Writing the Action-Adventure Film

Jack Brislee reviews “Writing the Action-Adventure Film: The Moment of Truth” by Neill D. Hicks

Michael Wiese Productions. Studio City, California. 2002.

181 pages. ISBN 0-941188-39-6, Price: US $15


This is a screenwriting book with a refreshing opening paragraph. “There are no magical formulas in this book. Even a 19th century patent medicine huckster would blush at the extravagance of the claims made by all the proponents of he so-called revolutionary, ten-easy-steps to pain-free screenwriting manuals that are currently on the market.”

Instead of telling us how to make a million dollars by writing the next great action-adventure movie, Hicks describes the elements of the genre and explains why some films work and others do not.

Action-adventure films are the most popular export of Americans movies. They are the films by which many other countries get their first glimpse of American culture and values. Foreign audiences love them.

Even a 19th century patent medicine huckster would blush at the extravagance of the claims made by all the proponents of he so-called revolutionary, ten-easy-steps to pain-free screenwriting manuals.


But when European filmmakers try to copy this essentially American genre, they often fail because the underlying values – disregard for propriety, distain for authority and the acceptance of independent action – are often regarded as implausible in European society.

Hicks provides an example of an American script for a Scandinavian co-production about a young law graduate who is posted to Lapland as a circuit justice of the peace. He uses the letter of the law to uphold a dispute between the Laplanders and a pipeline company, but when murder enters the picture he takes the law into his own hands to prevent further slaughter.

This is perfectly acceptable in the classic Western, but to a Scandinavian audience it was beyond credibility. They were culturally unable to identify with a character who autonomously takes control and acts independently to rectify a situation.


The Hong Kong movie industry is based almost exclusively on endless repetitions of martial arts postures. They have adopted nothing from western action-adventure story telling, borrowing instead from classic Chinese literature, such as the fourteenth century novel, “Outlaws of the Marsh”.

Both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan constructed special cinematic persona where in many parts of Asia they are revered as gods. Their actions are worshipped and their dialogue is often taken as undisputed truth.

(Hicks does not discuss Australian action-adventure films, probably because this is a genre that is passed over domestically in favour of dysfunctional families, bleak poverty, incest and other unhappy disorders. However, we do have our own take on the action-adventure hero. I doubt whether an Australian audience would warm to a protagonist who, as the epitome of all virtue, takes himself too seriously. It is hard to think of any Australian film hero who does not have a larrikin stReak or, at the very least, a decent sense of humour.)


Many of the rules of action-adventure screenwriting suggested by Hicks apply to all forms of screenwriting. The audience must care about the protagonist, who needs both faults and a moment of truth when these faults are realised. He contrasts the Bruce Willis character, John McClane in “Die Hard” (1988) with the Jude Law character, Vasilli Zaigtsev in “Enemy at the Gates” (2001).

We empathise with McClane because he is smart, resourceful and has a sense of humour. But our empathy greatly increases when McClane, when faced with almost certain death, radios Officer Powell outside the besieged building and asks him to tell his wife that he is sorry for not being a good husband.

There is no similar scene in “Enemy at the Gates”. Vasilli never questions what he does or why. He simply goes out each day and kills Germans. We know nothing of his character, we don’t empathise with him and, for this viewer, his life or death was a matter of indifference.


This brings us to another of Hicks’ observations that apply to all screenplays. Action-adventure films must have a dramatic trajectory. They cannot just be a series of unrelated action scenes. If the writer concentrates merely on action sequences the development of a dramatically appealing story will get lost.

Bullets, car chases and martial arts manoeuvres are fine in themselves, but if that is all the film has to offer it will appeal only to pre-pubescent boys. One good example of this (not suppled by Hicks) is the Steve McQueen film “Le Mans” (1971).

Following the success of “Bullitt” (1968), with its dramatic San Francisco car chase, McQueen sunk his money into a film about the great 24 hour car race. Believing the success of “Bullitt” was based on action rather than a good plot and interesting characters, McQueen vowed to make a film with spectacular sequences that would make Bullitt’s chase pale into insignificance. “Le Mans” had some great racing scenes but an extremely thin plot and no audible dialogue for the first thirty-seven minutes. While a bit of a cult film with rev-heads, it was a financial disaster and resulted in the bankrupting of McQueen.

What then, does Hicks tell us about the action adventure film that is unique to that genre? Quite a bit, but he probably needed only 40 pages, rather than 181 pages to tell it


The action adventure film is epitomised by the early westerns, where “… a lone stranger who possesses superior skills with a gun, rides into a troubled town, a fragile society of families who are threatened by a group of strong villains who want to destroy their settled domestic life.

The hero is an enigma, for while the society recognises that he shares the skills of their enemies, he professes the same values as the society itself.”

The antagonist, on the other hand, is not “one of us”. He is often effete, conniving, wears inappropriate Eastern suits, speaks in a strange sounding tongue and displays a cultured manner.

When roles are reversed, as in “McCabe and Mrs Miller” (1971), the smooth talking “Eastern” protagonists, John McCabe, is rewarded with a lonely death in the drifting snow.

While Hicks suggests that the white hatted cowboy hero (who can also be a soldier, policeman, or other upholder of society) became a bit more complex and a bit more cynical after World War II, the essential features of the action adventure protagonist – his strength, courage, independence, contempt for wrong doing and absolute honesty – are still to be found.

The contrast between the old cowboy hero of the past, and a modern take on the character is best expressed in one of Clint Eastwood’s later westerns, “Unforgiven” (1992). Two lines say it all:

Bystander: You just shot an unarmed man.

