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Action Movies

Action films are a film genre where action sequences, such as fighting, stunts, car chases or explosions, take precedence over elements like characterization or complex plotting. The action typically involves individual efforts on the part of the hero, in contrast with most war films. The genre is closely linked with the thriller and adventure film genres.

Rise of the action film

In the West, during the 1920s and 1930s, adventure films were popularised by actors such as Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, but the settings were often period ones. The phenomenal success of the James Bond series in the 1960s and 1970s, helped to popularise the concept of the modern day action film in more recent years. The early Bond films were characterised by quick cutting, car chases, fist fights and ever more elaborate action sequences. The series also established the concept of the resourceful hero, who is able to dispatch the villains with a ready one-liner.

Early American action films usually focused on maverick police officers, as in Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971) and Dirty Harry (1971). These were among the earliest films to present a car chase as an action set-piece. However, the action film did not become a dominant form in Hollywood until the 1980s and 1990s, when it was popularized by actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone. The 1988 film Die Hard was particularly influential on the development of the genre in the following decade. 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 block. 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.

Action films tend to be expensive, requiring big budget special effects and stunt work. As such, they are regarded as mostly a Hollywood genre, 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 and modern technology.

Current trends

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 and karate can now be found in numerous non-Asian action films. Now, a distinction can be made between films that lean toward physical, agile fighting, such as The Transporter, and those that lean toward other common action film conventions, like explosions and plenty of gunfire, such as Lethal Weapon, although most action movies employ elements of both.

Feminist theory

Feminist film theory has been used to analyze action movies, owing to their rare variance from a core archetype. The separation between the physical male, who controls the scene and the gaze, and the female, who is almost always the object of the gaze, is very clear in most such films. Although female characters in most action films are nothing more than objects, a prize for the winner, hostages, loving wives and the like, there has been a move towards stronger female characters such as those in works by James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, and a move towards "girl power"-style feminine empowerment (e.g. Charlie's Angels), in place of the traditional "damsel in distress".


  • Action drama - Combines action set-pieces with serious themes, character insight and/or emotional power. This sub-genre can be traced back to the origins of the action film. Carol Reed's The Third Man (written by Grahame Greene) was an award-winning predecessor of this sub-genre.
  • Buddy cop - Two mismatched cops (or some variation such as a cop and a criminal) team-up as the main protagonists. Major examples are Rush Hour, 48 Hrs., Lethal Weapon, and Hot Fuzz.
  • Action comedy - Mixture of action and comedy usually based on mismatched partners (the standard "buddy film" formula) or unlikely setting. The action comedy sub-genre was re-vitalized with the popularity of the Lethal Weapon series of movies in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Action thriller - Elements of action/adventure (car chases, shootouts, explosions) and thriller (plot twists, suspense, hero in jeopardy). Many of the James Bond series of films are icons of this popular sub-genre.
  • Caper / heist - Protagonists are carrying out robbery, either for altruistic purposes or as anti-heroes. The film You Only Live Once, based on the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde, was one of the first examples of this sub-genre.
  • Die Hard - Story takes place in limited location - single building or vehicle - seized or under threat by enemy agents. 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.
  • Science fiction action - Any of the other sub-genres of action film can be set in a science fiction setting. The Star Wars films began the modern exploration of this combination of high action content with futuristic settings in the 1970s, based in part on the serials of the 1930s and 1940s such as Flash Gordon. An explosion of science fiction action films followed in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Action horror - As with science fiction action films, any sub-genre of action film can be combined with the elements of horror films to produce what has increasingly become a popular action sub-genre in its own right. Monsters, robots and many other staples of horror have been used in action films. In the 1980s, Aliens introduced movie goers to the potential of a hybrid of science fiction, action and horror which would continue to be popular to the present day.
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