Let's Kill Off These Overused Movie Tropes

There's a presumption that when we talk about tropes we're talking about something negative. But I don't think tropes are inherently good or bad. Film has been around for a hundred years, so it makes sense that filmmakers would want to use recurring images, themes, and motifs as shortcuts to get across important information. These things are time-tested for a reason... they work.

Unless they don't.

Some tropes are so overused, so irritating, or so stupid that I think they actually cheapen the medium as a whole. Here are three I think no one would miss if filmmakers suddenly stopped using them. Let's tag 'em and bag 'em!

"I'm getting too old for this shit."

My God what I'd give to never hear another movie character utter this phrase again. It's stale and hackneyed (here's a non-exhaustive list of other films that have used it) and sounds whiny and entitled, regardless of who says it and in what capacity. But screenwriters think it's funny so they keep tossing it in there... which is a problem because it isn't funny. At all. Here's a five minute supercut of the meme. See how far into it you can get before it stops being entertaining. I'll wait. It won't be long.

And when screenwriters aren't using it as a humorous button, they're instead using it as a cheap bait and switch. The phrase is designed to communicate a character's concern that he has neither the physical or psychological capacity to deal with a specific situation. But it's rarely used to illustrate anything meaningful about the character. More likely, it's used to set up an unearned payoff - make a couple of statements about his age, then rise to the occasion and prove to be far more capable than originally thought. "Why retire now? It turns out I'm not too old for this shit after all!"

If Murtaugh really felt like he was too old for this shit, he certainly wouldn't have returned for subsequent Lethal Weapons. And if he did return, his concerns about his abilities wouldn't just dissolve like *that.* As I get older, I'm constantly dealing with the limitations of my body. Murtaugh would be too. To just handwave it away because he finally got the drop on the bad guy is insulting.

So how do you fix it? Instead of having the character openly complain about how he's too old for this, show him dealing with chronic shoulder pain, or show him fail to catch a bad guy he'd easily be able to catch in his youth. I'm not saying it always needs to be a meditation on age and how our society treats the elderly. But there should be actual consequences that are rooted in character. That's why we care.

Walking Away Unharmed From An Explosion In Slow Motion

Boy do I hate this.

Many action film directors think this is the height of coolness, but it's not. It’s obnoxious posturing designed to do one thing: tell the audience that your character is an indestructible badass. And that is just no fun. 

What makes drama work is the overcoming of difficult, sometimes insurmountable obstacles. That’s why people remember Indiana Jones, Furiosa, Frodo Baggins, and Rocky Balboa. These are human characters with weaknesses, both physical and psychological, who are putting their lives on the line. And because they’re fallible, we invest in their fate. The story means more to us because there’s a chance they might not make it. Where’s the fun in watching an invincible character walk through barriers without so much as a scratch? Having an explosion go off behind a character and having them act cool and unflappable is a cheat. It gives off the impression of cool but without understanding what we actually want from our characters. It's sound and fury, but it signifies nothing. There’s a reason, after all, why people hate the later Die Hard films. No one wants to see John McClane as an invincible robot.

By the way, I'm not saying you can't have characters running from explosions. But it has to mean something, be felt, have lasting repercussions. When John McClane jumps off the Nakatomi Plaza tower in Die Hard to avoid the explosion, the character has already been through hell; shoeless, shirtless, and bloodied beyond measure. So when he takes that leap, the shot carries weight because we already like McClane and want him to survive. That's why Die Hard is an all-timer. 

Coolness isn't just about imagery or attitude, it's about character. It's not walking away from an explosion unscathed and unfazed. Cool is getting knocked down by that explosion, but then getting up and limping off to fight the good fight.

Screaming "Noooooooooo!"

Why do filmmakers insist on putting this in their movies? It's never cool. Not once have I sat in a theater where a character drops to his or her knees, screams "noooo" to the sky, and the audience didn't guffaw.

I think the reason this trope has stuck around so long is that it seems like it works on paper (for the sake of comparison, characters do this all the time in the comics and it never reads as lame as in the movies), but for whatever reason it simply doesn't translate to the screen. Because it works on paper though, filmmakers imbue it with all kinds of meaning and importance. 

If you want to communicate that something truly terrible has happened and that the loss is going to profoundly alter the character and possibly the forward momentum of the film, there are better ways to do it, and they all need not be subtle. Be big, be bombastic and over the top. But stop using the "noooooo!" It's lazy (are you seeing a pattern?) and nobody actually does this in real life except to make fun of movies that do it.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA