The ABCs – 26 Criteria For Action Movies
The ABCs of Action.
It’s the name of the site.
Few people, if any, go into an action movie expecting a sublime, transcendent, life-affirming experience. Usually people want the same sort of thing they’re already accustomed to from previous action movies, only maybe with a clever twist or a new take on something familiar.
Hollywood knows this. Which is why I bring you…
Twenty-six criteria present in most action movies. Something can’t be formulaic without the formula being in place.
Let’s dive in.
A is for…
It’s no secret that in a lot of American movies, villains have accents. Either the villain is actually foreign and our hero is in his country, or the villain lives in/has infiltrated America. It certainly makes Americans look xenophobic. Maybe the British accent would sound less haughty to American ears if villains weren’t so often depicted with British accents, and Russian accents wouldn’t sound evil if fewer villains were depicted as Russian.
Cartoons are possibly the biggest example of this. Scar in The Lion King is the only family member to have a British accent, and Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale in Rocky and Bullwinkle are “Russian,” though to be fair Rocky and Bullwinkle was created during the Cold War.
So, how many action movies have villains with accents?
An interesting reversal of this trope is also a characteristic of action movies: a lot of American action stars aren’t American at all. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jason Statham, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan are all from countries outside the US. Granted sometimes they play the villain (Terminator, Lethal Weapon 4, etc.) but these men are all action stars.
What other heroes or villains will I discover to have accents?
B is for…
What separates an action movie from a merely guns-and-violence-temporary-escape-from-reality from a repeatedly watched favorite movie sometimes comes down to the villain. The viewer should ask, receive answers for, and care about:
Who is the villain?
What’s his motivation?
What does he do to get what he wants?
Is he particularly wicked, or fairly average?
C is for…
Sometimes the most exciting part of an action movie, other than the hero/villain showdown climax, is the car chase. Or boat chase, motorcycle chase, airplane chase, dog sled chase, whatever methods of transportation are handy. There’s the heart-pounding music, the fast-moving vehicles dodging obstacles, sometimes gunfire, and goons falling off/into/over stuff. If an action movie wants to grab its audience’s attention, a dynamic chase scene is a good way to do it.
D is for…
For better or for worse, a lot of action movies have a female character that interacts with the male hero. Maybe she’s a loved one he’s trying to rescue. Maybe she’s a partner with whom he’s forced to work. Maybe she’s someone he found along the way. Maybe she’s the villain’s sidekick/lover or the villain herself.
Sometimes having to rescue a damsel in distress is the purest form of motivation for the hero. His wife/girlfriend/daughter/sister must be saved, and he will do anything in his power to save her.
Forced partnerships seem to involve a lot of “made up romance” (see “Unexpected Romance” further down the list) or downright antagonism as the hero wants nothing to do with his new female partner, and she resents his undisguised apathy or outright disdain.
Women found along the way—hostages, targets, wrong-place-wrong-time unwilling partners à la Speed—can become valuable partners or be a continual hindrance depending on how competent they are when the hero needs them to either accomplish something or refrain from doing something.
Female villains can pose a problem for the hero typically not used to fighting “girls.” Usually the villainess will dominate a hand-to-hand fight until the hero recognizes she means business. Then the hero treats her the way he’d treat any villain, often to her death.
E is for…
Explosives, explosions…Either way the typical action movie fan walks into the theater thinking “Gimme gimme gimme.” Sometimes stuff getting blown up is all a person asks for from a movie. Some directors *cough*MichaelBay*cough* take this wish too far, but a well-timed non-gratuitous explosion can make an audience reel back in excitement, or lean forward in anticipation.
What is getting blown up with what when for what purpose?
F is for…
Sometimes our hero is plagued by dreams, nightmares, daydreams, or simply scattered thoughts that form some level of his motivation. Did a loved one leave him? Did a partner die? What is the flashback and what does it have to do with the hero’s current circumstances?
G is for…
Not all action movies feature a hero who uses guns. But most of those on my list do feature guns. Big ones, small ones, multiple ones, automatic, semi-automatic, revolvers… When there are terrorists afoot, for what weapon does our hero reach? Does the villain have something bigger?
