As a youth, one of my first loves was action movies. I used to stay up well past midnight watching anything labeled as “action” in the TV Guide. I’d dig it when Gary Daniels did a totally gratuitous standing backflip or kicked someone’s face causing a bunch of talcum powder to burst forth in a mysterious cloud. When Bolo Yeung told Jean-Claude “You are next!” Good times.
I haven’t been very thrilled by an action flick in some years. Getting old I suppose. Space Shooters was alright, the one with the laser people? I forget. Anyhow, as someone who was once very invested in a thing, I must examine why, what was good about it, what wasn’t so good, and if I could get back a bit of that magic. Especially as a creator of narrative art, I have to ask myself if I can make something that would thrill a thrillable person. So analyzing action, in film, comics, prose.
My ideas aren’t very well formed yet, don’t know if I have much by way of conclusions. The work thus far has been in the laboratory of random thoughts, in the shower occasionally, waiting for a bus. But harken and hear me out! Because if I don’t present these ideas in half-assed form and they never reach a full ass, then they’ll never see the light of day in any form. Proceeding thus,
I love action movies, but I recognize some underlying problems in them. Aside from the usual reinforcement of toxic cultural norms and ideas, prioritizing the power and presumed righteousness of the victor in a violent struggle is a wretched mess. A corollary of ableism is vaunting athleticism as a moral virtue. We’re all taught to avoid thinking “might makes right,” but what is John McClane‘s victory over Hans Gruber if not the outcome of a contest for physical supremacy?
What is the fundamental appeal of an action movie or story? I tried to pare it down to the most abstract form, even before you get into questions like just how universal or valid the campbellian hero myth is, and came up with this: What makes a story “action” in genre is that the hero uses some form of power as an extension of their will to change the world. The hero could use gun skills to take out a bad guy, could use kung fu to avenge a murder, could use super strength to save people from falling off a bridge. The thing behind the power is will, desire to make something happen. The power is the tool that allows the will to be enacted.
So in essence, the action genre is a fantasy about being able to make things happen, to have an effect on the world. Not surprising that the heavily disenfranchised often find horror and romance more relatable. I’ve spoken with an AFAB person on the subject and they said they never felt like it was possible to make a difference or change anything, wouldn’t find it believable as a narrative. Running from monsters, on the other hand, easy to get into. Not everyone downtrodden has that sense of power crushed out of them so utterly, lots of girls getting into action stories these days. Progress on one front.
How do I, as a writer, craft a compelling action story? There are a number of different plot structures and subgenres that have been used over the years. An example I’m fond of is the tournament plot, like Enter the Dragon, Bloodsport, Heatseeker, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and so on. But I feel like, as long as you have a basic familiarity with how storytelling works and the genre you want to work in, this isn’t the challenge. Finding out what makes someone want to read a story and implementing that – this is my aim.
Not sure the best place to start, but with my favorite movies seems good. What made Hard-Boiled so awesome? What made Space Shooters so affecting? What’s so good about Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin, a Jackie Chan movie that predated his signature style? I don’t know, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for someone else. My conclusions are tentative.
- Themed Teams. Different colored ninja suits. In Tha Harry P Chronicles, the factions all had special colored scarves and stereotypes about the peeps in their clubs. In kung fu movies, different clans or groups of fighters would have at least somewhat matched outfits. In Hard-Boiled during the warehouse fight, it was janitor jumpsuits versus black motorcycle gear. Call it pageantry or a narrative device, it’s kinda cool.
- Sexy Mans. Hard-Boiled could only have been improved by Tony Leung and Chow Yun-fat making out. Om nom.
- Social Justice. When everyone in space shooter lady‘s life says “you are worthless, wait forever for anything good,” and she gets dragged into awareness of her importance and worth, she doesn’t know how to feel about it, resists, and it makes my heart a splode.
The answer is probably something in the neighborhood of the last one, rather than the more superficial elements. But I’m not done thinking about this yet. One of these years…