Anatomy of the Action Picture
Here’s a case study here, centering on Mission: Impossible: III.
Here are five principles of storytelling crucial to most Hollywood films.
- Goal orientation.
The primary characters, protagonist and antagonist, both want something, or several somethings. The story progression is driven by characters’ efforts to attain goals and the way circumstances alter those goals.
At the same time, characters’ efforts to achieve goals create changes in the people themselves. Sometimes they realize that they’re pursuing the wrong goal, or that they must become worthy of the goal. In Storytelling, Kristin discusses such possibilities in relation to Groundhog Day.
- The double plotline.
Typically the goals govern least two lines of action, and at least one of these involves heterosexual romantic love. A common pattern is a work/love pairing, where job problems affect and are affected by romantic relationships. Recent examples: The Devil Wears Prada, The Good Shepherd, The Prestige. In some cases one plotline is subordinate to the other, but both are very often present.
Here’s a case of a norm that hasn’t, so far as I know, been articulated by the filmmakers themselves. It seems simply to be taken for granted.
- Discrete part-structure.
The action revolves around goals: defining them, modifying them, and achieving or not achieving them. Hollywood films map the process onto several parts, each running 25–35 minutes (although climax sections tend to be shorter). The running times of these parts don’t count credit sequences unless they carry story information, so the final crawl credits are typically not reckoned into the screen time of the film’s narrative.
Since the mid-1970s, screenwriters have talked a lot about the idea of the three-act structure. In Storytelling in the New Hollywood (1999), Thompson refined this cluster of rules. She suggested that we can analyze films more precisely by acknowledging that not all films have three acts. In features running around two hours, we typically find a four-part structure: Setup, Complicating Action, Development, and Climax. Usually there’s a brief epilogue tacked on. Filmmakers working in the three-act paradigm in effect split the second act into two stretches around a midpoint.
Interestingly, Thompson’s four-part structure is made explicit not only in manuals written after her book, but in the very architecture of Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). The plot is split into four days, each given a title and each corresponding to one of the parts she identifies. Black’s film ends with several epilogues; this convention is mocked in Harry’s voice-over commentary, and one scene is labeled, “Epilogue.”
- Planting causes for future effects.
Chekhov is said to have remarked that in a play the gun on the wall in Act I should go off in Act III. Likewise, Hollywood script carpentry lays in conditions that will prove important later. But it’s not simply props that point forward: more common are what we call dangling causes. An unresolved action is presented near the end of one section that is picked up and pushed further in a later section. Every scene will tend to contain unresolved issues that demand settling further along.
It’s surprising how often films in all genres set deadlines for the resolution of the plot. Screenwriters call it the “ticking clock,” the time pressure that can rule any portion of the film but that is virtually mandatory at the Climax.
Mission: Impossible: III
The Setup (00:32–31:34)
A prologue establishes that the villain Owen Davian has captured Ethan Hunt and a woman we’ll later realize is Ethan’s wife Julia. Davian demands to know where the Rabbit’s Foot is, and he threatens to shoot Julia if Ethan doesn’t say. As he fires, a brief title credit bursts up, and the rest of the film unfolds as an extended flashback.
You could argue that, given director J. J. Abrams’ roots in TV, this prologue functions in the manner of the teaser that samples a later part of tonight’s episode. But today many films employ an enframed flashback structure. The plot begins at a point of crisis and then whisks us back to show how things got to this pass. The resolution of the opening scene is postponed until the Climax. This strategy can be found at various points in the history of Hollywood, notably in the 1940s.
After the title credits, our protagonist Ethan is quickly assigned two goals. First, during an engagement party, we learn that he and Julia Meade are planning to be married. He seems to have happily settled into an Agency desk job, concealed as a boring post in the Transportation Department.
Then he’s yanked out of his home by a request from his colleague John Musgrave. Musgrave asks Ethan to lead a covert team to find Lindsey Farris, a young agent whom Ethan has mentored. She’s disappeared, and master criminal Owen Davian is thought to be responsible.
So the characteristic double plotline is established. Ethan wants a normal life with the woman he loves. “Family’s everything,” Musgrave remarks dryly. But Ethan also feels obliged to save Lindsey, whom he had trained for combat and released for duty, perhaps prematurely. So he’s forced to lie to Julia and pretend to go to a professional convention. This sets up the work/romance tension we find so often in Hollywood films.
