One of the benefits of being older is being wiser, or so they say. But it’s starting to ruin action movies for me. As you get older and gain some life experience, some of the common tropes in action movies start to seem more and more unrealistic as I get older.
1. Cutting brake lines
We’ve all seen it. The bad guy pulls out a knife, lays down next to the hero’s car and cuts the brake line. Cue dramatic music. The main character is doomed. Doomed.
There are three problems with this trope. Without brake fluid your brakes are weak, soft. But they do work. I’ve had my brakes go out more than once. It’s a frightening experience, but you can stop your car, eventually.
The second problem is that the driver will probably notice. If they don’t notice the big pool of brake fluid under their car for some reason, they will probably notice that their brakes are soft when they pull out. And then they will drive, very slowly, to the nearest garage. Or stop and call AAA.
Finally, even if they don’t notice until they are on the highway, driving fast and they can’t stop in time, not all car accidents are fatal. You might roll your car, but if you’re wearing your seatbelt you may well walk away.
Cutting someone’s brake line is a terrible thing to do. Driving without brakes is incredibly dangerous. But it’s not something a professional assassin is going to rely on to kill someone.
2. Tranquilizer Darts
I work in mental health, just so you know. As such, I am one of the few people who can honestly and legally say, I’ve held people down and sedated them against their will, more times than I can count. When someone is psychotic and out of control, it’s about the only thing you can do. So I know how sedatives work in real life.
It’s not like in the movies, let me tell you. IM medication hits the bloodstream in as little as five to fifteen minutes. It can take much longer to reach peak effect.
What about those wildlife shows you see? They shoot a tranquilizer dart into a lion’s backside and it passes out, right? Actually they shoot the dart and the lion runs away. They follow at a safe distance until the medication kicks in. They eliminate that part in editing.
Another important factor is the level of safety involved. For hospital staff in the United States trying to sedate violent patients, we have to error on the side of caution when it comes to dosing. Giving a lethal overdose would be a very bad thing. Veterinarians can be a little more generous, since most people and governments value animal lives as less than they would a human, but there is still a strong element of caution involved. Criminals, as in the movies, theoretically have no such limits.
But there are still two problems. This doesn’t solve the instant effect dilemma. Medications simply don’t work that way. A sedative, no matter how strong, isn’t going to instantly knock some down from a shot. An IV anesthetic might, but have you ever seen them shoot someone in the vein? I haven’t. I doubt such a thing is possible. The second problem is that you almost never see criminals screw up and kill someone they are trying to sedate. The main characters never wakes up strapped to a chair and demands, “where is…” only to hear, “oh, we gave her too much and now she’s dead.”
(The one exception to this rule? Practical Magic. The whole plot of the movie revolves around the two women accidentally overdosing the abusive boyfriend with belladonna. Also, in that movie the effect is far from instant.)
3. ex-marines/special forces/cops
Marines, special forces, police, professional athletes, and martial arts experts are amazing people. They have conditioned their bodies to extreme stresses. I have no problem believing that such people can do incredible things. My problem is with the “ex” part of the equation.
Again it’s something I’ve seen a lot working in mental health. “Look out, I used to be a green beret.” I’ve heard this implied threat many times. If we don’t give into this person’s demands, they can really hurt us because they’ve trained in martial arts/ been a marine/ trained in the special forces, etc.
Most physical skills, and all conditioning, are use it or lose it. You might have been a marine fifteen years ago. Today you are a burned out alcoholic. My security team is conditioned right now. Want to guess who is going to win?
Where I see this a lot is in action novels and thrillers. We are told that the main character used to be an Army Ranger. It’s years later and they are civilians. And yet when the Zombie apocalypse starts, they strap on a backpack and head for woods, killing zeds with a survival knife the entire way. Never once showing their age or lack of conditioning.
A veteran or retired cop is going to have certain instincts that a civilian won’t. That should give them some edge in an apocalypse scenario. But there will be significant lag time before they have the conditioning back. And if you have a character that (cliche warning) had to leave the force due to an injury, they aren’t ever going to be a hundred percent.
4. Drugs and Alcohol take a toll on the body
This another action novel cliche. It often goes hand in hand with number 3. The ex-cop with a drinking problem. Or the brilliant mind that somehow needs drugs to cope. (see Sherlock Holmes or House for example.)
Substance abuse takes a toll on the body. Over years it becomes worse. The average alcoholic or drug abuser can pull it together a) for a short time or b) after a period of detox. I’ve yet to read the zombie novel where the grizzled old vet shook and sweated his way through the first few days while DT’s racked his body.
Stimulants might improve concentration in the short term, but long term use of most drugs is going to be detrimental to mental and emotional functioning. Real life Sherlock’s might think they are being brilliant under the influence of their favorite substance, but reality generally finds otherwise.
Showing a character drowning his/her sorrows in booze, or using some other drug, is an easy way to show that they’ve had a rough life, or that they struggle with inner demons. It’s also cliche. But what is worse, is that too many writers forget about the issue once the action is underway. Life doesn’t work that way. Drugs and alcohol take a toll on your health. Addicts will tell you they must struggle constantly to stay clean and sober. If your character has a drug problem, they will as well.
A rare exception: In 100 days in Deadland one of the characters, a vet, struggles with PTSD throughout the series.
5. Suicidal henchmen
The villain in Mystery Men declares that he was so evil he’d kill his own men. The Governor in the Walking dead guns down dozens of his own citizens. It is an easy way to show how your villain lacks basic compassion. It is overused and often suspect.
In the above examples I question the strategic wisdom of the villains. Even if you don’t value human life, manpower is a limited resource. When cornered by themselves later they might regret sacrificing that manpower too quickly.
But my real question is, what’s in it for the henchmen?
Survival is a base instinct. It’s incredibly hard to overcome. And yet so many pulp fiction and action novels have henchmen throwing themselves against the hero with suicidal devotion to their boss.
What prompts such loyalty? This is almost never explained. The henchmen are just throw away automatons. We aren’t meant to worry about their motivations or feelings. But life doesn’t work that way. Writer Kurt Vonnegut said, “every character wants something, even if it’s only a glass of water.”
Henchmen must follow this rule. They want something. They serve the villain for some reason. The villain might have a soft side we don’t see. They might be part of some group or religion. They might think the villain will eventually share his/her wealth/power. But there has to be something.
And even when we get that something, will it override their survival instinct and all common sense? When they see that the hero completely outclasses them, will they keep fighting?
So there are my five action tropes that I no longer believe now that I am older. What about you? Are their action tropes that drive you crazy? Let me know in the comments.