Why the goals of action movies need to be more contained

As Die Hard 5 prepares to set John McClane up as saviour of the planet, are action movies losing the ability to successfully balance the stakes?

Think back to the action movies that, over the past decade or two, have genuinely impressed. Think Die Hard, Speed, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Con Air, The Killer, the Bourne trilogy, Aliens, films such as that. When, last week, we asked people on our Twitter what their favourite action movies of recent times were, it was names such as these, and some of the films I’m going to mention, that kept cropping up.

Interestingly, pretty much every action film recommended had the same thing in common: alongside their impressive action sequences was a narrative that was manageable. That knew where to pitch the stakes for the characters, and as a consequence, make the film more interesting and easier to buy into.

It’s interesting to note, too, that the most acclaimed action movie of this year, The Raid (or The Raid: Redemption if you live in the US) works on similar rules. The goal for its leads? To sweep through an apartment block. Nothing more sinister or overarching than that.

Looking ahead, then, to next year’s A Good Day To Die Hard suggests that the goals of the Hollywood action movie have changed. When we first met John McClane, after Argyle picked him up from the plane, his mission was simple. Terrorists had taken control of Nakatomi Plaza, and ultimately, he wanted to save his wife. Appreciating that sequels tend to ramp up the stakes each time, even Die Hard 2 was centred around that core: McClane was motivated by the desire to save the one he loved the most. That’s the guts of an objective that’s not difficult to get behind, and it makes even the more extreme actions of McClane all the more warranted.

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By Die Hard 3, that motivation was gone. Instead, the driving goal of Die Hard With A Vengeance was, for most of the film, to stop a school blowing up. Granted, things were getting a bit looser, but at least it was a manageable objective, and a believable one.

I think it’s fair to say that, by the fourth film, the Die Hard films were becoming a bit unrecognisable, though. I enjoyed Die Hard 4.0, but the stakes were suddenly a lot, lot less interesting. Hackers taking over and bringing the country to a standstill? Driving a truck away from a military jet plane? These aren’t the kind of jobs that John McClane was created to tackle, and the second half of the film really suffered, as there was no logical reason why all of this should be taking place. Nor why we should care about it.

The fifth film, A Good Day To Die Hard, starts shooting next month, meanwhile, and it will see McClane sent to Moscow (a bit of a stretch, considering a lot of the conflict in the second film was caused by McClane’s refusal to move to Los Angeles to be with his wife), this time to save the world. Given that the plan is to make one more Die Hard movie after the fifth, you couldn’t convincingly rule out sending John McClane into space to take out a freshly discovered Death Star at this rate.

Films where the underlying plot is blown out of all proportion are not in short supply. Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, unlike much earlier Michael Bay action flicks, came down to a dull global threat. The same could be said for Battle: Los Angeles, the increasingly baffling Matrix sequels, the weaker Bond movies: they’re unified by unrelateable plots that it’s hard to give two hoots about. Not that size of the threat is everything. On the other side of the scale, The A-Team movie seemed to be a battle to get hold of printing plates, and I’ve yet to meet a single person who would find that an interesting premise for any kind of film.

It’s a hard job, then, managing the stakes in an action movie, but history tells us that a single, understandable (but not necessarily realistic) goal makes for a far more interesting film. Any bland villain can come in and talk about taking over the world, and it’s an objective that’s of very little interest.

However, look at the action movies we remember and cherish the most. Part and parcel of them was a mission that we could get behind, understand, and root for. In the Bourne series, everything that Jason Bourne did was motivated by finding out who he was. In the best Indiana Jones films, there was a quest for an object of sorts. Speed? Well, the bus is going to blow up, with the characters on it, unless something is done about it.

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The Killer? It’s an assassin trying to find the money to fund an operation to save someone’s eyesight. Con Air? The prisoners want to escape. Even the joyous Crank is based on Jason Statham’s character simply trying to stay alive. In the scheme of the world, these aren’t big objectives. It’s not the only contributory factor to the individual films’ successes (you can have a great story and crappy action sequences, and that rarely makes for a great action movie), but it’s important. Spectacle in an action movie is not defined by making the story as big, broad and unrelatable as possible.

Even moving into science fiction action films, when the stakes are contained, the film tends to be more interesting. Aliens starts off as an investigation into why contact has been lost with a colony, and ends as a let’s-try-and-get-out-of-here-alive movie. The first two Terminator films centre on characters just trying to stay alive, rather than stop the impending Skynet threat (interestingly, when Skynet took centre stage later in the franchise, so the story seemed less involving). And as barmy as Face/Off may be at times, it’s ultimately a film about one man trying to catch the other.

Ramping up the worldwide stakes isn’t always a bad idea, but it is an increasingly lazy one. That’s because, instead of finding a smaller, more interesting story, it follows the tired mantra of make another one, and make it bigger.

But size and scale doesn’t come from typing “saves the world” or something of its ilk into a pitch document. It comes from giving us compelling characters in a scenario that doesn’t have to be necessarily utterly believable, yet does need to be one with something we can hook into. It has to be something worth sitting through two hours to find out the answer to, rather than, by the end of act two, wondering how long it’ll take the film to draw the lines between the dots that most of the audience connected ages ago. After all, if the audience is doing that anyway, has its interest in the main characters and their predicament waned?

A Good Day To Die Hard does have a second weapon in its locker, namely introducing the relationship between John McClane and his estranged son. Granted, it covered similar ground in the last film, but it’s arguably its strongest chance of grounding its story. Because, on paper at least, the idea of the everyday hero suddenly being in the position of saving the planet, rather than battling hostages and dealing with Ellis, makes it the least interesting sounding film in the franchise to date.

I look forward to being proved wrong.

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