Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Script Review - Hitman (Part 2)


All right, let’s talk story.

Hitman is very much a standard issue conspiracy plot, very similar to
Shooter in the sense that an expert killer gets hired to shoot a target (in this case, a Marxist-lovin’ Russian presidential candidate), but the job goes terribly awry (SURPRISE!). Suddenly, our main man finds himself swept up into the murky waters of government conspiracies. In Shooter, the protagonist works to clear his name. In Hitman, the protagonist doesn’t have a name. He’s just a number, which isn’t even above 50. So I doubt he’s all that concerned about clearing his anonymous number, and thus we need other goals to rope Agent 47 back into this wildly convoluted plot. Skip gives us 2:

1) The Marxist-lovin’ Russian presidential candidate, whom 47 shoots between the eyes in public, almost immediately shows up on TV giving more speeches with some bandages on his head. Is this really 47’s problem? He did his job. Not according to the agency, as they aren’t willing to pay him. (I was half-expecting 47 to tell Diana they should pay him for a second contract, because there’s an obvious body-double thing going on here, but that never happened.) So he has to find the real Marxist-lovin’ Russian presidential candidate and take him out.

2) A gorgeous Russian hooker (aren’t they all?) needs to be taken out, too, because she saw Agent 47 during the assassination attempt. Or… did she? A side-note about 47’s suits. I frickin’ love his suits, I really do, but if you’re going to take out a Russian presidential candidate IN RUSSIA with a Barrett .50 Caliber Long Range Sniper Rifle and you’re BALD with a BARCODE on the back of your head, you might want to nix the suit and try to BLEND IN. Just a thought. At least, that’s what I used to do, but that’s all I’m saying about my other life.

(Those caps are dedicated to you, my friend Joshua James.)

Question - are those two goals good enough for a story?

I’ll let you decide.

There are 5 layers to this screenplay that I want to explore. I’m covering 2 in this post, 3 in the next, and then I’ll analyze the characters. I can’t help it. There are lots of great topics to discuss and why not? I’m also saving my praise for Skip ‘til the end.


The hit on the Marxist-lovin’ Russian presidential candidate, which I would characterize as the Inciting Incident, doesn’t even happen until – holy crap – page 25 (or page 40 if this was formatted correctly). In most 120-page 3-act scripts, the entire FIRST ACT should be over by about page 27. This isn’t a 4-act story, or a non-plot, or an anti-plot or anything else - it’s a straightforward action picture that follows 3-acts. When you realize how long it takes before the main plot even begins, you’re annoyed. As far as I’m concerned, the hit on the Russian candidate should’ve been the opening scene.

What held Skip up for so long was a pointless Flashback Structure. For those who may not know, this is where we open with the ending. Usually there’s a cliff-hanger, because something’s at stake. Then a character “tells his/her story” (gag me). We go through the entire story (filled with voice overs) until we come full circle back to where we started at the ending. There’s usually a twist and then the story’s over. I despise this structure with every fiber of my being. Although I should thank quite a few scribes on
TriggerStreet for showing me how some films used this structure to a good, defensible purpose – Amadeus, Double Indemnity, Titanic, to name a few. In the case of Amadeus and Double Indemnity, the audience gets emotionally prepared for the tragic ending. Okay, fine. In the case of Titanic (which Pat talked about in her third exposition article), we first see the ship after it sank, we learn how it sank, so that we’re not too distracted when it sinks.

So how was this used in Hitman? We open with Mike Whittier coming home. After wandering through the kitchen and family room he discovers a body wrapped in a rug and - WHOA - there’s Agent 47 with his .45s out (silencers attached). He’s sitting at his desk in his chair! God, hold me back. Mike’s very apprehensive.

He says, “If you’re going to kill me…”

47 interrupts him. “If I was gonna kill you, I would’ve done it when you walked to your car this morning, and been gone by the time your body hit the sidewalk. But, right now all you can think about is your family. And that is making you desperate. Desperate men do stupid things. Without the suppressor, this weapon will sound like a Howitzer going off in here. And… I don’t leave witnesses.”

Mike says, “I understand what you’re implying.”

“I’m not implying anything. If you make me kill you, Mike, you won’t go alone. Sit!” And then Agent 47 tells his whole frickin' bloody life story through voice over. God help me...

Four things I hate about this approach:

1) There is nothing Agent 47 tells us in voice over about being a hitman or anything else that we couldn’t easily figure out for ourselves just by watching the damn film.