H is for…
Gotta love ‘em. They allow people to fly in tight, maneuverable spaces using vertical lift to perform tricks impossible with other vehicles. Some have guns on them, while some hold reporters documenting events. Does the hero fly one, or just the villain? Or are the police chasing our hero? With few exceptions, action movies require helicopters.
I find helicopters so interesting because they’re vehicles that everyone knows exist yet they aren’t an everyday sight like cars or buses, and generally have less screen time in television and movies of other genres. Seeing them up close either holding a hero, chasing something, or being used as a weapon is maybe not unique to action movies, but they’re the best places to find choppers.
I is for…
This is one of my favorite categories. Sometimes all our hero has on him when the villain starts making trouble is his service weapon and his wits. If he’s lucky. So what becomes a weapon when few actual weapons are available? Is there an oxygen tank nearby? Maybe some hairspray and a lighter? Does gravity become vital to the plot?
It’s a lot more exciting to leave a theater thinking, “Did you see the way he MacGyvered that explosive out of gum and pushpins?!” than, “He used his gun, and then took a bad guy’s gun.”
The very fact that I can make a verb out of a character’s name and readers understand what I mean indicates how legendary improvisation can be.
What makes our hero human and creative when he can’t fall back upon his training?
J is for…
Jumping Through Solid Objects.
Generally a pane of glass poses no problem for our hero or villains. Movie-glass falls to pieces upon contact, which is why so many characters fall or leap through it without a second thought.
What else might the hero jump or fall through? A solid wall? Ice? The floor? A fence?
K is for…
Generally the hero saves the day and seemingly is not prosecuted for any incidental death he causes during the process. Surely every kill was made in self-defense.
But just how high is that kill count? Did the hero only kill the handful of people directly in his way? Or did he take down an entire military compound? Did he cause a plane to crash or a boat to sink?
L is for…
Not everyone is super human. What limits our hero? Did he not put on shoes? Is he totally on his own or does he have a partner or crew that might be saving him at any time? Is he afraid of water/flying/heights/snakes/anything? Can he not be the badass he wants to be because his kid is watching?
M is for…
Why is our hero risking his life? To save someone? To keep something potentially dangerous out of the wrong hands? Fulfilling a promise? Because if he doesn’t no one else will? Just what keeps the hero from saying, “Screw this,” and hopping the next taxi or airplane home?
N is for…
As explained in the “Bad Guys” category and in “Motivation,” the villain and the hero generally want something. Separate things, of course. Maybe the villain wants money and the hero wants to keep him from getting it. Maybe the villain wants to rescue a political prisoner and the hero wants to ensure that doesn’t happen. What conversation(s) do they have to come to a compromise? Is anyone willing to give anything up? What about negotiations for the life of the villain or hero–you know the kind, where the hero lets the villain go or helps him only to then be attacked.
O is for…
Because so many action movies feature one hero or even a group of heroes working in different sections of a town/building/etc., there’s often only one conscious person on the screen at a time unless there’s gun slinging or explosions or chases. This leads to a lot of “silent” minutes that the hero decides to fill by talking to himself. Or maybe he’s trying to quip with the villain.
There are the “funny” one liners (Die Hard’s “Now I know what a TV dinner feels like”) and the ones that are intended to be serious but usually wind up funny either at the time or in retrospect (The Terminator’s “I’ll be back.”).
Is the hero in question being funny (or generally causing the audience to laugh or groan) or is he being serious?
P is for…
What does our hero do? Is he in the military or law enforcement, and thus at least moderately prepared for gun slinging and hand-to-hand combat? Or is he a victim of “wrong place wrong time” and has to try to learn and improvise on the fly?
Q is for…
What sort of particularly sticky wicket has our hero found himself in? Is he out of bullets, facing a bomb that’s about to explode, and a hostage is about to be killed? Is it his own lack of planning or an act of God or the villain being just that ruthless? Does it seem our hero has reached the end of his journey and only a miracle can save him?
R is for…
Reality, or lack thereof (aka Suspension of Disbelief).
