Death of the Critic

Situational Invincibility and How it is Ruining Action Movies

Written by: Tom Blaich


We like our action movies to be big, to be brash, to be full of gunfights and cool explosions and scores of dead bodies littering the streets in the wake of our stalwart hero. But this same desire often raises a problem: our hero can’t die, or even barely be hurt at all, so all elements of tension, all suspension of disbelief go out of the window.We never wonder if our hero will rescue their friend or kill the bad guy, because you can be damned sure they will, with only an annoying flesh wound and a few smartass quips to speak to the “struggle” that they went through on the way.

There are a few movies that manage to pull off this balance between apparent vulnerability and badass action. 2014’s
John Wick did an amazing job at making Wick (Keanu Reeves) out to be a nigh unstoppable killing machine, because he was so skilled and knew how to handle himself in a firefight. He wears a bulletproof vest but you still see him taking cover, moving tactically and reloading as he uses the environment to his advantage as he tears through goons like a vengeful tornado. When he does get shot, you know it is a serious situation, and the vest is there more as a measure of safety for him.

He struggles, he gets injured, but he still succeeds. Up until the climactic fight in the rain,
John Wick is rather believable for an action movie with a kill count in the high double digits. Contrast this with the sequel, which, while it is still a great movie, runs into more issues. They wanted to ramp up the action in the second go-around, and the solution that they came up with was to pile more goons and bigger guns into the action. Instead of clearing a building with 10-20 bad guys inside, he runs through some catacombs, fighting 50. We need to suspend our disbelief so much more and accept that Wick is not only a highly skilled badass, but that he is basically Superman with a gun.

To help this, they gave him a bulletproof suit jacket, which can apparently stand up to barrages of small arms fire without a problem. Unlike the vest from the first movie, which was put there to assure us that if he got hit, he would be fine, this removes all of the tension from many of the fight scenes. When he is running through a tunnel, ripping through goons, we don’t have to worry about him because we see him get shot and shrug it off over and over again.

He is seemingly invincible, and the only way that he feels even remotely threatened is if literally the entire world is hunting him. He goes from being a dangerously competent and motivated hitman to what could best be described as a force of god that can speak at least six languages, is recognized all over the world, and is shot dozens of times without being hurt. It is the definition of plot armor, and the movie suffers for it.

You can see it in the
Matrix movies as well, where the first movie had a vulnerable man trying to outwit an unstoppable force while coming to terms with his destiny and slowly becoming more and more powerful until he was a god at the climax of the movie. The sequels try to shift this drama to a larger scale and make fight scenes interesting by piling more goons into them, but at a certain point, it is a superhero beating up faceless mooks, and that just isn’t interesting to watch.

Striking the balance between action and realism can be very difficult. We, as an audience, want to see a hero killing bad guys and blowing things up, but we want to believe it. We want an escapist fantasy but for the main character to still be a human. If we know the outcome to every fight, it is just not fun to watch. If we know that bullets will never hit our hero, or if they do, they’ll never die, we won’t worry.

It makes for a boring movie, and that is the exact opposite of what an action movie should be. We want to be fooled. We know the character won’t die, but make us worry about them. Make us wonder how they will get out of a situation, and make them struggle to do it, and the movie becomes immensely better.



Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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