I like action films. I like them so much that I make them. My career started out mostly making action comedies. Then I turned 30, had to pay bills, etc, so I made a depressing one called Death Grip. Comments about the film were usually along the lines of, “I wanted more toilet humor.” I was a a typical California State art graduate when I made Death Grip: a combination of depressed, narcissistic, nihilistic, coffee, and a paleo diet. Film school did teach me not to make typical Hollywood genre trash, so Death Grip was that.
Later on in 2014 my mentor Clayton Barber helped me find my stride again and we made the action comedy series Rope A Dope together, and later he directed Blindsided: The Game. It was obvious that I was an action comedy guy, so I was gonna stick to what I knew. I resigned from making angry action hero movies, leaving that to the pros.
This was also when I met my wife, started a family, joined a men’s group, renewed my faith, got over a handful of addictions, and grew a big beard. I did cool jobs around the world, and I’d bring my bags to the last day of the shoot and hop on a plane after our martini shot. I’d stick around and see the sights, but I had a family at home to get back to.
Naturally an optimistic, homeward guy seeks optimistic, homeward action heroes, the kinds who fight to defend things like sacredness of old treasure or saving a family. Finding these usually ends up with a trip to the 80s watering hole. Because damned if the market isn’t flooded with miserable action heroes starting from the 2000s.
Today’s action heroes aren’t funny. There seems to be a thick wall between comedy and action.
I’ll admit it. Watching an action hero level an entire building of villains satisfies a base itch within all of us. That itch burns like a mother when mindless mobs on the news and social media loom over your own home and family. When you have the best action team on the planet designing the set pieces, they deliver. They’ve perfected it.
Now, everyone wants to write the next Bourne or Wick. So they write a purely reactive hero, cast a big name, train him to hold a rifle like a T-rex, and you’ve got yet another miserable action film.
The pissed off hero formula is pure reaction. Reaction to evil is fun and satisfying. It gets the job done. But just how many reaction heroes do we need? Two or three? How about 25 per year ever since 9/11? Somebody, or something, has been busily churning out reaction heroes, which are usually just byproducts of evil villains. The formula is simple:
I. Catalyst: Villain destroys hero’s family (or eliminates what remains of it, i.e. a cute dog, photo, etc.)
II. Setup: Hero has nothing to live for
III. Fun & Games: Hero reacts and breaks skulls (note: hire a creative action team to find interesting way to break skulls)
IV. Closing Image: Family is restored… just kidding! Actually it’s: hero comes to terms to his new awful existence, meets other miserable characters, etc. (Netflix series!)
After IV it’ll be tough to do a series or trilogy if the hero’s back with a family again. The Taken sequels were good examples of how to resolve this in theory, but for some reason they didn’t get the same love as the original. Scripts where the hero’s family is wiped out seem to acquire better creative talent.
You’re really beating this family thing over the head, Eric. Yeah… Nothing screams “30-45 male demo” like retired serviceman protects family. But family is just a symbol in this case. The real prize is “something good”. And “good” can’t just be “revenge”. The villain is blocking the good. Kill him, move him, turn him into a monk, whatever it takes to get the “good thing”.
Jean Paul Belmondo is one of the greatest action comedy stars of all time. He’s the French Jackie Chan, the pinnacle of our optimistic action hero: witty, cool moves, and has a plan. He wants “something good”. The villain is in the way.
While working through Belmondo’s filmography, three that come to are That Man from Rio, Le Magnifique, and Le Marginal. These action comedies rival anything Canon put out in the 80s. How this guy didn’t cross our yankee radars is still beyond me. I guess Criterion does has a pretty thick filter.
Belmondo is an action hero with agency. An agentic hero has a plan before the villain enters scene, and the villain is just a barrier. He’s got momentum that the reactive hero seems to be missing.
When the credits roll after our reactive hero finishes the job, we still hope something comes of him. Maybe his dog will learn to get him a beer, or he can build that shed in his back yard. Netflix series!
