Friday, March 19, 2010

The Problems Of Action Heroes

Next week, we’ll get back to specific movies. This week, let’s talk about another problem modern movies face. This problem is associated with action heroes. Action heroes change with the times, and these days they’ve run into a wall. Between conflicting moral codes and the problems of “adrenaline addiction,” there isn’t much left for an action hero to do.

Action heroes have been around since Odysseus took his band of merry pirates to Troy for the Friday night fights. At that point, a hero was a man who was mortal, but also the offspring of a god. And action stories were about the exploits of these heroes, as they overcame challenges that were beyond mortal men. This set the ground work for much that followed.

Indeed, even today, action heroes need to be able to do things that regular humans can’t. It is the rare hero who doesn’t quickly demonstrate some far-above-average skill -- no matter how much the movie facially tries to sell the hero as “just a regular person” when the story begins. Moreover, action stories tend to be epic in nature as the hero goes through a series of successively more difficult challenges. And it is within these requirements that action heroes suddenly find themselves in a bit of a jam.

The reason humans suffer from addiction is the competing demands of two hard-wired behavioral responses within the human being. First, we seek pleasure. Pleasure sets off all kinds of chemical reactions that make us want more. That’s nature’s way of telling you to do something. If it feels good to eat something tasty, then do it. And if it doesn’t give you any pleasure, like that none-too-succulent rock you’re sucking on or the banana you’re trying to jam in your ear, then don’t bother doing that again. In this way, nature steers us toward the things we should be doing.

Secondly, humans have a coping mechanism that takes the emotional edge off our experiences. This lets us cope with trauma and loss, as it softens their sting over time. It also lets us put up with horrible conditions, like prison camps, as we grow accustomed to them. Without this, our suicide rate would probably be extremely high. Unfortunately, this dulling mechanism also dulls pleasure. Thus, we soon find that the things that brought us pleasure aren’t as pleasurable as they once were. That means we need more than before, to achieve the same high. This is true of everything that delivers pleasure, from foods to drugs to the adrenaline we derive from watching action heroes blow things up, engage in fights, and narrowly escape death. Action heroes basically make us adrenaline junkies.

As junkies, the more we get, the more we will need the next time just to recreate the same thrill. That means that each successive action movie must have bigger explosions, more frenetic fights and bigger stakes to keep us entertained. If an action hero simply did what the last guy did, we would be bored. And this creates a problem. How do you keep upping the ante to keep generating that adrenaline rush? Bigger explosions? Ok, so a car bomb turns into a huge car bomb turns into a semi-trailer bomb, turns into a city-wide nuclear bomb turns into. . . hmm. Ok, maybe we increase the shock level. The bad guy goes from being some dude to being some corporate lackey to a corporate president to a senator to the president to. . . shoot, not again.

Do you see the problem? As each film ups the ante, we slowly run out of room to keep upping the ante. As it is, the bad guys these days need to sit at the highest levels of power (always the most powerful person in the film), they need to plan to destroy the country or the world, and they need to set off explosions that bring down landmarks. Nothing lesser will do. But this doesn’t leave us any room to keep going up either. There just isn’t much “more” left.

That’s why a movie like Ronin was so refreshing. Unlike most action movies that traffic in bigger-is-better, Ronin went for realism. And in the process, it brought a whole new form of adrenaline rush because the action actually felt real, something you hadn’t really see before on the screen. But even there, how far can you go with realism before people get bored again?

This catch 22 is slowly killing action movies.

But there’s another problem too, and it deals with action movies falling into a very boring formula. And that formula derives, of all things, from the contradictory human moral code to which we subscribe.

On the one hand, humans love revenge. Forget the turn the other cheek stuff, we are all for an eye for an eye and bringing a gun to a knife fight. But on the other hand, we find it morally repugnant that someone would kill without a reason or that they would kill someone once they’ve been disarmed and defeated.

How does Hollywood reconcile this? Well, it’s found two mechanisms. Let’s call the first one drone slaying. To satisfy the audience’s blood lust without running afoul of the audience’s revulsion at unjustified killing, Hollywood has learned to take the humans out of the film. Now, the hero can slay an army of robots or orcs or zombies, and the audience doesn’t think twice. (Even in war movies, it is rare that we see the faces of the uniformed drones that get gunned down en mass by the hero.) Since the audience doesn’t see these as human, the moral code doesn’t kick in. Thus, the hero can kill all the drones they want -- which, not coincidentally, also gives the hero his (or her) bona fides as a hero, because they’ve shown themselves to possess skills that far exceed the helpless humans around them. But sadly, because these are drones, the hero’s actions still ring hollow.

