The 5 most common action movie plots
Behind every great action movie, there’s some sort of flimsy excuse for the shooting. Here’s our list of genre’s five most common plotlines…
In screenwriting classes, they call it the inciting incident. For filmgoers, it’s perhaps quietly filed in the back of their brain as ‘the reason why the hero buys a gun and starts killing lots of bad guys.’
It’s often said that, in all forms of art, we’re really just telling the same stories over and over again – and so it is with the action genre. As chaotic and senseless as such films often appear to be, even the trashiest and ineptly made have at least a flimsy excuse for all the explosions and shoot-outs.
To this end, here are the five basic action movie plots as we understand them. The actors who play the heroes and villains may change, the settings may vary, and the explosions occur at different moments, but almost every action movie ever made will fall happily into one of the five categories outlined below.
Your interpretations may vary, of course, so if you’ve thought of the hallowed sixth action movie plot, feel free to share it with the world in the comments.
Let’s start with a particularly common one. The villain has left the hero for dead, or killed the hero’s brother, sister, parents, wife or family pets. Filled with righteous fury, the hero tools up and embarks on a bloody rampage.
The catalyst in everything from classic kung-fu movies, Chuck Norris beardfest Lone Wolf McQuaid, Kill Bill, and almost every script Luc Besson’s ever written, the revenge scenario’s a popular one because it’s so simple for audiences to get behind. Not everyone can understand the subtle nuances of a political thriller, or relate to the plight of characters in a historical drama, but Steven Seagal hunting down the corrupt cops who put him in a coma and killed his wife? That’s a plot everyone can follow, even after five pints of strong lager.
Screenwriters, meanwhile, are saddled with the tricky task of dreaming up new revenge scenarios. Across a gun-crazy career that spanned two decades, architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) avenged the death of his wife (Death Wish, 1974), daughter (Death Wish II, 1982), best friend Charley and new love interest Kathryn (Death Wish 3, 1985), another girlfriend’s daughter and her boyfriend (Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, 1987), and yet another girlfriend (Death Wish V: The Face Of Death, 1994).
With a run of bad luck like that, you’d forgive Kersey for sealing himself up in his room with a bottle of gin and never answering the door again. Instead, he reacts to each tragic situation as any right-minded hero would: by loading up his elephant gun and shooting at every mugger, drug dealer, mobster and punk that crosses his path. The lesson to be learned here? Don't mess with architects in wigs.
Random bad guy quote: “They killed the giggler!”
A scenario almost as simple to understand as revenge: our hero is trapped in a secure location, and wit, cunning, and a large supply of bullets will be required to get back out. The secure location, of course, can vary wildly – in siege movies, such as the classic Assault On Precinct 13, an otherwise normal police precinct is turned into a prison by the dozens of faceless bad guys lurking outside.
Escape plots more commonly see heroes having to get out of a literal prison. Escape From New York saw Kurt Russell trying to get both himself and the American President out of a future Manhattan, now a huge, walled-up penal colony. In Fortress, Christopher Lambert has to escape from a futuristic maximum security prison where every prisoner is implanted with an Intestinator (a tiny bomb planted in the gut).
The film that changed this entire action movie scenario forever was Die Hard, which famously trapped Bruce Willis in a single location (a high-tech plaza) besieged by a dozen eccentric terrorists. The success of this film resulted in dozens of similar action flicks in which heroes snuck around in confined spaces, from ships (Under Siege), prisons (The Rock), trains (Under Siege 2) and sporting arenas (Sudden Death).
Con Air is surely among the finest post Die Hard action movies, and a good example, too, of a common dilemma faced by writers of escape plots: finding a valid reason for the hero to be put in prison in the first place. Obviously, a man of virtue can't be an actual convicted murderer (even though he or she will inevitably kill approximately 100 people in the rest of the movie), so they'll have to have either been framed for a crime they didn't commit, or some over spurious reason.
In Con Air, Army Ranger hero Cameron Poe (the mighty Nic Cage) is jailed for accidentally killing a drunken man who attempted to assault his pregnant wife. You’d think that Poe’s track record as an upstanding soldier, and the fact that the dead man in question died with a flick knife next to him may have led the judge to go easy on him, but no – Poe ends up spending several years in what appears to be the most violent prison on the planet, before being dragged off by his captors for the plane ride from hell.