2) We know that no matter what happens throughout the story, no matter how intense the action gets, no matter how many bad guys surround 47 with submachine guns, we'll never once have a reason to worry because we already know how it’ll end. Skip gave the game away before it even started! We now know that 47 and Mike will survive everything because they must inevitably wind up back where we started in Mike’s house to have that final showdown.

3) The only thing at stake in this setup is Mike’s life (and the lives of his family) and he's not even the protag. And since Agent 47 is the protag, we can already guess that he’s not going to mercilessly kill him and his wife and his kids, because it would piss us off to see the protag slaughter innocent people right before the closing credits.

4) Having said all of this, the only other question that remains is who is in the rug? So, tell me, is this question really important enough to warrant a Flashback Structure? Not one damn bit.

Unless it helps to prepare us for something that's kind of tragic, a Flashback Structure generally puts an audience at an emotional distance to the characters because it keeps them from just totally diving into your story. It takes away too much of the mystery and turns the plot into a connect-the-dots puzzle as opposed to making the audience wonder and worry scene-by-scene how it’s going to end. You’re given a nice, soft cushion to hold on to, because you can always remind yourself, “He can’t die because he has to wind up back in Mike’s house.”

You’re being too nice to the audience by giving them that cushion. We all know that audiences don’t really want a cushion. They want to be taken for that roller coaster ride from beginning to end, and they all want to sit in the front seat.

A few more scenes into the story, we learn that Mike works for Interpol, that he is hot on the trail of Agent 47, and he’s just dying to take him down, thus making him the antagonist. Well, this really pissed me off, because this means that Skip has already shown me how the protag and antag will inevitably face off in the Act 3 climax.



I once played Hitman 2. Had a great time. I have my own wonderful hitman outline and thought this might help provide some creative inspiration. It didn’t, but I had fun.

For each assignment in the game, there's a variety of options available to take out the target. You could do it in a silent, deadly fashion, like sneak into a man’s kitchen, pour poison onto his fish, sneak out, and wait for the confirmation that he’s dead. Or you could grab a bunch of guns and kill everyone in sight, including innocent people. (Depending upon my mood, I went either way. Hehehe…)

After each assignment, you’d get rated. If you’re really good and you put the poison in the fish without being seen or killing anyone but the target, you’ll get a “Silent Assassin” rating with very high marks. If you blast everyone in sight like a homicidal maniac, you’ll get a “Mass Murderer” rating with very low marks.

Skip Woods’ Agent 47 would fail at his own game because his solution to everything was to behave like a “Mass Murderer.”

Well, there were one or two minor exceptions, but generally speaking – mass murderer.

And this brings me to Agent 47’s second assignment in the script. First, Mike walks through a crime scene in a “private banquet room” in Budapest. “It is a blood bath,” Skip writes. Mike explains to the “Head Guy” of the Budapest Federal Police how it probably happened: “I believe based on the discarded waiter’s jacket, he assumed the position of a waiter… And entered the room unarmed… The first one to go was stabbed. Probably from one of the steak knives.”

And then we see exactly how it happened, which was just as Mike described. Are you kidding me? Do we really need to have it explained before we watch it? And yes, it is a merciless blood bath. 47 takes out ten guys with his Glocks. As he leaves, Mike tells us in voice over he leaves and “strolled out of the club’s back door…”

No shit.

So let me ask the question – what’s the dramatic point of watching 47 wipe everyone out like that in a flashback? To show us what a homicidal maniac he is? This may be exciting in a game, but it sure as hell serves no dramatic purpose in an action film. And this brings up an interesting point. If you’re writing a hitman story, should you not make a dramatic point behind each assignment? Because there has to be a defensible purpose to the violence.

How many dramatic points can you come up with for a hit?

I give you 5:

1) The hit’s about how well he can accomplish the task, like in training.

2) The hit presents a moment of inner conflict for the protagonist, like a discovery that the target is a relative and he can’t go through with it or his personal feelings are somehow interfering with the assignment

3) An outside factor interferes, and the hitman has to suddenly change plans, like he discovers that he’s the target, or he’s been caught, or as in Spielberg's Munich a child runs back into the soon-to-be-exploding building, etc.

4) The hit is something the protag is doing without permission and at great risk.

5) The hit is about how the protag screws up.


Grubber said...

"BALD with a BARCODE on the back of your head, you might want to nix the suit and try to BLEND IN"

As one who grew up during the good old Cold War, isn't this what all Russians look like?

Bush is in our little country this week, shall I send him the hooker for you 47?

