When we think of the “meet-cute” we think of Harry meeting Sally on a bickering road trip from Chicago to New York, Annie Hall stumbling over her words talking to Alvie in the tennis clubhouse, or (an underrated one in my opinion) when professional bank robber Jack meets US Marshal Karen in the trunk of a car. (That one’s “Out of Sight”, by the way.) The meet-cute is one of the oldest conventions in Hollywood – it’s something that audiences expect and even crave – which is why its crucial to deliver a strong one that hits all the right buttons. The rom-com lives or dies by the meet-cute. But you know what else does? The buddy-cop action comedy. Brushing off the meet-cute as just a chick-flick gimmick is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.
Think about when Danny Glover’s Murtaugh meets Mel Gibson’s Riggs in “Lethal Weapon”. Murtaugh mistakes Riggs as a person off the street, pulling a gun in the police station and runs to disarm him—only to be flipped onto his back by Riggs himself. Murtaugh, on the floor and winded, immediately finds out that this man is his new partner. Sure, it’s not a romantic comedy, but isn’t that meeting just as important as the meetings in the aforementioned romantic movies? And isn’t that meeting cute in a clever way? The meeting, and the relationship that follows, works because it hits all the right notes. The short scene serves as a lesson for writers trying to capture the same spark.
Make A Bad First Impression
Conflict is what fuels the momentum of a script and a bad first impression between the script’s two main characters only helps create more of it. The lazy version of “Lethal Weapon” would have had Riggs being brought into Murtaugh’s office for an introduction, they’d shake hands, we’d get a sense that they’re opposites, and that would be the end of it. Sounds incredibly boring. But thanks to miscommunication, our characters start off on the wrong foot and, because of that, we’re hooked in—Murtaugh assumes his scruffy new partner to be a threat and now they’re forced to work together, all for our entertainment.
Look at another Shane Black script, “The Nice Guys.” Miscommunication leads to a bad first impression between Ryan Gosling’s P.I. and Russell Crowe’s Fixer. A bad first impression that includes Crowe’s character beating the crap out of Gosling’s—going as far as breaking his arm. In “The Heat”, Melissa McCarthy having her parking spot stolen by Sandra Bullock creates hostility between the two before they even meet face-to-face. It’s all about having the script use conflict as a way to bring your characters together. Instead of just having them meet and shake hands, so to speak, have the characters collide full force.
Give Us A Twist
It would be one thing if Murtaugh was thrown on to his back by an officer he mistakenly thought to be a criminal. That would admittedly be humorous but it wouldn’t be anything special; the script could live without it. But it’s the twist that he’s just been thrown onto his back by his new partner that makes it work. This may seem obvious on the surface, but believe it or not, it’s easy to forget—many a script neglect to take this extra step. The twist is necessary in the meet-cute because it generally gives one character the upper-hand, which, of course, helps solidify the bad first impression and conflict.
“Hot Fuzz” employs a similar twist. Simon Pegg’s stuffed-shirt Sergeant arrests a public drunkard. The next morning, he sees that the cell he threw the drunkard in is empty and the drunkard is now roaming around the station, wearing a police uniform. Turns out the man’s a cop—oh, and he’ll be working with Pegg’s character. A twist that embarasses and throws one character off his game.
The Odder The Couple, The Better
Again, this may seem obvious but it’s worth pointing out. And, again, it’s all about conflict. It’s the old adage that opposites attract. It’s what makes the best romantic comedies work so well and it’s also what fuels these buddy-action movies. How much material can one get out of having two main characters that are two peas in a pod and like each other? The camaraderie would get old pretty fast—but more importantly, it wouldn’t feel earned. If the characters have to grow to like each other, differences and all, the moment they realize they’ve gained a friend in the end becomes all the more cathartic. But it’s easy to mess up this seemingly simple technique. It’s crucial that the characters’ opposite qualities not feel arbitrary or forced. Simplicity is key here.
In “Lethal Weapon”, the opposite qualities are layered: it’s young versus old, a little bit crazy versus by-the-book, and even white versus black. These qualities are primal; they’re something anyone can relate to—which is why you see them pop up in some shape or form in other films of this nature. In “Hot Fuzz” and “The Heat”, by-the-book goes up against the off-kilter. In “Rush Hour” and “48 Hrs.”, it’s difference of race. And all of these scripts have their characters learning from the other, thanks to the dissimilarities.
Keep Your Characters On Equal Footing
The importance of a script’s first ten pages rings ever so true here. Those set-up pages not only introduce us to the world of the story but the key aspects of our characters, in equal ways. It’s critical to get a sense of both characters. If the script spends too much time just getting to know one character, assuming we’ll get to know the other after they meet, the impact is dulled. When we know what each character is like before they finally meet, it’s like a wink at the audience when they finally collide—we know we’re in for some fireworks.
Being economical here is key. Ten pages go by fast, so placing your characters in situations that best reflect who they are through action and visuals, rather than simply having the script spell it out for us. In “Lethal Weapon”, we first meet Riggs doing his thing—acting borderline crazy while taking down some petty lowlifes, all for the well-being of a dog they’re torturing. We get that he’s nuts and violent but all in the name of being compassionate. We then cut to Murtaugh’s house. Notice that I said house. When we meet Riggs, he’s wandering underneath a pier at night almost like a homeless man. Contrast that with Murtaugh, who is in a comfortable home, clearly set-up as a family man. But an irritable one. The script cleverly introduces him on his birthday, the first sign that aging is something Murtaugh will be preoccupied with—enough that it defines his character.
Treat It Like A Love Story
Don’t be afraid of love. No, a buddy-cop movie isn’t a romantic comedy but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a love story. The buddy-cop relationship, when it works, follows the same trajectory as a typical rom-com arc: the partners meet, the partners bicker, the partners begin to bond and like each other, the partners have a falling out, and then the partners eventually kiss and make-up. In these action scenarios, kiss and make-up usually translates to one character saving the other’s skin.
But in order for this love story arc to work, it needs to begin with spark. The meet-cute needs to leave an impression. If there are no fireworks between our two lovers in a rom-com, we’re not invested in their relationship. Same goes for our buddies in a buddy-action movie. The meet-cute is the script’s opportunity to create the fireworks that’ll make the audience believe that these two characters were meant for each other.
Why is the meet-cute one of the oldest conventions in Hollywood? Because it’s about conflict. A meet-cute with the right amount of spark and chemistry drives a story forward. It’s crucial, no matter what genre of film being written, that the meet-cute isn’t taken for granted. So to all the aspiring action movie writers out there: embrace it. Don’t be afraid to get a little… cute.