Principle of Evil Marksmanship

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The Principle of Evil Marksmanship states that, during a fight scene, antagonists in a work of fiction will be as incompetent as the plot demands, despite prior characterization or reputation. For example, marksmen in action films are often very bad shots and almost never harm the main characters. They are generally capable of hitting a target only if the target is either of no value to the plot or if their death will advance the plot. The term first appeared in film critic Roger Ebert's 1980 book "Little Movie Glossary",[1] and had been submitted by Jim Murphy of New York. It was defined as:

"The bad guys are always lousy shots in the movies. Three villains with Uzis will go after the hero, spraying thousands of rounds which miss him, after which he picks them off with a handgun."[1]

— Roger Ebert's 1980 book "Little Movie Glossary"[1]

The theme is commonly seen in cowboy films, action films, martial arts films, and comics, and is often a source of mockery by critics, satirists, and fans. Ebert often used the term in his reviews.[2]

The popular name "Stormtrooper effect" derives from the Star Wars series in which the shots fired by the evil empire's supposedly crack troops nearly always miss the rebel characters whom they are attacking. Conversely, although the stormtroopers wear a form of full body armour, they are easily killed or disabled by rebel fire.

One-at-a-time Attack Rule[edit]

Ebert also refers to the One-at-a-time Attack Rule, observing that "In any situation where the hero is alone, surrounded by dozens of bad guys, they will always obligingly attack one at a time."[1] Terry Pratchett gave a version of this rule in the introduction to his 1989 novel Guards! Guards!, stating that the role of guards in heroic fantasy is to "attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered".[3] This can be seen in many martial arts movies. During a fight against a crowd of enemies, the hero may engage against a single opponent. Upon knocking that man out, another will attack. These surplus enemies, or "mooks", will circle the fighting pair while striking fearsome poses, yet be unwilling to help the current aggressor attack the hero. The real-world reason for this is that if the hero is simultaneously swarmed on all sides by enemies, it becomes difficult for the film director to frame the fight scene while still having an unobstructed shot of the action.

The 1995 live-action adaptation of Fist of the North Star took this to extremes in a scene where Kenshiro defeats over thirty men in the span of a few minutes with the vast majority of them attacking one at a time and being knocked unconscious with a few strikes. Similarly, Kill Bill Volume 1 features a scene where the Bride (Uma Thurman) kills or seriously injures dozens of "Crazy 88" swordsmen, most of whom attack one at a time.

This principle was parodied in a 1993 Saturday Night Live skit, "Ninja Pep Talk".[4] Among other tips, the leader of a group of ninjas reminds the ninjas not to be chivalrous and to attack "all at once", not "one at a time," using chalkboard diagrams to drive the point home. In Austin Powers: Goldmember, Austin's father Nigel Powers is being held captive by Dr. Evil. Nigel quickly knocks out the guards, and when more begin to surround him he orders them to stop and says, "Oh, come now, is this your first day on the job? All right, look... you all attack me, one at a time, and I knock you out with a single punch." They immediately do so, and he knocks them each out; the last man not even given a chance, but rather was merely told to lie down.

Inverse Ninja Law[edit]

Though depicted as nearly-invincible warriors (especially when they are the heroes of the story), ninja are often conversely depicted as disposable cannon fodder to be dispatched by the hero character, especially one who is a ninja himself. Thus, modern entertainment has shown a ninja as either expendable, attacking in large numbers, or as nearly invulnerable solitary warriors (who are often unmasked in contrast). In effect of this common approach, a single/small group of protagonist ninja often easily defeat waves of incompetent enemy ninja on multiple occasions only to have far more trouble when facing a more competent lone ninja. This seemingly inconsistent portrayal is jokingly explained using the sarcastic "Inverse Ninja Law", (also called "Law of the Conservation of Ninjutsu" or the "Law of Diminishing Ninjas" or even the "Law of the Conservation of Whoopass") which states that ninja are weaker when they are in larger groups.[5][6]


  1. ^ a b c d Ebert, Roger. Ebert's Bigger Little Movie Glossary. ISBN 0-8362-8289-2. 
  2. ^ Roger Ebert's review of Rapid Fire
  3. ^ Pratchett, Terry (1989), Guards! Guards!, Corgi .
  4. ^ "Ninjas", SNL transcripts, JT .
  5. ^ Levy, Joel. Ninja: The Shadow Warrior Sterling (2008) p. 183-4.
  6. ^ Rehagan, Tony. "Revenge of The Nerds," Indianapolis Monthly, August 2006. p. 253.