One of the most fundamental adages writers throw around is show, don’t tell. In an action movie, minimizing long pieces of exposition is even more crucial for fear of slowing down your story. The last thing you need is to lose all of your momentum while trying to characterize your protagonist in a lengthy conversation.
Why, then, are so many action movies doing it? Why are we seeing so many movies with long, pointless action scenes followed by long stretches of discussing the plot? The hallmark of any lackluster action film is that you could remove most of the action scenes and nothing about the film would change. The plot wouldn’t be any different, nor would we lose any information about the characters. It’s dull and disrespectful to the audience.
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Some of the best action films, however, blend their characterization and plot into the action scenes. By doing so, they quickly convey crucial character information to the audience while the stakes are higher because their actions have ramifications on the plot. In fact, a really good movie will use action to characterize its protagonist — just like Casino Royale‘s Madagascar chase.
We’re going to break down the elements of the scene and see how they contribute to establishing Daniel Craig’s James Bond as a character.
What’s Bond’s goal? He has to capture a bomb maker alive and interrogate him for information. It’s almost always more interesting to introduce a character by showing them going after something rather than running away. By seeing what the character does to get what they want, we understand them.
What’s stopping Bond from achieving his goal? The bomb maker is getting away, and he’s a damn parkour expert.
What does Bond do to overcome the bomb maker’s advantage? While the bomb maker is slipping, sliding, and jumping through a construction area, Bond takes the direct approach. Where Bond in previous films would find a clever short cut or use one of Q’s gadgets to slow down his target, Daniel Craig’s iteration starts off relying on relentless blunt force.
When the bomb maker takes cover in the construction site with a gun, Bond charges him with a bulldozer. When the bomb maker jumps through a high wall vent into another room, Bond busts through the wall like the damn Kool-Aid man. There’s a lot of characterization there.
How does Bond ultimately achieve his goal? Bond follows the bomb maker into an embassy and shoots the place up to catch him. When he’s finally cornered by security, Bond shoots the bomb maker, steals his bag, and escapes by shooting a propane tank.
How does this advance the plot? While Bond fails to capture the bomb maker, he finds a phone in his bag holding a very suspect text that Bond needs to follow up on.
What does this tell us about Bond? It tells us that he’s relentless and incredibly reckless. When he’s cornered, he’s willing to scrap the main objective of the mission — capturing the bomb maker — and go for the Hail Mary play; killing him, taking his bag, and hoping something inside will give him a lead. Most importantly, we’ve learned that Bond has a very long way to go until he becomes the suave, charming, and cultured spy we’ve seen in earlier films.
While we won’t argue that the chase itself goes on a little long, its contributions to setting up Bond’s character justify its existence. Without this chase sequence, all we’d have to go on for Bond’s characterization is M lecturing him on his irresponsible methods in the field. Because the movie shows Bond’s unruliness through action, it’s ultimately far more satisfying when we see him embrace the path of cold professionalism at the end.
So, next time you write an action scene, ask yourself what it’s telling you about the character and how it’s moving the story along. If you don’t have answers to those questions, it’s not worth putting in your script.
This article was written by Ashley Scott Meyers. Ashley is a screenwriter and podcaster over at SellingYourScreenplay.com. He has sold and optioned dozens of scripts over the last two decades. Through SYS he runs a screenplay analysis service, provides paid job leads to screenwriters, and helps screenwriters connect with producers who are looking for material.