Action has been a cinematic staple since the medium began. It’s a natural fit—action is movement and movies move—so it makes sense that the two have always gone together like peanut butter and jelly.
In the early days, filmic action was pretty basic: there were fist fights and pie fights and shootouts and foot chases and horse chases and automobile chases. There was no such thing as an action movie. Instead, there were movies that had action in them, with some genres (thrillers, Westerns, war movies, slapstick comedies, gangster films) featuring more kinetic sequences than others (romance movies, costume dramas, etc.).
During the studio and post-studio eras, movies featuring a large helping of action were known as adventure films or (later) action-adventure films. However, when compared to modern action movies, most of these films contained relatively little action—most would have one major action sequence per act, with a big action-filled finale at the climax.
The modern action movie as we have come to know it—a film featuring a series of elaborate action set-pieces in which the film’s story is told in large part through those set-pieces (in much the same way that the story in a musical is told in large part through the song-and-dance numbers)—had its genesis in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 North by Northwest and the James Bond movies of the 1960s and 1970s. However, it was 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark—created by George Lucas, written by Lawrence Kasdan, and directed by Steven Spielberg—that brought the genre into full-blown existence.
For the one or two of you out there who have never seen it, Raiders follows archaeologist and treasure hunter Indiana Jones as he races against time and the Nazis to discover the Ark of the Covenant, the ancient chest in which the remains of the original Ten Commandments were once stored. During the course of his search, Indy finds himself involved in a major action set-piece (usually of the swashbuckling or cliffhanger variety) every ten minutes or so until the story is finally resolved in a fiery climax in which the power of God is unleashed to put an end to the Nazi scourge.
Raiders was constructed the way it was for a very specific reason—the film’s core concept was to pay tribute to the movie serials of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. A serial (also known as a “chapter play”) was a story—usually an adventure or a fantasy tale—told in a series of 10-15-minute long episodes (or “chapters”), with one episode released to theaters each week, usually as part of a Saturday-morning kiddie-matinee program. Each chapter was filled with non-stop thrills and excitement and featured a big central action set-piece that often ended in a cliff-hanger. To recreate the feel of watching a serial, Raiders was designed to have a big action set-piece every ten minutes or so. The action in these set-pieces was big—often bordering on over-the-top—broad, and not scrupulously realistic (and thus in complete accordance with the comic book-style action featured in most serials)
Released on June 1, 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark was a huge hit and its influence was immediate. In the wake of Indy’s first adventure, filmmakers began incorporating more and more action sequences and set-pieces into their action-adventure pictures and their thrillers to the point where action became the prime ingredient in many of these movies (and sometimes their entire raison d’etre). Thus was born the modern action film. In addition, the action sequences in other genres were pumped up and made more prominent and action set-pieces even began to be incorporated into genres in which action was not previously a significant element (horror, sci-fi, comedy, etc.). The character of all of this additional action became bigger and broader and less realistic. This trend was abetted and accelerated by the coming and pervasiveness of CGI. In the digital effects realm, nothing is impossible and the laws of physics don’t apply. This allowed movie action to become even bigger; even more elaborate and outrageous; and even more fantastic. This trend has continued and amplified over the past four decades until we’ve reached a bit of a crisis point.
As I sat in the theater this spring and summer watching all of the season’s big blockbusters, I thought I’ve never seen so much spectacular action unfold on screen. I also thought I’ve also never been so bored. Instead of being excited by what I was seeing, I was feeling pummeled, fatigued, and profoundly disinterested. And it wasn’t just this summer’s films that produced this reaction—this is a feeling that has been growing steadily over the past few seasons. In the face of all this ennui, it’s hard not to conclude that—although there have certainly been some very good action films made since Raiders (including some of the Indy sequels, Die Hard, The Fugitive, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Avengers, and the two most recent Mission: Impossible films)—in general action movies have become quite dull and unengaging.
This feeling is echoed in my day job, where I have found most of the action scripts I’ve read in recent years to be incredibly tedious, with compelling and exciting stories replaced by an endless list of weaponry, stunts, explosions, and punching.
Analyzing these movies and screenplays, I find that there are several reasons modern action movies are so monotonous, all of them having to do with an excess of action:
- There’s not enough story. If a movie is wall-to-wall action, that means it probably doesn’t have much of a story because there isn’t room for one. Movie action works best when it advances the narrative. When there is no narrative, then it’s just action for action’s sake without context or purpose and that’s never interesting.
