Action film is a film genre in which the protagonist or protagonists are thrust into a series of events that typically include violence, extended fighting, physical feats and frantic chases.
Screenwriter and scholar Eric R. Williams identifies action films as one of eleven super-genres in his screenwriters’ taxonomy, claiming that all feature length narrative films can be classified by these super-genres. The other ten super-genres are Crime, Fantasy, Horror, Romance, Science Fiction, Slice of Life, Sports, Thriller, War and Western.
What Do They Involve?
Action films tend to feature a resourceful hero struggling against incredible odds, which include life-threatening situations, a villain or a pursuit which usually concludes in victory for the hero (though a small number of films in this genre have ended in the victory for the villain instead).
While action has long been a recurring component in films, the ‘action film’ genre began to develop in the 1970’s along with the increase of stunts and special effects.
Common action scenes in films are generally, but not limited to, explosions, car chases, fistfights and shootouts.
Impact of CGI
Advancements in compter-generated imagery (CGI) have made it cheaper and easier to create action sequences and other visual effects that required the efforts of professional stunt crews in the past.
However, reactions to action films containing significant amounts of CGI have been mixed, as films that use computer animations to create unrealistic, highly unbelievable events are often met with criticism.
Association with Other Genres
This genre is closely associated with the thriller and adventure genres and they may also contain elements of drama and spy fiction.
Early Action Films
Some historians consider The Great Train Robbery (1903) to be the first action film. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, action-based films were often ‘swashbuckling’ adventure films in which actors, such as Douglas Fairbanks, wielded swords in period pieces or Westerns. Indian action films in this era were known as stunt films.
The 1940’s and 1950’s saw ‘action’ in a new form through war and cowboy movies. Alfred Hitchcock ushered in the spy-adventure genre while also establishing the use of action-oriented ‘set pieces’ like the famous crop-duster scene and the Mount Rushmore finale in North by Northwest (1959). The film, along with a war-adventure called The Guns of Navarone (1961), inspired producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to invest in their own spy-adventure, based on the novels of Ian Fleming.
In Japanese cinema, the 1950’s saw the emergence of jidaigeki action films, particularly samurai cinema, popularized by filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. His 1954 film Seven Samurai is considered one of the greatest action films of all time, and was highly influential, often seen as one of the most remade, reworked, referenced films in cinema. It popularised the ‘assembling the team’ trope, which has since become a common trope in many action movies and heist films. Its visuals, plot and dialogue inspired a wide range of filmmakers, ranging from George Lucas and John Landis to Quentin Tarantino and George Miller. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) was also remade as Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which in turn established the ‘Spaghetti Western’ action genre of Italian cinema, while Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) later inspired Star Wars (1977).
The long-running success of the James Bond films or series (which dominated the action films of the 1960’s) introduced a staple of the modern-day action film: the resourceful hero. Such larger-than-life characters were a veritable ‘one-man army’; able to dispatch villainous masterminds after cutting through their disposable henchmen in increasingly creative ways. Such heroes are ready with one-liners, puns, and dry quips. The Bond films also used fast cutting, car chases, fist fights, a variety of weapons and gadgets, and elaborate action sequences.
Producer-Director John Sturges’ 1963 film The Great Escape, featuring Allied prisoners of war attempting to escape a German POW camp during World War II, and featuring future icons of the action genre including Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, is an example of an action film prototype.
During the 1970s, gritty detective stories and urban crime dramas began to evolve and fuse themselves with the new action style, leading to a string of maverick police officer films, such as Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971) and The Seven-Ups (1973). Dirty Harry (1971) essentially lifted its star, Clint Eastwood, out of his cowboy typecasting, and framed him as the archetypal hero of the urban action film. In many countries, restrictions on language, adult content, and violence had loosened up, and these elements became more widespread.
