A Thesis in Progress: On Action

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, HeatseekerHarry Potter and the (edit:) FUCK THAT SHIT, 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…


  1. usagichan says

    The Japanese seem pretty fond of Action movies – I like various incarnations of “Zatoichi” (blind master swordsman – (heavily borrowed by Hollywood in “Blind Fury”) – a common plot line is the humble swordsman protects poor villagers from bandits/ roving Ronin), and also the “Musashi” story (therotetically based on a real person (Miyamoto Musashi, Samurai, writer (“Book of five rings”) and painter, but more based on the novel by Yoshikawa Eiji) which is based on the metamorphosis from brutish thug to aesthetic sword master (self discovery through violence?).

    An interesting question for the writer might be whether the plot is simply a narrative skeleton upon which to hang the action “set pieces”, and they are strung together like violent vignettes, or whether the Action scenes are an intrinsic part of a more coherent narrative structure, and actualy drive the plot. Presumably the more forulaic the plot, the more likely it is to be simply a frame for the action scenes.

    I wonder if some of the attraction of the genre is down to the simplicity of the solution – No shades of grey, no nuance, the goody beats the tar out of the baddy and all is well with the world! There is no problem that can’t be sliced up, blasted or beaten. Real life is so different that simplicity can be quite alluring.

    Maybe it doesn’t count as “Action”, but another film I liked was “Tasogare Seibei” (perhaps it was titled “Twilight Samurai” in English). Much harder to sort out right from wrong.

  2. Great American Satan says

    Speaking of “reinforcement of toxic cultural norms and ideas,” Japan and the US have a toxic masculinity trope in common that often gets in the way of my enjoyment of their action cinema: The heartless badass. Being cold toward your enemies in the context of these movies is one thing, but being cold toward everyone else? It’s nega-charismatic, but for some reason a lot of action fans here, and seemingly more there, seem to think it’s sexy as fuck.

    So there aren’t a lot of Japanese action stories in my faves, although I like some more than others. I haven’t seen more than a few minutes of any version of Musashi or Zatoichi (aside from Blind Fury lol), so maybe some of them have the character being more human or compelling than, say, the average Sonny Chiba joint.

    I liked some early episodes of the anime Yuyu Hakusho and InuYasha. Both shows feature heartless BAs, but don’t spend as much time trying to convince the audience we should love them, and they aren’t the main characters. Punky heroes who get easily upset and openly care about some people in their lives? That’s more like it.

    You’re no doubt right about the black and white appeal. Dirty Harry and all his descendants like Cobra and even some episodes of the series Law & Order, they’re premised on the moral simplicity of the universe. You know who the bad guys are and should be allowed to go punch or shoot them, but damn law & society keep gettin’ in the way!

    Action as a genre doesn’t require a good guy, just a protagonist. Sometimes not even a single protagonist, but two entertaining antagonists will do. Back in the land of heartless BAs, see the movie Versus. Is Tasogare Seibei something like that? I admit I’m biased in favor of a story with a good guy, but don’t expect everyone to share my tastes.

  3. --bill says

    “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.”
    You might want to sharpen that a bit. Does Miss Marple use the power of her intelligence in order to change the world? (Granted that the Miss Marple stories are relentlessly bleak in their view of human nature). The Seven Samurai also fits your definition of an action movie, but it certainly doesn’t present the issues as black and white.
    Just tossing some ideas out there.

  4. Great American Satan says

    That’s legit, –bill. I will definitely revisit these comments if/when I come back to this idea for a post. Whether I do that or not, I’ll think about it at the bus stop.

  5. usagichan says

    Ah, Tasogare Seibei is almost the diametric opposite of Versus – think more Art House with an Action add-on. The main character is a poverty stricken single parent, supplementing his salary (Samurai at that time were essentially civil servants) by farming. He is portrayed as a doting parent of two girls. His opponent is the clan fencing master, who has refused to commit seppuku when the leader of the clan was caught in a political plot, As a senior retainer, the fencing master is expected to atone for the leader’s disgrace but he has the very human reaction of trying to run away. The clan have him cornered but are unable to deal with him because of his swordsmanship.

    Perhaps more in the area of Versus would be something like Ruroni Kenshin (I saw the last one in the cinema with my son a couple of years back). The action is beautifully choreographed and the acting is unusually good for a manga adaptation. But probably my taste runs more to Drama with a dash of Action rather than a pure Action film.

    I agree that a lot of Japanese Action films (and manga) tend to have the ice-cold hero, I tend to think that possibly a Buddhist aesthetic, the ability to transcend the physical world. Having said that, I find the obsession with teenage girls far more disturbing, and something that turns me off some Action films completely.

    But for me the fifties film adaptations of the Musashi story would be one of the most interesting Action movies from Japan. Both in terms of character growth (and Miyamoto Musashi is a fully fledged character rather than a heroic cut out) and in terms of pure Action story. Not to say that they are perfect, and there are some very uncomfortable themes as well, but on the whole I love them as cinema.

  6. Great American Satan says

    Always good to have recommendations and reviews. I especially like to know when something escapes the limitations that have turned me off from its genre, like a Japanese action story where the characters are more humanized. Getting out of the genre altogether, the best Japanese movies I’ve ever seen were Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s, in the horror genre and otherwise. That guy is so cool everyone in the world should kiss his moustache.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.