Friday, April 22, 2011

In Honor of the Great Cliches

     After a recent viewing of the unimpressive and highly predictable Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, it struck me that surely no one besides Prince Dastan was surprised that the king’s brother Nizam was the villain. Indeed, if Ben Kingsley were your uncle, and your father was a king who was mysteriously murdered, wouldn’t uncle Ben be the first person you’d suspect? It doesn’t matter how nice he seems. He’s the king’s brother, he stands to gain the most from the king’s murder, and he’s Ben Kingsley, which 9 times out of 10 has to mean villainy. Clearly, Prince Dastan needed to see The Lion King or read Hamlet. Prince of Persia abounded in adventure cliches, including the prophetic but feisty woman who knows everything and can really kick butt even though she looks like she wouldn’t want to break a nail. Or in this case smudge her tan. It doesn't seem to matter how much the woman might want to kill the protagonist, she never succeeds, and always ends up turning that bloodlust into a different kind of passion.

The predictable clichés of The Prince of Persia inspired me to evaluate the clichés that abound in movie entertainment, not just the adventure genre. Call it what you will, but here are the great clichés that you know if you've seen them once, you've seen them a thousand times.

1. The Genius Child-- I would posit that any role played by Abigail Breslin fits this category, but she's not the only one. Dakota Fanning seems to have had this one a few times, McCauley Culkin, and so on. Kids are smart and I'm not denying that since I used to be one such child (a know-it-all), but even those young moldable minds have limits and are not nearly as common as Hollywood would have us believe. I believe in prodigies as shown in August Rush or Searching for Bobby Fisher, but those films also portray how rare these types are while others don't
blink twice at children who have a thorough knowledge of legislation, psychology, computer hacking, or life in general.

2. The Evil Clergyman- This is not to say that every single clergyman who appears onscreen is a ridiculous legalist, a disgusting pedophile, or a radical crusader, but Hollywood has not been kind to priests and pastors in general. If not evil, then at the very least weak is standard.

3. The Wise Homeless Guy- although this particular cliché is not nearly as common anymore, it has been around for a long time. Apparently living on the streets as a homeless bum turns one into a philosopher and a life counselor.

4. Walking Away from a Grand Explosion- Thanks to a song performed by Andy Sandberg, Will Farrell, and JJ Abrams, we have the song "Cool Guys Don't Look at Explosions" to prove the point. Click here to see the montage of movies that have used this gimmick. But think about it, if there's an explosion, whoever is responsible will callously walk away, never even flinching at the exploding inferno.

5. "Grew up on a farm," "Dad was in the military," or similar excuses given to explain why a petite cute lady or supermodel is an expert in the handling of massive firearms. I grew up in Africa but I don't slay wild beasts or know a variety of weaponry. My parents are missionaries, but I'm not a theologian.

6. The Romantic Monologue- Personally I like monologues and blocks of one-sided dialogue, but they rarely deliver in a romantic scenario. It's not to say it never works, but it is a little worn out. The "you were right" speech, the "it's always been you" speech, and so on and so forth. They've all been done in a variety of settings. But even people that aren't familiar with the origins of, for example, "You complete me" and "You had me at 'hello'" (both are from Jerry Maguire by the way) have heard those lines, not the long speech that led up to them. True that a movie composed entirely of memorable one-liners would be nothing short of disastrous, but the theatrical monologue that wins back the love interest-- it's been done more than a few times.

7. The Crazy Christian- It goes hand in hand with the evil clergyman cliché. This one tends to be a neighbor who is usually a middle-aged judgmental woman who shuns all delights of life and calls everything sin, condemning her neighbors to hell for things like going to the prom. Every now and then you'll even get the extremist who doles out "holy" justice in some twisted perversion of basic moral convictions. They also usually have deep southern accents, and have no concept of basic fashion post-1950.

8. The Kick-Butt Woman- Thank you Lara Croft. At least Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame had some experience in the field of hard living. This one usually does tend to be more of the action/adventure genre, where realism is not of foremost concern anyway, which is probably why movies keep getting away with this cliché. Seriously though, even Angelina Jolie (the go-to woman for this type of role) can only take down so many war-trained bulky men in hand-to-hand combat before it becomes... ridiculous. Prince of Persia tried this one too as did the unfortunate Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and plenty of others. 

9. The Jerk Fiancé/Significant Other-- This stock character is likely to be found in a movie with a love story because it creates conflict. But you have to wonder what the character who will inevitably ditch this person ever saw in them in the first place.

10. The Big Secret Hideout that No One Knew About- It's in the mountains, in the forest, in the bottom of a lake, or deep within a cave. How could no one know about it? The villain couldn't have built it all by himself. People had to build it, and they couldn't all have become the henchmen of the villain who commissioned the order. Unless the villain had a small country at his command who are loyal to a vow of absolute secrecy, it's unlikely he just happened to have henchmen that had the skills to build a fortress. If the villain killed all the workers, someone would have noticed that too. Someone somewhere knows about it.

There's a reason that these have lasted as long as they have-- these things became clichés because they were bankable gimmicks. That is why this note is called "In Honor of the Great Clichés." These particular ten have been used and used again, and are guaranteed to still be milked continuously-- but it makes me appreciate creativity. With the summer movie season just around the corner and plenty of comic book movies and adventure flicks on the way, it's safe to assume that the great cliches will be alive and well.