Problem/Need: What is the problem that’s established for our main character at the beginning of this script? Somebody’s lying face down in a pool of water, and they’re dead. And his job is to solve the crime.
He’s got a second problem. He’s going about his job, and all of a sudden he’s got a D.A. on his tail who’s investigating possible police corruption. So he’s going to have to watch his step here.
What about the need? He’s cynical. How does that translate into a particular action? Cynicism is a psychological state which can have a moral effect.
He’s a pragmatist. Does a pragmatist necessarily hurt anybody? We find out later that he’s on the take, but we also see a little corruption right at the beginning. He asks the DA to go out with him and proceeds to break just about every law he can possibly break in the course of having dinner. He stops in front of a fire hydrant. He cuts in line. He is about to have the owner of the restaurant pay for dinner. And then they have this argument on the way home where he says, take it easy, that’s the way it’s done here.
So the hero has not just a psychological need but a moral need. He’s a rule breaker, and he sees no conflict in being a cop and breaking rules. If this story is written properly, he’s going to have to learn how to exercise power in a legal way so that innocent people, and even guilty people, aren’t hurt by it.
There are two crucial things that need to be done in this story. One, we have to see how his corruption actually hurts people. And second, we have to see how his corruption deepens over the course of the story, because quite frankly, cutting in line just isn’t that big of a moral need. In other words, we have to see how this moral need develops.
Desire: The main character wants the female D.A. He wants to solve the murder. And he wants to beat the rap. When we start listing these desire lines, we run into a problem. We’ve got three of them. Three fairly unique desire lines here.
At least in the case of wanting the woman, we have the problem that he gets gets her pretty quickly. Not much of a struggle there. We want a desire that doesn’t get accomplished until the end of the story.
But we’ve got an even bigger problem. We can start off with these three desire lines, but we should find out that all of these desire lines are ultimately the same one. That means that the cop hero has got to be part of the main crime, the crime that he is supposedly uncovering at the beginning. Because the main interest in the story is the main crime that we’re investigating.
And second, we’ve got to see how getting the girl comes about by overcoming his own corruption. That’s the choice. He’s got to overcome his corruption in order to win the D.A. Otherwise these two lines never become one.
Unfortunately, neither of these things happen, which is one reason why this is at the very least a double storyline.
Opponent: There are two major opponents, the D.A. and the other cops in the precinct, led by the captain. Just as a double desire line gives you a broken story, so does a double opposition. And, in fact, this story feels like two storylines. He fights with the D.A. for a while. He fights with the cops for a while.
What about the values of his opponents? An opponent is only as deep as the values they express. If they don’t express values we don’t have a powerful, human opponent. The cops value camaraderie. The captain says “We cops are family. We stick together.” That’s a value. They also believe in letting the criminals kill each other. They’re the bad guys, we’re the good guys. Good versus evil.
Now what about the values of Ann, the D.A.? Uphold the law above all. No exceptions. She also values him. Which creates a conflict of values. But this isn’t explored.
Plan: There isn’t much of a plan here beyond the standard: we’ve got a crime, let’s take the normal steps to solve a crime. We’ve got a woman, let’s take the normal steps to win her over.
The middle of this story puts a lot of emphasis on moral argument, contrary to a lot of other scripts, which sets it apart right away. Excellent focus in this area. The problem is, the moral argument isn’t set up right and doesn’t go deep enough..
He says a number of things to justify what he does. Such as, the rules that I break are petty, so who cares. I’m a good guy, they’re bad guys, and I know the difference, and so does everybody else. This is the Big Easy down here. It’s a way of life, don’t mess with it. This is the way we do things. I get perks that come with the job. So I deserve it. Police are family, we stick together. I’m doing a dirty job and I deserve to have some benefits, because I’m the guy who saves your butt.
That’s a lot of argument there, and it’s detailed, and that’s great. But what is the other side? The other side, provided mostly by the D.A. is, first, once you break the rules even a little bit you’re down this slippery slope of corruption you can’t recover from. And second what’s the difference between you and them. You’re both rule breakers.
The problem with these arguments, especially hers, is that they are ultimately meaningless because the hero is not given the main corruption. Who’s given the main corruption? The captain, which is why he is the most interesting character here. He’s the guy who’s got a real struggle. That one scene that he has with the hero, where they’re out by the swingset after the brother’s been killed, is the best scene in the script. Because that’s the real power of the moral argument.
