Predator – 1987 (Spoilers)
Predator‘s first action sequence: Arnold’s elite special ops team recons a guerilla camp, carefully eliminates its outer perimeter, and launches their invasion by blowing up an entire house with a truck. They then charge in with rifles, grenade launchers and a minigun. They run down the last targets hiding, or attempting to flee. They secure what seems like a square-mile area of space in about five or ten minutes. They kill something like fifty people. Of the seven guys heading in, the only wound is a stray bullet clipping a shoulder.
It’s one of the most unfair fights you can imagine, until the Predator shows up, sees all that, and decides that the proper reaction to encountering a group of invincible, annihilating, awe-inspiring soldiers is to hunt them for sport. And when he’s done doing that, we’re in the last sequence, where, having had an opportunity to take a measure of each other’s skills, two warriors who can’t see each other play bows and arrows with high-impact explosives. And then it’s time for the cast credits.
The magic in this film is that it gives you military excess and primal struggle, and they’re both kind of over the top, but the film itself is as efficient and economical as you could imagine. There isn’t a frame here that’s unnecessary. And that means you can enjoy all of this in a pure way, since the film isn’t fucking around saying this means something. Predator could care less. It has seen your action movie and will enjoy killing it now.
Dog Day Afternoon – 1975 (Spoilers)
It’s safe to expect that by the end of the film the main character is going to have his back against the wall. That’s why they’re in the movie, so you can watch them get to that point, see how they got there, and take in what you can learn about them when they’re at their breaking point.
The genius of Dog Day Afternoon is to radically move forward the timetable: no more than fifteen minutes in, Sonny is completely and irrevocably fucked. This guy isn’t criminal mastermind; his partner is going to get shot and he’s heading to jail or in a bodybag. That much is dead certain.
A lesser movie would have attempted to obscure this behind a set of mini-crises, or fake-outs, or nods in the direction of some radical change to its established status quo. And there’s some of that here: there’s an asthmatic and a diabetic among the hostages, and the air conditioning goes out, and Sonny gets tackled by a bereaved Spanish man. But nothing ever comes close to changing a path that leads only two ways. And from the moment he sees the dozens of guns trained on the bank’s front door, Sonny knows it, too. What you’re in store for is one, big, unending, mundane crisis, and eventually order is going to win one way or the other.
For a movie where nothing much happens, however, and nothing much can happen, there’s never any lack of suspense. And that’s because the audience is learning the whole time. We’re learning that Sonny is a bumbling criminal, and a Vietnam hangover, and a dissatisfied bank worker, and a socioeconomic tragedy, and a radical figurehead, and a troubled husband, and a homosexual, and a loyal partner, and a son, and he’s funny, and he’s a man consumed with love for someone he can never be with, and he’s a dreamer who can convince himself that in the end, somehow, he might not be the screwup he knows himself to be. And the film teaches you these things about Sonny carefully, and you learn them one at a time, and they don’t contradict because they all lead to the inescapable conclusion that he’s a human being.
Stories exist, in part, to put characters through the ringer. Narrative economy works because it respects this higher purpose. Yet you can go further than that, you can turn plot into the bookends, if you’re good enough, because a character can be a narrative in his own right.