Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Difference Between The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

   The Action-Thriller film genre is best known for its exciting action packed plot and intense visual appeal. But spending a little more time on developing their heroes has proven to not only boost box office sales, but also provide new market space for sequels, prequels, and even figurines. Filmmakers are running out of new ways to save their damsels in distress and keep their car chases fresh. Action seeking fans are now going to the theater expecting more than the same stunts they’ve seen executed from different angles; now they want complex characters and simulating storylines. Whether moviegoers are realizing it or not, they’re flocking to character driven action films.

   The Coen Brothers have been keeping audiences entertained for years with their mix of action, thrill, and complex characters. Marge Gunderson (if her name isn’t enough of a description) is the unforgettable heroine in the 1996 thriller Fargo. She’s the pregnant sheriff in town, but make no mistake, she means business. Her intelligent and polite police work along with that Minnesota accent, makes her a likeable heroine few audiences can forget. And the Coen Brother’s antagonist from No Country For Old Men haunts your nightmares with his retractable steel bolt airgun reminding you to never steal money from him—the all-knowing, merciless Anton Chigurh. Characters like Marge and Chigurh are becoming the difference between a good action film and a great action film.
   Some of the best action films are defined by their protagonists such as Jason Bourne, John Rambo, Peter Parker and John McClane. These films can simply be referred to by their main characters because lets just face it, they are what make these movies great. Big explosions and bloody deaths just aren’t enough these days and more is being asked from writers of this formulaic genre. Now they have to edit out a few story twists and make room for compelling characters with more than a double barrel shotgun.
   Action films lack in dialog and usually focus more on telling story through physical action and that part is also changing more and more as we see more characters developing onscreen. Ridley Scott’s 1991 Thelma & Louise is a thriller adventure film that takes a serious interest in these two women’s lives and their characters grow and develop along with all the action. The action in this film appears to serve a greater purpose than just blowing up something or killing someone who gets in the way unlike many other films in its genre such as the 2008 Death Race which does just that. Death Race’s Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is unbelievably underdeveloped and the film suffers as a result. Too many characters die senseless deaths and explosions are pointless and have no effect on the lives of the characters. Visual appeal? Maybe, but nothing more. Death Race struggled to make its expected profit from box office sales and this should not come as a surprise to those who witnessed its absurdity.

   Christopher Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight has numerous complex characters that develop onscreen and without a doubt contribute to the film overall success. Heath Ledger portrays the best Joker to ever hit the screen. He adds the missing link that other jokers—including Jack Nicholson—couldn’t seem to grasp. He’s cruel and cold, heartless and thrillingly psychotic. His character alone makes the film a successful action thriller. In comparison, Halle Berry’s Patience Phillips in the 2004 Catwoman is an example of a poorly developed character that is to blame for the film’s failure. The filmmaker’s first mistake was choosing an idolized sex symbol like Halle Berry to play an already over sexed role like Catwoman. The action and killing in the film appears humorous rather than thrilling and no one can take Halle Berry’s performance for anything more than soft-core porn. Characters can easily make or break a film even in the action thriller genre.
   It’s no debate fans of action films aren’t going to the theater expecting life changing stories or heart felt dramas, but what films do they call great action thrillers? Is it films like Dragonball Evolution, The Mummy Returns and Hitman or Fight Club, Rocky, and Lethal Weapon? Many of the most popular and favorite action thrillers have an undeniable similarity in common. That similarity rests in its characters and their onscreen development.
   Psychotic Dr. Hannibal Lecter and relentless FBI agent Clarice Starling are among the many complexed characters in the 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs. This thriller is packed with jaw dropping action, but unlike most action films, it makes room for dialog and a slice of drama. Clarice doesn’t blow up anyone’s car or go on a random shooting rampage, but she does hunt down the scariest serial killer to ever graze the screen. Compared to the action crime thriller Bangkok Dangerous, …well there is no comparison other than the genre title. Bangkok Dangerous doesn’t have one intriguing character or memorable plot moment. The film is comprised of scenes where Nicolas Cage chases people, makes a mess, shoots them and blows stuff up—but nobody cares. The characters are so severely underdeveloped and simple that the viewer just doesn’t care enough about them for the ending of their lives to feel dramatic or be the least bit entertaining.
    Not all filmmakers are going to change their clichéd formula for action films into character driven action thrillers like The Matrix, Kill Bill, and Iron Man. But highly developed characters appear to be what’s attracting audiences and selling the tickets. Writers of the action thriller genre should make room in their scripts for an unethical Dirty Harry or an impervious Terminator; or otherwise prepare to suffer an excruciating death in sales.


  1. I've been wondering about the decline of the "Action Hero", like a Schwarzenegger, Stalone, or even Van Dam type. Your case actually makes a reasonably approach as to why they don't exist anymore, that being - people prefer action movies with actual characters. Although, being a guy, sometimes there's something awesome about a simple movie with non-cgi action, lol.