In the 1970’s, martial arts films from Hong Kong became popular with worldwide audiences, as Hong Kong action cinema had an international impact with kung fu films and most notably Bruce Lee films. The ‘chopsocky’ or ‘kung fu craze’ began in 1973, with a wave of Hong Kong martial arts films topping the North American box office, starting with Five Fingers of Death (1972) starring Indonesian-born actor Lo Lieh, followed soon after by Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972). This inspired the first major Hong Kong and Hollywood co-production, Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973). Lee’s death the same year led to a wave of ‘Bruceploitation’ films in Asian cinema, a trend that eventually came to an end with the success of several kung fu action-comedy films released in 1978: Jackie Chan’s Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, and Sammo Hung’s Enter the Fat Dragon.
The success of Hong Kong martial arts cinema inspired a wave of Western martial arts films and television shows starting in the 1970’s, and later the more general integration of Asian martial arts into Western action films and television shows since the 1980’s. The first major American martial arts star was Chuck Norris, who initially made his film debut as the antagonist in Lee’s Way of the Dragon (1972), before he went on to blend martial arts with ‘cops and robbers’ in films such as Good Guys Wear Black (1978) and A Force of One (1979).
From Japan, Sonny Chiba starred in his first martial arts movie in 1973 called the Karate Kiba. His breakthrough international hit was The Street Fighter series (1974 debut), which established him as the reigning Japanese martial arts actor in international cinema. He also played the role of Mas Oyama in Champion of Death, Karate Bearfighter, and Karate for Life (1975-1977). Chiba’s action films were not only bounded by martial arts, but also action thriller (Doberman Cop and Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon – both from 1977), jidaigeki (Shogun’s Samurai – 1978, Samurai Reincarnation – 1981), and science fiction (G.I. Samurai – 1979).
In the 1980’s, Hollywood produced many big budget action blockbusters with actors such as Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lorenzo Lamas, Michael Dudikoff, Charles Bronson and Bruce Willis. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas paid their homage to the Bond-inspired style with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). In 1982, veteran actor Nick Nolte and rising comedian Eddie Murphy broke box office records with the action-comedy 48 Hrs., credited as the first “buddy-cop” movie. That same year, Sylvester Stallone starred in First Blood, the first instalment in the Rambo film series which made the character John Rambo a pop culture icon.
In Hong Kong action cinema, Jackie Chan developed into his own distinct style of action movie in the early 1980’s, starting with Dragon Lord (1982) and Project A (1983), involving a mixture of martial arts, physical comedy, and dangerous stuntwork, including Chan performing many of his own stunts. This culminated in Chan’s action-crime film Police Story (1985), which is considered one of the greatest action films of all time. It contains a number of large-scale action scenes with elaborate stunts, including a car chase through a shanty town, Chan being dragged along by a double-decker bus, and a climactic fight scene in a shopping mall featuring many breaking glass panes, the latter ending with a dangerous stunt where Chan slides down a pole covered with dangling lights from several stories up, which is considered one of the greatest stunts in the history of action cinema.
1984 saw the beginning of the Terminator franchise starring Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger. This story provides one of the grittiest roles for a woman in action and Hamilton was required to put in extensive effort to develop a strong physique. 1987’s Lethal Weapon starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, and Darlene Love was another significant action film hit of the decade, and another ‘buddy-cop’ genre classic, launching a franchise that spawned 3 sequels.
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 use of a maverick, resourceful lone hero has always been a common thread from James Bond to John Rambo, but John McClane in Die Hard is much more of an ‘everyday’ person whom circumstance turns into a reluctant hero. The film set a pattern for a host of imitators, like Under Siege (1992) and Sudden Death, 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.
Like the Western genre, spy-movies, as well as 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 1980’s and 1990’s saw a rise in both budgets and the number of sequels a film could generally have. This led to an increasing number of filmmakers to create new technologies that would allow them to beat the competition and take audiences to new heights. The success of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) led to a string of financially successful sequels. Within a single decade, they proved the viability of a novel subgenre of action film: the comic-book movie.
