Cliche gets thrown around a lot as a criticism of movies, but today, MaristPlayBoy looks at why using cliches is not always a bad thing.
I'd like you all to go on a little journey with me. I know this sounds weird, but trust me: it'll be worth it.
Let's imagine you are approached one day an executive from 20th Century Fox. The man offers you a movie deal if you can give him the script outlines in the next three hours. He wants an action movie, and time starts...now!
Chances are, you haven't got an elaborate script just sitting on your computer for such an occasion (if you do, congratulations: you've already figured out that creating things, regardless of whether they are successful, is better than never creating at all...but I'm digressing). So, what are you going to do?
Well, you're certainly not going to come up with anything historically deep in the course of three hours, and since you want your pitch to be accepted, chances are you're going to employ some of the typical tropes of the genre. Perhaps your main character is a grizzled, no nonsense veteran who is forced to take on a rookie he deems less than adequate, but grows to appreciate over the course of the movie. Your rookie is, of course, different from the rest of society in a way that makes them likable to the audience but frowned upon in the world of the movie, thus making it that much harder for said rookie to prove himself or herself. Your villain is probably a gang leader or some other, hard to sympathize with but still interesting career path, that proves himself or herself at the beginning as a serious threat and continues to ramp up the action until the climax of the movie. Now, all you need is a battleground a few really cool set pieces, and you're good to go.
Yes, that's pretty much the basic formula for an action movie. Sure, there are other variations that involve shoe horning an unnecessary romantic interest that provides eye candy for the male audience and a "Gather the troops" set up if your movie has more than one central protagonist (see: The Avengers), but that really is about it. You've probably seen the movie described above about a hundred times if you're an action movie fan.
Now, when you say it like that, it's very easy to dissect certain films as "uncreative" since many don't ever seem to transcend that formula on a point-by-point basis. And the most recent action movie I watched, Dredd, seems to follow that formula exactly. The script is nearly identical to what you'd expect a movie about Judge Dredd would be.
Is that a bad thing? Should Dredd be criticized for this, cast aside as "just another action movie", and forgotten?
See, I'm a big believer in MovieBob's theory that you can make a good movie out of anything. Just because a script follows some or even most of the typical cliches and tropes of a stereotypical action movie does not make it bad. These cliches and tropes became cliche for a reason, after all. They work. The quality of a movie like Dredd, therefore, lies not in whether the script sets the world on fire with a script that undermines the very nature of an action movie, but instead in the execution of these familiar tropes. To judge it by any other standing is simply not fair to the movie itself; not everything is meant to set the world on fire, nor should it be.
Now, execution is a rather broad term that can refer to a lot of things, so I think it's important to break this term down into its smaller parts to see just what it is that separates the Avengers of the world from the Expendables, and the Pete Travis's from the Michael Bay's.
1. The Setting
The first thing that sets apart the good action movies from the bad are the areas in which the fighting occurs. Good action scenes require tension, which can often be created simply by the set design. In Dredd, the tight corridors of the apartment complex, as well as the inability for anyone to get in or out for the majority of the movie, creates a natural tension, as there is no room for escape and little room for error. Higher budget movies like The Avengers make use of bigger sets that give room for giant set pieces and give the feeling that this battle is occurring on a larger scale.
The key is to make the world match the tone for which you're searching. If you're going for a gritty movie, the sets should be equally dark and run down. Tonal consistency is key to getting the viewer to buy into the movie as a whole, and failing to do so will make your movie immediately feel cheesy and silly.
2. The Premise
A lot of movies fail because they either have no story whatsoever (xXx) or try to include way too much story that makes little to no sense and makes the whole thing seem kinda dumb (Transformers). You can probably remember tuning out to any movie that started throwing in ancient mystical cults or randomly included aliens at the end (Hi, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Action movies thrive on simple premises that can be summarized in a couple short sentences but still hold weight.