When we watch Belmondo, we’re on the edge of our seats, not because of the interesting ways he kills his enemies, but because he’s got a plan that started long ago. We’re just trying to catch up with him.
Again, I must stress: pissed off, vengeful action heroes are cool! If there’s a problem, he fixes it. Or she! She might be a raging alcoholic but she can kill nazis with the best of em. Our reactive heroes have cool moves and weapons, and they popularized facial hair. Yay for these guys and ladies.
But that’s not my genre. I’m here to talk about action comedy.
Comedy – An Ancient Institution
But isn’t comedy reactive? Isn’t it funny when someone reacts in a funny way to something?
What is comedy? The simplest joke is the combination of two ideas, never combined before, that result in a logical connection. Writing a good joke requires getting out of the cultural gutter and surveying everything at face value. When you’re at your most misanthropic, the best jokes (and most logical connections) come like a torrent.
Who were the most misanthropic characters in history? Maybe they were the court jesters. Their job looked easy, because being a comedian always looks easy. But being a court jester required getting killed every day, and waking up to do it again.
C’mon, Eric. We don’t kill comedians.
This is not a victimary blog. I will not be caught on record saying that we got a kick out of Chris Farley’s self-destructive behavior. That’s not the purpose here. We can admit that people are funny, and they were victims of the system. He was outrageously funny, and drugs are bad. The audience loves their drug-addicted stars no matter whether they’re comedians or thespians. Untimely death is bad no matter what.
But the comedian is different in one crucial way. The very nature of the role requires that the comedian sets himself to be the fall guy. Laughter expels.
Scapegoating is as old as dirt, and today it’s no less so than it was then. Target our common enemy, throw him off the cliff. Cancel him! Democracy wins! Enjoy the unity of getting rid of the problematic guy.
When humans sacrifice a goat, the catharsis of unity might last weeks or months. When the sacrifice is human, an entire generation. The closer the sacrifice, the bigger the area of effect. Admittedly, this kept the Mayans pretty peaceful (and advanced!), but these time spans are a blink of the eye in the grand scheme of things. How do you keep the scapegoat machine running for centuries, or millennia?
Back in the day you’d just round up some witches. We still can. Just don’t call em witches.
But dead bodies still tell stories, especially with science. Did our god really turn into a falcon and take away our sins? Or did you guys just push a guy off a cliff? The scapegoat mechanism hangs by a thread these days.
And yet we’re humans, so we need sacrifice. Everyone in your dusty anthropology books agrees with me. So a better question is: how do you sacrifice and hide the bodies?
Turns out some guy figured it out. He put on a funny hat, bore the brunt of the jokes, and promised to come back the next day to do it again. He enjoyed lifelong employment in the kingdom because everyone could unify around this dope every day.
A comedian is a sustainable scapegoat. Comedy requires fewer bodies. Fewer.
Being a court jester was still risky. One day the crowd might gang up on the guy and cut his head off. Time to hire another court jester, and tell him the last one retired with a nice severance package.
So further down the line, we entrusted a straight man to deal regular blows for us. The double act was a more sustainable innovation because it removed the mob from the equation. We could sit back and just be one with the straight man.
Finally, solo comedians came around and eliminated the bloody footprint entirely. The likes of Seinfeld, Larry David, Charlie Chaplin, and Jackie Chan seemed to know this intuitively. As the audience, we think they’re the butt of the joke. And then they turn the mirror on us and show us the innocent human behind the scapegoat. It could be you someday. So you cheer for Chaplin because it sucks being a scapegoat.
Comedy is Non-reactive
Comedic geniuses don’t react. They judge how you will react, and then they do something that’s not as cliche as your run-of-the-mill reaction. They anticipated your reaction a long time ago.
This is why agentic action heroes are funny by nature. They see the forest from the trees, and our dumb asses just try to keep up. An agentic action hero is the star of an action comedy.
