Monday, September 26, 2011

One Shot

Genre: Thriller
Premise: An ex-military man is brought in to help figure out the mystery behind a mass sniper shooting.
About: This is going to be Tom Cruise's next, after that strange musical he's making. It’s based on the book of the same title written by Lee Child. Cruise brought in his Valkyrie writer, Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie, to adapt the book. McQuarrie is best known for writing The Usual Suspects (for which he won the Oscar).
Writer: Christopher McQuarrie (novel by Lee Child) (previous drafts by Josh Olson)
Details: 122 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Let's get this out in the open right away. Christopher McQuarrie can write. After reading last week’s offerings, you forget what real writing looks like. This is it. The man has such a visually exciting style, that even mundane scenes have an energy to them that you just don't see with other writers. And he does some controversial things to get there. For example, McQuarrie uses camera directions (you see "extreme close-up" several times in the opening pages), which is supposed to be a big no-no. But he likes how they orient the reader’s eye to what's important, and if they don't bother you, they definitely achieve that (having said that, it should be noted that most readers will tolerate professionals doing this, but get annoyed when amateurs try it).

He also writes some pretty big paragraphs. We were just ragging on Montana the other day for doing the same thing. But the difference is, McQuarrie rarely writes anything unnecessary, so even the big paragraphs work. Is this a double standard? Probably. But hey, Brett Favre threw off his back foot into double coverage for over a decade. A rookie quarterback should not be afforded the same leniency. He hasn't earned it yet.

So what is this script about? It's actually a fairly basic plot. I don't know what I was expecting, but I guess I thought since Cruise was making it a potential franchise, there was going to be more action. But this story is more a procedural. It starts off with a mysterious man pulling up into a parking garage overlooking a heavily trafficked pedestrian area, pulling out a sniper rifle, and randomly shooting five people dead.

When the Feds investigate, they trace the shooting back to a man named James Barr. But when they bring him in, he insists he had nothing to do with it. When they try to get a written confession from him, he gives them three words instead: "Get Jack Reacher.” So they send James off to jail and start looking for Reacher. After figuring out he’s an ex-military special something or other who’s an expert at pretty much everything, including staying invisible, they conclude that there’s no way they’ll ever find him. Which is the exact moment they get a knock on the door. "Someone's here to see you." "Who?" "Jack Reacher.”

It turns out Reacher knows this guy from the Army, and that James did a lot of bad things there. Reacher wants to make sure he goes to prison for a long time. But before he can talk to James, James is beaten to within an inch of his life at jail and is now in a coma. So Jack teams up with James’ plucky female defense attorney to cross the T's and dot the I’s on the investigation.

But one look at the crime scene and already Reacher knows something’s off. It turns out, for example, James paid the meter before he shot everyone. Why would a man pay a parking meter before he was about to kill five people? It also starts to look like this was less a mass shooting and more a targeted shooting. The question is, how are all these people related, and why did James, or whoever killed them, want them dead? Of course, the closer Reacher gets to the truth, the more sketchy people come out of the woodwork trying to kill him. But if there's one thing you find out pretty quickly, it's that you don't fuck with Jack Reacher.

The biggest surprise with One Shot is that there's almost nothing new here, and yet it's still pretty damn exciting. You have a couple of choices when you write a script. You can write something that's been done before and try to execute it perfectly or you can write something unique and execute it adequately. McQuarrie does the former.

That's not to say One Shot is totally by the book. In a typical procedural you have police officers or the FBI doing the investigating. Here, we have a defense lawyer and a mysterious ex-military man. This allows McQuarrie and Child to play fast and hard with the rules. Not everything has to be by the book because neither of these two belongs to a body that follows a book. It gave the script just enough freshness to differentiate itself from similar screenplays.

As far as GSU, the goal here is clear. Figure out who killed all these people and why. The stakes and urgency aren't as clear. The stakes are the safety of our protagonists, since the deeper they dig, the more the bad guys want to kill them. And the urgency is also vague at first. There's no real ticking time bomb. Instead, the urgency comes from the bad guys closing in. We know they're always close by. We know they plan on killing our heroes. And that's what keeps the momentum up.

One of the bigger lessons to come out of One Shot is one that Leslie Dixon reminded us of in an interview leading up to the release of her movie, Limitless. When asked why she chose to write the movie, she said she was tired of writing movies with main characters that movie stars didn't want to play, because they never got made. She knew that the only way her movie was going to get greenlit was if she wrote a main character for a star. Say what you will about Limitless, but the movie definitely has an intriguing central character that a big Hollywood star would want to play.

We have the same thing here. Jack Reacher is a man with a mysterious past who plays by his own set of rules - who isn't afraid of anything. I mean how much more appealing can you make a character for a movie star? It's Han solo. It's Indiana Jones. It’s the template for every character you ever pretended to be when you were a kid. So as important as the craft itself is, never forget that you have to wrangle in a movie star to get your script made. So that main character better be interesting.

There were a few things that bothered me, notably that a big deal is made out of James Barr saying "get Jack Reacher" (which, let's face it, is an awesome moment) and yet it’s never clear why he did this. We find out later that Reacher hates James. So why in the world would James call him in? I guess James thought Reacher was the only one who could prove he didn't do this, but since Reacher had been trying to get this guy behind bars for years, who's to say he wouldn't use this opportunity to finally do so? Maybe someone can explain this to me.

Also, the bad guy here is too cartoonish. As writers, we can get so carried away with trying to come up with somebody different, that we forget that that person still has to exist in the universe we created. The idea of somebody known as The Zec being stuck in some prison to the point where he started eating off his fingers… I'm sorry but that's just silly. That was the one area that really disappointed me with this because when you have such a cool hero, you want him going up against the best. And if the best is Zec The Finger-Chewer - I'm just not sure that's a matchup I'm looking forward to.

But man, the writing here is good. I'm so happy this came around when it did because when you read a lot of subpar scripts in a row, you start to think that there's no good writing left. This proves that there is.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Here's a scene that always works. Have your protagonist go talk to somebody suspicious, and have that suspicious person handling a gun for an innocuous reason. For example, Reacher believes that our bad guy did some training at a gun range, so he goes out to the range to ask the owner if the man he's looking for was there. On its own, it's a basic question and answer scene. But McQuarrie gives the gun range owner a gun he's cleaning. This adds a whole new dimension to the scene. Whenever things get testy, you cut to the gun, and a normal conversation is layered with all sorts of subtext. Is he going to pull it out? Would he try and shoot Reacher? These are questions the audience is asking while watching the scene, making the scene much more exciting.