Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 29, 2014

Action movie cliches

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:02 pm

See cliche #10 below

Okay, let me start with a spoiler alert, not that it will make much difference to my regular readers. This is something that happens at the end of Liam Neeson’s idiotic “Taken 2”, whose only redeeming feature is that it was filmed in beautiful Istanbul. Neeson, playing an ex-CIA agent, is alone with the father of an Albanian gangster he killed in “Taken” who has vowed to kill Neeson in revenge. You know how those Albanians are into vendettas, right? Anyhow, Neeson gives him his gun and offers him a choice: “You can continue the cycle by killing me or resolve it by putting the gun down.” After saying that, Neeson begins walking away. You know how those dirty Albanians are, right? He aims the gun at Neeson’s back and opens fire but nothing happens! The chamber is empty! Neeson throws the bullets on the ground and then puts a patented CIA death grip on the Albanian’s face and the movie ends. I said to myself as I watched this scene, “Self, haven’t you seen the empty chamber scene a hundred times before”? At least one other critic (http://www.thelondonfilmreview.com/film-review/review-taken-2/) has taken note of the clichéd character of “Taken 2”, writing that it was “determined to tick a box for every action movie cliché going”.

So, off the top of my head, here’s the most overused action movie clichés I’ve run into over the past 50 years or so. This includes westerns, war, spy, crime, science-fiction and horror movies.

1. The empty chamber – described above.

2. Throwing up at the sight of a mutilated corpse – Typically, a rookie cop seeing his first dead body turns away in horror and then begins puking. This may have had some impact when you first saw something like this in 1965 or so but after seeing it a thousand times your tendency is to yawn.

3. “You don’t have to do this” – a plea that a man or woman makes to a killer who has a pistol trained on them. Why can’t they say something like this instead? “If you don’t shoot me, I’ll promise to be your best friend”.

4. Car crashing into a fruit stand – probably first seen in an Indiana Jones movie. The fruit goes flying everywhere and the peddler, usually wearing a fez and mustache throws up his hands in dismay. Time to retire this.

5. Guy being chased or chasing someone in the street straddles the hood of an oncoming car and bangs on it a couple of times for emphasis – clearly related to #4 above. This should be retired as well.

6. Villain smacked with a shovel or some other heavy instrument but not finished off – this usually happens with about 10 minutes left in a horror movie. A serial killer has been knocked over the head and the heroine (usually) stands over him with the shovel or club in her hands. And then walks away toward freedom. Of course, you know that with 10 minutes left in the film Jason or Freddy will reappear for the final showdown. Whenever I am watching such a scene with my wife, we look at each other knowingly and say something like “She should smash a cinder block on his head until his brains spill out of his broken skull”. No such luck.

7. Trying to escape in a car from the villain – There are different versions of this. In most instances, just before the heroine (usually) turns the key, the killer busts the window open and grabs her by the throat. In a variation on this, she is so spooked that her trembling hands can’t get the key into the keyhole. Or, the engine won’t start after she turns the key. Boring.

8. Corpse materializes in a well or some other body of water – In escaping from the villain, there’s often a scene where the hero or heroine ends up in a well or body of water, the more fetid the better. 9 out of 10 times the skeletal remains of his previous victims will float to the surface.

9. Soldier within weeks of honorable discharge gets a bullet in the head – That’s a staple of war movies since the 1940s, as far as I know—granted that I am old but not old enough to have seen them when they first came out.

10. Gangsters versus gangsters, or cops versus gangsters train guns on each other in close quarters in anticipation of all hell breaking loose – This is a staple of Hong Kong movies, especially John Woo. Following Tarantino, his British and American imitators recycled this plot staple and turned it into a cliché.


  1. 1. “We’re quite alike, you and I.” –Villain to hero in almost every action movie.
    Francisco Scaramanga: Come, come, Mr. Bond, you disappoint me. You get as much fulfillment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?
    James Bond [Roger Moore]: I admit killing you would be a pleasure.

    2. Sexual freedom through the death of a woman: typically happens early in the film – a quick scene establishes the hero’s wife or girlfriend who is quickly killed off giving the hero motivation and sexual availability. Strangely, childlike innocence is required of action heroes making many of them come across as gay when in a scene with women. Could be the young male target audience informing the filmmaking choices.

    3. People fall down and lose consciousness after being punched, allowing the hero to escape. Conversely, being unaffected (even unbruised) after being punched in the face. Have you ever been punched in the face? Furthermore, is fisticuffs truly exciting?

    4. Air ducts large enough to crawl through. A cliche as old as David’s tunnel assault on Jerusalem.

    5. The liberal/Platonic theory that knowledge abolishes injustice: The hero plays a recording of the villain for the masses, who then learn that the villain is evil; the masses then turn against the pitifully flummoxed villain. This is a powerful liberal fantasy and the origin of pious attitudes towards journalism. Consider the wonderful Schwarzenegger film The Running Man – very entertaining.

    6. My most hated action movie trope (ironic since I enjoy The Running Man): people looking at screens and/or narrating the action. Man watching a screen on which the hero runs across a roof and says, “He’s on the roof!” It’s surreal and frustrating to watch someone else watch the chase scene and narrate the action to me. I’m sure you know what they call that: lazy

    Comment by Brian Gallagher — March 30, 2014 @ 8:41 pm

  2. Ha-ha, Brian, loved these. I wrote this post in the hope that someone would come up with some brilliant additions. Thanks.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 30, 2014 @ 8:51 pm

  3. “4. Car crashing into a fruit stand – probably first seen in an Indiana Jones movie. The fruit goes flying everywhere and the peddler, usually wearing a fez and mustache throws up his hands in dismay. Time to retire this”

    Earlier? Car chase in 1971’s FRENCH CONNECTION, no?.

    Comment by kjs — March 31, 2014 @ 8:00 pm

  4. Woody Harrelson does a “you don’t have to this” scene in No Country for Old Men. I still think it’s the best scene in the movie.

    Comment by kim — April 6, 2014 @ 1:09 am

  5. Of course I meant, “you don’t have to do this”!

    Comment by kim — April 6, 2014 @ 1:10 am

  6. I don’t know how I could have forgotten this one. An overzealous cop who is convinced that he has discovered the identity of a serial killer or a kingpin drug dealer with the appearance of operating a legitimate business bends the rules one time too many. He is called in by the chief to tell him that he is being put on leave and demands our hero’s gun and badge. What happens next, of course, is that he gets his hands on another gun and proceeds full steam ahead.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 6, 2014 @ 10:00 pm

  7. Some cliches are so familiar it takes an effort to question them. Here’s two that always puzzled me: Why, in a horror film, does no-one ever turn on the light when walking into a darkened room? And why do they always walk backwards down corridors?

    Comment by George — April 7, 2014 @ 8:33 pm

  8. The movie cliche which annoys me most: for a badly injured person, unconsciousness equals death. I don’t know how or when this cliche started, but it seems like for decades now, in any movie or TV show, if anyone has been shot or crushed or whatever, they have to stay awake or they will die instantly. “Stay with me! Stay with me! NOOOOOOO!!!!!”

    Comment by stevenbollinger — April 27, 2018 @ 4:15 pm

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