Friday, May 29, 2009

Formula One

Last night we watched Mark Wahlberg's thriller THE SHOOTER, which got me to thinking about formulas. The film is highly watchable and enjoyable, especially if you go in for people being shot in the head and set on fire, but it's almost cookie-cutter in its adherence to formula. There's the One Guy against the whole corrupt system. There's the one not-corrupt guy in the corrupt system trying to help him. There's the somewhat tacked-on love interest with a nice rack. And, by the end, all is set to rights, at least personally, for the One Guy. He's gotten revenge on everyone who was giving him grief, and he drives off with the well-endowed love interest. B+!

How can something so structurally transparent be so satisfying? I think because we love the structure. The description I gave could easily fit dozens of books and movies, with little variation. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, for example. It'd be fun to put possibilities for each element into a paper bag, draw them out in different combinations, and write your thriller:

PROTAGONIST: man/woman/ child
PROTAGONIST'S SPECIAL SKILL: knows a dangerous secret/can blow people's heads off from a mile away/ is the only nice person in a world of meanies/ can see the future
SETTING: the Wild West/ outer space/ high school/ the workplace
VILLAIN(S): the "Man"/ the system/ the bullies/ the Mafia or gangsters/ the PTA/the Mean Girls

Then there are the little elements you can throw in for fun, but which also seem to have become standard fare:

PRODUCT PLACEMENT: Mark Wahlberg's character drinks a Budweiser. I wonder if their advertising exec said, "This is our target market! Sharpshooting, embittered, holed-up-in-the-mountains-with-their-dogs ex-Marines."

ANTI-BUSH TIRADE: Not quite sure why Hollywood was so eager to get rid of Bush when this became a prominent feature of movies made in the last several years. How will they fill those five minutes now?

Unfortunately for me, not having my own weapons stockpile or experience with forensics, I'd probably be limited to megachurch thrillers, if there can be such a thing. Lone pastor champions something controversial, and the corrupt Presbytery tries to oust him. Oh, wait--Anthony Trollope already did that 150 years ago in THE WARDEN. Rats.

Have a favorite thriller, formulaic or not?

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