Perfect Moments: ‘Combat Rangers!’

Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.

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The Video:

Fedex’s ‘Combat Rangers’ commercial.

 

Why it’s Perfect

There are some moments in media that beg for deeper explanation, moments that causes us to pause and think deeply on why they move us, prompting lengthy soul-searching in an attempt to better understand ourselves and our desires, our frailties and vices. From such deep prompting, growth and understanding can result, and possibly even enlightenment as we come to understand our place in the cosmos, and what we can do to contribute to it… Or we can just laugh at the sight of muscular toy soldiers going into war wearing tutus and wedding dresses while wielding handbags and umbrellas.

I remember watching this commercial as a kid back in the mid 90’s; back then, I had little comprehension of shipping, manufacturing, and the unseen side of the retail industry, but I didn’t care, as I thought the Combat Rangers were hilarious. Over twenty years later, they still are, and this remains one of my favorite commercials for its use of humor to illustrate what could happen if a mistake is made in shipping goods from overseas. Most of that humor comes from the sheer absurdity of warriors charging into battle wearing attire and weapons so inappropriate it’s absurd, making it an excellent example of ‘fish out of water’ comedy that I love so much: Someone or something taken into a situation that they have no experience or business being in, and doing their best to make it work. In this instance, men dressed in women’s clothing, yet still charging into battle.

To take this idea to it’s logical extreme, imagine how ridiculous, yet hilarious it would be for any modern war movie to have it’s soldiers wearing wedding dresses into combat. ‘Hunter Killer’ may have gotten triple its box office revenue if Gerard Butler and the Navy SEALS were wearing pink ballerina outfits as they battle to save the Russian president. It would be a comedy goldmine.

The very best commercials stay with you years after you’ve seen them, and long after their products have left the market. ‘Combat Rangers’ easily earns its place among those hallowed ads… and I have to confess, that squishy mud sound effect six seconds in never fails to make me laugh.

What we can learn from ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’

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Everyone has a favorite movie, a film you can watch over and over again without ever getting tired of, even after you’ve long memorized all your favorite quotes and scenes. For me, that movie is ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’. I remember watching it as a kid on my parent’s Betamax tapes, fascinated (and a bit scared) at seeing those red, growling balls of doom rolling around killing everyone in sight. From the opening scene to the (unintentional) helicopter crash, to a giant, suited chicken fighting to save San Diego at the climax, it was a mesmerizing spectacle to my young mind. And although the film isn’t as gripping from an adult’s perspective, ‘Tomatoes’ still has a quirky, goofy charm that cannot be denied, and it’s still just as much fun to watch today as it was all those years ago in my parent’s bedroom.

Now, let’s see what storytellers can learn from this tale of vicious vegetables fruit.

Give your audience what they came to see

It’s a solid bet that when people watch ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,’ they’ll want to see tomatoes attacking people. We do get a steady stream of such attacks, but a good part of the film is taken up by subplots of the government trying to cover up the tomato threat, and Lois’ attempts to get a scoop for her paper. These scenes, while having some good jokes (Lois’ out-of-nowhere love for Mason at the ending and the subsequent song is brilliant), slow the film down when they aren’t focused on dealing with the tomatoes. Conversely, every scene of tomatoes attacking, chasing, or eating people are far more interesting (poor Greta’s last stand is a hoot).

When writing our stories, we should consider what our audience expects, and give that to them. If it’s a monster movie, then we need to be vigilant if what we’re writing focuses around that monster, even if they’re not on screen.

Consider have your team of experts be bottom-of-the-barrel numbskulls

Pop quiz: Which do you think is more interesting to watch?

A: A big problem threatens the city/country/planet/universe, and the government sends a team of the best of the best to solve it.

or

B: A big problem threatens the city/country/planet/universe, and the government sends a bunch of unqualified nobodies who have no idea what they’re doing.

Mason Dixon’s anti-tomato squad, which is in charge of saving the United States from the killer tomatoes, consists of:

*Mason Dixon, a washed-up government agent.

*Wilbur Finletter, a paratrooper who isn’t particularly bright.

*Sam Smith, the world’s worst disguise expert.

*Greg Colburn, an underwater expert who wears his scuba outfit everywhere he goes, even when he’s deployed to the desert.

*Gretta Attenbaum, a Russian Olympic swimmer who is also deployed to the desert.

By being not particularly well-suited to fighting tomatoes, a squad of z-grade agents instantly gets an underdog feel, which helps us root for them. We want to see these people work harder to overcome their underdog status, and it’s more satisfying to see them triumph instead of professionals who know exactly what they’re doing.

The best political jokes are not specific to any administration

Though ‘Tomatoes’ is set firmly in the 70’s, complete with wood panels, garishly bright clothes, avocado-colored walls, and harvest gold-colored bedsheets, it smartly doesn’t include any jokes towards the Jimmy Carter administration, instead choosing to go with mostly generic jokes such as:

*“We’ll never have a president as bad as this one!”

*An investigative committee that doesn’t investigate or accomplish anything.

*An administration that lies about trivial items (such as using public funds to buy fluffy flower print toilet paper).

Few jokes age as fast as political ones, so if you simply must write them, having them not refer to a particular person or administration is the way to go.

If your story has an out-there monster, have the military fight it

It’s natural to assume that when a Monster of Doom arrives in a film, the military will become involved, and inevitably fail. It’s all part of the fun watching the armed forces throwing everything they have at the beast and seeing man’s mightiest weapons amount to nothing. When they fight a scary monster such as Godzilla, the Cloverfield monster, or some other abomination, it’s chilling. But when those weapons fail to defeat a goofy monster? It’s comedy gold.

Thus, it’s no surprise that one of ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ most memorable sequences is a nighttime battle between the US military and the evil fruits. It’s hilarious seeing the military trying and failing to stop these giant beasts, and a good reminder that seeing determined soldiers fighting goofy monsters to the death is all-but guaranteed to get a laugh from your audience.

Considern summoning everyman heroes to save the day.

In the film’s climax, it’s not the military, law enforcement, or even the government that defeats the tomatoes, but a bunch of random citizens from San Diego (or, as the credits list them, every screwball in the county). Once again, the underdog principle comes into play, as watching ordinary, everyday people step up to save the day is more satisfying, especially when they win. Bonus points for making them a colorful bunch, such as Ms. Potato Famine, the Marx brothers, an Arab Sheikh, and a costumed chicken.

The takeaway:

When doing a monster movie (even a parody), try to have an interesting creature, keep the action focused on the monster (even when they’re not on screen) by limiting subplots that don’t involve them, and having unqualified, everyday people battling the creatures will have us more invested in their survival than well-trained experts.