Thus, the hero must kill a couple of “faced” humans. This bring us to the second mechanism. Hollywood has learned to manufacturer ways that the good guy can still kill the bad guy without running afoul of the moral code. Indeed, the two primary rules on this code are: (1) never kill without reason and (2) never kill anyone who has been beaten. So Hollywood always starts the movie by giving us a clichéd, easy to understand reason why the hero must act -- and forget doing the right thing, we want easy. . . they've got my daughter!. . . they're going to blow up the city! Gone is Clint Eastwood’s anti-hero in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly who killed for money, and in his place are a series of heroes who need to suffer a proportional loss or threat of immediate proportional loss before they can kill the bad guy. Moreover, have you noticed how many movies end with the good guy defeating the bad guy, but not killing him -- because you can’t kill someone who has been defeated and is now helpless -- only to turn his back as the bad guy picks up a random gun, thereby allowing the good guy to turn around and blast him? This manufactured ending satisfies the audience’s blood lust, without making them feel morally uncomfortable about their choices. That’s kind of sad.

Indeed, this cliché changes the nature of the hero. The hero goes from taking command of the world around them to becoming a victim of chance. In other words, they no longer make their own destiny, they need to wait for the bad guy to make it for them. It’s like Lucas re-editing Star Wars to make Greedo shoot first. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. In one lousy edit, Lucas has changed Han Solo’s character dramatically. Gone is the rogue and in his place is the victim who acted in self defense. Yuck. Well, that’s exactly what Hollywood has done to the action hero generally.

Thus, the modern action hero faces a series of problems. Everything that can be blown up has been blown up, and there’s no higher authority that can be a criminal that isn’t already being used in movies today. Further, the action hero now needs to waste most of the movie picking on drones until he (or she) is ready to fight a highly choreographed main fight to end the movie in a morally acceptable way that still results in a dead bad guy. What a lousy time to be a hero.


Anonymous said...

You've definitely hit on something, re: upping the ante. While I believe a great action movie is a great action movie regardless of the stakes involved, audiences have seen everything so it's very difficult to surprise them anymore.

And another problem is the use of technology. Heroes no longer have to hunt for people or information when they have the collective knowledge of the world on a cell phone! And watching someone sit at a computer "hacking into the mainframe" isn't that exciting (it can be, but rarely is).

But when done right, there is a certain efficiency involved which can be entertaining and refreshing for people who are used to CGI and greenscreen. I just watched a movie with Charlton Heston and John Cassavetes called Two-Minute Warning. It's about a lone sniper at a football game and the police's efforts to find and capture him before he starts shooting. There are some disaster movie cliches and supporting character drama along the way but I thought it was very entertaining.

I think that's why I enjoy Executive Decision so much. It doesn't have any of that extraneous stuff, especially that third act "The CIA was behind it the whole time!" revelation. I think such revelations are added, not for political reasons, but to make things more complicated because the audience has seen everything... except for that final twist.

You and I had this discussion about action movies today and why none are being made about the War on Terror (at least ones that are pro-U.S.). Along with other reasons, there are certain genre conventions which would have to be thrown out the window. Sneak behind enemy lines? Not when everyone else has skin a few shades darker than the hero. The femme fatale? She'll have to be covered from head to toe to fit in. And what's more exciting? Soldiers flying recon planes over a terrorist compound... or reality, which is UAVs being piloted by soldiers from a base in Colorado?

And there always has to be another bad guy in these movies. Hans Gruber isn't enough, you also need that reporter character to complicate things. Hence, we get not only terrorist bad guys but some slimy senator or eeeeevil defense contractor, etc. It's not enough to just have one bad guy and his followers - again, the audience has seen it all.

Joel Farnham said...


Great article. I also respectfully submit that since we have at our fingertips, real warfare (Iraq) and faux warfare (video games) there is not much that inspires writers to write about. Unless it is about the dastardly US hurting the poor terrorist ... er ... freedom fighter. Which even that well has gone dry.

I don't know what the solution could be.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I think you're right, it is very difficult to compete with reality when big things are happening in reality. I remember the sudden near-disappearance of action movies at the time of the Gulf War anf then the invasion of Iraq, because people had just seen the real thing on television and the idea of watching an actor pretend to destroy an entire army wasn't very appealing.

