I’m getting goosebumps/jonesing to watch Armageddon just thinking about this subject.
A couple weeks ago, I laid out the fundamentals to creating the Protagonist’s Name in a Bad Action Movie. The name is key, but it’s also the easy part. More essential and more complex a factor, is the identify, the persona behind the name. The character who embodies the right style, moves, moxie, skills, brains and/or brawn is the most important component to the Great Bad Action Flick. He’s gotta be pre-programmed to pilot every vehicle and operate every weapon on the planet. He has to have the ability to casually utter the phrase “we’ve got company” as a battalion of enemy soldiers approaches, AK’s, sniper rifles and flamethrowers all pointed at his head. He has to have flaws too though, has to show weakness, has to be human and relatable at some point.
Constructing and revealing this persona is delicate, nuanced, it’s not as cut and dry as checking a couple boxes to come up with a name. Ha, just kidding. Basically anyone who is capable of following a recipe to make lasagna and has a decent grasp on the English language would be qualified to create this character.
Mix the ingredients/characteristics from these two lists and you really can’t go wrong.
1-2 parts from Group A + 1-2 parts from Group B and BOOM. You’ve got your guy.
Characteristic Group A
- The Best
- The Best of the Best
- The Elite of the Elite
- The most dangerous, most decorated, deadliest, etc.
- Highly trained, graduated from the top of his class *bonus points if Harvard, MIT,
Ole Miss, Stanford, or other top tier institution is mentioned*
- The only person on the planet that could pull this off
Characteristic Group B
- Plays by his own rules, plays fast and loose, has little to no respect for authority
- Has been wronged, and is out for vengeance
- A close, but more intense cousin of ‘out for vengeance’ – out for vengeance… with nothing to lose
- Falsely accused or convicted and is out to clear his name
- WAS the Best, but gave it up, isn’t about that life anymore (But I’ve seen this movie and something tells me retirement is about to be over. Did someone say One Last Job???)
- Isn’t going back to ___________.
As the writer, producer, or chef, you now have your protagonist or main course worked out. It’s time to move onto the back story, the antagonist, conflict, and how to tie all of those together with an action-packed adrenaline filled bow.
Since the antagonist is almost always a static character, he/she/it generally doesn’t require as much exploration or attention. The villain is the villain. The earthquake and tidal wave are the earth quake and tidal wave. The asteroid is the asteroid. Most of the time, this figure in the story is just going to continue its literal and figurative course as is regardless. It takes a little explanation or setup but the rest of the movie is just how the Hero and his/her team deals with the it, tries to take it down, stop it in its tracks, keep it from detonating inside that bus full of innocent special needs children.
With the protagonist, antagonist, and the conflict between them hashed out, its time to think about how to unveil these. The way these details are laid out and how the table is set is every bit as critical as the facts themselves.
If you’re the kind of guy or gal who wears horn rimmed glasses with clear lenses and only refers to movies as films, you might suggest that the characters don’t need to be fully explained. You might say that the characters will reveal themselves throughout the film as the plot develops. You might even say that it’s a deliberate decision on the part of the writer to create ambiguity, to leave some questions unanswered for the viewer to ponder. Well then I might tell you to kindly fuck off. Go back to Sun Dance, hipster. Good luck getting Michael Bay to direct your 3 hour black and white think piece that explores conversion to veganism amidst the backdrop of your struggle with your sexuality.
This isn’t Goosebumps or JD Salinger. No choosing your own adventure or having a bunch of lingering unknowns when the credits roll. Great Action movies like the ones mentioned above and their ilk don’t have time to waste on character development. We’ve got 84-119 minutes and every second something is not exploding, racing, jumping between buildings, getting punched or shot in the face, etc. is wasted screen time. The solution: Work overt explanations of characters and conflicts into the plot in one of the following ways.
- The Billy Bob Thornton: The level-headed Department Head who is an integral supporting character walks us through the entire set up and plot. Early on as the situation is being assessed, he’s gathering data and facts, listening to his team of scientists and engineers. At a certain point, he pieces it together and sums up the problem/basically the entire movie in one sentence (ending in ‘gentlemen”). He will later formulate a plan, explain it to his team, and then introduce us/them to the key characters by sharing their personnel files. Just to really hammer it home, we’ll get to hear him explain the plan again to one or more high ranking government officials. When one of the Joint Chiefs or Presidential Advisers is a little too dumb to understand the science behind the plan and condescendingly questions him, he’ll demolish that argument in less than 10 words and continue is if nothing happened.
- The Situation Room: A bunch of government and department leaders argue back and forth, trade lines like “one casualty is one too many god damn it”, and collect intel from different aids and sources in the field (all while keeping us up to date on the plan). They’ll serve their primary purpose in the first 14 minutes of the movie but we’ll check back to see them standing around anxiously, requesting status updates, and asking “do you copy?” thoughout the movie.
- The Protagonist is Essentially the Narrator: The Rock is flying a helicopter through Southern California, assessing the situation and relying on his years of experience in Search and Rescue to draw conclusions and act accordingly. He’ll relay this info to his ex-wife/co-pilot and update other people around him periodically, thus letting the audience know what’s going on throughout. There are supplemental Billy Bob’s and other updates like a quick cut to a news broadcast, but the Rock is our primary source.
- Probably my favorite methodology, the far too seldom used NPH Propaganda Infomercial: Would you like to know more? You’re goddamn right I want to know more NPH. Just classic, top notch material here from Star Ship Troopers.
5. Oh and my other favorite, Situation Explained by Commanding Officer. A super stereotypical platoon leader rolls off the plan of action and just nails it. Lot of adjectives, great cadence, just a flawless delivery. Almost like it was rehearsed then read off a teleprompter. *Bonus points: At some point he calls on one of his men who, in wildly unrealistic fashion, recites a bunch of specifics about the mission the same way his commander did, just to drive the point home again. See below:
Side note: Has there ever been a more useless add-in to a speech than this guy’s “I shit you not”? No one, LITERALLY NO ONE was looking around thinking, “wait is this guy serious?” or “are you kidding me bro?” as he spouting off a preview of the next 55 minutes. You don’t paint up like that, don’t jog in unison out onto a helipad, and don’t play that kind of music if you’re just joshing. The entire platoon knew you were serious, everyone watching the movie knew you were serious. Fucking Helen Keller would have picked up on how serious you were here.
The only possible explanation for throwing that onto the end of a sentence might have been his concern that Nick Cage was fighting a losing battle with tourettes and might not have been fully in tune to the riveting pre-game speech.
(if you didn’t catch either of the elements mentioned above, have another look. Totally worth it.)
To wrap things up, let’s bring it back to the lasagna analogy – Combine ingredients and stir up your protagonist until it reaches an even consistency. Mix that with the antagonist and the conflict, throw in some horrible one-liners, stunts, special effects, gratuitous nudity, and cut off the sleeves. Let bake for about an hour and a half. Garnish with epic music, sweeping slow motion camera work, and enjoy your delicious Armageddon, Point Break, San Andreas, or Starship Troopers.