Certain things are nearly always a given for action movies:
-guns will only run out of bullets if it’s a plot point
-someone who should be on the hero’s side will do something that hinders him
-villains outline their schemes or otherwise give away too much information that later helps the heroes defeat them
-cars will always explode upon impact with anything
-computer hackers can hack into any system, no matter how complex, in a matter of minutes (unless the plot requires that they can’t)
But certain things require the audience to suspend their disbelief more than the “typical” amount and therefore question what is possible in reality. Do certain things explode that volatilely when impacted with a bullet? Can a regular person kick/punch through certain materials like window glass or walls? Can a person hang on the wing of an aircraft as it takes flight? Are people really that stupid to the point where the viewer is rolling his eyes and wants the character to get killed, good guy or not?
S is for…
A hero is usually not fighting his fight solo. Sure, he’s generally on his own to fight the battle, but often he has someone either literally by his side, or someone he can count on to complete objectives from a distance. Who is the sidekick? Is he or she a long-time friend or associate of the hero? Or is it someone picked up along the way, either willingly or not? Just what is his or her role—muscle, morale, tech know-how?
T is for…
First off, is there any, or are the characters pretty much guns-and-fists kind of guys? Or is the plot driven by technology—maybe someone needs a password or a harddrive or is running a computer mainframe. How does the hero use tech to help himself, or, what technology is the villain using that surpasses that of the hero?
U is for…
Of all categories, this is the one that makes me roll my eyes the most. You have a guy trying to save someone or some people or a building or a town or whatever, and somehow, even though he usually only met her a day or two ago, the hero winds up in love with or sleeping with the token female character.
Or my least favorite thing, badness is happening all around them or a timer is counting down or something is on fire or something needs to happen right away but the hero and the woman take the time to make out a little.
Because that’s utterly plausible in the real world. “This bomb is about to go off in thirty seconds and that hostage is about to be dragged to his death, but sure, we can play tonsil hockey for a bit. You know, it’ll help me relax.”
Maybe love at first shoot out exists, but can’t the romance wait until the hero knows the woman’s last name, she’s seen him without bruises and cuts, or at the very least the adrenaline is no longer in his and her systems?
V is for…
Vehicles as weapons.
Yet another of my favorite categories. To quote Matt Farrell in Live Free or Die Hard, “You just killed a helicopter with a car!” Love it though I do, that film in particular seems to devolve into “Have John McClane thrown a car at it. That’ll stop it.”
Other movies aren’t free of the trope either. Maybe it’s not a car. Maybe that motorcycle or powerboat or biplane has another purpose other than getting a person from A to B. The sheer creativity that goes into making a Jet Ski a weapon is highly entertaining.
W is for…
You know it’s going to happen. No one goes into an action movie with any sort of remote thought that the bad guy will come out on top. It’s against convention and Hollywood and what people want to see. Good wins, evil loses. Case closed, let’s go out for pizza.
But how does the hero emerge victorious? A big shootout that ends with a lucky shot? A moped being thrown accurately? A handy chain dangling loosely enough to be used as a noose? A crash or explosion? What takes out the villain? Bonus points for it being the villain’s own fault.
X is for…
X-rays, or Maybe You Should See A Doctor.
This category falls partly into Reality/Suspension of Disbelief, because it’s very hard to believe that a guy who fell three stories through a building after getting shot after getting kicked multiple times in the face after surviving a car explosion can possibly be of any use against a villain who’s been walking around threateningly by himself in total comfort. When the hero is covered in blood and limping, yeah, usually he should be getting some x-rays and downing some pain killers, but instead he’s out there trying to finish the job.
Or maybe it’s the villain who’s been exploded or crushed or shot or otherwise should be in pieces or a coma yet he’s able to drag himself to consciousness for one last shot at the hero. Clearly in order to be a villain or a hero a person needs to be indestructible.
Y is for…
Yesterday’s Problem Becomes Today’s Problem
Any time the hero seems to have unfinished business, it comes back to haunt him. Maybe someone he met and should have realized was bad but didn’t. Maybe someone from his past he was supposed to kill but didn’t. Or did kill but didn’t do a good enough job. Maybe he never got those parking tickets cleared up and his car gets impounded right when he needs it. Maybe there was a skill he kept putting off learning. How did the hero make his life that much more difficult?
Z is for…
Zone, Being in the.
Often achieved through use of a montage, the hero is usually shown in some sort of “zone.” Maybe he’s building or training. Maybe he’s just thinking. There’s got to be some depiction of the hero developing himself or a tool to help himself.
Not all action movies are going to have every single criteria, but they all should come pretty close.