Some of the most well known old-school action film heros. From left: (top row) Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris (bottom row) Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jackie Chan, Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren
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. They occasionally have a resourceful character struggling against incredible odds such as, life-threatening situations, an evil villain, and/or being chased in several ways of transportation (car, bus, truck, etc.), with victory achieved at the end after difficult physical efforts and violence. Story and character development are generally secondary to explosions, fist fights, gunplay and car chases.
While action films have traditionally been a reliable source of revenue for movie studios, relatively few action films garner critical praise, mainly because of their two-dimensional heroes or villains. Nevertheless, Hollywood has been making more action films than ever, mainly because the advancement in CGI have made it cheaper and easier to create action sequences and other visual effects that required professional stunt crews and dangerous staging in the past. However, action audiences' expectations have been mixed with the high level of computer generated imagery, and films where computer animation is not believable are often met with criticism.
While action has long been an element of films, the "action film" genre 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.
Early action films
During the 1920s and 1930s, action-based films were often "swashbuckling" adventure films in which Douglas Fairbanks wielded swords in period pieces or 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 Navarone 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 action films of 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, Chuck Norris had been blending martial arts with cops and robbers since Good Guys Wear Black (1977) and A Force of One (1979).
From Japan, Sonny Chiba starred in the Karate Kiba in 1973. It was the first movie for him about martial arts. Chiba's breakthrough international hit was The Street Fighter series (1974), which established him as the reigning Japanese martial arts actor in international cinema. He also played the role of Mas Oyama at the next three movies of martial arts, Champion of Death, Karate Bearfighter and Karate for Life (1975 - 1977). Chiba's action films were not only about martial arts but also action thriller (Doberman Cop and Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon - both of 1977), jidaigeki (Shogun's Samurai - 1978, Samurai Reincarnation - 1981) science fiction (G.I. Samurai - 1979) and adventure (The Kamikaze Adventurers - 1981).
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. That same year, Sylvester Stallone starred in First Blood, the first installment in the popular Rambo film series. The film proved to be successful and was followed with a sequel in 1985, Rambo: First Blood Part II which became the most successful film in the series and made the character John Rambo a pop cultural icon.
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), Sudden Death (1995) 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 The Terminator, and RoboCop), horror-action (like Aliens and Predator), and even the occasional musical-action-comedy hybrid (like The Blues Brothers). Rambo]] action films.
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.
Hong Kong action cinema
At present, action films requiring big budget 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 these roots and their lower budgets, Hong Kong action films typically center on physical acrobatics, martial arts fight scenes, stylized gun-play, and dangerous stunt work performed by leading stunt actors, while American action films typically feature big explosions, car chases, stunt work (usually with stunt doubles), and (more recently) CGI special effects technology.
Hong Kong action cinema was at its peak from the 1970s to 1990s, when its action movies were experimenting with and popularizing various new techniques that would eventually be adopted by Hollywood action movies. This began in the early 1970s 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 had re-invented itself with various new kinds of 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 Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao; the wire fu and wuxia films of Tsui Hark, Yuen Woo-Ping, Jet Li and Donnie Yen; the gun fu, heroic bloodshed and Triad films of John Woo, Ringo Lam and Chow Yun-Fat; and the girls with guns films of Moon Lee and Michelle Yeoh.
Most recently, due 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 big budget spectacle which was once only available from American studio releases (Blood the Last Vampire (Japan), The Host (South Korea), Red Cliff (China), etc.). While the action movie genre continues to evolve over time, they remain a staple of motion pictures. However, with many leading Hong Kong figures leaving for Hollywood, the local Hong Kong action film industry has been in a relative decline. As a result, more recent Hong Kong action films have tended to be more storyline-driven, including popular films such as Infernal Affairs, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and Ip Man.
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.
Action Comedy - 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), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Midnight Run (1988), Bad Boys (1995), Beverly Hills Ninja (1997), Rush Hour (1998) and Charlie's Angels (2000).
