My wife and I were watching Dune last night. Not the David Lynch movie, the 2000 mini-series. Anyway, the last scene of the movie was, as mandated by federal law, a fight scene between the hero and the bad guy. It was very exciting, but really only for one reason. The good guy in Dune was played by a stolid block of granite named Alec Newman–in the fight, we saw the actor’s entire emotional range, from sullen to, well, no, actually, that was it. But since it was the last scene in the movie, there was always the chance that he’d portray something else–anger, greed, humor (no chance of that) maybe even lust. That never happened, but one could hope. I spent the entire movie thinking the bad guy was being played by the Winklevoss twins, but alas, Armie Hammer was only fourteen when they made the thing, so his Mom probably wouldn’t let him out of school. Instead it was Ivan Drago. No, actually, it was a different tall blonde guy named Matt Keeslar. Of course, it was immensely suspenseful–who would win? Would Paul Atreides/Muad-dib/Kwisatz Haderach, the hero of the ENTIRE SERIES, win and wed the emperor’s pretty daughter? Or would the murderous Feyd, of the brutal house of Harkonnen, upset the entire plot we’d been watching for six freaking hours?
Is it just me or are those the most tiresome scenes in all movies ever? Final fight scenes, man. Every single stupid action movie has to end the exact same way, with the exact same outcome. All of them, without fail. Don’t you feel kinda bad for the bad guy? Shouldn’t he get to win at least once?
Dune was sort of hilariously bad, especially the costume design, in which all the women got to wear the most ludicrous hats ever put on screen. But the fight scene set new lows for unsuspensefulness. First of all, Feyd was a really minor character. He was only a third-tier bad guy, even–he had an evilly plotting uncle who got way more screen time, and a cousin character who you knew had to be a way worse human being because the actor who played him was physically unattractive. Second, Paul Atreides had this kind of Matrix-y lean-to-the-side-to-dodge move he used. Except he doesn’t use it for most of the fight. I mean, his entire life, plus the empire, plus his marriage all rest on winning this fight, and he has this amazing trick which will win it for him, so of course he waits until the end of the fight when he’s almost dead to use it. Like any of us would.
In The Avengers, there’s this nice moment in the final fight scene. Loki, the bad-‘un, says to the Hulk “I am your God! Worship me!” And Hulk grabs him and goes wham wham wham, smashing him back and forth on the ground. That’s a nice twist on the final fight scene convention, in which the villain and hero not only have to fight each other, but the hero has to almost lose a bunch of times. You know, so it’ll be suspenseful.
I know why we do it. All modern action movies are based on conventions developed in the 19th century. Melodrama was the main form for popular entertainment for a hundred years, and it had these rigid structural requirements–heroes and villains, comic sidekicks, cliff-hangers, stunts and special effects, a heroine in need of rescuing, musical unscoring to pump up the excitment. Theatre History textbooks say melodrama died out around 1915. Theatre History textbooks lie. What happened in 1915 wasn’t some growing sophistication in audiences rendering the conventions of melodrama tiresome. No, what happened in 1915 was Birth of a Nation. D. W. Griffith figured out that everything melodrama did on-stage, movies could do way cooler and make more money at. Plus, to give his nifty new plaything some weight and heft and intellectual cachet, he tossed in lots of racism, that being his days’ cultural au courant discovery. So the heroes got to be this Hot New Thing–the Ku Klux Klan. They’re the good guys, they’re the cavalry riding to the rescue in Birth of a Nation. Nothing’s changed today. Any popular delusion of our day can be melodramatized–the Mayan calendar predicting the End of the World? Done. Apollo 11 finding Something Out There? Done. Treasure maps on the back of the Declaration of Independence (a subset of Founding Father worship). Done.
The only thing we do differently today is our heroines don’t get rescued. We don’t like that; we’re all feminists now. Of course, women in action movies can kick butt like any guy. But they can’t actually be, you know, people. They have to essentially define contemporary notions of sexual allure. They have to look insanely hot. So we’re only sort of feminists.
They can also help the hero win the final fight scene. If there’s an evil sidekick character, they can maybe take him on. But the hero has to win. The hero wins, not because he’s plausibly better at fighting than the villain. He wins because it’s a required plot convention.
In fact, I can only think of one final fight scene that actually works dramatically. It’s from Rob Roy. Liam Neeson v. Tim Roth. What’s great about it is that Liam Neeson–the hero– never has a chance. Roth plays this sociopathic freak who’s an amazing sword fighter–Neeson hasn’t a tenth of his training or skill. But Liam’s fighting for his family. And manages to win plausibly.
Mostly, though, they’re dull. And that’s weird, isn’t it, a requirement that the climax of a movie be boring?
Look, I like movies, and I like action movies. I also like apple pie, hot fudge sundaes and chocolate cake with my wife’s sour cream frosting. Action movies are plenty fun. But mostly we should be watching better films. Right? We should actually be trying to learn something about the human condition, maybe. Plays are better at that. At least I think so.