Even if you had never heard the term “genre tropes”, you already know what they are. A genre trope is a lone gunslinger riding into the sunset at the end of a western movie, the two lovers making out in the rain in a romantic movie, and the buff handsome action hero calmly walking away from an explosion.
Genre tropes are essentially cliches. Scenes, actions or characters that dozens of filmmakers have used and reused in different movies because they had a huge impact on the audience the first time that they were seen.
But each one of those movies also fits into one or more subgenres.
Any genres have a “baggage” of tropes that it brings into the movie, just like the few ones I’ve mentioned before. Those tropes are often mocked in parodies by movies like The naked gun (detective movie) and Monty Python and The Holy Grail (medieval epic).
For example, this scene of The naked gun makes fun of the old “Cop smoothly pays off criminal to get information”:
Writers know very well that the audience already knows those genre tropes and that they are tired of seeing them over and over again. And yet, they write those tropes in the screenplay… over and over again. Why is that?
The answer to that question is genre conventions. They are not the same as genre tropes:
Tropes are old cliches that are predictable and unnecessary to the movie.
Conventions are familiar elements, character archetypes, and locations that help the audience identify the genre of the movie.
To give you an example: the harsh inhospitable land typical of the western genre is used in both the old classic western movie (For a fistful of dollars) and neo westerns (No country for old men). This is a genre convention because it is a characteristic element of the genre, it helps the audience identify the kind of movie that they are watching.
Sometimes they are even necessary for the plot itself. Have you ever watched a romantic movie where the two leads never meet or speak to each other? If you have that is definitely not a romantic movie (and those two are definitely not a couple).
The two might meet at the very end of the movie, like in Sleepless in Seattle. They might meet more than once, as in When Harry met Sally. They might meet and then get separated, like in The Notebook. But one this is sure THEY HAVE TO MEET.
However, how they meet might fall into one of the many rabbit holes of genre tropes: the meet cute. It’s a situation where the two leads meet each other for the first time in a way that is either awkward or embarrassing for them or the people around them (99% of the time it involves someone dropping something, usually books…).
There are also situations where the genre tropes are not defined by the genre itself but by the director’s style or by the studio that produced the movie.
For example, if you’re watching a Michael Bay movie there is a 110% chance that you’ll see multiple explosions.
Or if you’re watching a Marvel movie you can be sure that someone at some point will crack a joke during a tense or emotional scene.
A few days ago I decided to rewatch one of my favorite movies of 2017 Baby Driver by Edgar Wright, and I noticed for the first time how cleverly the movie plays around with the many genre tropes that come with action movies that involve crime. Instead of trying to avoid any kind of cliche all together, the movie takes the old genre tropes and give them a different spin.
Take a look at the very first scene in the movie:
Many directors, who probably believe that the “good part” of an action movie is the action and the “bad part” is everything else, would have followed the 3 criminals inside the bank. They would have blasted the latest rock or hip-hop hit song while the robbers were emptying the safe.
Edgar Wright decides to take a different approach: he puts us inside the car with our protagonist, away from the action. Instead of showing a tense, risky, adrenaline-filled bank robbery, the script places us in the car with this young man and his goofy dance.
Baby himself seems to be a variation of the typical bulky, sweaty, grunting action hero. He is a skinny kid, not a muscular man. In the very next scene, we see that he is not nearly as confident or as tough as his colleagues.
Griff (who looks like the stereotypical action hero) bullies him around. Buddy and Darling (the stereotypical Bonnie and Clyde) look down on him. And Doc (the stereotypical “boss” who seems to have just jumped out of a Grand theft auto game) acts like a defensive parent.
Compare Baby to Vin Diesel or The Rock’s characters in the Fast and Furious franchise. Those movies involve cars, crime and driving skills just like Baby driver but their protagonists could not be any more different.
Regardless of the way he looks Baby’s personality is also completely different. Most action heroes on the 80s, 90s and early 2000s could fall into the trap of encouraging “toxic masculinity”: they don’t ask for help and they refuse it when it is offered, their confidence is sometimes excessive and ends up being arrogance, they are stubborn and their bodies are seemingly indestructible.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that those classic action heroes are “bad characters”, I grew up watching Rambo, the A team and Nolan’s Batman trilogy and I love them just like everybody else. But after 20 or more years of grunting bodybuilders as protagonists, it’s refreshing to see less aggressive and more sensitive characters like Newt Scamander, Baby, and Tom Holland’s spider man.
Action movies are usually mixed with other genres: Transformers is action and science fiction, The fast and the furious is both action and crime. Deadpool, Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy are all action and superhero movies.
Baby driver mixes action and crime, two genres that compliment each other but add a risky ingredient to the mix: musical.
When someone says the word “musical” people usually imagine tip tap dancers dressed in black and white, a Broadway diva singing a high note at the top of her lungs or an Opera phantom crying over the fact that no one will ever love him. Baby driver obviously doesn’t have any of those things, but the use of music and its important role, bring the movie closer to the musical genre.
Take the “Tequila” scene for example:
If you watch it on mute, you’ll see just a shootout. No impressive acrobatic stunts, no sniper-like tricks, no slow motion to make the scene more epic, just a group of people shooting at another group of people.
But Wright decided that the music had to be more than just background noise, so the scene is synced with the beats of the song for comedic effect. The same happens in almost every other scene in the movie, the actions that the characters take seem to follow the rhythm of the song that is playing in the background.
This is not just a stylish choice. We live the events of the movie from Baby’s perspective, we see what he sees and we hear what he hears. That’s why when a heist is taking place we stay with him in the car instead of following the other criminals.
The music brings us inside Baby’s head. It’s not just syncing the action with the rhythm of the song, it’s syncing our perspective with Baby’s, bringing us into his head. Another example of this is the fact that we only hear the music when Baby is listening to it. If he takes off his headphones the music stops.
As I said before cliches are used because they were successful the first time and because sometimes the genre of the movie forces you to use at least a few cliches. But thanks to its director’s creativity, Baby driver doesn’t “feel” like an action movie plagued by genre tropes.