Before we can rate vigilante movies, we have to deconstruct the genre of vigilantism. What makes a good one; what makes it poorly constructed and painful to watch? There are no hard and fast rules, and each individual may vary in expectations of what they want to see in such a movie, but generally these concepts are indispensable.
AND A HERO COMES ALONG
"You have to have great characters -- a great hero and a great villain," said Arthur Sarkissian, producer of the "Rush Hour" series.
What makes the hero a hero? What makes him so worthy of being bestowed with the label of a ‘vigilante’? He can’t be already a big shot, a well-off man with a prestigious and blessed life before he took up the cross.
Larry Rippenkroeger, the stunt double for Bruce Willis in “Live Free or Die Hard’ who ‘drove in car chases and leaped off buildings’, remarked "It's about a reluctant hero having to rise to the occasion. ”Being able to relate to the character is a big part of it." Sarkissian agrees. "The hero must be down-to-earth. But by the same token and at the right moment, you feel the strength that they have. They have to feel like ordinary guys with that underlying toughness.”
Why so? There is more to root for in the hero when he is just your everyday mediocre guy going about his uneventful life until an Armageddon crashed, upheaving it into tornadic chaos. He has got to be able to have a personable impression on us as individual viewers, that we could imagine something similar happening to us, thus having a proximate impact and a cause for us to cheer on the hero while he seeks out his vendetta. It becomes our vendetta too.
John Campea of themovieblog.com says "When we don't care about or like the hero, all the action in the world can't save the movie."
I’LL HUFF AND I’LL PUFF, SAID THE BIG BAD WOLF
As much as it is the director’s agenda for the audiences to like and adore the hero, it is of equivalent instrumentality that we both loathe and fear the appointed villain with the same strength of intensity. “Like the hero, the audience must also have a connection, albeit negatively, with the villain's lack of humanity,” wrote Lee Ferran from ABC News.
I will take full liberty of quantifying this as the most essential quality for the plot of a vigilante movie to be efficacious, and that is the on-screen chemistry between vigilante and villain has to be genuine in rapport and affinity. On-screen chemistry cannot be faked, no matter how skilful an actor one is. This priceless advantage can only be achieved if the two have a sort of authentic off-screen chemistry. If they don’t, it translates sorely on screen. Relationship between vigilante and villain truly is a tango, a lustrous dance between the pair. And if there is difficulty in coordinating the transference of synergy, the meaningful contours of a connection, the whole plot and movie will easily fall apart. They have to be one in the same, in-sync.
The characterization of the villain has to be so wildly psychotic and the portrayal so richly voracious that he plagues the viewers with irrepressible hunger and fear of what is to come next. I think a few of the best villainy that I’ve seen is Javier Bardem as Raoul Silva in ‘Skyfall’; Lena Headey as Ma-Ma in ‘Dredd’; and Christoph Waltz as August in ‘Water for Elephants’. "Any story where you have good guys versus bad guys can only be as smart as the intelligence of your baddest guy," said Bruce Willis in his interview with Entertainment Weekly
You’ve got to feel that there is definite challenge for the hero. And that is only accomplished by the sophistication of the villainy - that this is a tough battle to endeavour. That when the hero comes out on top at the end, you feel he genuinely went through hell and back, and was all-deserving of the victory he ensued.
CAMERA, LIGHTS, ACTION
"Action doesn't have to run from start to finish," said Campea, "but when the action is there, make sure it has the audience on the edge of its seat. It doesn't have to be extravagant either." According to filmcritic.com reviewer Pete Croatto, “Extravagance is something that too many action movies focus on. To me it is like eating a really good cheeseburger. One cheeseburger. I want my action and to be perfectly satiated, no more than is needed," added Croatto. Supporting that sentiment is Rippenkroeger who feels there is a limit to how much and what kind of action the audience should see. "Some movies have so much action that you just get exhausted. And for me, the action has to be realistic.”
Peter Jackson called this type of plot shortcoming as ‘battle fatigue’, where the (action) battle scenes get so long-drawn, the audiences get bored and weary of watching it and become disinterested in the sequence. You can craft long and proper action scenes, it is just how long you show the audience. So Jackson shared that what he did in Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers with the epic battle at Helm’s Deep, was cut to the other subplots or journeys the other characters were endeavoring, at regular intervals during Helm’s Deep, and then return to the battle scene, so that “the audiences know that while they (audiences) were away, the battle was still on-going.”
There should be a fair amount of action and engaging fight scenes. Since a vigilante movie isn’t necessarily an action movie (take Gran Torino for example), there should still be a reasonable amount of excitement and climax.
Concepts of vigilante movies have been so direly exhausted that the plots become recyclable. "Using the word 'formula' is part of the problem," said Croatto. The Onion's Scott Tobias believes "great movies are usually defined by how they deviate from formulas, not by how they conform to them."
Give the heroes a good reason to fight. ‘What are your premises for being a vigilante or engaging in vigilantism?’ It has to be unusual, it has to be raw, and it has to be great. As you will see later in the week the list of the 5 best movies - and the 5 worst - on augustman.com, all of them were originators of their kinds, and that is why they were so successful – the film industry has not seen any like that before.
Novelty and straying away from the generic is a mirror of the genre of vigilante movies. The departure from the usual plots parallels the transition of an ordinary guy on the street suddenly taking up arms and justice into his own hands.
That sums up the outline of a great vigilante movie. You may agree with me, you may not; if you don’t, go buy a costume and fashion an alias and look me up at night – I’ll leave my window open for you. And perhaps a ladder.
Look forward also to the review of Jack Reacher on Friday, 21st December, on augustman.com
Images courtesy of Gettyimages