Mim said...

The flashback structure works well when there is a separate story line to the present story.

A good example of this is Pete Vicaire's Acadia. An old woman gives her granddaughter a diary that's a family heirloom. The two women read the diary and discuss the man who kept it. The main story, set in the 1600's, plays out. At some of the turning points in the story, Pete returns us to the two women.

When the story is over, and the diary has been read, the young woman finds a lesson in the protag's story that applies to her own life.

Mission Impossible 3 used a flashback structure, but all it did was start with a scene from the end of the second act and then catch us up.

Unless something is set up in the event you're flashing back FROM, and that something leads to its own story, the flashback structure is automatically weak.

Anonymous said...

Love the caps, LOVE THEM!

I agree with everything you've written . . . and I believe flashbacks can work well (Reservoir Dogs, anyone?) but you're points about why THESE don't work are spot on.

Unknown said...

I am a recent convert to MM's thoughts on flashback. If you already know the protag's outcome (at least to the point where the protag begins the flashback) you know the ending. Therefore, any twists you throw in, any attempt to show the protag in danger or a situation contrary to his later stance, will all be hollow and meaningless.

Regarding the emotional motivations for the hitman- I've also found that true for the antagonist and something I've been concentrating on. There has to be a reason for the antagonist to act and in their mind they have to feel their actions are justified and right within their universe. And we also have to see the reverberations of their actions in their lives. That's what I realized I never liked about all those teeny bopper slasher movies. Why did they keep killing. A movie like monster with Charlize Theron is much more palatable and in some ways more frightening because you get to see that rationale, no matter how twisted you may find it to be.

Anonymous said...

CITIZEN KANE was one long flashback.

It can work, like anything, it just has to be done for the sake of the story, not for the sake of a flashback, nothing else.

And besides, knowing the ending isn't nearly as exciting, sometimes, as knowing how we got there.

In American Beauty the protog tells us he'll be dead soon . . .

Anonymous said...

Godfather 2, serious flashbacks within, heh . . .

Christian H. said...

As a writer who has only looked at flashbacks once, I can agree that they can suck real bad.

I think they work really well if the first scene is a funeral. Well, at least that's how I'm playing it.

Besides, by the time most movies come out we've seen "Making Of," teasers, trailers, or basically the whole damn movie in little parts, so I guess it's how you get there.

Mystery Man said...

Grubber - Hehehe... Unfortunately, the agency avoids jobs for prominent figures in allied countries. But I'll take a look at that hooker...

Mim - completely agree. I recall Acadia, but it's been awhile. I seem to think I wasn't fond of his flashback structure, but I'm not sure.

Bob - Just to clarify, I'm not opposed to flashbacks, per say, just the Flashback Structure. Great points on the antagonists. Really enjoyed that.

Joshua - In both Citizen Kane and American Beauty, the audiences were getting prepped for the tragedy at the end. Godfather II doesn't really fit the definition of flashback structure, but I like the back and forth and contrasts of those two stories. There's real genius in that.


Mystery Man said...

Christian - just to clarify, I'm not opposed to flashbacks, just the flashback structure, which gives away the ending at the very beginning. The only real good defensible purpose to doing that is to prepare the audience for something emotionally severe, like a tragedy, which I think fits in with your comment about the funeral. Anway, thanks for that.


Mickey Lee said...

Mission Impossible 3's use of flashback structure was pointless. You could've taken it out and the story would've been just fine. If you need to move something exciting up to the front of the movie just to entice the audience, then just write a more exciting beginning.

Citizen Kane, Rashomon, The Usual Suspects -- flashbacks, I suppose, but only because the stories are based around reportage. We're hearing (seeing) different people's versions of events.

Tarantino's use of flashback in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction I felt was effective because he was trying to spotlight different characters throughout the narrative. I don't think it was used as effectively in Kill Bill, just because we are always focused on The Bride.

American Beauty was just ripping off (I mean, playing homage to) Sunset Blvd!

Godfather 2 -- not really flashback. Two parallel stories taking place in different time periods.

I was just watching Dolores Claiborne last night, which had heavy use of flashback. Again, I think it works because 1) there's a criminal investigation going on and the inspector (Plummer) is trying to check everyone's stories and 2) Jennifer Jason Leigh has blocked out a lot of past and is trying to uncover her memories.

Hitman -- of course, I haven't seen the movie, but it sounds like it's just trying to jump on the flashback bandwagon. Another example of style over substance.

