The Cult of Action: What Makes a Good Action Movie
Short answer, be Die Hard.
Published on November 26, 2013 | Filed under The Cult of Action
Cult of Action

Hi, my name is Joe Drilling and this is the first of what will hopefully be many weekly editions of The Cult of Action. You can probably gather by the name of the column that it’s about action cinema. However, this isn’t simply going to be a review a week type of affair. No, this is going to be all about action movies and the culture around them. Sometimes, I will spotlight a particular movie, either an older one that time forgot or a newer one that perhaps isn’t being highlighted elsewhere. Mostly, it’ll be about genre conventions, actors and directors who made their name in action and really just the whole milieu around explosions, martial arts, shootouts and all the things that make action movies so great.

To start, I wanted to really hit on what makes a good action movie. Action, of course, but there’s a lot more to it. There’s a lot to how the action is done, and what the bits between the action are and why they’re there that separate good action films from bad ones. Additionally, there are things a bad action movie can do to be good, even if all of the components aren’t traditionally good. Performances that are traditionally considered bad won’t necessarily ruin an action movie (in some cases, they may make it better).

The easiest place to start is with the gold standard. If I can explain what makes the best action movie the best, then it’s easy to point out how lesser films differentiate from it. It is my belief that the gold standard for action cinema is John McTiernan’s 1988 masterpiece, Die Hard. Even if you disagree with me, Die Hard is an important film, and that puts it at the top of the action heap. While it may not have changed the way action movies would be, it changed the way they could be. Prior to this, action heroes were Stallone’s John Rambo in Rambo: First Blood Part 2 or Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix in Commando, but Bruce Willis as John McClane changed that. (Which is not to say I don’t like Rambo or Commando, but I like them for different reasons.)

A Good Day to Die Hard

This is an odd thing to say in the face of A Good Day to Die Hard, this year’s execrable fifth entry in the series and a film made by people who clearly didn’t understand what made the first film good, that John McClane was different from Rambo, but it’s true. He was fallible. By the end of Die Hard, John is, to put it bluntly, fucked up, and pretty badly. Barely able to walk, dirty, bleeding, sweaty, exhausted. He’s been through hell and it shows. Arnie’s John Matrix looks fresh as a spring daisy at the end of Commando. He kills nearly an entire army by himself, and looks like he just got out of the shower. This makes you invested in John McClane, because as he earns these various wounds, you start to wonder if he’ll make it out alive, something you never question with most action heroes of the ‘80s.

There’s more to it, though. You care about John, but you are also invested in the rest of the characters. McTiernan assembled one hell of a supporting cast, and the film is memorable because all of the characters are too. John’s estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), terrorist leader Hans (Alan Rickman in what might be his finest role), limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White), yuppie douchebag Ellis (Hart Bochner), John’s cop buddy Al (Reginald VelJohnson), I could list more memorable performances in this film, but you get the idea. There are ensemble dramas with more critical acclaim and awards than you can shake a really big stick at, yet they still have fewer memorable characters than Die Hard.

There’s also the pacing and editing of the action. It’s frequent and intense, but the most important thing is that you can tell what’s happening. A good deal of action filmmakers in the last fifteen years or so have taken it upon themselves to substitute camera motion and fast edits for competent action. This bothers me more than anything, but it can still be overcome by good filmmaking in other places (for example, I love Batman Begins, but its action sequences are among the worst shot and edited in film history). In Die Hard however, you always know where John is in relation to the terrorists, and you always know who’s getting hit, who’s getting shot, and what the stakes are. In, say, Len Wiseman’s god-awful Total Recall remake, two people walk towards each other, there’s a bunch of lazy editing and extreme close-ups, and at the end, someone is on the ground.

The Raid: Redemption

I’ll let you in on a secret, people who watch action films don’t generally watch them for the story (though a good story is a great bonus, and is what elevates Die Hard to its lofty status). If you’re watching for the action, and you can’t see or parse it, what are you left with? Likely a lame story with some guns, some muscles and, depending on the rating, some nudity. Action presented in a way the audience can read is essential to a good action film. Two great modern examples would be The Raid: Redemption (which, if you haven’t seen, go watch it right now) and Pacific Rim. Both films have excellently shot and edited action.

In summation, great action movies feature heroes and heroines the audience is invested in, a memorable supporting cast, and, perhaps, above all, well done action sequences. When clear storytelling is done through the action scenes, and it adds to the overall narrative, that’s when action filmmaking hits its reaches its peak. I’ll be expounding of course, in the coming weeks as I tackle more specific topics. So check back every week for more from The Cult of Action.

Joe is the co-creator of the Action Cast!, a biweekly podcast about action movies hosted at OnTheStick.com, along with his other podcasts. He's also a film school dropout, a former pro wrestler and a struggling actor. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 2013, and so far has spent more money in D.C. on revival screenings than first run films.
Joe Drilling