Action film is a film genre where one or more heroes is thrust into a series of challenges that require physical feats, extended fights and frenetic chases. Story and character development are generally secondary to explosions, fist fights, gun play and car chases. Action films have had wide commercial appeal and enjoy box office success.
The action film revolves around a hero and the obstacles their character(s) must overcome. While action has long been an element of films, the “Action film” as a genre of its own began to develop in the 1970s. The genre is closely linked with the thriller and adventure film genres, and it may sometimes have elements of spy fiction and espionage.
Even though action films have traditionally been a reliable source of revenue for movie studios, relatively few action films garner critical praise. While action films have traditionally been aimed at male audiences from the early teens to the mid-30s, many action filmmakers from the 1990s and 2000s added female heroines in response to the expanding social conceptions of gender, glorifying the strong female archetype.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Hollywood was producing more action films than ever before, but in an attempt to keep up with jaded audience expectations, increasingly bigger special effects and ultraviolence were emphasized over character, plot, or even coherence. Though the action genre’s popularity continued unabated, its lean towards the harder/better/faster/stronger/more-is-better ideology has left many fans of action films pondering its future.
During the 1920s and 1930s, action-based films were often “swashbuckling” adventure films in which Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn wielded swords in period pieces such as “The Adventures of Robin Hood and westerns.
The 1940s and 1950s saw “action” in the form of war and cowboy movies. Alfred Hitchcock almost single-handedly ushered in the spy-adventure genre, also firmly establishing the use of action-oriented “set pieces” like the famous crop-duster scene and the Mount Rushmore finale in “North by Northwest”.
That film, along with a war-adventure called “The Guns of Navaronne” directly inspired producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to invest in their own spy-adventure based on the novels of Ian Fleming.
The long-running success of the James Bond series (which easily dominated the 1960s) essentially introduced all the staples of the modern-day action film. The “Bond movies” were characterized by larger-than-life characters, such as the resourceful hero: a veritable “one-man army” who was able to dispatch villainous masterminds (and their disposable “henchmen”) in ever-more creative ways, often followed by a ready one-liner. The Bond films also utilized quick cutting, car chases, fist fights, a variety of weapons and “gadgets”, and ever more elaborate action sequences.
In the 1970s, Bond saw competition as gritty detective stories and urban crime dramas began to fuse themselves with the new “action” style, leading to a string of maverick police officer films, such as those defined by Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971) and Dirty Harry (1971); all of which featured an intense car chase inspired by the popular stuntwork of the Bond films. Dirty Harry essentially lifted its star Clint Eastwood out of his cowboy typecasting, and became the urban-action film’s first true archetype.
Proving that the modern world offered just as much glamour, excitement, and potential for violence as the old west, Dirty Harry signaled the end of the prolific “cowboys and Indians” era of film westerns.
The cross-pollenization of genres (such as spy-films and war movies, or westerns and detective dramas) would become the norm in the 1980s. It should also be noted however, that the 1970s saw the introduction of martial-arts film to western audiences.
Also inspired by the success of James Bond; specifically the Asian-influenced “You Only Live Twice”, martial-arts-themed action movies exploded onto the western cinema screens with Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” (1973), and his imported films like “Way of (or Return of) the Dragon” (1972). The latter also introduced action fans to then-rising star Chuck Norris as well.
Though Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour is often credited as popularizing the martial arts action film in the United States, the truth is Chuck Norris had been blending kung fu cops and robbers since “Good Guys wear Black” (1977) and “A Force of One” (1979).
The 1980s would see the action film take over Hollywood to become a dominant form of summer blockbuster; literally “the action era” popularized by actors such as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas even paid their homage to the Bond-inspired style with the mega-hit Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
In 1982, veteran actor Nick Nolte and rising comedian Eddie Murphy smashed box office records with the action-comedy 48 Hrs, which is credited as the first “buddy-cop” movie. Films like 48 Hrs, and later Lethal Weapon (1987), proved that low-budget action plots (like a maverick cop with martial arts skills fighting drug traffickers), given the “Hollywood A-list” treatment (bigger budgets, more talented casts, etc.) could prove to be financial windfalls for the studios.