It's too bad though that Hollywood hasn't learned to tap into this. The National Geographic channel has produced some gripping documentaries, which would have made excellent movies if anyone had stopped to think about. But they can't seem to break away from the mind set of the cliches and standard conventions.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree. I think the problem is that Hollywood just keeps piling cliches and conventions into movies until the movie is full to the brim because they feel they need to keep delivering shock after shock to keep the audience entertained. That's why it is refreshing to see movies like Two Minute Warning where the story is very straight forward and the tension derives from the difficult of catching the guy rather than a series of made up car chases, betrayals, and shocking bad guys. "It was my own dog, who happens to be a Senator!"

I remember our discussion of the problems with the Iraq war genre, and I think we agreed. It is very difficult to use the modern action movie conventions in that context because of the different cultures. It doesn't mean it couldn't be done, but it makes it all that much harder. It would be nice, however, if they viewed this as a challenge and tried to create new conventions or just new ideas.

You're right about technology, it creates a problem for modern film makers. Just like the cell phone (caller id) ruined the idea of "the ringing phone" or the idea of being out of touch (until the film explains why the hero's phone doesn't work), modern technology makes it harder for heroes to hunt for clues. That means that new ways to create the "search" need to be found. That's why so many movies now go with clue scavenger hunts -- National Treasure, Angels and Demons. It is a way to pretend that the information can only be found by visiting places, which gives you a fake chase scene as the hero and team decend upon old churches and libraries and dank basements.

Another problem with technology can be seen from the Borne movies. Hollywood has vastly over-estimated the power of technology to the point that people really believe that we can monitor anyone, anywhere at any time -- trust me, we can't. Unfortunately, the fact that so many people think that we can means that any filmmakers who tries to present a more realistic portrayal is accused of creating fake roadblocks for the hero (there are also real-world political problems created by this false perception).

But that's often been a problem: the fake world making the real world not seem to real anymore.

Writer X said...

I think one of the ways to change the cliched formulas is not necessarily to change the action but to change the action hero's motivations and character development. When people go to an action hero movie, they expect action. I know I do and for all the reasons you've mentioned. The one lever a screenwriter can play with to make a movie more interesting and compelling is to change the action hero's personality/character--call it what you will--from the typical "I-have-to-avenge-my-daughter-wife" to something deeper and more interesting. That's the challenge, I think. And good special effects and lots of leather never hurts.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I think you're right. The only way to save the action movie is to drop the cliched storylines and characterizations and make them more interesting. Then people have something more interesting to see than just the explosions, and you break the cycle of a shortening attention span. I think that's what a movie like Ronin did so well, was that the action was really good, but people remember the relationships between the characters even more than the fight scenes.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I must have a hole in my desensitization psyche. I never tire of Charles Bronson blowing away bad guys (even bad guys he doesn't know) in Death Wish (at least the first two or three in the series). Nothing more satisfying than watching "The Vigilante" bumping off the kind of scumbags I just got off on a technicality earlier in the day. I'm going to have to order the DVDs because I've pretty much worn out the tapes.

I'll also never tire of the scene where Harrison Ford (aka Indiana Jones) is confronted by a sword-wielding local warrior doing the fancy "I'm gonna slice you up" routine. He shrugs his shoulders, turns around, and blows the sword-guy away from twenty feet with his pistol. Very satisfying.

Watching the dull-normal Shia LaBoeuf outwitting car-monsters just doesn't cut if for me. LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I can't stand Shia LaBoef either. He's just not a good actor and I can't stand the "nerd" action hero bit that he does.

As for Death Wish, it's been a long time since that was considered an action movie. That's close to a classic now.

Unknown said...

Andrew: And the nerd's worst performance of all was when he killed the Indiana Jones franchise playing Jones's son in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. LaBoeuf couldn't handle an opponent who wasn't a Camaro-monster. What a difference when Sean Connery was the dad and Harrison Ford was the son.

Anonymous said...

I've mentioned this before but there is something to be said for movies that are pleasant to watch. I don't mean movies with pleasant subject matter but movies that demand repeat viewing (like Die Hard, for instance).

On the other hand, regardless of what you think of Matt Damon, the Bourne movies, with their humorless characters, frenetic editing, shaky camerawork, lack of established geography, etc.... those films aren't as exciting to watch over and over again. They're certainly well crafted but the Die Hard films (the first three, just an example) are infinitely more entertaining. They are also well made but the directors (McTiernan and Harlin) knew how to make exciting movies without inducing headaches among the audience! And humor ALWAYS helps. Hitchcock knew that.

