When action thrillers work, they join the ranks of some of the most entertaining films ever released: Die Hard, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Fugitive.
However, it’s no secret that these movies often fail to engage audiences. That’s because, too often, the filmmakers behind them focus on the wrong elements. While any movie in this genre must boast exciting sequences that keep viewers on the edge of their seats, the space in between the set pieces is equally important.
To understand what types of choices yield quality action thrillers, watch 2014’s 3 Days to Kill. The movie, which stars Kevin Costner, perfectly embodies what this genre can achieve when the people behind the camera take their time to develop the project.
Here’s why it works.
3 Days to Kill tells the story of a retired CIA agent who, in exchange for access to an experimental drug that may save him from brain cancer, agrees to take on a final dangerous assignment. It’s important to keep in mind that the character’s motivation isn’t entirely selfish. Years of embarking on this very type of dangerous mission have left him estranged from his daughter. He’s not trying to prolong his life in order to simply enjoy retirement. He desperately wants to make amends.
With this type of character, it’s important to cast the role perfectly. Too many action thrillers fail to resonate because the filmmakers cast stars who don’t feel like real people. After all, plenty of movies imitated the Die Hard formula after its release. Unfortunately, they often didn’t work because the actors in the main roles were action stars instead of believable performers like Bruce Willis.
For 3 Days to Kill, the filmmakers chose Kevin Costner for the main role. This is ideal casting. Costner’s previous performances in movies like JFK, Field of Dreams, and Dances With Wolves cemented his identity as thoroughly American. Audiences have no trouble imagining Costner as a CIA agent.
On top of that, the team behind the project allowed the character to be relatable. There’s often an impulse in Hollywood to cast actors who are simply too young to play certain parts. This is especially true for action thrillers. Filmmakers want fit, youthful actors on the screen.
The problem is, this makes it difficult for the audience to take the character seriously. It doesn’t make sense to see a relatively young person playing a father on the verge of retirement. Kevin Costner was the perfect choice because of his acting history and age.
Featuring Relatable Characters
Featuring characters with weaknesses is one of the smartest choices a filmmaker can make when working in this genre, and yet, far too often, action thriller moviemakers don’t.
The point of this genre is to thrill audiences. It’s hard to do that when the main character is practically superhuman. Many weak action films feature protagonists who are incredibly fit, incredibly talented, and completely overqualified for the situations in which they find themselves.
Unfortunately, this makes it difficult for audiences to care much about their plight. When a character has too many advantages, viewers assume everything will work out in their favor.
Again, the best action movies of the past don’t make this mistake. In Die Hard, John McClane is an average cop with limited ammunition and several injuries. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is just barely able to escape any villains he encounters. And in The Fugitive, Richard Kimble must try to solve his wife’s murder while also evading capture from US Marshals.
Smart Storytelling Decisions
3 Days to Kill works so well because it follows this smart formula. The protagonist isn’t merely aging. While that would be enough to boost the stakes of the narrative, the filmmakers aren’t content to stop there. They also limit his abilities by making him prone to hallucinations, a side effect of the experimental cancer drug he’s been taking.
A story about a young, healthy CIA agent tasked with assassinating a target in three short days might be relatively entertaining during the amount of time it takes to watch the movie, but viewers aren’t likely to remember that kind of film.
On the other hand, when a character is aging, sick, and suffering from debilitating side effects that he can’t avoid—going off the drug would kill him—audiences are much more likely to find the events on screen captivating.
Of course, these decisions are not the only elements that make this type of film successful. However, they do make it clear that when developing an action thriller, smart filmmakers must understand the importance of character development.