Die-Hard scenario - 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. This sub-genre began with the film Die Hard and has become popular in Hollywood 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), Snakes on a Plane (poisonous snakes take over a passenger plane), Speed, 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 this trend (as Die Hard in a mall).
Disaster Film - 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, etc., or nuclear disasters that are shown with heavy action scenes, special effects, over the top destruction and, in modern day, use of CGI. Examples include Independence Day, Daylight, Earthquake, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Poseidon, The Towering Inferno, Dante's Peak, Deep Impact, Volcano, The Core, Armageddon and Twister.
Martial Arts - A sub-genre of the action film, martial arts films contain numerous fights between characters, usually as the films' primary appeal and entertainment value, and often as a method of storytelling and character expression and development. Martial arts films contain many characters who are martial artists, and these roles are often played by actors who are real martial artists. If not, actors frequently train in preparation for their roles, or the action director may rely more on stylized action or filmmaking tricks. Martial films include The Karate Kid, Kung Fu Hustle, Fearless, Ninja Assassin, Ong-Bak, Shanghai Noon, Kill Bill, Fist of Legend, Iron Monkey, Drunken Master, Enter the Dragon, Champion of Death, Karate Bearfighter, Doberman Cop, Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon and The Street Fighter series.
Sci-fi Action - Sharing many of the conventions of a science fiction film, sci-fi action films emphasizes gunplay, space battles, invented weaponry, and other sci-fi elements weaved into action film premises. Examples include G.I. Samurai, Terminator 2, The Matrix, Total Recall, Minority Report, The Island, Star Trek, Aliens, I, Robot, Transformers, Equilibrium, District 9, Serenity, Akira, Paycheck, Predator, Robocop, Avatar, Mad Max 2 and The Fifth Element.
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, Tom Laughlin, Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, Clint Eastwood and Sonny Chiba. 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 actors Wesley Snipes and Vin Diesel both 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 (Bloodsport, Hard Target, Timecop), Moroccan-born Jean Reno (The Professional), Swedish-born Dolph Lundgren (Showdown in Little Tokyo, Universal Soldier, The Expendables) and English-born Jason Statham (The Transporter, The Expendables, Crank), appeared in a number of 1990s and 2000s-era action films. 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. For a longer list of action film actors, see the List of action film actors article.
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); Andrew Davis (Code of Silence, Above the Law, Under Siege); John Woo (Hong Kong action films such as Hard Boiled and US-made English-language films such as Hard Target, Broken Arrow and Face/Off); John McTiernan (the first and third Die Hard films, Predator, The Last Action Hero); Ridley Scott (Black Rain, Black Hawk Down); The Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix trilogy), Andrzej Bartkowiak (Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds, Cradle 2 the Grave), Robert Rodriguez (Mexico trilogy, From Dusk till Dawn, Machete) and Michael Bay (the first two Bad Boys films, The Rock, Transformers trilogy); Louis Leterrier (the first two Transporter films, Unleashed). For a longer list, see the List of action film directors article.
- Avi Lerner
- Boaz Davidson
- Bob Weinstein
- Don Simpson
- Harvey Weinstein
- Jerry Bruckheimer
- Jerry Weintraub
- Joel Silver
- Menahem Golan
- Yoram Globus
- The Wachowski Brothers
- Hong Kong action cinema
- List of action heroes
- List of action films
- List of movie genres
- List of women warriors in literature and popular culture
- List of genres
- Inness, Sherrie A. (ed.) Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
- Kim, L. S. "Making women warriors: a transnational reading of Asian female action heroes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. No. 48, Winter, 2006.
- Osgerby, Bill, Anna Gough-Yates, and Marianne Wells. Action TV : Tough-Guys, Smooth Operators and Foxy Chicks. London: Routledge, 2001.
- .Spectacular Bodies : Gender, Genre, and the Action Cinema. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.
- Tasker, Yvonne. Action and Adventure Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2004.
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