The M:I team is assembled, with the returning Luther Stickell joined by new members Declan and Zhen Lei. They and Ethan assault the Berlin factory where Lindsey is kept prisoner. As she’s rescued, she tells Ethan she has information for him but there’s no time for her to impart it. Deadlines keep the pressure on. Escaping in a helicopter, the team is chased by Damian’s minions, while Ethan discovers that Lindsey’s brain is carrying an explosive capsule. He tries to halt it by stopping her heart and using a defibrillator to bring her back, but they run out of time and she dies.
At home Ethan faces new problems. He’s still in shock from Lindsey’s death, which makes Julia apprehensive.
At work, Ethan’s supervisor Brassel criticizes Musgrave and Ethan, stating that his personal goal is to get Davian and they have thwarted his efforts. The setup winds down when Ethan attends Lindsey’s funeral, haunted by her question at the end of training: “Am I ready?”
Several important items are planted in this opening section. All the major characters are introduced. At the party we learn that Ethan can read lips, that Julia likes adventure (she’s gone skydiving and hung from a helicopter), and that New Zealand’s Lake Wanaka is a memorable place for both of them. The threat of an embedded brain capsule, the idea of letting someone die and be revived, and the fact that Julia works at a hospital will all become important in later parts.
Just as important, the action scene isn’t just a gratuitous set-piece. It’s central to achieving Ethan’s goal, the rescue of Lindsey. The rescue’s outcome—her death—motivates his hatred for Davian and drives a wedge into his relationship with Julia. From now on, as they say, it’s personal.
The Setup runs about 31 minutes, with the key action of Lindsey’s death taking place near the 25-minute mark, a sacred point in Hollywood dramaturgy. In addition, first parts often have a turning point about halfway through: here, that’s when Ethan meets his team (at about 13 minutes).
Mission: Impossible: III
The Complicating Action (31:34–62:05)
Lindsey’s funeral could simply end the movie. She’s beyond rescue, Davian has escaped, and Ethan is at a dead end. But dangling causes keep things going. We already glimpsed one in the factory assault, the urgent information that Lindsey started to recount to Ethan. Now, at the end of the funeral scene, he gets a call from a post office. A postcard is waiting for him. Dangling causes exemplify the famous linearity of classical construction: one scene hooks into the next.
The Complicating Action section serves to sharpen or alter the goals laid down in the Setup. The postcard remains a dangling cause, because Luther has to decipher the microdot that Lindsey has inserted under the stamp. In the meantime, Ethan learns from the technie Benjy that Davian is seeking something called the Rabbit’s Foot, “real end-of-the-world stuff.” Davian is headed for the Vatican to make deals with arms buyers, and Ethan resolves to pursue him, without telling anyone at the Agency.
Meanwhile, Ethan’s love affair with Julia is in jeopardy. Luther has warned that personal relationships don’t mix with espionage, and his pessimism seems to be vindicated. When Ethan makes new excuses to leave on a trip, Julia worries that he’s hiding something important from her. To reassure her, he marries her in the hospital where she works. Then it’s off to Rome to kidnap Davian, leading to an even more elaborate set-piece. Using the twinning technology established in other M:I movies, Ethan and the others snatch Davian.
Again, the action might seem to be at a standstill. Mission accomplished: The agency boss Brassel congratulates Musgrave on Davian’s capture. But fresh dangling causes emerge.
On the plane, Ethan questions their captive. Davian resists, vowing to make whomever Ethan cares about bleed—confirming Luther’s warning that secret-agent work jeopardizes their loved ones. Further, Davian’s gloating about Lindsey’s death drives Ethan into a rage. Davian’s a tough customer and may not reveal what the Rabbit’s Foot is. What if he should escape? He threatens to kill Ethan’s lover in front of him, and we realize that this is no idle threat: the prologue showed him in exactly this position. Somehow, we know, Davian will escape and turn the tables.
This Complicating Action is another longish section (about 31 minutes), with several new plants. Scenes with Julia establish that she’s a doctor and that their relationship still doesn’t rest on full trust. Again, an elaborate action scene contributes to the plot. Not only does it show Ethan achieving his goal, it proves that, despite the death of Lindsey, he’s still a skilful agent. This section also establishes an important minor character, Davian’s female translator.