If you own the Die Hard 2-disc DVD, check out the text commentary by action film expert Eric Lichtenfeld. He does a good job of analyzing the film. Sure, it ain't Bergman but there is still method to the madness and a right and wrong way of doing things. Do the right things and people will watch over and over again. I hesitate to call movies like that comfort food but when I went into the NASA study, I took my Die Hard boxset with me to watch on Christmas Day! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Isn't that the truth.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree. There is a lot to be said for movies that are simply enjoyable.

And I agree about the Borne movies. I think they are well done from a purely technical perspective, but they are not pleasant to watch. I also think they are crawling with ridiculous defects. But to me, the biggest issue is the vomit cam approach, the color scheme, and the frenetic pace which is intended to make the movie seem fast paced. It's an attempt to cover up for what are really very weak plots. Also, I can't stand movies that try to fake action scenes by going for close ups so that they don't need to work out how to handle the stunts.

Joel Farnham said...


There is one saving grace, remember the FireFly series and Serenity?

I think I have seen those four to seven times each.

Science fiction probably is the answer to where to get Action Heroes.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, That may be true. Science fiction seems to be growing as a genre, whereas pure action movies seem to be shrinking.

Anonymous said...

Okay, LawHawk brought up the last Indiana Jones movie so I have to post my thoughts (which I originally wrote on my Facebook page almost two years ago). For starters, I didn't hate Shia. Having said that...

-Harrison Ford can still kick ass and Shia was surprisingly good (just my opinion... I don't think he can be an action hero but he was one of the better elements of this film)
-Cate Blanchett as the villain... and I thought she was kinda hot too!
-The old Paramount logo
-The scenes at the college, though I thought the beheading of the Marcus Brody statue was a bit much
-Jim Broadbent as the dean of the college
-I liked that Indy had served in WW2 and was awarded many medals for doing so
-John Williams' score but some of it was just too generic, like rejected cues from War of the Worlds
-There were some genuine Indy moments and winks/nods to the previous films and even the Young Indy series
-I didn't mind the prairie dogs at the beginning... everyone complains about them but they were in, count 'em, three shots!
-I liked the ending (not the climax, but the actual ending)

-Some of the visual effects were just awful! This is ILM's A-team giving it all they got?! I just watched Cloverfield and those FX were seamless... and all at a fraction of the cost!
-The character of Mac (played by Ray Winstone)... why did they have to make him a double agent so many times? When he mentions Berlin, they should've kept him as a good guy but no, he has to betray our heroes one last time.
-The waterfall(s) scene makes the plane/raft escape in Temple of Doom look like a documentary by comparison
-I didn't mind Mutt of the Jungle as much as some people... but again the FX were substandard at best, embarrassing at worst!
-There were character moments but no, ya' know, CHARACTER MOMENTS!! No "Asps... very dangerous. You go first!" No "No ticket!"
-The plot was a tad convoluted for its own good and quite frankly, the script could've used another draft. (I've been saying that a lot lately.)
-No blood, barely any pain, no time to play catch up... Indy is a superman. Even in Raiders, he had to have Marion tend to his wounds.
-A line of dailogue: "These aren't pictographs. They're directions. Get me a map!" Don't say "get me a map", just cut to the map!
-I saw this climax before... when it was called The X-Files Movie!!
-I felt bad for the actors... they deserved a better screenplay. Especially John Hurt... I know some roles call for rambling idiocy but it didn't quite work for me this time.
-Other than Spalco, there were no memorable villains. In the first one, Belloq had Toht and Col. Dietrich. In the third film, Donovan and Elsa had that other Nazi general (and even Hitler in a cameo!). In this film, nothing. The Russian soldiers were interchangeable.

So Chris Nolan can give us Batman Begins and Barbara Broccoli/Michael Wilson can give us Casino Royale, but this is the best Lucas and Spielberg can come up with? Even Stallone successfully brought back Rocky and Rambo!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, No time to respond at the moment. But if you want to see really excellent effects on a budget of about three dollars and a bag of chips, check out this clip:

Panic Attack

It's at the bottom of the article. The film was made in Uruguay. The whole thing is really good.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Apparently, it cost $300 to make.

Joel Farnham said...