- Character gets lost. Wall-to-wall action also doesn’t leave much room for character development. It’s hard to care about cardboard or undeveloped characters and if we don’t care about the people participating in the action, we won’t care about the action itself.
- There’s no rhythm. Set pieces are intended to create high points – exciting spikes in the narrative line. But if every scene in the movie is a high point, then the movie actually has no high points—the narrative always stays on the same level and that’s deathly dull.
- There’s no respite. You can race your car for a short time, but you can’t drive it all day at the red line or the engine will blow up. You can do a hell of a cardio workout, but you can’t walk around with your heart beating at 165 bpm all day or you’ll have a heart attack. Well, along these same lines, if you subject your audience to two-to-two-and-a-half hours of non-stop action, you will wear them out—their attention, their patience, their endurance, and their good will.
- There’s no reality. Even the most fantastic tale needs to contain some sort of reality to ground it so that viewers will have something to grab on to and connect with. If a movie is filled with unreal, impossible action (as many modern films are), the audience may remain outside of the picture and never find its way into the narrative.
- There’s no reality #2. Action is only effective if the stakes are real—if we fear the characters can be hurt or suffer genuine consequences or if the obstacles they are trying to overcome are believable and challenging or if there are real consequences (good and bad) to their actions or if the goals they are trying to achieve are real and meaningful. If the action is too fantastic—if the characters can’t be hurt; if they can defy the laws of physics; if the obstacles they face are easy to overcome or can be overcome with the aid of some magical gizmo or gadget; if their actions have no meaningful consequences or payoffs—then it’s hard for viewers to buy in and invest in the goings-on.
- There’s no reality #3. Context, contrast, and perspective are vital. If everything is amazing, then nothing is amazing.
Obviously, the presentation of action in movies is not something that is solely in the writer’s purview. Directors, editors, second unit directors, stunt arrangers, and VFX people all have a say—sometimes far more than the writer does. But it all starts with the script and so here are some things for screenwriters to keep in mind when penning action:
- Don’t forget the story. Too many action scripts have very thin plots—just enough to give an overall shape to the movie and to serve as brief spacers between the set pieces. This sort of utilitarian plotting in functional, but it’s not very interesting. When you’re writing an action script, remember to tell a good story—one that’s interesting and contains compelling characters and is packed with drama and incident and suspense and surprises. Y’know, all the things all good movies should contain. The set-pieces should be used to advance the plot and tell the story; the story should never be just an excuse to justify the set-pieces.
- Present great characters. The characters in an action movie should be just as interesting, complex, and compelling as the characters in any other type of movie. All of the great classic action films are built around terrific characters (Indiana Jones, John McClane, Dr. Richard Kimball, Max Rockatansky, Imperator Furiosa, etc.) and your action piece should be as well. When writing an action piece, try to avoid using stock characters. If you do use stock characters, be sure to give them sort of fresh or novel twist. Don’t settle for cardboard personages – give your people multiple layers, interesting quirks, and realistic motivations and emotions. Their stakes should be real and high. Use the action to develop the characters—how they initiate to, respond to, and participate in the action should be specific and particular and should tell us constantly who they are.
- Give us some breathing room. Don’t bombard us with wall-to-wall action. Put some quality narrative space in between the action set-pieces. Give your story some quiet, relatively sedate sections so that when the high points come they will be noticeable and exciting and not just more of the same.
- Keep it (relatively) real. If your story is set in the real world, respect the laws of physics. If your characters participate in action that would injure someone in the real world, have them be injured in your screenplay and then deal with the consequences of that injury as the story proceeds. If your story takes place in a heightened reality or a fantasy world, then clearly establish the rules of that reality or world up front and make sure all the action in the story confirms to those rules throughout. Don’t bring in magical gimmicks or gizmos to get your characters out of tight spots.
Some people believe if you fill an action piece with enough kinetic sequences, then nothing else matters, but they’re wrong. To be successful, action scripts still have to be good scripts. If you pay attention to all of things you need to pay attention to when writing in other genres—telling a good, well-structured, well-paced story filled with interesting characters and scintillating dialogue—then the chances are you’ll come up with a winner. If not, then your script may end up in that same warehouse where the Ark ended up at the conclusion of Raiders and even Indiana Jones himself won’t be able to save it then.
Copyright © 2018 by Ray Morton
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