Mission: Impossible: III
The Complicating Action often serves as a counter-setup, reversing the first phase of the plot. In the setup of M:I:III, Ethan’s mission failed, Lindsey died, and Davian got off free. In the Complicating Action, circumstances were reversed: Ethan succeeded, Lindsey was avenged, and Davian was taken in custody. What do Development sections do?
The Development can reverse the overall circumstances, creating new goals. It can sustain the situation. It can reveal backstory and deepen characterization. And it can simply delay resolution. The Development of M:I:III does all of these things.
First, some massive reversals. A convoy is carrying Davian to Washington. On the bridge Luther finally cracks the microdot Lindsey had mailed Ethan. She reveals that their boss Brassel is working in cahoots with Davian. At that instant a paramilitary force attacks the bridge and in an explosive firefight Davian is rescued. Ethan suffers a stunning setback, and not just from the concussive force of the assault.
He races to Julia’s hospital to protect her, but too late: she’s been seized. As Ethan leaves the hospital, he’s called by Davian. “Julia’s life for the Rabbit’s Foot.” Davian gives him 48 hours to find it. A new goal has emerged, this time with a precise deadline. At this moment Ethan is captured by his own agency and is eventually immobilized, strapped to a gurney.
Ethan’s capture blocks him from acting on Davian’s command, and the situation is prolonged, delaying his progress toward rescuing Julia. The static situation is sustained by Brassel’s address to Ethan, one that seems to confirm Lindsey’s message. Talking like the conventionally obsessed villain, Brassel vows that he will “bleed on the flag” to get his way.
Again, the action seems at an impasse. When Brassel leaves, Ethan’s contact Musgrave visits him and seems to chide him. But he mouths something quite different, and Ethan’s lip-reading skills are now put to use. Musgrave has intercepted Davian’s call, he says, and the Rabbit’s Foot is in Shanghai. Musgrave also gives Ethan a weapon that enables him to escape from the Agency and head to China.
Ethan’s new goal, that of getting the Rabbit’s Foot, dominates the rest of the Development. From a structural standpoint, this goal is something of a delaying tactic, since Ethan’s true goal is to rescue Julia. But this goal ratchets up the work/love tension, since in grabbing the Rabbit’s Foot Ethan is betraying his professional identity. His choice to save Julia reveals his character: family is indeed everything. Ethan’s new goal also motivates another action sequence, the incursion into a Shanghai skyscraper, and once more the pursuit and stuntwork are driven by a deadline. “We have two hours before they kill my wife.”
As the chase in Shanghai concludes, Ethan calls Davian, who orders him to the city’s train yard. Ethan informs Musgrave about the rendezvous, and suspense is increased when Brassel questions Musgrave about the mission. Ethan leaves his team at the Shanghai train yard, so he faces Davian alone. After a 31-minute Development, the climactic confrontation is imminent.
Mission: Impossible: III
Picked up in a stretch limo, Ethan is ordered to swallow the drink he’s given. He passes out, dreaming of Julia. In a flash, we see him injected with the same sort of explosive capsule that killed Lindsey. Now we return to the situation presented in the prologue, with some repetition. Ethan is lashed to a chair facing Julia and Davian. Once again Davian demands to know where the Rabbit’s Foot is, once more Ethan frantically bargains with him, and once again Davian threatens to shoot Julia, sitting bound and gagged across from Ethan.
Climax sections, as you’d expect, show the culmination and outcome of the plotlines running through the film. They also reveal information and clear up mysteries. Climaxes tend to be shorter than other sections, as this one is. As a denouement (literally, “untying”), the Climax may contain a final surprise as well.
Davian’s confrontation with Ethan is crosscut with the arrival of the rest of the Mission: Impossible team in DC. They’re greeted at the airport by Brassel’s squad. This scene seems to function as a red herring, reassuring us that Brassel is indeed Davian’s mole. It also deepens Ethan’s plight, now that his team can’t come to his rescue.
Ethan doesn’t know where the Rabbit’s Foot is, so Davian shoots Julia and leaves. Ethan is shattered. (So are we, perhaps, because in the modern action picture even people we care about may die; viz. The Bourne Supremacy.) After a long pause, John Musgrave enters. “It’s complicated.”
