February 24, 2012

Momentum, With or Without Fiery Motorcycles

Okay, so I was stoked for a Neveldine / Taylor take on Ghost Rider. Here’s how to enjoy Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Wait for DVD or another fast-forwardable medium. Skip every moment, except for those in which a) something is on fire or b) Nicolas Cage is delivering lines (voice over not included.)

The goal of Johnny Blaze, like so many Marvel heroes, is to stop being the character we’ve signed up to see. He becomes a tag-a-long in his own movie, with the weirdo priest Moreau, played by Idris Elba, supplying most of the motivation. For a movie patterned on Terminator 2, in which the hero has to stop the devil from capturing a child, there’s way too much explanation going on. In other words, the script, apparently cut down from a much more elaborate version predating the original film, sadly leaves the duck in.

It’s still way better than the first one, low bar that this may be. The action is agreeably gonzo and there are some great gags. For additional entertainment value, imagine that this Johnny Blaze is not the guy from the first movie, but rather a cursed version of the Cage character from Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Hey, they both went out with Eva Mendes.

I bring this up not to slag the movie, but to look to the lesson in narrative construction it provides. Films, action flicks in particular, live and die not only on the content of the set pieces, but on the momentum between scenes. Whether they build in one direction, or converge from two or more, it’s the way the scenes connect that keep us engaged.

This doesn’t apply only to films featuring flaming skull-headed vigilantes. The genius of Citizen Kane, and the  propulsion it sustains despite its achronological story order, derives from the brilliance of its scene transitions.

Here lies a key distinction between movies and roleplaying sessions. In the latter, players value freedom of choice and action over momentum. They want to control the pace, often stopping to slow it down so they can go back and add interstitial action a screenwriter would cut to elide. For the GM, the trick is to ensure that the action moves a median pace that splits the difference between methodical players and those who prefer to keep it moving.