Unless you are allergic to 007, Jason Statham, and Jackie Chan–and somehow managed to dodge all 5,392 Marvel films–you’ve seen plenty of action movies.
GUNS AKIMBO is on the interwebs now, and it stars Daniel Radcliffe, so that automatically makes people like me perk up. Can a grown-up Potter carry an action movie, with zero wands and magic, and no Hermione to save him from hubris and idiocy? Will there be any sarcastic jokes or easter eggs referencing a villain who looks like a methed-up cousin of Voldemort? And does the movie work as entertainment?
Here’s the trailer, then let’s talk smack not just about this movie, but about how this film illustrates–for good and bad–the Five Unwritten Laws of Action Movies.
Interesting, right? The premise is good. You have an Average Joe sucked into an action movie in a plausible way, and he doesn’t have an easy out.
Those elements are the first three Unwritten Laws.
The First Unwritten Law of Action Movies: The Hero Cannot Be Superman
I don’t literally mean the Man of Steel, though talking about Supes can illustrate the extreme limits of how action movies go bad.
The more amazing and unbeatable you make the hero in the beginning, the less thrilling any action movie becomes. Superman is invincible, so it’s kinda impossible to worry about him getting hurt or killed, which absolutely murders any tension in the movie.
James Bond and other action movies keep breaking this law. They’re super tough, ice cold, and irresistible to the opposite sex from the first minute of the film, which not only kills tension–you know they’re gonna win–but it also destroys character growth, as in THERE IS NONE.
The acid test for a movie smashing the first law into itty bitty pieces is this: Is there a scene near the climax where our Ultracool Hero beats up and mows down a faceless army of bad guys before he gets to the Final Boss? You know the scene, because you see it all the time. Like this one.
Daniel Ratcliffe in this movie is definitely an Average Joe, completely unskilled compared to those he’s matched up against, so that ratchets up the tension. The question isn’t “how many bad guys will he mow down?” It’s, “How many minutes will Harry Potter With Guns survive?”
The Second Unwritten Law of Action Movies: Is This Plausible?
A lot of movies get the first law right, then immediately commit a Class B Storytelling Felony by having their Average Joe, an accountant from the suburbs, involved in a crazy plot involving Russian spies, the mafia, and a suitcase containing an alien artifact.
Whether the hero is a professional or amateur, the premise needs to be exciting, yet reasonable. If a gangster with his own private army kills your kung fu mentor, are you really going to take on and kill 300 armed criminals with your bare hands, on a rooftop in the rain? No. Not plausible. A movie that did this right was IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE. The hero is an average man who takes out the drug dealers who murdered his son, but he does it step-by-step in clever ways.
The Third Unwritten Law of Action Movies: Is There No Way Out?
It’s not just a cool Kevin Costner movie. IT’S A LAW.
Horror movies are notorious for this, but action movies aren’t far behind. If the hero could solve this easily, say by calling 911 or renting a car and driving the hell away, then it’s lazy storytelling.
GUNS AKIMBO does this right in a clever way by bolting guns on Harry Potter’s hands. He can’t get them off, can’t open doors, can’t put on pants. It’s terrifying and funny and works beautifully.
The Fourth Unwritten Law of Action Movies: The Villain Must Be Bigger, Badder, and Better
It’s an achy break big mistake to make the hero smarter, tougher, stronger, taller, or generally better than the villain. The villain needs to be (a) scary, and (b) the most deadly thing in the movie. Period.
You can see action movies that shatter this law all the time, with savage, scary henchmen who the hero struggles to beat. Then when he finally gets to the villain pulling the strings, that fight feels anti-climactic.
This is the opposite of the Superman problem. Go ahead and make your villain super. Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, the shark in Jaws, Thanos–all of those bad guys are great because they’re scary and tough one-on-one. They don’t need a bunch of minions to back them up.
The villain in this movie does sort resemble a methed-up and tattooed cousin of Voldemort, though I’m not sure that’s intentional. But he’s plenty scary, and definitely bigger, badder, and more deadly than Daniel Radcliffe’s character, so they do it right.
The Fifth Unwritten Law of Action Movies: The Best Scenes Go Last
There’s a great fight scene with Nix, the blonde killer, early in the movie. Then she sacrifices herself (yeah, spoiler alert) so Harry Potter can make it to the final boss battle.
Except her final scene is nothing compared to that earlier scene. It’s meh. Switch those around in the editing room and IT WOULD BE MAGIC.
The same is true for chases, witty dialogue, suspenseful moments–put the best last. Escalate up to the end.
Listen, it’s the year 2020, which the prophecy apparently foretold was the Apocalypse, except nobody warned us, so I know that you know that we’re all plumbing the depths of Netflix and Amazon Prime for decent things to watch.
GUNS AKIMBO commits a few misdemeanors, but it gets the big things right and is definitely worth watching.