The familiar double-bluff of spy films locks in. Musgrave, not Brassel, is the mole. You could argue that this twist was planted near the end of the Development, when Musgrave turned away from Brassel and stared gravely offscreen as the camera lingered on him—the classic shot of a Suspect.
Now Musgrave explains that the questioning of Ethan and the execution of “Julia” were methods of guaranteeing that he brought the genuine Rabbit’s Foot. Musgrave peels the mask off the victim to reveal it’s not Julia but rather Davian’s translator from the Vatican sequence.
Musgrave’s goal is to find out what was in Lindsey’s microdot message. In return Ethan demands proof that Julia is alive, and the Lake Wanaka motif comes to fruition as a way of identifying the voice on Musgrave’s phone. Ethan escapes and, with the aid of Benjy on his cellphone, sprints to save Julia. As he fights his way through Davian’s lair, the fatal capsule is triggered in his skull. Ethan falters and Davian begins to beat him. Another deadline: “You have maybe four minutes left.”
Staggering, Ethan summons the strength to kill Davian, but to defuse the capsule, Julia must kill and revive Ethan. She’s a doctor; there’s a chance she can pull this off. As she’s trying to save him, another wave of gunmen assaults her, and she puts them down with a forcefulness born of desperation. When Julia shoots Musgrave, the Rabbit’s Foot rolls toward the camera, and now only the romantic line of action needs resolution.
Julia’s purported thirst for adventure pays off, and the parallel to Lindsey’s gunplay in the Berlin factory is underscored.
Lindsey was Ethan’s action partner, Julia his romantic partner, but under the press of circumstance Julia has become both. Ethan comes back to life. “You did that? Wow.”
Mission: Impossible: III
The film could end here, and a Hong Kong film might do so. But Hollywood films like to wrap everything up with a scene or two assuring the audience that all is well. Not just a happy ending, then, but an emphatic resolution. Call it an epilogue.
First we reaffirm that the romantic line of action is resolved. Outside Davian’s hideout Julia and Ethan walk across a bridge and he promises to tell her everything. He starts by describing the Impossible Mission Force, but she scoffs. The issue of their marriage is settled when she adds, “You can trust me.”
Then we settle the professional line of action. Back at HQ, Brassel tells Ethan about a White House job that’s available, but Ethan demurs. He just wants a honeymoon. The Rabbit’s Foot is revealed as a macguffin, a mere pretext; we never learn what it really is. Julia is assimilated wholly into Ethan’s world by meeting his entire team, including Benjy, before the couple leave. Now both plotlines are resolved.
Clear and simple in outline, the classical film’s dramaturgy can be manifested in intricate and subtle ways. Like a well-made play, a film can fulfill principles of unity clumsily or adroitly. I’d put M:I:III in the mid-range. It’s not as cannily intricate as Die Hard, and not as well directed in my opinion (though there are some fine stretches of cutting and composition). In all, the film is reasonably well-wrought for its purposes. The point I’m proposing is that the action movie needn’t be considered a mindless splatter of violent spectacle and CGI. It can have a cogent architecture.
There would be a lot more to say about unifying principles in M:I:III, particularly at the level of the scene and the links between scenes. My analysis has emphasized overall narrative structure, not narration (the moment-by-moment flow of story information) or the world of the narrative (the characters and their surroundings). These aspects could be studied as well, but I wanted to make a prima facie case for the unity of construction at work here.
Q: People go to see films like M:I:III for action and spectacle. They don’t care about plot; it often bores them. By attending to story factors, don’t you deemphasize the genre’s very reason for being?
A: First, the distinction between action and story seems to me untenable. Story goals can be fulfilled through action scenes, and even what is called spectacle. This happens throughout M:I:III, in which the physical action furthers the overall plot. Action sequences create goals (saving Lindsey), eliminate characters (e.g., Lindsey), redefine goals (Davian’s escape), and so on. Stories present constantly changing circumstances, and action sequences alter situations as effectively as conversation scenes do. As Murray Smith puts it, “The plot advances through spectacle.”2
Of course action scenes are central to the genre, so we should expect them to be highlighted for special attention. The question is whether the action scenes are integrated into a larger pattern. I hold that very often they are. But if people don’t care about plot, we ought to have a lot less plot than we do.
