Updated: February 15, 2012
We discussed classic mistakes in science fiction movies before, in my stellar [sic] articles one and two, pointing out fallacies and paradoxes in the science, mechanics, chemistry, and culture of the intergalactic adventure. We weeded out the bugs that are so commonly seen and so easily accepted as the future truth. Now, let's take a step back into the glorious era of the action film and discuss mistakes there.
Arguably, the 80s was the golden decade of the action cinema, with martial artists turned actors starring in a hundred majestic productions, tear-jerkers like Rambo and Blood Sport, the deep and insightful Inferno, the fast-paced Under Siege, the nostalgic Die Hard, and other legends. In the 90s, the renaissance of gunpowder and Kung Fu died, turning into a realistic drama that continues to this day, where effects are toned down and the body count reduced to mere dozens. Now and then, you get a proper action flick that respects its genre and pays tribute to the best decade ever. And as one, old and new, action movies suffer from the same terrible mistakes that must be dissected right here, right now. Note, some of these mistakes are the core of what makes the action so charming and magical, but they still must be placed at the surgeon's table and cut open.
Why? You're not on a parade. The fact you have a green beret on your head does not make you into a Green beret. Those fancy little caps are used for shows, to make women swoon and your NCO yell at you for wearing it at a slightly skewed angle. They are certainly not worn in combat. One, they make for a highly visible marker that can be easily discerned, especially if they have a merry color, ruining your camouflage. Two, they are loosely laid upon your short-cropped scalp and might be displaced even during mild physical exercise, to say nothing of actual combat. You don't want a piece of tweed falling down on your eyes as you put down suppressive fire with your M60, now do you? Three, they do not protect well against bullets, shrapnel, loose rock, or even branches. Using berets as a head dress is neither protective nor useful nor contributory to your life expectancy.
Assault rifles do have the automatic mode, and it beats me why. When fighting, automatic fire is never used, except when you need volume for suppression, and usually, it is provided by dedicated machine gunners rather than regular troopers. With only some 30 rounds in your clip, you can hardly support anyone. Moreover, accuracy goes down. If you're actually trying to hit someone, you will fire single rounds. At most, you might use burst mode, when this is possible. If you're using ACOG type sights, then the need for quantity over quality shots is reduced even further.
And yet, in all the olden goodies, everyone is just spray-n-pray shooting with remarkable success. Rifle muzzles flash with merry blasts and torrents of lead shoot forth to slay down the enemies of freedom, by the hundreds. Only it does not work that way. If I'm not mistaken, a study from the 70s shows that only 1 out of 15,000 rounds fired in Vietnam war by infantry soldiers actually scored a hit. Statistically, this means you need to carry 500 clips of ammo, roughly 400kg worth of equipment to achieve even a single hit. Of course, special forces need much less than that. But say they are 100 times better than the average trooper. All right. With five clips, they might manage five kills with automatic fire, ten if they're lucky.
This is one of the stupidest mistakes, the hip trick. Shooting from the hip is like pissing over your head, if you're a man, that is. Counterproductive. Not only do you NOT have a direct line of sight between your rifle and the target, your grip is significantly weaker, as you do not have the power of your shoulders and back to support the weight of the weapon and recoil. Instead, the energy is focused near your waist, the rotation pivot of your body. Stability, proper breathing and a good aim are all part of the correct shooting stance. None of that is to be had when shooting from the hip.
Now, in Predator, the sum of all hipness is achieved when one of the actors unleashes a whole backpack of 7.62mm ammo by firing his hand-carried, electric-powered Gatling-type six-barrel Minigun, a weapon normally installed on helicopters. Minigun is designed to pulverize targets by massive fire, which is reflected in its rate of fire of 4,000 rounds/min. This means our actor needed have carried some 1,000-2,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammo on his back. Note, a standard 230-round M60 machine gun belt weighs some 8.5 kg, which means we're talking some 40-80kg of ammo, without the weight of the weapon itself or the electric motor powering it. But he's a tough guy, he can handle it. What he cannot handle is the combined recoil of some 70 rounds of 7.62mm ammo being fired every second, roughly equivalent to 70 recoils of the AK-47 rifle. That's called winning. Being hip.
Speaking of shooting your guns, ammunition never seems to be in short supply. Either you have magical clips that discharge super-longs bursts of fire or the protagonists have them replenished at a feverish rate, assuming they could actually carry all that extra, which they never do, as muscular physiques were so lavishly taunted before the conservative 80s public. And you rarely see anyone reload. In fact, one of the main factors in judging the quality of a golden action flick was in how many times the hero had to do all those mundane things, like replace a spent clip, fix a jam or look for spare ammo.
This was ever the highlight of proper action. Sentries are disposed by uncannily accurate knife throws from a great distance, and they are always fatally felled with a single blade. Now, throwing knives is hard. It's a fine art. And it becomes super impossible when you're exerted from running, fighting or dodging bullets and wearing a full vest that restricts your arm motion.
