In recent years, visually dazzling action films have appeared to render old rules of narrative moot. In cinematic vehicles defined by extreme pyrotechnics, unusual narrative structures or the creation of entirely imagined worlds, character development and the exploration of theme have sometimes been treated as unwieldy baggage, weighing down narratives driven less by depth than by velocity. But a look at a sampling of strong action pictures reveals that maintaining a cohesive thread of character and theme establishes a solid center amid the visual and auditory clamor—a way for the audience to keep track of what the story’s about, where it’s going, and where it leaves us in the end.
A classic action picture, The Fugitive (1993, directed by Andrew Davis, written by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy), produced before the current era of technical advances, uses a slow motion murder and a spectacular train crash to launch the story. A doctor is sentenced to die for the murder of his wife, but a fiery accident on his way to prison frees him, and sets off a chase sequence that runs the entire remainder of the film. The action’s filled with unlikely feats—most notably, a leap of hundreds of feet into a thundering waterfall and the river below, which the hero survives—and split second escapes, as a dogged investigator pursues the doctor to a near deadly finish for both of them. At the beginning of the story, we learn in flashback what the doctor recalls from the evening when his wife is killed. But, these flashbacks still allow for lingering questions. Is this his true recollection, or could it form an alibi he is quickly inventing?
What anchors the film is what we come to understand about the doctor, as well as a second level to the chase. During the horrific crash, he lags behind to rescue one of his former captors. Then, as he runs to escape the law, he repeatedly returns to locations where he’s at great risk of being caught. He’s dead-set on discovering the identity of his wife’s killer and the motive behind the act. Because the filmmakers have so defined the hero’s character, and constructed a second story thread that traces his need to find the truth behind his wife’s death, a film that is undeniably driven by throbbing action still accomplishes a meaningful, satisfying, narrative.
The blockbuster Avatar (2009, written/directed by James Cameron), immediately invites the viewer into a visually stunning dystopia that pits an enormously potent and savage military/industrial complex against the Navi, a race of humanoid creatures deeply tied to nature and spirituality. The hero, Jake, is an everyman character, whose only aspiration is to make enough money to afford an operation to restore his paralyzed legs. He is sent, in the form of his avatar, which matches the look of the Navi, to spy on them so that they can be persuaded to abandon their home and make way for a hugely profitable mining operation. Out of his element in the world of the Navi, Jake is rescued from certain death by beautiful Neytiri, and soon finds himself falling for her and her magical way of life—riding fierce, prehistoric-looking raptors, taming the frothing beasts of the forest, and connecting deeply with the spiritual source of the natural world. But as the military machine becomes more determined to force its goals, relentless scenes of blistering violence and gorgeous, lyrical action sequences among the Navi, crowd out plausibility and cohesion in the realms of character and story.
Though Jake’s spy missions on the Navi help direct an initial attack that costs thousands of lives—including that of the Chief, Neytiri’s father—and send the forest up in flames, he is forgiven almost instantly. When he displays his amazing ability to tame the most daunting raptor, his culpability in near genocide seems to melt away. The former traitor is crowned the leader of the Navi resistance. Many spectacular frames later, Jake wins the day, gets the girl and becomes a Navi for good. In the end, though the film is undeniably rich in imaginative visuals and non-stop action, it also loses what it could have carried along—a hero both sympathetic and believable.
A very different sort of action film, The Hurt Locker (2008, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal), also set in a military arena, draws great power from inverting the usual formula of breathtaking speed and blinding explosions. We don’t learn much about the past of the lead character, James, an extremely skilled expert in disabling bombs secretly planted in the dusty landscape of Iraq—under street trash, inside a car, or encircling the waist of a suicide bomber. But as we endure with him the steady, inexorable pressure of his work—the painstaking search for the source of detonation, the encircling gaze of strangers who likely want him dead, and the unseen variables that could instantly blow him sky high—we quickly learn that James is an adrenaline freak, a man who needs to push personal risk to the limit, even when it means unnecessary danger to his team. He yanks off his protective helmet, refuses access to a bomb-sniffing robot – and when his tremulous young technical assistant, Owen, admits to being afraid, James replies, “Everyone’s a coward about something.”
The action in this film is constant, but it’s quietly deadly—paralyzing the pit of the viewer’s stomach and exhausting the awareness of the characters, who have to be on alert every waking minute, and still may perish. At the same time, we follow James’ progression from seemingly invulnerable warrior, to a man who breaks down at the death of young boy, and risks his life in a futile attempt to save a suicide bomber who changes his mind. His journey as a character is deeply integrated into the non-stop movement of the film, through to the briefest visits to the home he had left, and can’t abide the calm of for long. The final strokes of character development release the audience from the pulsing narrative drive of the story for just three short scenes near the end—culminating in James’s somber reflection to his infant son, “The older you get, the fewer things you really love. Maybe it’s only one or two things.” By the end, as James charges back to work in a new tour of disabling bombs, the film has succeeded in boosting the audience’s blood pressure—while still telling the story of a tragic hero that will stay with us long after the lights come up.
Inception (2010, written/directed by Christopher Nolan), an ambitious action thriller that puts forth multiple levels of reality at once, also takes a stab at establishing a sympathetic hero and developing his character arc. But this is a busy film—ticking away through grand, unstable landscapes, squadrons of characters who may be real or not, attacks on the psychological stability of adversaries and the hero alike, with a generous measure of highly visual catastrophes—chases, crashes, shoot-outs, an avalanche—layered throughout. Though certainly engaging, and adroit in its multidimensional balancing act and elaborate narrative process, InceptionI falters dangerously close to losing the point of its story.
The hero, Cobb, is an industrial spy who uses psychological manipulation taken to a sci-fi level of reality; he enters and travels through the unconscious minds of his targets, stealing material or planting ideas at will. But he’s also a damaged man who has lost his wife through initially hidden circumstances and yearns to be free to return to his children. Over time, we learn that his wife still lives deep in his subconscious mind and beckons to him like a siren to kill himself so that he can join her forever. By the end of the second act, we learn a much darker truth: that Cobb tested his first round of the inception process on his wife, which caused her to disbelieve her own sense of reality, leading to her suicide. Because of notes she filed with her lawyer in advance, Cobb is wanted for her murder. Because of his terrible guilt over what happened, he’s in most danger when he’s hard at work—mining the unconscious minds of others, which brings him deep into his own internal realms.
But in the filmmaker’s race to a breakneck, multileveled conclusion, his hero manages to finish the job—emerging alive, and breaking at last from the deadly grip of his wife over his own survival—without ever earning the moral redemption that his quite messy personal story demands. The crime he committed against his wife far outweighs either his professional transgressions or the extensive collateral damage he leaves in his wake. This piece of the story is deeper yet than any of the levels of consciousness he so skillfully depicts, and likely would demand a slower, deeper film to bring to resolution. Perhaps the fix here is in assessing what an action film can and should do, and what it cannot; a briefly sketched but complete character arc, but maybe not a deeper level of thematic development focused on love, betrayal and loss that cannot be so easily expunged.
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