Something is rotten in the action movie genre. For too long, we've had to sit through stale revenge stories and Taylor Lautner threatening people that he'll get them first.
This week, two of the best actions movies in a long while hit the big screen and rock for some very different reasons. But there are just as many things that most modern action movies can learn from both "The Hunger Games" and "The Raid: Redemption," lessons that could restore the genre to its ridiculous glory.
Here is our lesson book on what "The Hunger Games" and "The Raid" get so very right.
Character Comes First
The secret behind the zeitgeist of "The Hunger Games" is a simple one: it makes you care. You care when Katniss volunteers to save Prim. You cheer when the arrow goes through the apple because Katniss shot it. And that isn't just another kid getting stabbed with a spear. For an action movie to work on you, it needs to present likeable, yet flaw characters that are, above all, human. Sure, it's cool that the hero of that other movie can kill lots of people, but sarcasm, brevity and mysteriousness aren't enough of a personality for us to like him. Make him or her vulnerable, and put them in situations where they could conceivably die. Because a machete randomly poking at the wall our hero is hiding behind doesn't mean anything unless we're hoping no one gets stabbed.
Story Actually Matters
Many of the same rules about character apply here. You need to rescue a little girl? Heard that one before. A dictator/mad physicist wants to take over the world? Yawn. Someone did something bad to you, and now you're mad? Don't care. An action movie can add as many CGI robots and explosions as they want but if I've seen it before, I won't want to see it again. While "The Hunger Games" isn't the best example of an "original" story (see: "Battle Royale"), there's more than enough to differentiate it, something most action films don't feel the need to do. Most are satisfied with throwing the actor of the month into situations or licensed properties we know too well already and coasting to $100 million at the box office.
Story Doesn't Really Matter
Then again, what's "The Raid" really about? An elite SWAT team busts into an apartment complex full of criminals to take out one really bad dude. It's not groundbreaking stuff, but when the action plays out the way that it does, who cares? The lesson to learn here is that an action movie needs to know what it is. "The Raid" works as a showcase for martial arts that pays just enough attention to story to move the action forward and add some weight to the characters. The biggest mistake to make when it comes to story is when a dumb action movie tries to convince itself and the audience that it's anything but that. Embrace your stupidity, action movies, and the audience will hug you back.
It's Not About The Rating. It's How You Use It.
Much was made of "The Expendables 2" and its switch to PG-13 and back again to R, after Chuck Norris raised concerns about the potty mouth in the film. What was so very wrong about the proposed switch would not have been the resulting lack of violence but the clear misunderstanding of the audience. If you're old enough to care about who Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundren, or even Arnold Schwarzenegger is, you're definitely old enough to see a little movie violence. "The Hunger Games" fans want to see horrible acts of violence without gruesome reality. PG-13. People who see "The Raid" want to see that grittiness taken to an exaggerated extreme. R. And I assume people who pay to see "The Expendables 2" want the same.
Guns Are Like Ordering Take-Out
Finally, a word of wisdom from Mad Dog in "The Raid." An action hero won't impress anyone by blowing twenty baddies away with a cannon. It takes skill and professional stunt coordinators. Give her a bow. Give him nothing but a table leg. Let them figure it out.
What don't you like about most action movies? Let us know in the comments below and on Twitter!