If you're aiming for accuracy, you cannot throw with all your force, which reduces the range and penetration. If you aim for maximum force, then your accuracy will suffer. From what I've read, a good knife thrower will hit a static target at about 10 meters away, achieving about 2-3cm penetration in wood. Translating this into combat terms, you would have to be extremely lucky to hit a vital organ so close to skin surface, taking into account the fact most soldiers wear layers of protective clothing, including uniforms, Kevlar vests, combat vests, all of which can deflect a perfectly thrown blade and minimize the damage.
And then, there's the matter of throwing away your weapon. It may kill someone, or it may not, but it is no longer in your hands. Besides, how many blades can you carry without looking like a total dork? For all practical purposes, betting the element of surprise and stealth against a knife throw is very bad statistics. However, accidentally, this does not prevent childish computer games from introducing the knife throwing element into the climax of their would-be plot, as shown in the rather bad game of Modern Warfare 2.
Because most 80s actors were skilled fighters, significant portions of movies were dedicated to showing them in action. Steven Seagal had his famous Aikido defense and the throat rip. Van Damme would demonstrate straddle split as often as he could. Chuck Norris epitomized the roundhouse kick. And they all as one would spend long minutes getting pummeled by a bad guy until dramatic music cued in and they quickly and easily reversed the tide. Except Steven. He never got his ass kicked on film.
Anyhow, hand combat is hardly as pleasant as shown on camera. Most people would die from inflicted damage, mostly head trauma and internal bleeding within the first minute of these lovely, orchestrated duels. Bare-knuckle punches as depicted in the movies would usually end with a lot of broken fingers and maybe even wrists. Lately, various movies tried to fix this by introducing messy, more lifelike fights, but it's still a far-cry from reality.
Cars do not explode. Why should they? Cars are designed with multiple failsafe mechanisms that should prevent fuel spillage even when seriously damaged. But even if fuel tanks rupture and spill, the only real hazard of fire comes from the heat of the exhaust pipe, as the temperature might be higher than the autoignition point. There's no danger from the vehicle engine, as it is a completely sealed and grounded unit, with sparks discharged into the cylinders. For gasoline, the autoignition temperature is around 280 degrees Celsius. For diesel, around 210 degrees Celsius. If this happens, then the fuel will burn. The car will surely not explode. Normally, the hazard is minimal.
And then, there's the matter of collisions. Driving in a car without wearing a seat belt and crashing into a tree, a building or another car usually means a messy death. For some reason, this does not seem to be the case in the movies. In the worst case, people limp away, mildly bruised, and recover shortly thereafter.
Recently, we talked about flame colors. And this relates directly to the previous point. Every single action movies has slow, mushrooming orange blooms that look so dazzling on the camera. Fine for blasting barrels of gasoline, not so when handling real explosions. Detonations of military-grade explosives are extremely short in duration. If you're lucky, you may see a quick flash, following by a lot of billowing dust. You surely cannot anticipate them or react to them in a timely fashion.
Finally, you cannot outrun an explosion. That can't be humanly done. Detonation velocity is around 5-10 km/sec. Explosions are instantaneous. What could take time is the propagation and the subsequent collapse of the shock wave, usually air and some debris. This is what causes most of the secondary damage, as the chemical effects of explosions are rather localized. So if you see someone gracefully running away from a slow cloud of orange and black smoke and gaining, then you have been trolled. It's not the heat, nor the color of flames, not even the flying junk that kills. It's the pressure.
Oh woe me, such an abundance of rogue generals selling merchandise to the highest bidder. Doesn't seem to work like that, even in our crappy reality. Now, it is understandable that you would want the most thrilling of terrors to be the main subject of your plot. However, the topic is so badly overplayed it becomes ridiculous.
Why would weapons, designed to be delivered using missiles, have dial pads and dummy switches akin to that you have on a typical gaming console? How come nuclear weapons are always conveniently sized to be carried by hand? How come even the dumbest criminal knows how to activate these using matches, some gum and maybe a spanner, despite the fact they were designed with a million safety mechanisms for exactly that reason, especially when not wired to the command console of a jet airplane or the delivery launcher of a ballistic rocket? In the end, a terrifying prospect becomes a background to a fight between the good guy and the bad guy, resolved in a punching duel.
We all love action movies. After a long day of Powerpoint molestation at the office, the best recipe for relaxation, apart from beating your spouse, is maybe yoga, and failing that, a marathon of bad-quality VHS tapes hand recorded in the best decade of the last century. With some science and reality at your side, you can safely breeze through some of the less plausible elements of the action genre, confident in the victory of democracy over evil.
Most of the action movies mistakes revolve around simple things, like weapons ballistics and the endurance of human anatomy to blunt trauma. There's also some vehicle physics involved and the bigass weapons called nukes. I happen to like the shooting best, as there's so much goodness there, it brings a tear to your eye. Watching an army of bereted drones drop in a ballerina-like synced motion mowed down by a hip-fired volley is a priceless experience. All the while When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again plays in the background. Oh, the memories.
I hope you like this. As always, should the mind strike you with ideas or suggestions, mail them over.
P.S. The Russian paratroopers, orange explosion, the Crossroads Baker blast images are in public domain.