Tapping into the most primal of storytelling, thrill-seeking, and wry humor, the action movie is hard-wired into mainstream cinema. Driving things forward – violence, car chases, revenge, and killer one-liners.
The first action movie, arguably, is The Great Train Robbery (1903). Not only revolutionizing narrative storytelling as we know it but initiating long since imitated tropes such as firing a gun into the camera. James Bond, anyone?
Away from Hollywood, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) is possibly the most influential movie of all time, spawning some key action and narrative practices all in a single film; such as the slow-motion battle sequence, the reluctant hero, and recruiting heroes to accomplish a goal.
With western cinema’s action movies rooted firmly in swashbucklers and war films, the 1960s/70s began to embrace those heroes that don’t follow the rules. Steve McQueen in the first cinematic car chase in Bullitt (1968), the no-nonsense street clean-ups from Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971), and Charles Bronson’s ever more ridiculous Death Wish (1974) series. Walter Hill’s classic The Warriors (1979) followed a New York gang fighting their way back to home turf after being wrongly accused of killing a prominent gang leader. Incredibly raw and flamboyant, “Warriors, come out to play” has become one of the genre’s most recognizable and referenced lines.
Getting back to firing a gun into the camera, the James Bond (1960s – present) series has since had a significant change in tone in the Daniel Craig era to fall more in line with grittier counterpart Jason Bourne but played a huge role in establishing its own conventions born out of classical storytelling. Q and M, the gadgets, the Bond girls, the evil genius bad guy, the henchmen sharing a name with a famous cinematic shark (no, not Sharknado)… Bond is also famed for some of the more memorable and wry action set-pieces.
Stallone’s Rocky (1974) brought about the rise of the underdog – an everyman hero fighting almost impossible odds – and celebrating victory with courage and a never-say-die attitude. Rambo from First Blood (1982) is someone who says die a lot. Survival, hand-to-hand combat, the single action hero against the world; ushering in an action movie era defined by laying bullets to America’s enemies, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Revenge, family, freedom, patriotism, and redemption all typically drive the hero of the action movie. Kill Bill’s (2003) The Bride wanting revenge against those that killed her unborn baby and left her for dead. Terminator 2: Judgement Day’s (1991) Sarah Connor transforming herself into an unrelenting, ultimate badass in order to protect her son, alongside Schwarzenegger’s iconic Terminator, who himself is learning what it is to be human.
Universal themes under the bigger premises naturally see action movies fall into the realms of sci-fi, and giving us some of both genre’s most notable works.
Post-apocalyptic films like Mad Max: The Road Warrior (1981) portray society as serving as nothing but a thin barrier from total chaos. Chaos and disorder obviously lend themselves nicely to action and the fight for change and freedom. Introducing chaos to a utopian society also creates a disparity, such as Demolition Man (1993) with Wesley Snipes’ Simon Phoenix running amok in a future with no answer to him – summon forth the ‘old school’ cop, Stallone’s John Spartan, to track him down.
Total Recall (1990) explores identity and freedom under the guise of simulation, while The Matrix (1999) has Neo being able to bend the laws of physics in his battle for freedom.
Action Codes and Conventions
John McClane, John Rambo, John Matrix, John Wick, John Spartan (there’s a lot of Johns); the action hero is an everyman thrown into an extraordinary situation. Of course, they’re rarely your average guy. Typically ex-Special Forces, assassins, NYPD, post-apocalyptic Road Warrior (a Max), or has a very particular set of skills. ie. finding you and killing you, to paraphrase a non-John. Often reluctant to take that ‘one last job’, it’s when those closest to them are targeted that the springboard for our hero to make a decision becomes primed…
Settled into a normal life, Commando (1985) sees Arnie’s John Matrix called upon for ‘one last job’, which he turns down. That is until they take his daughter. Waging a one-man war against those responsible is another tried and tested convention to put the hero in danger and watch as he reigns hell on them. Arnie literally supermarket sweeps an army surplus store, loading a shopping cart with guns. Taken (2008), however, sees Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills call upon his comparatively less garish set of skills to track down the sex traffickers who have his daughter. It’s never in any doubt they will get their families back, it’s letting those big action set pieces move us through the story.
The action movie does tend to have an unfair reputation as ‘mindless entertainment’ – merely tapping into primal needs of survival and protection of loved ones with a “Yippee Kay Yay” or an “I’ll be back” just to remind us all the killing is all in good fun. The antagonists can typically be intellectually superior but no match for the hero physically. Henchmen can provide the hero with their most challenging battle. Die Hard’s (1988) iconic wise-cracker John McClaine wrapped a chain around a guy’s neck and left him hanging, and he survived, only to be put down by Al – the cop who hadn’t used a gun since accidentally shooting a kid. The reluctant hero theme filters down to the sidekicks and mentors too.
With the ultimate goal of any action movie to get the audience’s adrenaline pumping, directing team Neveldine/Taylor harnessed the idea of making adrenaline the direct source of the action and brought us Crank (2006). In order to keep himself alive, Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) has to put himself through outrageous stunts. The perfect action movie formula.
Action movies don’t typically concern themselves with any great philosophical or political message. Though often set against contemporary political backdrops, shooting the bad guy of the day is often as far as the message extends. After, of course, we have listened to their diabolical plan in full.
The genre is home to some legendary cinematic heroes and cult icons:
- Arnold Schwarzenegger: Easily the most recognizable action star. Total Recall, Predator (1987), Commando, Terminator, The Running Man (1987) – the face of the action/sci-fi, and the master of deadpan delivery while holding a massive gun.
- Shane Black: Highly influential writer combining stylish and clever action set pieces with humor and humility – Lethal Weapon (1987), Last Action Hero (1993), Iron Man 3 (2013). Will be directing 2018’s The Predator.
- Sylvester Stallone: Action star and auteur in his own right – prolific in helping to develop the genre in front of, and behind the camera, over a 40 year period. Followed the conventions and cliches from Rocky/Rambo through to Demolition Man through to the ridiculous self-referential The Expendables (2010) movies.
- John McTiernan: Director of seminal action movies – Die Hard, Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995), Predator, The Hunt For Red October (1990), Last Action Hero.
- The aforementioned Die Hard, Commando, Taken, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Expendables, and The Matrix are all loaded with incredibly iconic characters or moments.
- Speed (1994) perfectly harnessed the ‘ticking clock’ element to the genre, with Keanu Reeves’ Jack Traven tasked with not letting a bus drop below 50mph. Obviously, there’s a bomb involved.
- The most impressively committed to the action set piece is arguably Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), with The Fast and the Furious franchise (2001 – present) upping the stakes each and every time they gear up.
- Con Air (1997), John Wick (2014), Face/Oﬀ (1997), Point Break (1991), RoboCop (1987), Battle Royale (2000), Leon (1994) – they all conform to and own the genre in such unique and interesting ways.
The themes and conventions of the genre spill out right across cinema into many sub-genres. The crossover between action and war is incredibly well-trodden, as is action/sci-fi, action/adventure, and action/comedy. The wise-cracking, yet vulnerable, characters featured in Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Lethal Weapon, and Rush Hour (1998).
Martial Arts movies harness incredible action sequences alongside universal themes, characters, and philosophy. Iconic actors Bruce Lee, Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Jet Li all bring a savage grace to the genre. Movies such as Battle Royale, The Raid (2011), Enter the Dragon (1973) push the boundaries of what is possible in any form of cinema.
Superhero movies, particularly the Marvel Universe, have become a genre in their own right. Big action set pieces and wry heroes, held up by the typical action movie conventions, on enormous, big-budget scales.