Making action comedy is not easy. You need someone physically gifted and funny, and finding both is like finding where the north and south poles meet.
Studios once knew how to make action comedies, but that was then. We’re in a different era now.
Action is hard. Comedy is harder. But action-comedy isn’t even really an option in the live action world anymore unless you’re Dwayne Johnson. It requires a vertically integrated production that the likes of Jackie, Chaplin, Seinfeld, and The Rock can shift around in order to ensure a continuity of vision. A horizontal, “assembly line”-style production can’t make a good action comedy. It can do a sitcom, and it can make a revenge thriller, but not an action comedy.
This is an issue of scale. When a studio grows, they hire specialists, who help produce the product in bulk. This usually helps. Let’s take Buster Keaton as an example. Specialists at the studio ensure that schedules are kept, the army’s wardrobe is accurate, and the catering is warm. He shouldn’t have to worry about these things.
But Keaton had a particular brand. Behind most Keaton gags was some feat of engineering. Keaton’s brand required very innovative set design.
Then one day, Don’t worry Mr. Keaton, we have hired somebody to build your sets for you now. Just do you.
The Pink Panther remakes are crap because the the directing, editing, soundtrack, and everything else are all contract jobs masked as employment. Getting these departments all on the same page with the comedy requires a dictator, and dictatorships don’t scale at studios, unless it’s his own studio. Without this vertical integration of departments, comedy stops being a key offering, though it can sometimes become a byproduct.
Traditional studios can’t make action comedies. Comedians make comedy, and action heroes destroy. The two departments don’t communicate much. Unless you’re The Rock.
New studios like Pixar do understand action comedies. In 3D, this stuff is second nature. Animators understand action and comedy because their job is making characters with agency.
The animation process is also well attuned for making action comedy. In animation you can be designing a set, animating your hero, adding particle effects and doing sound design and music all at the same time. It’s vertically integrated, happening simultaneously like an old theater production.
How to Make an Action Comedy (Today)
A little background. Back in 2018 I bought a cost-effective motion capture system and used it to do motion capture stunts for game companies. To make our demo reel, I make some animated shorts in Unreal and Unity on zero budget. My buddy Pete Lee noticed and said, “You could make a John Wick with Jeff Goldblum if you did that.”
Imagine that! A comedic John Wick!
I had learned how to make motion capture movies through osmosis during my stint on God of War. The motion capture actors in God of War don’t do their own fight scenes because you’re not allowed to even sneeze when doing performance capture (“p-cap”) with a facial rig.
The process of shooting a p-cap action scene is therefore:
1. Record your actors doing voice over (and optionally facial capture).
2. Edit the audio into a “radio play”.
3. Hire stunt performers to “dub” the action over the radio play.
4. Put the face, voice, and body together.
On the day, they send us stunt performers a script, we suit up and choreograph a scene based on the script, and then we perform the scene to the “radio play” which they broadcast over the speakers. It’s the reverse of traditional film dubbing.
All this is to say: The lead actor in an animated film never has to throw a single punch, and you don’t have to compromise your visual style to hide a stunt double.
So I made some short films to test the process out. We didn’t have the capability to do facial capture, or even finger capture at the time, but I knew that layering these things together should be a simple process once we got that tech sorted out. The important part was testing whether we could make a narrative for zero budget, and the results weren’t half-bad. As I write this I’m finishing up a much more polished Unreal short we shot with Matt Workman. More on that in a later post.
A Better Hero
Our action hero plays head games and tilts the scales in his favor. He’s the Rocky Balboa, the Conor McGregor who always has a comeback line. He’s assertive and pushes the conversation where he needs it to go, rather than just answering questions. He fights evil and restores order in a fallen world. He’s optimistic and energetic because he has a plan. And he’s funny, because nobody else knows how to crack a joke when shit falls apart.
It’s time to start making one of these things.