Sometimes watching good movies can depress you because you wonder how you can achieve such a level of excellence. That’s why bad movies are important to watch as well because you can see how professionals can totally foul up a story. For an example of the latest bad movie, watch “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.”
The actors, direction, cinematography, and everything else that goes into making am movie is fine. What’s awful is the story structure. As expected, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is all about action, but here’s where the movie completely falls apart in two ways. First, by not showing us the action. Second, by not explaining and setting up the action.
In the opening scene, a sheriff drives up to a diner where some men have been beaten up and the hero (Tom Cruise) calmly sits inside a diner. Instead of showing us the fight, this opening scene simply shows us the aftermath. That simply cheats us out of seeing the hero defeating men against overwhelming odds and still succeeding. Instead of seeing action, we just get to see the result of that action, which is far less interesting.
Thus the opening scene is nothing but a huge disappointment. A far better approach would be to have the hero walk towards the diner while the bad guys slowly start to circle him. Then show the hero using his wits and fighting skills to defeat them one by one. When you see an action film, you expect to see action, not the result of action. So the opening scene immediately fails to give us the action we expected right from the start.
A far more serious and more common flaw in “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is that it errs on the other side. While the opening scene showed us the aftermath of action that we didn’t see, most of the rest of the movie jumps from action scene to action scene while failing to show us why this is important. There’s no suspense, no tension, no anticipation. Instead we jump to an action scene then it ends. Then we jump to another action scene and then it ends.
By constantly jumping to action scenes, the movie fails to explain what all this action means and why we should care. Instead of creating tension and suspense, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” simply parades an endless series of action scenes with characters we don’t care about and storylines that we don’t fully understand or care about either.
Instead of bombarding us with action scene after action scene, the movie should slow down and take its time drawing out the tension. Let us know the stakes, then let us see the growing danger to the hero. Finally, let us see the action that completes the tension until the next action scene.
Imagine how bad “Die Hard” would be if the opening scene showed the hero running from terrorists taking over a Christmas party in a skyscraper. Right away we would have no idea who the hero is, what he wants, who the other characters are, where it’s taking place, or what’s even happening. All we’d see is plenty of action and then jump to another action scene over and over again until we get bored altogether.
Action films are never about action, but about the story behind the action. Make us care about the action by clearly and slowly letting us experience the fear and tension as a scene builds up to an action scene. Every great action film (such as “Die Hard”) is a compelling story plus action. Every bad action film is nothing but action.
If you want to see a bad action film, just study “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.” Once you see how poorly structured this action film is, you’ll have completely confidence that you can write something so much better.