt anger and grief over the murder of his friend. In Die Hard, the filmmakers were prepared to take the time to let us get to know John McLane. We learnt that he was an Irish-American police officer, that he was a father, that he was estranged from his wife, and that he was frightened of flying. And when he had to fight terrorists, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the FBI, we genuinely rooted for him because we had been allowed to get to know him.
Equally important, if not more important in many cases, is the film’s villain. Good stories have good protagonists, great stories have great antagonists. There has to be something in a villain that makes him at least a little bit likeable, or even sympathetic. A part of us has to be able to understand his motivations and even root for him. We could understand why Karl wanted to kill John McLane because we had seen McLane kill his brother. And we could understand why Speed’s chief antagonist, Howard Payne, wanted to hold the city of Los Angeles to ransom after we learnt that he had been injured in an explosion working for the LAPD. Heck, even films in which the villain wants money or power, or both, are relatable because we want these things, too.
If the producers of action movies were willing to invest as much time and effort in story and character development as they were on special effects, it is possible that they might someday produce another great action movie. But, with the way things are going, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
NOTE: I apologise for the long delay between articles. I have been in the process of preparing a rather lengthy article on constitutional monarchy.
This week for our cultural article we will be examining the classic 1957 courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men.
12 Angry Men is based on a television play inspired by Reginald Rose’s (1920 – 2002) real-life experience as a juror on a manslaughter case in early 1954. It was first aired on CBS’ Studio One in September 1954.
It was inevitable that the television play would result in a film adaptation. With Henry Fonda (1905 – 1982) and Rose acting as producers, and with Sidney Lumet (1924 – 2011) acting as director, the resulting film was filmed in under three weeks and made for a paltry US$340,000 (US$2,961,823.49 in today’s money).
12 Angry Men is a small film in every sense of the word. Twelve jurors are locked in a room on the hottest day of the year to decide the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father. As per the law, the vote must be unanimous. Initially, all but one, Juror Eight (Henry Fonda – the only real star in the movie), vote guilty.
It’s not that Juror Eight thinks the defendant is innocent, but that he isn’t sure. He argues that the boy had an inadequate legal defence and that they, the jury, ought to examine the evidence more closely.
Initially, he has trouble persuading the other jurors to change their vote. But, as they begin to examine the pieces of evidence, more and more of the juror’s find room for reasonable doubt. The film ends with a unanimous ‘not guilty’ verdict.
12 Angry Men stands out in an era of sweeping epics and technicolour. It is a small, minimalist, black and white film shot mostly in real time. The mood is created through the creative use of camera angles, camera lenses, and editing.
At the beginning of the film, there are long, unbroken takes filmed from above with wide angled-lenses which give a sense of distance between the characters. They are dominated by the task ahead of them. As the film progresses, the takes become shorter, the camera moves steadily from above to below the action, and the focal length is decreased. This makes the film feel more claustrophobic. No longer at the jurors dominated by the task ahead of them, they are dominated by the force of each other’s personalities. As Lumet wrote:
“I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end, the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie.”
12 Angry Men is primarily driven by its characters. Tension arises from body language, dialogue, and personality clashes. The characters represent an almost perfect cross-section of different personality types and temperaments.
12 Angry Men acts as a crash course on the parts of the US Constitution that guarantee a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. It is never stated whether the Defendant is innocent or not but instead asks us to look beyond our biases and arrogance and examine the evidence closer at hand. 12 Angry Men symbolises how well the American legal system can work when people are prepared to look beyond their personal feelings use their integrity for its benefit.