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Monday, January 30, 2012

Action Movies and the Third Act

The year is barely a month old and we’ve already had two very interesting action movies released, Haywire and The Grey. While on the surface they appear to have nothing in common they are very similar in terms of the their third acts. Massive spoilers are ahead so don’t look those who haven’t seen the movies.

LAST CHANCE. LOOK AWAY NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENDINGS TO EITHER MOVIE SPOILED

Start out with Haywire. I must confess I like this one a lot. It’s a guilty pleasure. It exists for only one reason, to establish MMA fighter Gina Carano as a legit action star and in that it does not disappoint. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the action is shot in long takes at medium distance so Carano’s athleticism and fighting ability are well displayed. Under those conditions even a lot of male action stars would have a hard time looking believable. There’s no shaky cam or quick editing to hide the use of stunt doubles.

In other respects the movie needs a little more generosity from the viewer. Carano won’t be headlining Broadway any time soon. She does okay for an action film. She has humor and screen presence. Her acting ability is about on par with the rest of the action stars. There are rumors that her voice was digitally altered and seeing her interviews on Youtube I can believe that. She sounds a lot huskier in the film. But whether it’s true or not, it’s not a big issue for me. Voice alteration is a fact of life in the music industry. I’m shocked it took this long to catch on with the movies. The real problem is the story which is generic almost to the point of brilliance. Almost but not quite. And one of the main reasons is the third act. The movie doesn’t have an ending it more or less stops. And before it does it was running out of gas. It doesn’t look deliberate like in Ocean’s Eleven (I owe for that thing you did with that guy that one time) it looks like the writer just ran out of ideas.

The Grey’s ending is planned and it fits. But it might not make people happy.

The Grey was a huge surprise. It’s really an intense drama about mortality disguised as a survival drama. It’s shocking almost, you’d expect the bold experiment would be by Steven Soderbergh and the action vehicle to be from Joe Carnahan, not the other way around. But that’s how it worked out. Whether it was budget restraints, crummy CGI, or an artistic bent that would shock anyone who saw Smokin’ Aces, The Grey is about characters facing their demise. So when the film abruptly ends just before Liam Neeson charges the alpha wolf with knife and broken bottles taped to his hands (What can I say? – The trailer lied), it doesn’t feel like a cop out. No, this is a culmination of the character. Whether he lives or dies is no longer the issue. That he actually stood up for one last fight, that’s what’s important.

But here we have two action movies with no action endings. This is the exact opposite of a typical action movie. Many of them have no action except for the ending. In fact the rule for most ‘70s actioners is skip the first two acts, just tune in for the ending.

Is that a trend writers should follow? Depends. I think Haywire’s ending is a big letdown that nearly drags the rest of the film down. That’s because it had more modest goals. A traditional action packed ending would have been much more appropriate. The Grey however was a bold movie and the ending is a bold choice by the director and writer. It fits the story perfectly. And that’s what writers should be paying attention to. What does the story need in terms of an ending? A bang or a whimper?

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