“The Aesthetics of Beating a Man to Death With His Own Arm”
by Jonathan P. Wood
I’m just going to come clean and say it: I like writing action scenes. I mean, yeah, characterization, and emotions, and subtext are all well and good. And who doesn’t love a grand metaphor for the existential horror of the human condition? But, quite frankly, it’s the bit where the monster rips a man’s arm off and then uses it to beat the aforementioned hapless soul to death that I really enjoy.
I think I read too much Clive Barker when I was a kid…
I’m a child of the eighties, so when I think of action scenes, I immediately think of Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Coincidentally. I also immediately think of them when I think of violent homo-eroticism, but that’s not really what we’re talking about here. (Though, seriously, go back and try to keep a straight face when, in Commando, Arnie tells the man with the string-vest and the knife, “You want to stick it in me”).
There is a sort of glorious disregard for reality in those 80’s action movies. Physics no longer matters. Human anatomy barely matters. Or it only matters to the extent that it can be distorted by steroids and a serious gym addiction. Gun magazines are endless. Enemies are endless. Villains have fewer motives than Lovecraft’s mindless horrors from beyond space. Why does Villain X want to rule the world? Who gives a crap – that dude has a rocket launcher. And through it all, our musclebound hero, strides, untouched, unharmed, pecs quaking to the thunder of his full auto AK, steel jaw, and wooden acting firmly in place.
It’s a whole lot of fun.
The problem is – it’s often not very good.
I realize I’m dealing with some treasured childhood memories here, and that there are exceptions to rules, and that I am, essentially, pissing all over your nostalgia, but from an objective point of view, let’s face it – some of those movies are total crap. Though, to be fair, most of the eighties was total crap, so it’s not entirely the fault of the respective film crews.
But then, the decade dying, grunge poised to eclipse hair metal, the ozone layer wasted, neon socks fading – came Die Hard. Out of left field. Bruce Willis. A brutal, bloody uppercut to the sensibilities of action movies.
You know what takes Die Hard from being a good movie, to being a game-changingly great movie? And no, it’s not Alan Rickman’s accent – which rivals the time Dick Van Dyke took the cockney accent into a back alley, shot it, and wore its decaying corpse through Mary Poppins. No, it’s the scene with the glass and Bruce Willis’s feet. You know the one I’m talking about. Rickman commands his goons to shoot out some windows. And then Bruce Willis, without shoes, has to cross the glass-littered floor. And he’s hurt. He’s the hero, and he is hurt so badly. It’s brutal. Totally brutal.
And it’s freakin’ awesome too.
Because that doesn’t stop Bruce Wilis. I mean, in those Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies, did you ever really doubt that the good guy would win? Of course not. You couldn’t. Those movies weren’t about suspense. They were wet dreams of pyrotechnics. Nothing more, nothing less. But Die Hard came along, and slashed open the feet of the action movie, and let it bleed, let it hurt. We saw that scene and for a moment we all thought, “Bruce Willis is going to lose,” and the world was better for it.
What’s more, Die Hard does this all without sacrificing any of the bombast of the action. Helicopters explode, machine guns chug through ammunition, hell, a pectoral muscle or two even quakes. Blood is spilled in liters. There are comic relief characters to break the tension. All the staples are there. It’s an action move. It’s just a better class of action movie.
It’s not just fun. It’s also good.
Which is all a long-winded way of getting back to the poor dude having his arm ripped off. Back to the lesson Die Hard taught me about writing action scenes. The lesson I have tried to apply to No Hero and Yesterday’s Hero. Simply this – that the guy losing a limb is not some background character, not someone to add flavor to a scene. Instead, he’s our hero. He’s the focus. And now he’s down an arm. And this is about to be one hell of a fight.
Jonathan Wood is an Englishman in New York. He is the author of No Hero—the Lovecraftian urban fantasy that dares to ask, “What would Kurt Russell do?” The sequel, Yesterday’s Hero, will be available August 1st. He can be found online at www.cogsandneurons.com and on twitter as @thexmedic. He has both his arms.