The 1988 film Die Hard was particularly influential on the development of the action genre. In the film, Bruce Willis plays a New York police detective who inadvertently becomes embroiled in a terrorist take-over of a Los Angeles office building high-rise. The film set a pattern for a host of imitators, like Under Siege (1992) or Air Force One (1997), which used the same formula in a different setting.
By the end of the 1980s, the influence of the successful action film could be felt in almost every genre- hybrids were becoming the norm; war-action hybrids (like “First Blood” and “Missing in Action”), science fiction action (like “Terminator”, and “Robo-cop”), horror-action (like “Aliens” and “Predator”), and even the occasional musical-action-comedy hybrid (like “The Blues Brothers”).
The 1990s was an era of sequels and hybrid action. Like the western genre, the spy-movies and urban-action films were starting to parody themselves, and with the growing revolution in CGI (computer generated imagery), the “real-world” settings began to give way to increasingly fantastic environments.
This new era of action films often had budgets unlike any in the history of motion pictures. The success of the many Dirty Harry and James Bond sequels had proven that a single successful action film could lead to a continuing action franchise. Thus the 1980s and 1990s saw a rise in both budgets and the number of sequels a film could generally have.
Where in earlier decades, sequels were frowned upon by most filmmakers and filmgoers alike, the 1980s saw a serious effort on the part of studios and their stars to not only attempt to capture the magic one more time, but to continually top what had come before. This basic drive led to an increasing desire on the part of many filmmakers to create new technologies that would allow them to beat the competition by taking audiences to new heights of roller-coaster-like fantasy.
The success of Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) led to a string of financially successful sequels, and within a single decade, had proven the viability of a new sub-genre of action film; the comic-book movie. Yet another hybrid, comic-book-inspired films like “Batman” and “Blade” (1998), would pave the way for the new millennium, their many sequels competing for box office with big-budget action fantasies like the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, and “Spider-man”, all of which (regardless of their sub-classification) qualify as “action movies”.
 Hong Kong
At present, action films tend to be expensive, requiring big budget special effects and stunt work. As such, they are regarded as mostly a large-studio genre in Hollywood, although there have been a significant number of action films from Hong Kong which are primarily modern variations of the martial arts film.
Because of these roots, Hong Kong action films typically center on acrobatics by the protagonist while American action films typically feature big explosions, car chases, stunt work and (more recently) CGI special effects technology. Most recently, thanks to the better availability of CGI technology at a lower price, action cinema outside of Hollywood has been able to provide viewers with a growing degree of spectacle which was once only available from American studio releases (“Blood the Last Vampire” (Japan), “The Host” (South Korea), “Red Cliff” (China), etc.).
Current trends in action film include a development toward more elaborate fight scenes in Western film. This trend is influenced by the massive success of Hong Kong action cinema, both in Asia and in the west. Asian martial arts elements, such as kung-fu can now be found in numerous non-Asian action films.
Many credit Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour to have been the first film to really get North Americans to enjoy the martial arts/comedy which has now appeared in numerous films. Now, a distinction can be made between films that lean toward physical, agile fighting, such as Blade and The Matrix, and those that lean toward other common action film conventions, like explosions and plenty of gunfire, such as Mission: Impossible III, although most action movies employ elements of both.
Another trend of growing appearance is the tendency of fight scenes to be filmed with actors being filmed one at a time in front of a blue or green screen, so that special effects experts can then combine the different images. This means that the two actors do not have to be swinging swords, knives or fists at each other, as was done through much of the history of action and adventure movies.
This, coupled with computer graphics used to enhance and edit the eventual film makes stunts less expensive, less time consuming and less dangerous, and permits swifter movement by actors and a new range of options for the director.