The other problem with her arguments is that they are simply wrong. Saying that once you break even any law you’re down this slippery slope, which we hear all the time, is absurd. Is there anybody who has not broken the law at one time in their life. Yet, I don’t see vast moral decay out there. It’s not necessarily true that if you do one or two things wrong that you can do nothing but become totally corrupt for the course of your life. And there is a moral difference between the cop and the bad guys.
Moreover, her moral argument doesn’t hit home because we don’t see the effect of the hero’s corruption. We see the effect of the captain’s corruption. We see people who have gotten murdered. But what are the effects of the hero’s corruption? He took some money at the bar. Sure, that’s wrong. But did anybody get shot? Did anybody lose their job? Somebody was about to pay his meal at the restaurant. He cut in line. Somebody had to wait a little bit longer. We’ve got to see real negative effects of a cop breaking the law for it to hit home.
Because her attack and her argument isn’t that powerful there’s an interesting result. This movie takes a lot of pleasure in abusing her. It’s one of the most misogynistic films I’ve seen in some time.
Look at how the DA is presented. First, she falls very easily for this guy. He comes in with all this physical force and she falls apart, she’s just jelly for this guy. When she looks at the case she throws up. In court we watch her fume and watch her defeated. Then she is forced into a police car, she’s taken to the celebration for the winning cop, humiliated there and then forced to dance with the guy. And everybody meanwhile is saying to themselves, “She got hers, that prissy, self-righteous bitch. We nailed her.” That should not be what the audience is experiencing in the middle sequence. In fact it’s just the opposite of what should be happening for the audience at that point.
So even though a lot of moral arguments are brought up, they don’t hit home the way they should because they haven’t been set up properly. The DA’s attacks would have far more force if the audience had actually seen where the hero’s corruption was hurting someone, and if we saw that he was somehow part of the main crime that must be solved.
Perhaps the writer thought if we make the hero do some things wrong, we can’t have a happy ending. We’re not going to like the guy. Not so. It can be done, you’ve just got to be good to do it. If you give your hero some real moral weaknesses you do take a chance of alienating, at least to some degree, your audience. But if you set up his moral need properly, you can hold them during his decline.
Self-Revelation: The next major structure step in the story should be the battle, but it’s not. It’s the self-revelation. He says to her on the balcony: “I found out that you can’t take money and be a good cop, and you can’t be one of the good guys when you do that.” That’s certainly a self-revelation, and it has a moral element to it. But because we’ve never really seen him do anything wrong, this self-revelation doesn’t have much force.
Who are the people who should be learning this lesson? The people who are running drugs and killing people. The captain. The other cops. But we have had almost no time to get to know those people, and they aren’t the hero. So that side of the argument doesn’t have much force either. They’re just the typical bad guys doing something mysterious in the background.
And because we have the self-revelation first, the battle is anticlimactic. We have already seen the hero grow.
Battle: The battle is nothing more than shoot-em-up time. Jumping in the water, shooting darts and flares at people. It’s a battle of noise and guns, but it’s not really about anything. They’re clearly the bad guys, they’re doing drugs and murders so we’ve got to get rid of them. The best scene – and what is the true battle – is the argument between the captain and the hero, who is about to become the captain’s son-in-law.
There’s an interesting ending to the battle. After talking about the corruption and how he shouldn’t take money and so on, the hero says, “I’ve got to because I’m doing a dirty job and we don’t get paid much as cops.” They get married, and notice he carries her into her apartment, which is a bit nicer than his apartment.
I couldn’t help thinking at the end of this movie that the problems for these two characters are just beginning. Where are they going to live? And how are they going to resolve this problem of your money or my money. I’d love to see the sequel on that one.
There are a lot of strengths to this story, most importantly the fact that it does set a moral need for the character, and we argue that out through the course of the story.
But there are certain crucial weaknesses that I think can be instructive for your writing. First, find the single line. Even though you do a mixed genre story, ultimately it should be one line.
Second, give your main character the big problem, or in this case, the big corruption. Take your main character to the extreme, not a secondary character to the extreme.
This picture shows that great dialogue depends on great structure. You can have two characters arguing very vehemently about what is happening in the story, but if the structure hasn’t been set up properly, the dialogue’s not going to hit home. And that unfortunately is what happened here.