Tom Jolliffe on the death of good screenwriting in Hollywood…
Awards season is in full swing, so it seems somewhat ironic to come and bemoan the dearth of good screenwriting within the modern studio system, but I’m going to anyway. Putting aside the award nominated films, my focus is more on those films that are more financially motivated or targeted toward genre fans. Let’s face it, La La Land, whilst it won’t redefine screenwriting, is going to be hard to pick apart. There is still good work out there, but it’s fewer and far between, and those films where the returns matter above all else, seem to be becoming increasingly more and more dumbed down. It seems like writers now get hired to write any old guff and the quality of the final draft is of no consequence.
The first subject of my ire is Avi Lerner, overlord of Millennium films. In recent weeks I’ve seen three of Millenniums films. Their track record isn’t brilliant to say the least and it’s clear that the gate receipts (or home entertainment numbers) come before artistic merit. They tend to specialise more in action films or high concept thrillers more than other genres and whilst one doesn’t expect to get Chinatown every time, some of the scripts for their films are atrocious. One of Lerner’s tentpole franchises is The Expendables series. Three movies in, with a fourth apparently on the way, but the consistent element in all three so far has been the dire scripts. This has meant that a series of films that could have been really enjoyable, have been average at best (in the second film which managed moments of intentional, and unintentional irony). The three recent films I watched were Mechanic: Resurrection, Criminal and London Has Fallen.
Starting with Mechanic: Resurrection. This is a sequel no one wanted, to a remake no one asked for. The film is a brainless, non-sensical, garbled mess. However, aside from rote plotting and paper-thin characterisation the biggest sin was the fact the script pretty much did nothing for the opening 30 minutes. The story didn’t really progress. The characters didn’t develop. A few incidental and vague things happen, but nothing engaging, and it takes far too long to set into action the main chain of events in the film. Script aside it was just a complete mess too, making even the mediocre first film look great (that film rested a lot on the always engaging, Ben Foster), and Michael Winner’s flawed but enjoyable original an absolute master-work.
Criminal has similar problems. Very pedestrian scriptwriting and aside from an action packed opening, the film spends too long getting into the nitty gritty of things. Then you have the general inconceivability of the whole premise, as well as some truly appalling lines of dialogue. Gary Oldman, who tries to overcome the awful dialogue and mundane writing by re-writing the book on overacting seems thoroughly embarrassed by the whole thing. Some of the nonsense he has to spout is laughable and the film takes itself far too seriously. I half expected Oldman to burst out into uncontrollable laughter when delivering lines to half-heartedly explain the science behind the memory transplantation techniques that form the core of the film (or nuggets like “You wanted a death row inmate, I wanted a dead Navy Seal!”). What aspires to be a mind-bending, philosophical thriller that grips the audience and leaves them guessing, is moronic, uninteresting and weirdly repellent.
London Has Fallen like a lot of these films, almost with a half-hearted sigh, sets about shifting the story into motion. It’s almost like that opening third of a film normally reserved for exposition is a massive inconvenience. To the Millennium picture, Exposition is the name of a red-head step-child. You know this is another Die Hard formula action film, much like the first one (which was also probably written on the back of a fag packet)so we’re not expecting high art. Originality isn’t going to find its way here. However brainlessness (which isn’t necessarily entirely bad for an undemanding action flick when you’re in the mood) cannot excuse the vile streak permeating through this script. In the 80’s there were hordes of ham-handed action films with cartoon portrayals of Russian, German or Middle-Eastern villains. Even at their worst there was a sort of naive charm to a Chuck Norris picture, almost like a slightly daft, racist old uncle who is set in their ways but harmless enough (think Alf Garnett). London Has Fallen is vicious though. It’s just saturated in Xenophobia, and they seem to set out (intentionally or not) to make Gerard Butlers protagonist prone to bursts of psychotic and racially motivated behaviour. This comes off like a Daily Mail funded, EDL Propoganda film. The real shame of it is, that once it gets going (admittedly after sleepwalking its way through the opening 30 minutes) it’s a well paced action film with some good set pieces. It’s a waste of what could have been a good action film, but the relish with which it vilifies the enemies and the Nic Cage-eyed glee with which it seems to take in destroying half of London make it repulsive and not worth watching a second time. It also brings to mind the Schwarzenegger film Sabotage which was appalling but not least because of David Ayer and Skip Wood’s headache inducingly repugnant scriptwriting.
Whilst I wash the taste of Millennium pot-boilers from my mouth, I’ll refer now to xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Here we have a sequel to an outdated box office hit, which no one remembers, which follows a first sequel which no one watched and effectively killed off the franchise. It’s a film no one really demanded (Except Vin Diesel). The first two were brainless. Again, like I say, I enjoy a good brainless action film as long as it’s suitably enjoyable. This third instalment though redefines brainlessness. It’s the most utterly moronic and illogical film I’ve ever witnessed. Had they been able to cast Leslie Nielsen in the lead role it would have been a comical masterpiece. As it is, they couldn’t. Like the first film, this seems to focus on a sub-culture of people. Anti-establishment, extreme sport, drum and bass, body art enthusiasts. That’s a very select group to focus on, and as such not too many of the audience watching will likely find any relation in these characters. But the whole film seemed catered for 10 year old boys. So like the first film we’ve got this core group of really irksome characters, only the Return of Xander Cage turns it up to 11. Almost every character is detestable and idiotic (particularly one character who just spends the whole film DJing). We’re supposed to like characters who are interested only in adrenaline, or posting YouTube videos of them doing death defying stunts. Seriously people, ask yourself this, next time you see a YouTube video of someone base-jumping off a skyscraper or something stupid, Could I spend 2 minutes alone in a room with this person without putting my own head through the window? The answer is probably no, or maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy.