Anonymous said...

Then there is also RUN LOLA RUN'S great use of flash-forwards with the various characters she ran across on her way. . . and in a way, almost a flashback, because we would stop and go back to the beginning each time a new section had to begin, right?

Sure American Beauty ripped off Sunset - Grotoski said, "good ideas are borrowed, great ideas are stolen!"

You know, seriously though, it ain't the flashbacks that bother you . . . it's the bad story-telling . . . don't hang it on the flashbacks . . . it's just really one tool . . .

I don't mind flashbacks, not at all, when they're done well . . . and they're done well fairly often (LOST, anyone?) - more often than we probably can admit . . . like Voice-overs . . . can work great (half of Forest Gump was a flashback, done with Voice-overs, and done well) . . .

The fact that this guy uses a flashback unnecessarily is evidence more of his bad writing skills (and evidenced also in his action descriptions) . . . But really, for every bad movie or TV show that you mention which uses flashbacks or voice-overs, it ain't those things that are causing our distaste . . . it's the bad writer and their bad decisions.

I had this same conversation with a fiction author, one who hates adverbs.

Bad writers use a lot of adverbs unnessarily, (like the irony of that adverb I put in?) but that ain't the adverb's fault . . . and using a juicy adverb now and again, especially when it's desperately needed(hah, did it again) doesn't label one a bad writer . . . it's the choice that goes into it, right?

Bad writers also use the word "the".

So do good ones.

Good ones put "the" where it belongs. Bad ones put it everywhere irregardless . . .

I'm just ranting and raving, obviously, so don't take it personal . . . I like dialoguing about this . .

And I don't think I used caps EVEN ONCE.


Mystery Man said...

Mickey - fabulous comments. Couldn't agree more. Resevoir Dogs was particularly great, especially within the context of that mystery surrounding someone's betrayal. You just cling to every flashback looking for answers. I love that film.

Joshua - I recall Stephen King saying in his "On Writing" book that "the road to hell is paved with adverbs." And I thought, "God, that would make for a great short story." Ya know? Hehehe...

Mim said...

"it ain't the flashbacks that bother you . . . it's the bad story-telling . . . don't hang it on the flashbacks"

Flashbacks work when used in the proper context by a good story-teller, but they seem to be one of those tools that bad story-tellers grab onto and use without understanding how they work.

I will hang it on the flashbacks. Flashbacks badly used are often a clue to bad story-telling. They seem to have this dark glamor, and people gravitate to them without understanding how dangerous they can be.

Mystery Man said...

I hadn't considered this before, but perhaps a few articles on flashbacks might be interesting.


Anonymous said...

JJ Sez:

--Almost everything Robert Bolt ever did uses a flashback structure...Kinda.

Dr. Zhivago? Flashback. The Mission? Flashback. Lawrence Of Arabia? Flashback--at least, we start out knowing Lawrence survives WWI to die in a motorcycle crash, which would seem to be taking the suspense away, as MM claims this does.

Ironically, I think his most successful use of this was in probably his least seen writing...The Bounty, where it opens with Bligh going into this court martial, then flashes back from there, so we know all along Bligh is'nt going to be killed by Tofuan cannibals or starve in the lifeboat, ect...But it works like gangbusters! You completely forget that these are even flashbacks until they cut back to the Royal Naval courtroom...

I guess, though, since in a lot of cases these films show things that the people supposedly having the flashbacks (Bligh, Zhivago's daughter and half-brother, the church official in Mission, and who knows in Lawrence) could not have witnessed or even knew about, they'd be more properly defined as framing devices, not flashbacks.

What's the differance between a framing device and a flashback structure? A topic for discussion.

Mystery Man said...

Hey JJ, thanks so much. Those are great comments. I'm going to sound like I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth, but I want to be careful about a couple of things.

1) I have long felt that all stories should be considered individually, and even though I despise flashback structures, it would be wrong for me to say one cannot use it under any circumstance. There are plenty of great exceptions.

1a) Ya know, The Bounty is a great example (I hadn't thought of that and I saw the one with Brando a couple of months ago). A number of reasons make that flashback structure work. We already know that there will be mutiny, it opens with JUST the antag, not the antag AND the protag, and the mystery is what happened to Christian, not Bligh.

2) I do make a distinction between stories that make prolific use of flashbacks and a flasbhack structure in which it opens with the ending and someone tells his/her story. Gag me. I think it irritates me because, for some reason, SO many newbies cling to this structure when more often then not, it's pointless.

