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Why Every Good Action Film Is Actually a Love Story

Paula Goldberg

From platonic love to romance, Raiders to Terminators, learn why our favorite action-based films are really stories about love.

All your favorite action films are really about love and romance. In other words, you may have come for the plot, but you stay for the theme and characters. It’s the reason, as a film fan, you’d be apocalyptic if someone told you they’d never heard of the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, but wouldn’t break a sweat if King Solomon’s Mines missed their radar.

Both films came out in the early 80’s. Both films were action adventure stories set in exotic parts of the world during hostile times and involved rival Germans. But Raiders solidified Harrison Ford’s major stardom, spawned three sequels, and even Lego sets. So why did it sustain when King Solomon’s Mines was regulated to parody status? Character development and theme.


Introducing Your Characters

Character Development
The eight-page dialogue scene between Erica and Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Image via Sony Pictures.

If I told you Aaron Sorkin had the guts to write an eight-page dialogue scene to open The Social Network, that wouldn’t be unexpected. Guess what? So did Lawrence Kasdan in Raiders. It’s Marian’s introduction. And, just as Sorkin sets up that scene with Erica in the beginning of Social Network so that you really, really get what drives Zuckerberg, fuels his wants, and exposes his flaws—Kasdan does with Indiana Jones. Marian exposes his flaws, sets up his goals, and teases his desire. Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark dares to have an eight-page dialogue scene that not only manages to give us backstory in a goal-driven way, but also starts with a punch to the jaw (literally)! What a way to show us these two people have a complicated history and a passionate relationship.

You may think of the boulder careening towards him, the Nazis losing their flesh, or the hat and whip, but it’s the personal connection, responsibility, and love that Indy has for Marian that makes us care. It’s shown in the screenplay time and again in small and big ways. Set up: Indy hates snakes? Put Marian in a pit of snakes and discover he cares more for her than his fear of snakes. Set up: Indy as a patriot and renowned archaeologist? Have him willing to sacrifice possession of the ark to gain her safety. The man that seduced the young daughter of his mentor and abandoned her in search of scientific discoveries evolves into being concerned with matters of the heart, rather than material or physical things, and finds a form of spirituality.


Subverting Expectations

Subverting Expectations
Reese traverses time to meet and protect Sarah Connor in The Terminator. Image via Orion Pictures.

Ready for your next male melodrama? What could be more romantic than crossing time to be reunited with the woman you’ve never met and only viewed in a picture? Nope, not Somewhere in Time. I’m talking The Terminator!

Arnold might have the line “I’ll be back,” but audiences haven’t come back through six films and a TV series because of a killer machine. It’s all because Sarah Connor is a character we can relate to—someone ordinary who’s thrust into an impossible situation of awe and responsibility and rises to the occasion. We love her, just as Reese loves her and travels back in time to protect her. How many of us would wish that someone who knows our future self could come back in time to warn our present self of impending hardship with a reminder, “There is no fate, but what we make for ourselves. You must be stronger than you can imagine you can be.”

Thanks, James Cameron, for literally giving us the theme in the message John makes Reese memorize to say to Sarah. And, don’t tell me that note couldn’t be the voiceover and snap of Angela Bassett walking away from the bonfire in Waiting to Exhale!


The John McClane Way

The John McClane Hero
John McClane’s initial goal to reunite with his wife turns into a life-threatening situation in Die Hard. Image via 20th Century Fox.

It’s one thing to fight Nazis and time travel for love, but nothing says Hallmark Christmas like getting on a plane on Christmas Eve with a giant teddy bear to save your marriage like Die Hard. I get it! There’s Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman as one of the most delicious bad guys ever), there’s machine guns and detonators and helicopters exploding, and bodies thrown from skyscrapers and FBI agents and shards of glass!

But, let’s break down when John McClane is finally able to come up with a winning plan to defeat Gruber and his merry band of thieves. After his low point. After he wasn’t able to stop the killing of the gracious Mr. Takagi or the smarmy, Ellis. After he couldn’t convince the FBI to help him. After Gruber showed how smart he was by shooting the glass beneath McClane’s feet. His low point. He believes he’s lost. He’s plucking shards of glass out of his bloodied feet and on the phone with his only ally, an L.A. beat cop with a traumatizing backstory. And, McClane says this, “I’ve told my wife a million times I loved her, but I’ve never said I’m sorry.”

Only when he can make that admission, have that emotional breakthrough, does he have the mental clarity to realize something about Gruber’s true intentions and save the party people from being blown up on the roof. Every action he takes is in support of his goal—to reunite with his wife.


Meaningful Bonds

The Platonic Connection
The platonic love between Dom and Brian turned into a plethora of Fast and Furious films. Image via Universal Pictures.

Here’s the takeaway. Great storytelling is about complex characters who are flawed, yet redeemable. They want something meaningful. And, although faced with obstacles and complications, overcome the conflict by transforming into a more capable version of themselves. They may win, they may lose, but if you give the audience a meaningful reason for your main character’s motivation (and really what’s more meaningful than love), you’ll never bore them. You’ll have a truthful, satisfying ending.

Oh, and it also applies to platonic love. Here’s looking at you Dom and Brian. I think there are fourteen Fast and Furious films now proving the everlasting power of love.


Cover image via Paramount Pictures.

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