September 7, 2017

Watch: How to Create an Unforgettable Action Hero

A new video essay shows how to make your action heroes both realistic and kickass.

"To strive, and not to yield."

"No pain, no gain."

These sayings have their root in the same basic truth: perfection is not necessarily always interesting. The same goes for action films. If you want to make a memorable action hero—one that viewers will idolize, lionize, talk about, love, or despise—make the hero human. 

A new video essay from Film Science gives a few basic tips on how to create realistic and memorable action heroes. (The essayist focuses on female action heroes, but the points made here rise above gender.)

Real heroes are messy

The video essay takes up one of the great odes to female violence and heroism on screen, Kill Bill, to make a point: make your heroes messy. The more things they break, the more flying glass and crashing plaster, the better. Real violence isn't neat. In real life, battles between good guys and bad guys don't end with a clean-up session. As we watch Uma Thurman and Danica Fox hurl each other through a suburban living room in the clip shown in the video essay, we're reminded of why the scene is so much fun: it's realistic.

Early in the piece, the essayist points out that Mad Max: Fury Road's Furiosa is far more convincing than her counterpart, Aeon Flux (also played by Charlize Theron) for the simple reason that Furiosa is more real. She's dirtier, she's sweatier, her clothes are ripped and tattered, and she's more in the moment than the hero of the latter film, whose costume and demeanor suggest the opposite of immediacy, however lithe she might be.

Make your heroes unpretentious. Don't let anything get in the way of their heroism.  

Drive the stakes high

Circling back to Theron again, the essayist shows how Furiosa's Brando-esque display of suffering stirs empathy, while the strutting of a character such as Resident Evil's Alice, for instance, with nary a wince, might be impressive to watch on a visceral level but will not necessarily draw a viewer's interest. The more passion a character displays in an action film, the more likely that character is to stir the passions of viewers; a filmmaker must consider the stakes of the action, along with its stunts. 

Make the hero suffer

Action heroes have to get hurt. In addition to emotional suffering, they have to suffer physically as well. The effects on their bodies of whatever travails they're going through onscreen have to be shown in real time, and vividly. From Furiosa to the Bride, we have to wince when their heads hit concrete, and we have to feel the crunch when their bones break. Elaborate fight choreography has its place, of course, but the more it's anchored in realism, the better.

Who are your favorite action heroes?  Would you say they were realistic? Let us know in the comments.      

Your Comment

6 Comments

Every Frame a Painting's video on Jackie Chan also touches on a lot of these points, and some additional directorial technique. It's essential viewing for action filmmakers/fans.

September 7, 2017 at 2:28PM

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Joseph Elliott
Director of Photography, , Director, Editor, Composer
88

These points don't only apply to action heroes: they apply to all heroes. (Though in some cases, we're not necessarily talking physical messiness or suffering.)

September 10, 2017 at 9:15AM

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In short: Don't create Mary Sues.

November 4, 2017 at 6:31AM, Edited November 4, 6:31AM

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Jens Koenig
Engineer
85

Cannot agree completely on this.
Like in the case of Matrix.

November 4, 2017 at 10:29AM

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Sameir Ali
Director of Photography
718

How to create a forgettable female action hero while pissing off the audience at the same time: #1 Make a movie called Mad Max and don't put Max as the main character. #2 Give Max 5 grumbly lines to say and give 99% of the other dialogue to some new woman character nobody gives a shit about. #3 Don't let Max drive any vehicles like he's supposed to do, instead let the woman do all the driving. LOL.

November 4, 2017 at 1:49PM

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Kaster Troy
Director, DP, Editor
913

Not a fan of Fury road?

November 4, 2017 at 5:10PM

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Jwalker
177