3) I do love experimentation with structure, although I think that newbies should master the 3 act structure first. All the great masters: Altman, Bergman, Fellini, mastered the 3 act first before really playing with structure. Now continuing with the thought of considering stories individually, does a flashback structure help in the case of Hitman an action picture? Not at all.

I guess the point here is that there has to be a clearly defensible, definable reason to do anything like that.


Joshua James said...

The clue to bad storytelling is simply that the reader / listener / watching doesn't want to read / listen / watch any longer . . . whether it's because of adverbs or flashbacks or lack thereof . . .

Mim said...

I would say that losing readers/viewers is a result of poor writing. And there are many reasons why the writing is bad, but using flashbacks without understanding them is one of the most common mistakes inexperienced writers make.

I've read a lot of scripts on TS, which is a great place to find writing samples by people who think they can learn to write by watching a movie.

Invariably, if you see basic mistakes on the first page, you're going to find a flashback stuck in where two lines of back-story dialogue should be.

Flashback is a tool that should be used only by experienced writers, and it's a tool that can be dangerous in the hands of beginning writers. I've seen some very bad accidents happen when inexperienced writers use flashback.

Yes, MM, I think a study on flashback would be helpful. But I'm not sure I would be able to use the best examples of badly used flashback. The TS members who created them might not give their permission to use them.

Anonymous said...

JJ sez

--Hey, right on with your analysis of The Bounty! I think you pinpointed EXACTLY why it works so well--and I love that movie, must have watched in on DVD at least ten times, AND have read the script (which I heartily recommend, btw)--but I never picked up on most of that stuff. So true, if it had opened with Christian, not Bligh, that would have really damaged the narrative. Of course, when you're doing historical figures like that, you probably have a little more leeway then something like "Hitman"--which, I agree, seems to gain nothing from this flashback structure, and in fact appears to have no good reason for existing, as far as I can tell....

--Just an aside, but god, Bounty must be one of the most chronically underrated movies of the 80s. A great script, amazing photography, and that cast: along with Hopkins and Gibson, you have Liam Neeson, Daniel Day Lewis, Laurence Olivier, Edward Fox and Bernard Hill. (No, despite popular rumor, one of the mutineers is not Colin Farrell. He'd have been about six years old that was shot.)

--Anyway, I'm sure Bolt and, of course, David Lean, who was pretty much Bolt's uncredited co-writer on The Bounty back when he was planning to direct it, thought of all those elements in the narrative. Lean's pre-Bolt films use some similiar devices, like Brief Encounter.

--But it's important not to confuse non-chronological structure with flashbacks. I do agree that what you're describing with Hitman is a groaning cliche that rarely works anyway. But is, say, The Last Emperor flashbacks? Mishima? Raging Bull? Pat Garret and Billy the Kid? Flags of Our Fathers? Nixon? Alexander? Goodfellas?

--Closer to home, does the flashback theory apply to say, Little Big Man and Forrest Gump? In both of those cases we meet the antagonist and know exactly where he'll end up at the end. Does it work? I would argue it does, because those films are not primarily focused on the survival of a protagonist fighting against enemies. They're in many ways about the people Forrest Gump and Little Big Man meet and the sights they see, about the journey, not so much the destination.

--John Milius' Conan The Barbarian (the movie, interestingly--this is not in his script) originally opened with a shot of Conan as a bearded king on a throne, and he narrated the story (and this IS in the script.) But that shot was eventually used at the END of the movie, and the Wizard character became the narrator--presumably because Milius, being a great screenwriter, came to feel the same way MM does--that in an action/adventure film like Conan, knowing that the main character lives to be old and wise kinda takes something from it!

Mystery Man said...

JJ - SO very sorry for my delay in responding. As you may have gathered, I disappeared due to... well, no comment. In any case, those are GREAT comments. I'd like to talk about these films you listed:

"The Last Emperor flashbacks? Mishima? Raging Bull? Pat Garret and Billy the Kid? Flags of Our Fathers? Nixon? Alexander? Goodfellas?"

I would have to re-watch those films. I don't recall flashbacks in Raging Bull. Let me say that I don't oppose flashbacks, just the flashback structure and I don't believe any of those films fit that definition, although I haven't seen Alexander or Nixon. With respect to Flags of our Fathers... I felt indifferent to the structure. I can't say it's a better movie because of it. The flashbacks in Letters of Iwo Jima, though, damn brilliant. I completely fell in love with that film.

I'm rambling. Hope that helps.