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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 weekly cultural article we will be examining the David Lean’s (1908 – 1991) 1946 film Great Expectations, considered to be one of the greatest British films ever made. When it was released in 1946, it was met with glowing reviews. Today, seventy years later, it has been described by Criterion as “one of the greatest translations of literature into film.”
David Lean’s Great Expectations captures the essence of Charles Dicken’s (1812 – 1870) literary genius by juxtaposing his memorable characters with the artful film direction of David Lean. Leans use of black and white to add to the foreboding and melancholy atmosphere of the film. Then there are the numerous dark, creepy, rundown, and ultimately human locations that burn themselves into the memory: the creepy graveyard where a young Pip first meets escaped convict Abel Magwitch, the Kentish marshes, Miss Havisham’s dilapidated and macabre home whose clocks are stopped at the exact time Miss Havisham learnt of her fiance’s betrayal, 19th century London, Mr. Jagger’s offices whose walls are decorated with the death masks of defendants lost to the gallows, the prison where Magwitch dies, and so forth.
Then there are the wealth of memorable characters the film presents to us. The most notable of these is Pip through whom we see all of the tragedy and injustice of early 19th century England. Pip acts as more of an observer to the world around him than an actual protagonist. We first meet Pip (Anthony Wager, 1932 – 1990) as a young orphan being raised by his overbearing older sister (Freda Jackson, 1907 – 1990) and her kindly blacksmith husband (Bernard Miles, 1907 – 1991). It is during this time that Pip first encounters Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie, 1878 – 1960), a kind yet ultimately decent escaped convict, in the cemetery, and when his heart is broken by the coquettish Estella (Jean Simmons, 1929 – 2010) and the dishevelled and deranged Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt, 1900 – 1969).
As the film progresses, we see Pip grow into a young man, played by John Mills (1908 – 2005), who, it could be argued, was perhaps a little too old to play Pip in his early twenties. This Pip has been bequeathed a large allowance by an unknown benefactor and travels to London with the view of becoming a gentleman. There he forms a friendship with the Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness, 1914 – 2000) who helps him refine his manners. The adult Pip finds himself corrupted by the ponce and ceremony of the English upper-class and is ashamed to admit that he would have paid money to keep Joe Gargery, dressed in his cheap suit and awkward manner, away. Pip is forced to reexamine his views after discovering that his benefactor is none other than the escaped convict Magwitch, who was so struck by Pip’s childhood compassion that he was inspired to make something of himself and become his benefactor. Magwitch’s kindness and gratitude cause Pip to regain his lost humanity.
Great expectations represents a type of film that no longer exists: one that deals entirely with the human condition. These films are no longer made because they often do not involve exciting elements, but rather present characters that are flawed and suffering and places these characters in stories that are essentially tragic in nature. These films are no longer made because they do not fit into the blockbuster formula. Rather than the larger-than-life heroes of the blockbuster, films on the human condition feature characters that are ultimately flawed and suffering. These characters are placed in stories that are ultimately tragic in their nature. A far cry from the often over-the-top plots of the modern blockbuster. There is something deeply satisfying about films like Great Expectations which shows normal people to be capable of leading a dignified existence regardless of the tragedy and suffering they are forced to face.