Posted on February 6, 2016
(Before we get started, I’m just going to remind you that I’m locked in a cage match of death over at Inkshares and I need your support to get out of it alive. Go here and pre-order my book. It will have the effect of giving me a chainsaw so I can KILL THEM. KILL THEM ALL) I now return you to our regularly scheduled post:
There are all sorts of substandard prose out there these days. I’m convinced everyone with access to the internet thinks they were born to write. Unfortunately, they were also born out of reach of a dictionary, thesaurus, grammatical guide and the McKee book on Story.
There’s bad writing:
“Hello, Sheila, my former wife to whom I was married for seven years.”
“Hello, Bob. Yes, we were divorced just two years ago.”
You think I’m kidding? I’m not kidding.
There’s also weak writing:
He felt like someone was watching him.
No. He had the feeling someone was watching him. That’s stronger but still wastes an opportunity for metaphor: He felt eyes crawling up his back, watching for the slightest twitch of movement.
Bad writing can be so bad it’s kind of fun and weak writing can be overlooked if it’s not too prevalent and is hidden in a good story, but cliched writing is just plain awful.
Everyone has their least favorite cliche, that one tired element that yanks them out of a story every time they hear or see it. Mine is referenced in the title of this post. I’m going to write out the whole scene — it’s just two sentences — but first I’m going to stab myself in the kidney with a steak knife to divert my attention from what I’m doing.
“What… what are you going to do?” the sidekick asked nervously.
“I’m going to kill them,” the hero said, staring into the middle distance with steely eyed determination. “I’m going to kill them all.”
Gyarh!!! Right? Oh, so awful. My God, every time I come across that scene, whether it’s in a film or a book or a comic book or a TV show, my ability to suspend disbelief is destroyed. Sometimes for a moment. Sometimes I’m pulled out of the story so completely I can’t get back in.
Whedon used this line twice in BtVS (if I’m remembering correctly). I think the first time he hung a lantern on it by having Angel say it but the second time I’m pretty sure Buffy said it and was serious. But he’s not the only one. That cliche has become shorthand for communicating to the audience where in the story we currently are.
Not only have our heroes lost their chance at victory, they’ve been driven into a corner and lost a few characters we were manipulated into slightly caring about, and now defeat is looming over their heads. That’s right, folks, it’s the end of the second act.
But then the hero picks up a MAC 10 in each hand and that scene I wrote up there drops on us like a spongy, stinking turd and the third act turn around begins.
There have only been two times that I can think of when derivations of this trope have been used to good effect. The first time was in Lawrence of Arabia when Lawrence’s Bedouin army comes across the tribe that made him do butt stuff when they captured him (or it could have been furry stuff, we’re never told in the movie). Peter O’Toole leans forward in the saddle, a mixed expression of eagerness and mania on his face and says, “No Prisoners.”
Personally, I believe that’s the first use of the line in movies so it gets a pass. It’s also an effective scene in which we come to understand that the character has turned a moral corner.
The second time this line was put to good use was in the sadly underrated Denzel Washington remake of Man On Fire. This is one of those movies where the critics and the audience are split. It has an audience rating of 89 but a critic rating of only 39.
Frankly, I don’t get it. I’ve seen this movie a dozen times and it is as tight as an action movie can get and has more heart than a hundred Michael Bay movies made entirely out of hearts. Okay, that metaphor got away from me, but you know what I mean.
When Denzel is given a role of purpose to play, he is like a steam powered locomotive. He pushes the film forward through sheer force of will. And that’s what we have in Man On Fire. A story which is entirely concerned with Denzel’s character Creasy (oddly enough, the name of my drill sergeant in basic training) redeeming himself by finding the little girl who was kidnapped under his watch.
When the girl’s mother asks him what he’s going to do, he responds like this:
“What I do best. I’m gonna kill ’em. Anyone that was involved. Anybody who profited from it. Anybody who opens their eyes at me.”
And the mother responds: “You kill ’em all.”
Now just typing that gave me chills. It’s an effective scene, even a powerful one, but more importantly, it’s an example of what you can do instead of relying on a cliche.
The cycle of celluloid life goes something like this: Someone innovates and comes up with something new. Other people jump on and add slight improvements. The non-creatives in Hollywood see that this thing is making money and they hop on, too, not by adding value but by stealing and repeating elements until they go from innovation, to trope, to cliche.
And finally, the whole thing is buffed up shiny and new in a satire that effectively retires all the tropes and cliches by officially turning them into jokes. Which is why my favorite action movie is True Lies and my favorite Bond movie is Austin Powers and my favorite Star Trek movie is Galaxy Quest.
They are the quintessential, bar none, perfect summations of their genres.