Watch a mediocre movie like any of “The Expendables” trilogy and you’ll see lots of explosions and gunfire with nobody getting cut. “The Expendables” is meant to be a fun action movie, but what sinks all the action is the lack of emotion behind the action. If we don’t know what’s at stake behind the action with the major characters, all the massive explosions and gunfire means nothing.
Now look at “Warrior,” a mixed martial arts movie that shows lots of fighting but with emotion behind it. The main emotion is the climactic battle scene where two estranged brothers have to fight each other. That’s plenty of emotional fireworks right there because now the action of them fighting in the ring highlights their action fighting amongst themselves as brothers who are dealing with a checkered past and an alcoholic father who both of them hated growing up. Just watching two brothers hit each other is far less exciting than knowing that one brother wants to kill the other one for abandoning them when they were younger. So all the action now is more than just physical but emotional.
To get to the final battle scene, each brother has to deal with emotional obstacles of their own. One brother has to fight an experienced mixed martial artist who he humiliated in a gym. Now this mixed martial artist wants revenge and has promised to knock this first brother out in the first round. Because this mixed martial artist is seeking revenge against the first brother, there’s far more emotion in their battle than just seeing punches and kicks.
While the first brother has to deal with someone who wants revenge against him, the second brother has to deal with a Russian fighter who has never lost a battle and who dispatches his opponents with ease. Right away this second brother seems outmatched so the tension comes from wondering how he can possibly defeat the Russian fighter. After getting beat up in two rounds, the second brother gradually manages to fight his way back and finally force the Russian fighter to tap out, which no other fighter has ever done before.
Those two emotional moments make the action far more important. Mindless action doesn’t get more interesting by throwing in more mindless action. Just watch “The Expendables” to see the failure of that strategy. Action gets more interesting when we know the emotional background behind that action. That means getting to know characters, seeing them suffer, and watching them struggle while knowing why they’re fighting in the first place.
Action only makes sense when we understand the characters doing all the action. Watch a bad James Bond movie to see lots of pointless action such as “A View to a Kill.” Watch a good James Bond movie to see action that makes sense, such as “Skyfall.” When you understand the meaning behind the action, the action becomes far more interesting and that’s the whole point of action.