Just back from seeing The Cold Light Of Day, a thriller that seems to have sneaked into cinemas without much fanfare. It’s good enjoyable fun, very much in the Bourne mould but with a few nice reversals and a splendidly slippery operative played by Sigourney Weaver.
However, it does suffer slightly from that perennial curse of the action movie, the Surprisingly Proficient Hero. Henry Cavill’s business consultant protagonist shows an extraordinary capacity for jumping off roofs, shooting accurately while under fire, and performing evasive driving manoeuvres – to the point where an agent at the end of the movie actually comments on his skills. (Mind you, that same agent describes another patently duplicitous character as ”an honest man”, so I’m not trusting his judgement…)
I’m not really saying this as a criticism of The Cold Light Of Day – there are far worse offenders – but it did get me thinking about the two types of action movies, and how the first makes life difficult for the second.
The first type of action movie is the This Time It’s Personal movie. It involves a character with an appropriate skillset – cop, spy, assassin, military of some kind – being drawn into their normal kind of work, but with dramatically raised stakes, either because the danger is bigger than normal, or because it’s a personal threat to our protagonist’s happiness.
Die Hard is a classic This Time It’s Personal. John Maclane is a cop, perfectly capable of arresting hostage-asking robbers – but today, the stakes are raised. Not only is he the only cop inside the building (bigger danger) but his wife is a hostage (personal stakes). Other examples: Taken, the Bournes, the Bonds, Haywire, Seven, and most superhero movies that aren’t origin stories.
The advantage, obviously, is that it gives you a hero with skills, abilities and knowledge that you can use to amp up the action and the tension. You can throw more obstacles, more setbacks and more pain at your protagonist than any average person could take, because we know she’s trained to take it, and therefore we’ll accept that she can survive it and even win in the end.
The disadvantage is that it’s harder to create tension when your character is clearly well within their depth than when they’re way out of it. The personal stakes help, but you’re going to have to come up with plausible reasons why your hero struggles, suffers, and occasionally loses one round of the battle, in order to maintain the dramatic tension.
The second kind of action movie, the category The Cold Light Of Day fits into, might be called the Why Me story. An ordinary person finds themselves plunged into a situation way outside their normal lives, and has to learn fast, find allies, and use their intelligence and unrelated skills creatively in order to survive.
Why Me action movies include Three Days Of The Condor, The Thirty-Nine Steps, North By North-West, and superhero origin movies. (The Bourne Identity flirts with this model, but from the moment Bourne takes out the Swiss cops who find him sleeping rough in the park, we know this is a This Time It’s Personal. Even if he doesn’t.)
The dramatic advantage to this model is obvious – raised tension. This isn’t James Bond fighting Mossad or the FSB, it’s some ordinary businessman, housewife, or teenager. We feel their lives are really at risk in a way we wouldn’t if they were a ’professional’.
But the dramatic problem – the problem that presumably drove The Cold Light Of Day writers Scott Wiper and John Petro to stretch their protagonist’s skillset – is that the audience has been conditioned by This Time It’s Personal movies to expect an unrealistic level of heroism. We expect the central character in an action movie – whoever he is – to leap off buildings, shoot more accurately than the well-trained bad guys, survive car chases, foot chases, and escape from custody. Why? Because those guys in This Time It’s Personal movies do.
If a writer portrays an ordinary person in a Why Me movie acting like an ordinary person would – even like a determined, resourceful ordinary person with considerable courage – they run the risk of appearing to create a ”weak” hero. In other words, action movies have no room for ordinary protagonists any more.
I think that’s a pity. There must be a way to construct a workable Why Me movie with a more authentic, ’ordinary’ hero who succeeds through ingenuity and courage rather than through unlikely and unrealistic skills. Any thoughts?