But here we have a fatal flaw. It’s very difficult to relate and like almost any character in the film. Of course you have the option to forgo engaging in the films characters. Fair enough. Watch it as a stunt show (though in truth in that respect it’s average at best). The saddest part though, and somewhat hilarious was the idea that a near 50 year old Vin Diesel was, with such sincerity, playing a gigantic corn beef slab of a man-child who still uses a fucking skateboard? Grow up man! It was laughable. The film is an irrelevant sequel to an irrelevant film and furthermore makes the mistake of almost constantly referring back to the original, and referring to Cage as being someone somehow iconic. It doesn’t wash, and neither does Ice Cube’s ham-fisted cameo that’s railroaded in with even less skill than Chuck Norris in The Expendables 2. That at least had some irony and pop cultural reverence to fall back on, but we’re supposed to know and care who Darius Stone is…not even Ice Cube looks like he cares. That being said, this doesn’t entirely fall on the Screenwriters shoulders, as he was undoubtedly writing to spec.
Here’s where I get harsh. It’s not merely films that seem almost wilfully bad, but there’s a real laziness in Hollywood in general. Writers (and again this filters down from the studios as they cater to “audience demand.”) rely far too much on homage and nostalgia. Too many sequels, remakes and reboots. I loved The Force Awakens and this was largely down to the nostalgic feeling it evoked. It is a really enjoyable blockbuster though. Well crafted technically. That’s not in question, but when you essentially recycle the script of A New Hope, you’re not doing anything greatly taxing.
I’ll briefly divert to Christopher Nolan. Over the years he’s done some fantastic films. Memento was a fairly simple thriller made iconic through it’s fantastic use of structure (you can watch the film from beginning to end in chronological order and it falls flat). The Dark Knight almost redefined the blockbuster. This however leads us to a string of films where Nolan fell foul of self-indulgence and screenwriting cardinal sin. It seems no matter what he does, his film will end up in the IMDB Top 250, lauded as a master work. There are perhaps few writers and directors treated to such hyperbole in modern cinema (except Tarantino, who is applicable to everything I’m about to say about Nolan) as Chris Nolan, and I’m a fan. Inception is a visual and conceptual piece of brilliance, but I can’t be alone in thinking the script was overrated. To me, people sitting down and spending minute after minute explaining the plot to the audience is not good scriptwriting. He’s done this in Inception, in his final Batman film (which also just rehashed the previous film) and Interstellar. Of course he’s done it in the past too, but his most recent films have been bloated with expository dialogue whilst if you spend more than a few minutes picking apart the logic of his films, you’ll find they unravel quickly and he’s prone to dull protagonists.
This brings me to Marvel. Oh Marvel. First the good. I really dug the script for Deadpool. I say script, much of it was also off the cuff with Ryan Reynolds being let loose, but I enjoyed the irreverence. It playfully pulled apart its own studios formula and took the Michael royally. Great fun, witty, and enjoyable. Nothing genre redefining by any stretch but wry and a little daring (the gag could have backfired badly). To a lesser extent, Guardians of the Galaxy did this. Not as wittily and still kept largely to formula, but with enough zip and freshness to make it stand out more than the others for me. As far as the mainstream Marvel works, that formula to me certainly works for audiences. They are consistent largely. They mostly deliver the solid three star movie, that’s hidden under the tinsel of five star spectacle. Be it Iron Man (the first film was great), Captain America, Thor, or all of them together in one overloaded jamboree, it’s just the same to me. Each protagonist seems like a wise-cracking variation on Tony Stark (following the surprise out the box casting and success of RDJ in the first film). Each film seems to recycle more or less the same plot, with a few variations on sub-plot thrown in be it high school level philosophy or politics, or whatever. These are the films ruling the box office, and essentially monopolising all the investment into movies. It’s not even purely Marvel films which follow Marvel’s formula. Others have tried and failed. Terminator Genisys aspired to be an archetypal Marvel film but failed on every level and, were it not for xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, would be the winner of the “Dumbest Film of this Article” award.
Independent films are suffering a lot, but furthermore, there seems to be a dearth in really good indie films these days. We’re now getting almost formula indie films. Everything from the scripts, to the direction, to the melancholic music. Too many are starting to look and sound the same. Even that level of cinema that is meant to be the alternative to big screen spectacle, is now becoming too formulaic. There is the odd exception still. Ex Machina was enjoyable and insightful. The Lobster was engaging. Too often though you’ll get a film shot for $5million or so dollars that rather than being imaginative and challenging is just an ego project for an A-lister to breakout of tentpole pictures and do something “different.” In the end, all too often it’s merely the same thing in a less expensive package.
Occasionally something edgy and challenging in principal is merely exploitative and trashy, but given the “art” tag as if it’s somehow intellectually engaging. The Nymphomaniac films (Lars Von Trier) are an example, or Gaspar Noe’s Love. They’re glorified porn. To be fair I found the first part of Nymphomaniac had some interesting and challenging ideas but couldn’t follow them through. The second lost a grip and drowned in its own pomposity. In the end they’re just exploitation pieces with no more intellectual stimulus than a Chuck Norris film. They’ve just got a healthy dose of pretentiousness. A shame as both Von Trier and Noe have done some great cinema.
Let us know your thoughts on the state of screenwriting below. Good recent examples, and not so good.