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Why I Like The Martial Arts Movie Formula

April 21, 2014

I believe one of the most successful and entertaining movie formulas is the martial arts movie. They are probably based on Westerns, but they actually improve on the Western formula. A Western is usually a movie about a “bad guy” and the good guy has to defeat the bad guy — usually by shooting the bad guy. Martial Arts movies are pretty much the same, but they focus on hand to hand combat or short-range weapons (like swords) — and martial arts movies usually involve something that enables the good guy to win (who probably couldn’t win otherwise), such as education (training), and we know we will get a good fight at the end against the bad guy (and truly impressive martial arts skills can be displayed).

It is pretty normal to expect two things from martial arts movies that many other movies lack precisely because of the simple movie formula:

  1. Pretty good character development (based on merit-based personal improvement).
  2. A pretty good ending based on a sense of accomplishment (based on merit-based conflict resolution).

Many movies these days lack character development, personal improvement, merit-based accomplishments, and satisfying conclusions. Unlike a martial arts movie, a Western is much less likely to require character development, personal improvement, or a satisfying ending. The final fight can end after a single gun shot. Of course, some Westerns are quite good because the writers make sure to include character development, personal improvement, and a satisfying resolution based on merit. The point is that people who write Westerns are not necessarily going to write the movie the right way, and they are much more likely to fail to write them as well precisely because the Western formula is not spelled out as well as the martial arts movie.

Consider one unsatisfying ending to a movie — in War of the Worlds the aliens die off from disease. The end. We win. There was no merit. There was no awesome final battle. No character development or personal improvement was really involved. There are several other examples that are unsatisfying for similar reasons.

The original Star Wars trilogy was also basically a martial arts movie in a sci-fi space setting. Luke Skywalker got training (in multiple movies), went through a great deal of personal improvement (as did Han Solo), and he had a couple pretty good close combat battles. Of course, there was an interesting twist in more than one of the Star Wars movies where we find out that fighting is not a good answer. It still worked and was done quite well.

One reason that I feel like the Star Wars prequels weren’t as good as the originals is because it seemed to stray too far from the martial arts formula. For example, there was much less focus on training and personal improvement.

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