Thursday, September 27, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #149: The Villain’s Plan Should Be Good For the Villain

We all know that the villain’s plan must be bad for the hero: “Oh no, he knows everything about me, he’s been plotting against me for weeks, he can taunt me with intimate knowledge of my every weakness!”  This keeps escalating, as the villain outsmarts the hero at every turn, making the situation more and more desperate…

…But as you have fun ruining your hero’s life, please stop once in a while and remind yourself of one thing: the villain’s plan must be bad for the hero…and good for the villain.

We’ve seen this plot in thrillers so many times, I’ve almost lost count, the innocent blackmailed into committing a crime: Nick of Time, Reindeer Games, Training Day, Collateral, Flightplan, Vantage Point, The Lookout, Eagle Eye, Salt, etc…  And it will re-appear in upcoming movies like The Driver and Autobahn, but the concept is nonsensical in oh so many ways:
  1. Why would you want someone doing the job who wants the whole thing to fail and for you to go to jail?  How hard is it to just hire a willing accomplice? America is filled with desperately-poor people, who do horrible things in return for just a few bucks.  Some of these people are longtime gang members, or underpaid cops, or ex-military, or survivalists… They’re gonna have the skills you need.  Just hire one. 
  2. So often in these movies (see: The Lookout, Reindeer Games, etc.) a big part of the villain’s plan is to have his girlfriend offer lots of great sex to our unsuspecting hero, as a way to lure him into the world of crime.  But that’s just not the way a man’s mind works.  Guys use money to get a girlfriend, they don’t use their girlfriend to get money (Maybe if the guy’s a pimp with a stable of girls that he doesn’t care about, but that’s never the case in these movies…the crook always has one girlfriend and he’s burning with jealousy the whole time!)
  3. The only conceivable reason to blackmail someone into committing a crime is if they’re the only person with the access to do it.  Maybe this person has the code to the vault, or watches over the state’s witness as he sleeps, or is the only one the president trusts…  And yet, the biggest problem with these movies is the person being blackmailed is always given an impossibly hard task that they have no idea how to accomplish! 
  4. Even worse, there’s often another person who does have the required access and we can see that they’re the one who should have been blackmailed:  

  • In Salt, they blackmail the one person at the CIA who isn’t on the detail protecting their target.  She has to fight every other agent in order to get to him.  Why not blackmail one of those guys?  In fact, it later turns out that one of those protectors has been helping the bad guys all along.  Why not simply have him kill the target? 
  • Likewise in Vantage Point, they blackmail a random guy into killing the president, despite the fact that someone on the president’s detail is working for them!  Have him do it!
  • In The Lookout, the bad guy uses his girlfriend to coerce the brain-damaged janitor into helping him break into the vault…even though the janitor has no vault access!  Meanwhile, we see that there’s a sad sack female teller who’s so lovelorn that she’s pining for the janitor…Why doesn’t the bad guy just seduce her??  She actually has access!  And that way the bad guy is the one who gets to sleep around, instead of watching his girlfriend do it! 
I’ll say it again: People only want what they want!  For characters to be believable, whether good or evil, they must pursue their own self-interest!  Characters who only care about tormenting the hero make just as little sense as characters that only care about helping the hero.

The appeal of these movies is very cynical.  We like to live vicariously through characters who pull off spectacular crimes, but we feel morally alienated from them…unless the perpetrators are being blackmailed, in which case we can sympathize with their predicament and enjoy their transgressions.  This person literally gets to be “criminal for a day”, and who wouldn’t want to try that?

But these movies made no damn sense, as audiences tend to realize two hours after they’ve left the movie theater.  They’re just empty calories, and it’s time we abandoned this worn-out cliché.

(And before you can ask, “Hey, what about your beloved Red Eye?”, allow me to point out that it’s a clear exception: she is the only one with the required access, they’re asking her to do something that is easy for her to do, and they’re not seducing her into it, but rather confronting her directly, so there’s no vicarious thrill, just a painful dilemma… Red Eye is how you do it right.)


j.s. said...

Another classic post. This reminds me of some of your other rules from the past. Like how annoying "it was all part of the villain's plan" is vs. how satisfying "the wrong guy to mess with" can be.

Are there fun cool high concept exceptions to this rule other than RED EYE? Matt or any other reader out there can you think of fun genre thrillers like the ones in this post that aren't as dumb vis-a-vis the villain's motives?

Anonymous said...

Matt mentions "Collateral" and I don't think that one violates this rule.

The villain is just toting the taxi driver along so he can take the blame for all the murders later.

j.s. said...

Matt's point vis-a-vis COLLATERAL is the same as with all the other films: the bad guy's plan is over elaborate and makes little sense, given what he's supposed to want. If he wants transpo, there are easier and more discreet ways to get from A to B on your killing spree. If he wants a scapegoat (why does he want a scapegoat, btw?), there would be many easier ways to frame somebody else than to have them witness all your evil deeds first hand and threaten their fam and call them out as a wuss just for giggles. But does the hitman really need to frame anyone else? Isn't that what hitmen do for a living -- knock people off quickly and quietly with no trace back to them or their employers? What kind of second rate hitman is he if he's even thinking like this?

Matt Bird said...

I think I pointed out in a comment once that I give Collateral *some* credit because at least in this one the villain's plan is a last minute improvisation, based on the freak occurrence of a body landing in front of the good guy. It makes a little more sense that the plan is bad for the villain if it's something he was forced into on the spur of the moment.

Movies like Training Day and Flightplan would have made so much more sense if those situations had been last minute improvisations, but in both of those cases the villains had targeted the hero for weeks, which made no damn sense.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Matt, that in Collateral the problems for the hitman start only when the body falls out the window.

The real mistake is that the hitman has done this before and killed a taxi driver -- it's something the cop mentions. Disregarding the fact that it seems incredible that an LA cop would know about a crime in SF, my issue with it is that it establishes an MO that motivates the detective to look for an explanation beyond "taxi driver goes crazy." But we know it's all based on an accident, so the logic falls apart.

j.s. said...

Okay, the worst antagonist motivations I've seen in a long, long time are on Shawn Ryan's new military thriller show LAST RESORT. We're made to wait forever (about five episodes) for any hint of"reasons" from the big baddies and when they finally start to trickle out they are every bit as lame and ludicrous as most of the reasons other lesser antagonists do stuff. There's plenty of conflict at every level of this show. Yet almost none of it is organic or makes any sort of short or long term sense vis-a-vis what the characters want. Certainly not in terms of how complicated the plot has gotten. Ick.

There's a SPOILER subplot in the second episode where a Russian Special Forces assault (turns out, it's a red herring) occurs for no stated reason other than that the Russians wanted to "steal the sub." Right. Such a smart move, even in peace time. But in the middle of the beginning of a nuclear third world war, I can see why they went for it. Not! And this kind of cracked out motivation is emblematic of the writing in the entire series. Everyone goes too far, too quickly and easily because it's exciting...and because REASONS.