Thursday, January 13, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #66: If You Laugh At Death, You Suffer the Consequences

On screens big and small, we are experiencing the second heyday of the action-comedy. Is this because America has fallen in love with this tricky genre all of a sudden? Not exactly, but Hollywood sure has. Many of last year’s biggest flops, from Killers to Knight and Day to The A-Team tackled the challenge and lost. The genre has been somewhat more successful on TV where it’s practically taken over all the original programming at USA.

Usually action movies demand that the audience take them very seriously, but this genre does the opposite, nudging the audience in the ribs to point out how zany all these shenanigans are, only to turn around in the next scene and ask us to take it semi-seriously again. It’s not an inherently bad idea, I love Hopscotch and Silver Streak as much as the next guy, but it’s a fine line to walk.

On paper, no one should like the TNT show “Leverage” more than I. It combines two of my favorite shows, “Mission: Impossible” and “60 Minutes”. High-tech con men who specialize in taking down untouchable white-collar criminals? That’s gold, baby! But in practice, it never clicked for me. I eventually made it through half of the first season but I knew the show was never going to work about four minutes into the pilot. Right away, we meet the team through a series of separate character introductions. In order to introduce the show’s resident badass, they show a time when he calmly confronted ten Serbian gangsters, who all pulled guns on him:
Cut to the an exterior show showing the windows lighting up from all the guns going off:Cut back inside. All the bad guys are dead:And the hero doesn’t even have his hair mussed:This told me two things:

  1. Jeopardy would never really be a serious thing on this show. They would always be willing to laugh off overwhelming odds for the sake of a joke.
  2. Despite all the show’s righteous indignation about corporate crime, mass killings were somehow supposed to be hilarious.

By way of contrast, Burn Notice on USA is another problematical show, but it never would have made either of these mistakes. The funny characters are funny, and the action sequences are often lightly comic, but they never laugh away the jeopardy or show “funny” dead bodies on that show. As a rule, you can feel free to vary the tone, but keep the hot side hot and the cool side cool. Don’t treat danger like a big joke if you want us to worry about it later.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nicely put. This is the difference between films like DIE HARD and just about everything Robert Rodriguez has ever made. What's the point of creating all that action-movie danger if you're not at some basic level going to take it seriously? Even Leone films have more dignity and balance when it comes to the apportionment of humor, which is, I suppose, where Tarantino first sussed the right mix.