Kate's Criteria for Action Movies

Although I don't much enjoy pure action books or television series, I rather like a good action movie. Here are my criteria for what makes a good action movie:

1. The hero or heroine is a thinker as well as a fighter. 

For example, both Jason Bourne and Tony Stark, although physically adept and more than willing to utilize weapons when necessary, are primarily thinking-men. They problem-solve rather than just react. In fact, in some of my favorites, such The Fugitive, the hero doesn't even fight: Dr. Richard Kimble is entirely a thinking-man (but then, of course, Deputy Marshal Gerard does all the shooting).

2. There is one main character arc.

Sarah Connor accepts her destiny. The Terminator learns to sacrifice. Matt learns to be a hero the John McClane way.

These aren't romance movies. Or family dramas. One emotional change is enough.

3. The action sequences make sense within the world that they occur (mostly). That is, the action sequences don't rely on deux ex machinas (the hand of God).

In the first Terminator movie, Reese can't bring future weaponry back with him from the future. He and Sarah have to rely on conventional means/weaponry to destroy The Terminator. Achieving this is plausible: exploding gasoline and a crushing device can be found in more than one location.

On the other hand, in the second movie (which I quite like) it seems rather too convenient that the nearest factory just happens to contain an open vat of molten steel.

However, even the latter example is not as egregious as human bodies which just magically deflect machine gun fire. In The Matrix, Neo can lift the helicopter because his mind can encompass the possibility. The audience is prepared for just such an occurrence. But that shouldn't happen in any other action film. 

4. Set-ups are paid off. 

I have written about why I think Die Hard is such a great film. To recap, every single issue/question/character is paid off at the end of the film. There is nothing superfluous, nothing unanswered.

Drama viewers can have their "but real life doesn't have any solutions, life isn't that tidy . . . " blah-de-blahs. Action movies are all about pay-off: the stronger the pay-offs, the better the film.

5. However, the pay-offs should not just be things blowing up.

Things just blowing up is boring. Plinkett has more than adequately explained why the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Star Wars movies suffer so remarkably in comparison to the 4th, 5th, and 6th (the original 1st, 2nd, and 3rd) despite the advancements in digital special effects They have flash and glam but no heart.

As I mention in my Matrix review, the one thing everyone seems to remember from that movie is the cascading machine-gun shells from the helicopter. Simple awesome images last longer than a million kung fu moves.

Which doesn't mean the director should get too arty. Action movies tell a story; that should always be the focus.

6. There is an intimate relationship underlying the film's action.

This can be a romance a la Kimble's memories of his wife in The Fugitive. Or Neo's destined relationship with Trinity in The Matrix.

Or it can be good old-fashioned "guy gets gal"; Reese's quiet enthrallment with Sarah Connor in The Terminator is a great example.

However, the relationship doesn't have to be romantic.  McClane's discussions with Gruber in the first Die Hard are like a strong cable line underscoring the movie's action sequences (and were never reproduced to the same effect, no matter how hard the producers tried). Bourne's relationship with Pamela Landy (also by phone) in the second Bourne movie is another great example. McClane's relationship with Matt in Die Hard 4 is a great non-phone example.

7. There's no message or, if there is, it stays in the background. 

If you want a MESSAGE, read an editorial. Good fiction delivers its messages through story. Good action, especially, never allows the message to dictate its conclusions or overwhelm its narrative.

One reason I like Iron Man is that although Tony Stark gains a "soul" (or a "heart" as Pepper puts it) when he sees his weapons being misused, his reaction is not to retire to the country, foreswear technology, and start a farm. His solution is to build better technology and take sole responsibility for his misused weapons. This may not satisfy War is Bad advocates, but it sure makes a lot of sense in terms of Tony Stark's personality.

8. There's an adequate villain.

The villain doesn't have to be the most interesting character that ever leered his/her way on film, but a strong villain does give umph to the protagonist's journey. Part of this is the role; part is the actor. I consider Robert Patrick a great (even witty) villainous robot; I found Kristanna Loken (T3) a big bore (Schwarzenegger's Terminator in the first movie is less a villain and more an introduction to a concept). From the Die Hard films, Alan Rickman stands out a mile.

I will settle for one-dimensional heroes (Stane in Iron Man) as long as they don't demand too much screen time. However, in general, I do find the hero's alter-ego or protagonist (Landry, Gerard) more interesting than the straight villain. Pirates owes a great deal of its fun to the noble antagonist (played by the very funny Jack Davenport) on the one hand and the ruffian antagonist (Geoffrey Rush) on the other.

Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith gets his own category. 

Kate's List of Good and Great Action Films

Not all my preferred action films meet all my criteria, but most meet most of them. 

Die Hard
Die Hard 4: Live Free or Die Hard
Bourne Identity
Bourne Supremacy
The Hunt for Red October (in general, I don't much enjoy spy movies รก la Clancy and James Bond, but I like this one)
The Fugitive
Independence Day (no, it doesn't meet most of my criteria, but it's so much gosh darn fun; likewise . . .)
Pirates of the Caribbean (first movie only)
Men in Black*
The Matrix*
Iron Man*
The Terminator*
The Terminator 2*(the theatrical version FIRST)

*I place the last five in action rather than sci-fi/fantasy/superhero genres. Batman Begins is a superhero movie; Ironman is an action movie. The difference, I would say, is the focus on character development. Batman Begins is about Bruce Wayne; Ironman is about Ironman (who happens to be Tony Stark). Likewise, Men in Black is about J (Will Smith), but it is about J as J (more than J as a police officer or individual).

While going through possible action films, I realized that my definition is fairly specific. Witness is suspense/drama; Raiders of the Lost Ark is action. I also realized that I'm far more choosy with action films than I am with any other genre! Go figure!!

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