Another important development in action cinema came from Hong Kong during the late 1980’s to early 1990’s: the heroic bloodshed genre (including the ‘gun fu’ and ‘girls with guns‘ sub-genres). John Woo’s breakthrough film A Better Tomorrow (1986) largely set the template for the heroic bloodshed genre, which went on to have a considerable impact on Hollywood. The action, style, tropes and mannerisms established in 1980’s Hong Kong heroic bloodshed films were later widely adopted by Hollywood in the 1990’s, popularised by Hong Kong inspired Hollywood action filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Luc Besson, and eventually John Woo himself (following his transition to Hollywood).
Action films also became important in the direct-to-video market.
Family films became more important than such action movies in the direct-to-video market during the 1990’s, as retailers stocked more copies of blockbuster films instead of more titles.
While action films continued to flourish as the medium-budget genre movie it also fused with tent-pole pictures in other genres. For example, 2009’s Star Trek had several science fiction tropes and concepts like time travel through a black hole. However, most of the film was structured around action sequences, many of them quite conventional (hand-to-hand, shooting). While the original Star Wars featured some of this kind of fighting, there was just as much emphasis on star-ship chases and dogfights in outer space. The newer films featured more lightsaber duels, sometimes more intense and acrobatic than the originals. Some fan films also have similar duel scenes like those the prequel trilogy. It was action with a science fiction twist. The trend with films such as The Matrix and The Dark Knight series, is that hand-to-hand fighting and Asian martial-arts techniques are now widely used in science fiction and superhero movies.
Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables used nostalgia for a perceived golden age of action films by casting 1980’s action stars alongside new actors in the genre such as Jason Statham.
In The Fast and the Furious series, the action film staple of the car chase is the central plot driver as it had been in Smokey and the Bandit films in the 1970’s.
The cross-over of action with science fiction continues with many Marvel Comics characters and settings being used for big budget films.
Traditional action films like The Fast and the Furious series also remain popular.
Hong Kong Action Cinema
Currently, action films requiring extensive stunt work and special effects tend to be expensive. As such, they are regarded as mostly a large-studio genre in Hollywood, although this is not the case in Hong Kong action cinema, where action films are often modern variations of martial arts films. Because of their roots and lower budgets, Hong Kong action films typically center on physical acrobatics, martial arts fight scenes, stylised gun-play, and dangerous stunt work performed by leading stunt actors. On the other hand, American action films typically feature big explosions, car chases, stunt doubles and CGI special effects.
Hong Kong action cinema was at its peak from the 1970’s to 1990’s, when its action movies were experimenting with and popularising various new techniques that would eventually be adopted by Hollywood action movies.
This began in the early 1970’s with the martial arts movies of Bruce Lee, which led to a wave of Bruceploitation movies that eventually gave way to the comedy kung fu films of Jackie Chan by the end of the decade.
During the 1980s, Hong Kong action cinema re-invented itself with various new movies. These included the modern martial arts action movies featuring physical acrobatics and dangerous stunt work of Jackie Chan and his stunt team, as well as Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung; the wire fu and wuxia films of Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Yuen Woo-Ping and Tsui Hark; the gun fu, heroic bloodshed and Triad films of Chow Yun-Fat, Ringo Lam and John Woo; and the girls with guns films of Michelle Yeoh and Moon Lee.
This style of film is split into two styles, with one involving faraway, exotic lands where the villains and the action become unpredictable. The second style that emerged of this genre in the 1980’s involved the Rambo and Missing in Action film series where the hero is a Vietnam war veteran who returns to Vietnam to rescue war veterans.
A subgenre involving action and humour. The subgenre became a popular trend in the 1980’s, when actors who were known for their background in comedy, such as Eddie Murphy, began to take roles in action films. Comedy films such as Dumb & Dumber and Big Momma’s House, that contain action-laden sub-plots, are not considered part of this combined genre.
Action scenes have a more integral role in action comedies. A common strata of action comedy is the buddy cop film, including 48 Hrs. (1982), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Lethal Weapon (1987), Midnight Run (1988), Bad Boys (1995), Rush Hour (1998), The Rundown (2003), Hot Fuzz (2007), The Nice Guys (2016), and the animated Zootopia (2016).