Try a thought experiment. Most action films aren’t slam-bang action all the way through; they consist mostly of conversations and suspense scenes. So imagine a two-hour film containing 45 minutes of spectacular action. Why don’t filmmakers simply release a movie containing only the action scenes? There are probably several reasons, but one reason is that the film works better for audiences, especially emotionally, when the plot ties the action scenes together. My analogy in The Way Hollywood Tells It is to the appeals of the star. Everybody likes stars, but nobody pays $8 to watch Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves sitting on a sofa together, Warhol-style, for 90 minutes. We like stars, but in stories; and stories that move us.
Q: Action fans often don’t rewatch the entire film on video. They go back and savor explosions, then fast-forward through the talk. Doesn’t that show that these movies are highly modular and episodic?
A: Fans do use home video to repurpose films to their tastes and moods. But that can be done with any scenes we like, in any genre. If I’m a big Antonioni fan, I might replay the last sequence of L’eclisse over and over because it’s so quintessentially Antonionian. No fireballs or gunfights there.
Moreover, the fact that clips can be pulled out and enjoyed on their own doesn’t prove anything about the unity of the overall movie. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony is a highly unified piece, but I especially enjoy the last movement and often play it in isolation, especially now that I have iTunes on my desktop. Enjoying that passacaglia as a separate piece doesn’t reduce the unity of the whole symphony one jot.
Q: You show that the action scenes play causal roles in advancing M:I:III’s plot. But they’re very long and elaborated, as in many action pictures. If the film were as tightly unified as you say, shouldn’t they be shorter? Isn’t the sheer fact of their duration proof that they overwhelm narrative principles?
A: Actually, a great many scenes of physical action depend on a basic narrative principle: overcoming obstacles. The action scenes in M:I:III are little stories in themselves. Each one is governed by a goal, an effort to achieve it, a conflict with circumstances that block achievement, a redeployment of efforts in light of the obstacle, and so on….until the goal is definitely achieved or not. These mini-stories often operate under a deadline as well.
In the opening firefight of M:I:III, Ethan tries to find Lindsey in the factory. After encountering some resistance, he does. Then he must get her out to the rest of the team. After conquering some obstacles, he does. Then the team sets off in a helicopter, but they’re pursued. Then they have to save her from the exploding capsule, while also avoiding the villains’ chopper. At the end, one goal is achieved—they escape—but the other isn’t: Lindsey dies.
If all that isn’t narrative, what is?
The stretched-out duration of action sequences, I submit, involves not one-off attractions for their own sakes but micro-stories, short but twisting paths toward short-term goals, quick adjustments to a fast-changing situation. The gunplay, the escapes, the explosions, the bodies dangling from skyscrapers—all operate according to fundamental narrative principles of conflict, struggle, suspense, and resolution.
Incidentally, this consideration casts a new light on the previous Q and A. When fans replay exciting escapes and fights, they’re not escaping narrative: they’re immersing themselves in it.
I wish I’d thought of this rejoinder in The Way Hollywood Tells It!
Q: Noting down all these structural patterns and unifying strategies focuses on the film as an object. What do these techniques do for viewers?
A: A great deal of our response is generated by a film’s narration and its story world, not simply structure, but we can at least say this: Structural unity of this or any other sort is a way of achieving effects. Thrills become more thrilling in a goal-oriented framework because then we care about who survives the chase or the plunge off a building. Connective scenes become more enjoyable when we spot recurring motifs or notice how characters are changing their beliefs and character traits. We don’t always notice how the norms are shaping our response, but they do so. That’s one reason the norms are worth studying.
Another, perhaps more abstract reason is that by studying norms we can make film history more intelligible. Norms of form and style come to be taken for granted by filmmakers, audiences, and scholars. We can usefully bring them to light. By studying norms as craft practices of filmmaking, we identify traditions and link the present to the past in an enlightening way.
At the same time, by studying norms as principles, rules, or rules of thumb, we become aware of alternatives, including the creative choices that move away from tradition. Sometimes we want to know why a film puzzles or intrigues or frustrates us, and it’s often useful to trace those qualities to its refusal to play by the rules. Perhaps the reason we find some “art films” frustrating is that we can’t identify character goals or clear-cut lines of cause and effect. (Have we internalized the Hollywood norms?) Studying norms of alternative traditions can enable us not only to understand their principles of construction but come to enjoy the distinctive experiences they offer.
Of course, films that play by the Hollywood rules can be fun too—as I think M:I:III is.