One-Trick Ponies

A one-trick pony is something that only has a single redeeming feature. The problem is that an entire movie needs more than a single interesting feature. If a movie has nothing but a single compelling idea, it likely won’t make a good movie.

Almost every movie seems like a one-trick pony but it’s not. “Star Wars” might seem to be a battle between good and evil in the galaxy, but it’s really about the Force and a young man learning to trust himself. When Hollywood churned out a bunch of science fiction movies to take advantage of the popularity of “Star Wars”, these bad science fiction movies simply focused on the odd characters, costumes, and futuristic setting. There was nothing beyond the science fiction premise.

Bad movies are often one-trick ponies. The latest mediocre movie is “Free Fire,” which is about two groups of people engaging in a firefight inside an old factory. The title says it all and the story is nothing more than people shooting each other. It’s a great premise, but it’s not enough.

If you watch “Free Fire,” you’ll notice one glaring flaw. With all the shooting going on, there’s little character development. As a result, all the shooting becomes repetitive and dull because you really don’t care about any of the characters.

Think of the ending of “Star Wars” where you’ve seen Luke change and grow, and now you’re rooting for him to succeed in his attack on the Death Star. The action in the end is interesting because it’s action, but the meaning behind the action makes the action far more engaging because you care about the outcome. You hope Luke will blow up the Death Star but you’re not sure he will because the odds are stacked so heavily against him.

In “Free Fire,” there are two glaring problems. First, the movie doesn’t give you time to identify with any of the characters. Second, because you don’t know what any of the characters want, you have no idea what their goal is. Because you don’t know what their goal might be, their actions seem meaningless. Lots of shooting, lots of blood, lots of screaming and cussing, but none of that matters if you don’t care about the characters and you don’t know what they want to achieve.

Even the worst karate movies create a goal for the hero, such as avenging the death of his father. With a clear goal, the audience can see what the characters are working towards and cheer them on as they encounter and overcome obstacles that threaten to stop them from achieving their goal.

If you don’t know a character’s goal, no amount of gunfire, explosions, screaming, cussing, or special effects will hide this glaring omission. If you don’t know a character’s goal, you probably don’t know anything about the characters either.

Look at how good movies make you care about the characters. First, every good movie introduces a hero. Second, the movie makes you care about the hero because he or she gets unfairly treated somehow to gain our sympathy. Third, the movie clearly defines the goal of the hero whether it’s to stand up for himself (“The Karate Kid”), find and kill a specific person (“Kill Bill”), or find someone to love (“WALL-E”).

Now watch “Free Fire” and you’ll notice that this movie introduces us to various characters, but we don’t really know who’s the hero. We meet lots of different characters but we don’t know who to root for.

Second, none of the characters seem treated unfairly so we don’t feel sympathetic to any of them. As a result, we don’t really care about any of them.

Third, we don’t know what the goals of any of the characters might be. Each group seems to have a goal. One group wants to buy weapons and the second group wants to sell it to them and collect the cash. Beyond this goal, we have no idea what the individual characters want.

Because we don’t know the goals of any of the characters, nothing they do matters since we don’t know if they’re moving closer to their goal or not. That’s because we don’t know their goals so all the running, ducking, shooting, and screaming means nothing.

“Free Fire” is a one-trick pony where the premise is simply, “Put a bunch of people in a building and let them shoot at each other.” That’s a good start but it’s not a full movie. When you come up with your own movie idea, don’t stop with an idea that’s nothing more than a one-trick pony.

You can start with a cool idea like having a bunch of people shooting at each other in a building, but you better build from there. Otherwise your movie will wind up as disappointing as “Free Fire.”

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