Random bad guy quote: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I have the only gun on board. Welcome to Con Air.”
The distant cousin of the revenge flick, the assassination scenario sees a hero or group of heroes journey to a distant land to kill someone evil. Such was the skeletal plot of The Expendables, an excuse for Sly Stallone and his fitness freak friends to pump up, wear berets and kill the dictator of a mythical island somewhere off the coast of South America.
The assassination scenario can also be seen in period action pictures like The Dirty Dozen (convicts versus a chateau full of Nazis), kung fu movies like Enter The Dragon (Bruce Lee versus island-based criminal Mr Han), and even highbrow, transcendental war movies like Apocalypse Now (Martin Sheen versus a mumbling Marlon Brando).
The Raid, due out in May in the UK, is quite possibly the ultimate assassination flick – a group of elite cops storm a high-rise building governed by an evil drug lord, triggering a multi-storey war involving guns, huge knives, axes and fridges.
The difference between the assassination plot and the revenge plot is that its heroes seldom have a particular axe to grind with the antagonist – for their sins, the protagonists are given a mission, and they’ll damn well complete it, regardless of the risk to life and limb.
The scenario was elevated to its zenith in Michael Bay’s majestic disaster, action and sci-fi confection, Armageddon, where Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and a space shuttle full of character actors are shipped off to assassinate a rock the size of Texas. In space, no one can hear you play Aerosmith.
Random quote: “Man, what are you doing with a gun in space?”
One of the less common action movie plots on this list, but still an effective one: after all, what could be more heroic than defending a group of innocent people from the oppression of a group of heavily-armed bad guys? This was the catalyst for the violent bits in James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi romance action eco-fable, Avatar, in which Sam Worthington becomes a part of an alien tribe, and ends up helping them fight an evil corporation and the even more evil Colonel Quaritch, played by Stephen Lang.
Cameron has admitted that Avatar was partly inspired by Dances With Wolves, in which Kevin Costner becomes a part of a Sioux tribe and fights against white American troops. It’s equally likely, we’d argue, that Cameron was inspired by Red Scorpion, the 1989 action flick where Dolph Lundgren plays a Soviet soldier who switches allegiance and fights against Russian oppression in Africa, all while clad in the tiniest shorts available to humanity.
Unfortunately, director Joseph Zito didn’t have Avatar’s special effects budget, so instead of tall blue creatures fighting giant robots wielding knives, Red Scorpion concludes with Lundgren shooting a bunch of stuntmen in what appears to be a disused airfield.
Random bad guy quote: “This is such a small space... and this is such a very big grenade!”
Where would action movies be if no one had invented kidnapping? There’d be no Delta Force, and Liam Neeson wouldn’t have had a reason to kill half the population of Paris in Taken. There’d certainly be no Commando, perhaps the finest kidnap-based action movie ever made – and certainly among the most over-the-top.
A group of mercenaries foolishly kidnap the daughter of Arnold Schwarzenegger (here working under the pseudonym Colonel John Matrix). Enraged, Arn-huld uses the bad guys for target practise.
Although the damsel in distress has been a staple of art and literature since time began, in modern action movies, the abductee isn’t necessarily always female. In Rambo 3, for example, Richard Crenna’s Colonel Trautman was the princess, Soviet-controlled Afghanistan the castle, while Rambo himself was the night in shining body oil.
Random bad guy quote: “One man against trained commandos. Who do you think this man is? God?”
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If there’s one thing that links all the action movie plots above, it’s that they’re simple, direct, and deal with the kind of aggressive encounters humans have been having with each other since society began. People have been besieging or defending castles ever since they were first built. Approximately one week after the railway line was invented, a dastardly villain kidnapped an innocent woman and tied her to it.
The situations differ, and the weapons have become more advanced, but the stories seldom change. As long as bad guys keep doing bad things to good people, there’ll always be a vest-wearing action hero around to even the score – no doubt armed with the biggest machine gun known to military science.