Eastwood: He should have been armed.

The hero is an enigma, for while the society recognises that he shares the skills of their enemies, he professes the same values as the society itself.


Structurally, action-adventure films are a little bit different. More time is often spent on training for a mission, on reconnaissance and “target acquisition”. While the essential screenwriting rules apply, good action adventure films also contain the following elements – briefing, initial contact, impossible mission, commitment, showdown and debriefing.

Many contain the elements of a siege – “a pressure cooker standoff and imminent confrontation between elements of good and evil”. There are literal sieges where the hero is surrounded by his enemies, as in “Shane” (1953), “High Noon” (1952), “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), “The Alamo” (1960), “55 Days at Peking” (1963) and “Zulu” (1964).

Then there is the reverse, where the hero attacks the enemy strongpoint – “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), “The Guns of Navarone” (1961), “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) and “The Longest Day” (1962).

Hicks suggests that the narrative trajectory is more important in action-adventure films than in films of other genres. “Gunfight at the OK Corral” (1957) with its classic narrative trajectory was a box office success.


The audience is continually sidetracked by the antics of a clueless reporter, harangued by long chunks of political diatribe, and completely kicked out of the story by the excess of slow motion bullet effects that more properly belong in a computer game.

The more historically accurate “Wyatt Earp” (1994) and “Tombstone” (1993) both skewed the narrative trajectory off course. They failed to build to the famous gunfight, thereby losing their audience and leaving the dramatic conflict unresolved. Western audiences demand a gunfight at the finish, and filmmakers who ignore this principal do so at their peril.

Similarly in “Three Kings” (1999) the protagonists meander off course from their questionable mission, “irritatingly interrupted by events and characters that have nothing whatsoever to do with the story. The audience is continually sidetracked by the antics of a clueless reporter, harangued by long chunks of political diatribe, and completely kicked out of the story by the excess of slow motion bullet effects that more properly belong in a computer game.”


Hicks provides a good description of the characteristics of the action-adventure protagonist who is a larger than life character, possesses martial skills, has the authority to carry out the mission, has the moral responsibility to act, has a personal code of honour, remains free from emotional attachments and is willing to die for a cause.

He also provides a good description of the antagonist who is a personified individual, a fully dimensional character, not stupid and has a morally different point of view.

Moral dilemmas, which are depicted in many films, are particularly worthy inclusions in the action-adventure film as an intellectual counterpoint to mere violence. The differing stances of Captain Mallory, Colonel Stavros and Corporal Miller towards their wounded comrade and towards the war in general adds a great deal of depth to “The Guns of Navarone”, depth that is sadly lacking in many other films in this genre.


Neil Hicks’ book highlights important elements of the action adventure movie and, while not professing to be a “how to” book, should be essential reading for all writers interested in this genre.

While many of his observations apply to all screenplays, his understanding of this specific genre enables him to hit the nail on the head in almost every chapter.

Hicks’ analysis of films that have not worked is particularly useful, and should help writers who believe that action-adventure films are merely a series of mindless unrelated violent incidents.

6 thoughts on “Writing the Action-Adventure Film”

  1. The two lines from Unforgiven are incomplete, out of context and skew the meaning of the exchange.

    Little Bill Daggett: Well, sir, you are a cowardly son of a bitch! You just shot an unarmed man!
    Will Munny: Well, he should have armed himself if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.

    The critical absence of ” … if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend” makes this seem a black and white exchange between an innocent “bystander” (actually the Gene Hackman character!) and a callous gunman.

    Instead, the “friend” (Ned played by Morgan Freeman) has been tortured and killed by Little Bill and is outside the saloon in an open coffin with a sign warning “… this is what happens to assassins around here.”

    The fact that Greely (the unarmed man) has allowed his saloon to be adorned with Ned is a direct provocation and complicit act. In this case making Little Bill and Greely the “bad guys”. Munny shows complete loyalty to his friend Ned even though the method of his revenge is brutal.

    • You are right, Richard. I checked the screenplay and watched the scene on DVD, and my memory of a really pithy comment is unfortunately wrong. There is a lesson there somewhere.

      I guess my point is that the modern hero is different to the old hero (who would never have shot an unarmed man) but in this case Will Munny had a good reason to act as he did.


    • I don’t think Hicks called Tombstone a failure. In fact he praised its historic accuracy. His point was that it did not build up to the famous gunfight, and that to him (and me) is a structural weakness.


  2. Hicks is wrong and McQueen was right: Bullitt was a hit because of the car chase scene (the rest of the movie is a dull, ugly mess). Le mans failed not because the plot was thin, but because it was about car racing–not a broad enough subject to interest a large audience. Good action movies are strong on plot and minimalist on character (James Bond, for example, never changes and has no character arc).

  3. With regards to Tombstone (1993), for all its weaknesses, leaving out the famous shootout was not one of them (their confrontation walk is on the movie poster). Historically, the incident itself was more of a turning point or midpoint, thus at a structural level it simply couldn’t serve as the film’s climax. The dramatic conflict is still ultimately resolved, just not at the O.K. Corral. I don’t believe this means the narrative trajectory was skewed in any way, and in fact plays out like the author simply changed the channel halfway through. Imagine trying to write a movie wherein the shootout in question becomes the climax, only to be followed by a text of epilogue that simply states everything else that actually happened. Granted, what qualifies as a film’s climax may be entirely subjective, but by that token it could be argued that Cameron should have ended his movie 5 minutes after the “dramatic conflict” was resolved with that iceberg.


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