Dredd's premise is simple: Judge Dredd and rookie Judge Anderson are trapped inside an apartment complex run by the fearsome gang leader Ma-Ma, a drug peddler who commands the entire building with an iron fist. They have to survive as long as they can while also trying to take Ma-Ma and her entire gang down to free the apartments from her rule. See? Short, simple, and to the point, but also a premise that speaks to universal themes to which any audience can relate. There's an obvious villain, obvious good guys, and an obvious goal. Whatever else happens, we're hooked by the basic premise alone, and nothing happens later to undermine these established goals.
Of course, even a good premise can be ruined by an inconsistent script or, worse, one that lies to the audience to build false tension. There's nothing worse than the whiplash from realizing the actual villain is someone completely different than what was established, and the disjointed nature of such movies is a massive flaw in and of itself (my biggest criticism of The Dark Knight Rises). Audiences don't like being lied to; it's as simple as that.
3. The Characters
Now, when I say "characters" when referring to an action movie, I'm referring to something completely different than when I'm referring to a drama or any other genre of movie. Action movies don't necessarily need complex characters: they just need likable ones. Dredd excels at this, providing the audience with an incredibly likable protagonist, capable of performing badass stunts and showing great resilience in battle while still dropping the fun one-liner here and there. It also gives the audience an intimidating antagonist, as Ma-Ma is equally vicious and conniving, and she commands each scene in which she appears with the strength and control someone in her position would have. Even better, she acts appropriately when her plans to kill the Judges fails, slowly losing her grip and resorting to more desperate measures as the movie goes on. You really get a great feel for both characters, and the stellar performances of Karl Urban and Lena Headey ensure the audience feels every emotion director Pete Travis wants them to feel.
I know that sounds logical, but you'd be amazed how often movies screw this up. So many protagonists are boring (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) or just so damn unlikable (again, Transformers shows us all what not to do) that it kills the entire movie. When you don't care, or worse, don't want the heroes to be successful, you have a problem. And when you don't care about the villain (The Marine and other straight-to-DVD schlock comes to mind), it's equally impossible to care about whether that villain is defeated in the end.
4. The Look
Now, I'm admittedly not an artist, but it's very easy to tell when a special effect looks cheap and rushed (Van Helsing) and when a movie plays to its budget well. Dredd is not a high-budget movie (the whole thing came in at about $45 million, which doesn't seem low until one realizes the first Iron Man film had a $140 million budget and came out four years earlier), but Travis manages to overcome the financial shortcomings with more practical effects that honestly tend to look better than their CGI counterparts anyway. Effects are used sparingly (save the admitted overuse of slo-mo in the first act) but to great effect, maximizing the efficiency of their budget.
I guess the only other thing I can say is that making things look pretty is not and should not be the end goal of an action movie's special effects. Enhanced gore like that seen in a Quentin Tarantino movie is a good use of your special effects budget. Making everything look "cool" while undermining the very aesthetic your movie is supposed to have is not (yes, I'm harping on Transformers, but to be fair, they started it).
5. That Extra Something
To make a good action movie become a great one, you need one more thing to go right. In most cases, it's a side character that becomes something more, like Judge Anderson in Dredd. Olivia Thirlby gives a fantastic performance here, creating a character that the audience can watch grow into her own. We want her to gain the resilience and drive necessary to survive like Judge Dredd. We want her to overcome her initial anxieties and be the person her powers allow her to be, and when she gets there, it means something. My friends and I all agreed she was the best part of the movie because she was able to provide a legitimate character arc matched with a great acting performance that made her stand out against the awesome-but-already-fixed personalities of Dredd and Ma-Ma.
It doesn't always have to be a side character though. It can be a single scene that gives the movie meaning that transcends the action genre (Kill Bill springs to mind). Whatever it is, it needs an additional something that audiences will remember long after the movie is over. If you have that on top of the other features above, you have a great action movie.
So, to summarize, Dredd is an action movie with a by-the-numbers plot that excels in every other facet of action movie-making, and that's more than enough to earn a recommendation from me. Go check it out and see for yourselves!
Chase Wassenar, aka MaristPlayBoy, is the Founder and Lead Editor of the Red Shirt Crew, and he currently is engaged in a Pokemon Hardcore battle for the ages! You can follow him on Twitter at @RedShirtCrew or email him at email@example.com