How To Make A Good Action Movie? Elements of the Genre – Action
by Pratyush Velicheti | May 24th, 2020
It’s safe to say that action movie today in general, are suffering in quality. Even a casual movie viewer would know this, as it is that apparent. Sure a lot of them may have been box office successes because it sells. There have been so many great action films such as John Wick, and that have been box office bombs, but we all now know that it’s widely credited for its brilliance and rightfully so.
Most of the action movies have diminished in quality by a significant amount, and there are a few basic components that have led to the genre’s downfall in quality.
So if you are interested in making a good action film, be sure to keep these components in mind.
1. The Story/Plot.
It is honestly surprising how so many filmmakers have just overlooked arguably the most important component of all films, its story. Nowadays every film feels like another version of another remake of another great film from a long time ago. They just feel like different versions of each other.
As mentioned above, people still pay and go to watch them, but even a casual viewer knows what they are watching is the expected product and even accepts that the content is not good enough. And they also know when they have seen something that’s different, new, original, and special (movies like John Wick, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Edge of Tomorrow).
Let’s look at the plot of a classic action film, that will never be forgotten and is popularly known as one of the greatest action films ever made; The Matrix.
Even after more than 2 decades, it’s got one of the most original and authentic concepts ever seen in cinema. Not only was the action in the movie good, but the story was one of the most riveting parts of the entire franchise. Released in 1999, it was so ahead of its time as no one had ever seen anything like it before, and that’s one of the reasons it’s still so popular. It’s got such a compelling plot.
For one of the greatest action films of all time, the first matrix has only 2 major fight scenes. That itself should say a lot about the importance of a good story.
It’s not like the Fast and Furious franchise where it feels like the car chases were shot first, and the plot was written around them.
2: The Characters : (the hero and the villain).
Another thing that seems so obvious to me is ignored by so many filmmakers today is, not creating deep and realistic characters. How do you expect to make a good film without having a good protagonist and antagonist around whom the whole movie is meant to revolve!!? Today characters are basically all just super invincible bulky guys who can literally fight monsters (yes I’m looking at you Rampage) without getting even a scratch on their faces. These aren’t even superhero films, just almost every normal regular action film now does this, which is simply appalling.
Your character has to be a real human being for your audience to be able to relate and root for them, expecting the real danger, that something could happen to them. Real people aren’t invincible, they have fears, they have flaws, they have emotions.
Let’s take another example of a classic action film Kill Bill. The protagonist is more powerful than imaginable, goes through the worst of the worst of experiences, kills more than a thousand people. Unrealistic? Yes. But is her character unrelatable? Not. We as an audience can still relate to her due to all the human aspects of her character; losing a child, losing a lover, being betrayed, these are all things we relate to. That’s why even with such over the top action sequences, we still feel a real danger as to her getting hurt, and we root for her and care about her getting her revenge.
This in contrast to Dwayne Johnson jumping from the hundredth floor of a skyscraper with only a few drops of bloodshed, Uma Thurman’s character was real, and hence we felt invested in finding out what happens to her. Your characters have to have vulnerability and humanity in them because they are human after all. Even the best, most powerful superheroes are relatable due to their humanity and vulnerability. Take a look at Logan, an aged helpless wolverine, at the brink of death suffering blows after blows, is what makes it feel real and makes the movie interesting and riveting to watch.
Now there are two sides to every coin, and a hero’s opposite is the villain. A villain is another aspect that a filmmaker cannot afford to overlook, as they are as important as the hero itself. I cannot emphasize how important it is to have a compelling villain, who is the polar opposite of our hero while having one thing in common that connects them both. The villain also has to have a philosophy/motive that is clearly understood by the audiences, because that’s what makes any character compelling and understandable, and it makes the plot more interesting to know where both the hero and the villain are coming from.
Taking an example of one of the greatest villains of all time, The Joker in The Dark Knight, we can observe how in reality batman can easily shatter the joker’s skull to pieces, but due to the psychological advantage that is held over batman by the joker, is what makes him a worthy nemesis. The joker knows how to push every button in order to push batman over the edge of his sanity.
To top this off, in the interrogation scene in this film, the joker explains to batman how they are similar. How they are both considered to be freaks, who aren’t similar to any other resident of Gotham, and will never be accepted into society due to this.
So here is the connection that needs to be established to make your villain more compelling.