Another common strata of action comedy is the martial arts comedy, which became popular in Hong Kong action cinema since the 1980’s, with Jackie Chan being the most famous example, along with Sammo Hung and Stephen Chow.
An obscure genre, that was described by writer on Flickering Myth as difficult to define.
These films combined the intensity of a horror film with the fighting or brutality of an action film.
Featuring guns, explosions and elaborate set pieces, this movie type first developed in the 1970’s in such films as Dirty Harry and The French Connection, and became the exemplar of the Hollywood mega-blockbuster in the 1980s in such works as Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.
These films often feature a race against the clock, lots of violence, and a clear – often flamboyantly evil – antagonist. Though they may involve elements of crime or mystery films, those aspects take a back seat to the action. Other significant works include Hard Boiled, True Romance, Point Break, The Warriors, Bullitt, The Seven-Ups, Cobra, Taken and John Wick.
The Die Hard subgenre, in which 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.
Having elements of thriller and sometimes science fiction films, the main conflict of this genre is some sort of natural or artificial disaster, such as floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, pandemics, etc. Examples include Independence Day, Daylight, Earthquake, Geostorm, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow.
A subgenre of the action film, martial arts films contain numerous hand-to-hand combats between characters. They are usually the films’ primary appeal and entertainment value and are often the method of storytelling, character expression, and development.
Martial arts films contain many characters who are martial artists. These roles are often played by actors who are real martial artists. If not, actors usually fervently train in preparation for their roles. Another method of going around this issue is that the action director may rely more on stylized action or filmmaking tricks.
Examples include Hong Kong action films such as the Police Story franchise, Kung Fu Hustle, Fearless, Fist of Legend, Drunken Master, Enter the Dragon, Shanghai Noon, Iron Monkey, Flash Point, and Shaolin Soccer, as well as The Karate Kid, A Force of One, Ninja Assassin, Ong-Bak, The Octagon, Kill Bill, Lone Wolf McQuade, Mortal Kombat, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Raid: Redemption, Champion of Death, Karate Bearfighter, Doberman Cop, Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon, Big Trouble in Little China, Charlie’s Angels, and The Street Fighter series.
Sharing many of the conventions of a science fiction film, science fiction action films emphasize gun-play, space battles, invented weaponry, and other sci-fi elements weaved into action film premises.
Examples include G.I. Samurai, Terminator 02: Judgement Day, The Matrix, Total Recall, Minority Report, Inception, The Island, Star Wars, the Men in Black franchise, Aliens, I Robot, Transformers, The Hunger Games, Equilibrium, District 9, Serenity, Akira, Paycheck, Predator, RoboCop, Avatar, Mad Max 2, Divergent, They Live, Escape from New York, Demolition Man, Virtuosity and The Fifth Element.
In which the hero is generally a government agent who must take violent action against agents of a rival government or (in recent years) terrorists. They often revolve around spies who are involved in investigating various events, often on a global scale.
This subgenre deals with the subject of fictional espionage, either in a realistic way (such as the adaptations of John Le Carré) or as a basis for fantasy (such as James Bond). It is a significant aspect of British cinema, with leading British directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed, making notable contributions and many films set in the British Secret Service.
The subgenre showcases a combination of exciting escapism, heavy action, stylized fights, technological thrills, and exotic locales.
Not all spy films fall in the action genre, only those showcasing heavy action such as frequent shootouts and car chases fall in action, spy films with lesser action would be in the thriller genre (see the spy entry in the subgenres of thriller film).
Action films of this subgenre include Casino Royale, the Mission: Impossible franchise, Ronin, True Lies, Salt, From Paris with Love, The International, Patriot Games, xXx, Miss Congeniality, and Jason Bourne in The Bourne series.
An action subgenre featuring adventurous and heroic characters known as swashbucklers. These films are usually set in the past period and feature swordfighting scenes.
The amount of actual violence is usually limited as the bad guys are thrown aside or knocked by the hilt of the swords and not really killed, except for the lead antagonist.