The video looks pretty good. It looks like a well designed trailer for a version of alien invaders.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I thought it was pretty impressive, especially for the price. Frankly, the effects are more believable than a lot of what I've seen lately in movies.

Skinners 2 Cents said...

Great article insightful as always.

I think this applies to many things in real life as well. For example music, what do musicians do to top last years musicians. What's left to destroy or defame or tear down. There are no more sacred cows to attack they've all been attacked.

Very general:

First is was the pelvic thrust of the King. Taboo dancing.

Then the lyrics of the 60's created codified drug terms.
Taboo as well.

Skipping ahead to the 80's Sex Drugs and Rock and Roll were all the rage. As well as F the police.(that one won't ever go away)

90's seem to have quite a bit of God/Society/self hate in them.
Marilyn Manson/Kurt Cobain.

At some point hero's and musicians alike will have to come full circle. Musician will start singing about morality and moderation because that will be the only avenue left to be considered shocking. Our hero's will get back to shooting first and asking questions later because everyone likes a confident hero.
And truly humans are not really all that original. They'll fall back to an older and historically successful style of action movie at some point.

Speaking of Action movies if you haven't seen the Boondock Saints II keep it that way. It's terrible.
Perhaps it validates your point about action hero's but I think it was just sloppy writing and acting.

Joel Farnham said...


It Boondock Saints II falls under the sequel rule. Made because the money was too good from the first.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Honestly I didn't like anything about Raiders IV. The effects were awful (and ridiculous) -- especially the race through the jungle. The plot was convoluted, pointless and felt like a really cheap rip off of the original. Shia did nothing to get me to like him any better. He struck me as pissy. I thought Blanchett was a low point in the movie. She struck me as someone trying to imitate Natasha from Bullwinkle. A lot of it felt anachronistic. It was crawling with illogic, scientific impossibilities, and out-of-character-done-to-move-the-plot-along moments. Technically, there were dozens of mistakes, poor continuity, bad lighting, weak framing, and the directing was not creative or barely even average. The soundtrack was half hearted.

I liked Hurt and Ford and Shai's motorcycle, but that wasn't enough to make up for the rest. It was one of those movies that I only finished because I felt I should, and I was very happy when it finally ended.

AndrewPrice said...

Skinner, Thanks! :-)

I think you're right on about music, and a whole host of other areas. Where ever you can get ahead by being more extreme than the last guy, you soon run out of things to be extreme about.

In fact, what you're saying might be the best explanation for the collapse of "Rock" over the past decade. People keep trying to figure out why rock seems to be falling apart compared to pop and country, and maybe the reason is that there isn't much left to do to shock anyone? I'll have to think about that!

I haven't see Boondock Saints II. Actually, I don't think I've even heard about it?

Skinners 2 Cents said...

@ Joel I think you're right. The first Boondock Saints was great but the second one was embarrassing and they left it open for a third.

@ Andrew I would highly recommend the first Boondock Saints it's a great Irish action flick.

AndrewPrice said...

Skinner, thanks, I'll check it out.

Individualist said...

Actually I wish someone would make an action movie that ramped down the Star Warzie CGI effects.

I agree with WriterX that it is about character but I think the story must move in a way that makes me care about what is going on. If they can manage to do this then even if the effects are mundane and done before I will be on the edge of my seat. Why? Because I am in the movie an care about the girl being threatened or the cause or what have you.

I think the problem with action movies is that even if simplistics they still have a requirement for a plot tht can drive you emotionally. We have replaced this with CGI and effects. Nothing wrong with that just that some directors don't seem to understand they are not the point. The story is the point. In the old days when you did not have the effects you had to develop story.

I also think that if you can acheive this then you can dispense with the comic book justice code in the movie and have the good gys do bad things. I think the TV show the Burn Notice does this nicely. I care about Michael Weston, his crazy Irish Girlfriend, his bluehaired Miami mom and his cocky gigolo ex Navy Seal friend. I know he had been screwed over and is desparate and that he is using his talents to help people in bad situations. Thus I don't turn off completely when he has his mother threaten the job of an innocent bureaucrat because in a nasty bit of end justifies the means. I don't like it but I am into the story so I udnerstand where he is coming from. IT develops character as writerX says but then also brings forth an engaging story.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, I agree. I have nothing agains special effects except that they seem to have become the driving force of most modern action movies. The story should stand on its own even without a single effect in the movie. Then the effect should be laid over the movie to enhance it, not to make the movie.

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