All these components add complexity and depth to the character which is what makes the audience even more interested and invested.
Another great villain, Darth Vader can be analyzed and brought down to just another guy, who’s been through a lot of trauma, which led him to become who he is today. And of course the connection to Luke is that he is his father. Make your villains and heroes feel real by not only adding humane elements to them, but also making them relatable, understandable, and memorable.
3: The stunts.
This is a no brainer, as an action movie without stunts would be like a stand up without any jokes. It would be incomplete and meaningless. Action movie stunts today despite having all the technological advances available, aren’t as good as they used to be. This is because all actors don’t do their stunts. Think about it, every time there is an edit/cut in a scene, it breaks the flow of the sequence which subconsciously signals to the viewer that what they are watching isn’t real.
Now these cuts are incorporated to hide the fact that:
- The stunt is being performed by a double.
- it isn’t really happening, it’s CGI.
This directly affects the scene and the whole sequence of the film as it loses its momentum and rush. It loses its intensity. But remember, the problem isn’t the edits/cuts, the problem here is that the stunt is simply not happening. It’s that simple, and the audience isn’t stupid at all, they are always aware of it when it’s CGI, or fake.
So if you want to make an action film, remember to cast someone willing to do their stunts. Look at actors such as Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves, and Jackie Chan, they have been doing their stunts from the beginning due to them being aware of the dilemma explained above. They are dedicated to their craft, and it shows.
I remember in 2014 watching mission impossible Ghost protocol, and I remember what my 12-year-old self felt while watching the now-famous Burj Khalifa. My jaw was dropped throughout, my sweaty palms gripped the hand rests hard and my mind was simply blown away.
This was because we could see that it was actually Tom cruise and not some random stuntman who was doing the stunt. Because we knew it was really him, it felt like it was really happening. He was actually climbing the building and that’s what made the sequence feel so real. Simply because it was real.
Even in the latest Mission Impossible: Fallout, the Halo jump scene was so exhilarating because there weren’t any edited cuts in the whole sequence. From the moment his feet left the plane, to when they reached the ground, it was all done in one take. This was possible because Tom Cruise literally jumped off a plane (and so the cameraman with a whole camera rig mind you) and because it was real we could feel it while watching the film.
4: The Camera Work.
Almost every Hollywood action film now uses the shaky camera technique which is having the camera shake deliberately. this is one of the most annoying things to have to sit through in an action film. It’s the cheap way out from actually shooting well-choreographed and well-written action scenes, to just editing some clips together and adding sound effects to add it up into a sequence. The problem isn’t with the camera technique, the problem is with how it is used.
Taking an example from the Bourne films, all of them are filled with shaky-cam scenes, but it works in this case because it’s used the way it’s supposed to be used. You need to understand those camera movements convey a lot. It’s not just there to show something happening on the screen, but also to convey emotion and character’s movements. Camera angles and Techniques are hugely important in what they convey. The Bourne films use this technique not to find a cheap way out from actually doing a stunt, but because it is incorporated into the film in an elaborately thought out and choreographed manner. In these films, the camera shakes to convey the punches and the moves that the characters make. We can see that actors are very much invested in the scene due to the multiple white shorts that are also incorporated into the sequence. Filmmakers need to understand that you cannot just pick anything from a good film and randomly add it to your film and expect to work like it did in the original. You have to choreograph and write the whole thing out and have it detailed to the bone to have a successful stunt.
A good way to shoot your action sequences is in wide long shots that aren’t edited with cuts every 10 seconds, but keep on rolling as it follows the character’s fights or the character’s movements. A great example of this would be the John Wick movies and the Indonesian action film The Raid, along with other martial arts films. You can notice the long wide shorts that are incorporated into the film which make it all feel real and authentic because they are real and authentic. It’s a time-consuming process, but worth it for sure.
Remember that you can have everything set to perfection, you can have a perfect story, perfect actors, perfect stunts, but if your camera work/techniques aren’t well-thought-out, then the film can fall apart.
Focus on cinematography, focus on choreography, focus on the sound design, focus on not only the punches and the kicks, but also the actors acting in between them. The perfect collaboration of these elements can constitute making a quality action movie.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Pratyush Velicheti
An aspiring writer and a film fanatic, actively creating content for a thriving Instagram page – ‘Waves of Thoughts’