A sub-genre involving action and humor. The sub-genre became a popular trend in the 1980s when actors who were known for their background in comedy such as Eddie Murphy, began to take roles in action films. The action scenes within the genre are generally lighthearted and rarely involve death or serious injury.
Comedy films such as Dumb & Dumber and Big Momma’s House that contain action-laden sub-plots are not considered part of the genre as the action scenes have a more integral role in action comedies. Examples of action comedies include The Blues Brothers (1980), 48 Hrs. (1982), Midnight Run (1988), Bad Boys (1995), Rush Hour (1998), Charlie’s Angels (2000)
Die Hard scenario
The story takes place in limited location – a single building, plane, or vessel – which is seized or under threat by enemy agents, but are opposed by a single hero who fights an extended battle within the location using stealth and cunning to attempt to defeat them. This sub-genre began with the film Die Hard but has become popular in Hollywood movie making both because of its crowd appeal and the relative simplicity of building sets for such a constrained piece. These films are sometimes described as “Die Hard on a…”.
Among the many films that have copied this formula are Under Siege (terrorists take over a ship), Speed (Die Hard on a bus), Under Siege 2: Dark Territory and Derailed (hostages are trapped on a train), Sudden Death (terrorists take over an Ice Hockey stadium), Passenger 57, Executive Decision and Air Force One (hostages are trapped on a plane), Con Air (criminals take over a transport plane), and Half Past Dead and The Rock (criminals or terrorists take over a prison). Paul Blart: Mall Cop is a recent spoof of these movies.
Girls with guns
This sub-genre of films and animation, especially Hong Kong action films and anime, uses a female protagonist in a strong lead role, set in a modern context. The genre involves gun-play, stunts and martial arts action. Some of the best known female fighters are Angela Mao Ying, Cheng Pei-pei, Moon Lee, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and Cynthia Rothrock. European and US films with female protagonists include Nikita (1990); Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001); and Kill Bill (2003/2004).
This Hong Kong sub-genre revolves around dramatic themes such as brotherhood, honor, redemption and the effects of violence on the individual and society at large. It often features stylized shootouts with slow-motion scenes of barrages of gun fire with large-caliber automatic pistols.
Actors from the 1950s and 1960s such as John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Lee Marvin passed the torch in the 1970s to actors such as martial artist Bruce Lee, Charles Bronson Chuck Norris, and Clint Eastwood. In the 1980s, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover had a popular string of “buddy cop” films in the Lethal Weapon franchise.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, actors such as the burly ex-bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone wielded automatic weapons in a number of action films. Stern-faced martial artist Steven Seagal made a number of films. Bruce Willis played a Western-inspired hero in the popular Die Hard series of action films.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Asian actors Chow Yun-fat, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan appeared in a number of different types of action films, and US actor Wesley Snipes had many roles. As well, several female actors had major roles in action films, such as Michelle Yeoh, Lucy Liu and ex-model Milla Jovovich. While Keanu Reeves and Harrison Ford both had major roles in action science fiction films (The Matrix and Blade Runner, respectively), Ford branched out into a number of other action genres, such as action-adventure films.
European action actors such as Belgian-born Jean-Claude Van Damme and French-born Jean Reno and English-born Jason Statham appeared in a number of 1990s and 2000s-era action films (Timecop, The Professional, and The Transporter respectively). US actor Matt Damon, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his sensitive portrayal of a math genius working as a janitor in Good Will Hunting, metamorphosed into an action hero with the car chase and gunfire-filled Jason Bourne franchise.
Notable action film directors from the 1960s and 1970s include Sam Peckinpah, whose 1969 Western The Wild Bunch was controversial for its bloody violence and nihilist tone. Some of the influential and popular directors from the 1980s to 2000s include James Cameron (the first two Terminator films, Aliens, True Lies, Avatar); John Woo (Hong Kong action films such as Hard Boiled and US-made English-language films such as Hard Target and Mission Impossible II); Ridley Scott (Aliens, Black Hawk Down); The Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix trilogy) and Michael Bay (Bad Boys 2, Transformers).