Despite the fact that modern action films can garner quite hefty box office receipts (especially in the summer...) they usually fare rather poorly at the critic's table.
Also, what was once geared towards a predominantly male audience is now veering steadily towards women by offering more and more qualified female characters.
Today's films generally fall into one of two camps - physical action movies like The Matrix and Blade, or traditional action films with lots of gunfire, explosions and car chases. Many action films live in both camps as well.
Over the years these high energy films have made some changes. During the 1920's to the 1930's the predominant films were classic swashbuckling movies where heroes like Douglas Fairbanks would battle villains with the sword.
Douglas Fairbanks as a "Swashbuckler"
In the 40's and 50's War Movies, Cowboy Movies, and Spy Adventure Films took the stage as the top action films of the time. Of particular note during this time was Alfred Hitchcock's amazing use of the "Spy Adventure" sub-genre. Both the Mt. Rushmore and Crop Dusting scenes from North by Northwest are terrific examples of this.
During the 60's it was Ian Fleming's larger than life creation, James Bond. Bond was brought to the screen by Albert J. Broccoli of course. He was inspired by movies like North by Northwest and The Guns of Navarone. Who would have predicted those films were responsible for the James Bond franchise we still enjoy today.
The James Bond films pretty much dominated the 60's. Part of their appeal were the larger than life characters (both heroes and villains). A great feature of the Bond movies was that 007 was basically a "one man army." He would dispatch his opponents with either fist fights, weapons or futuristic gadgetry. The hallmark of these sequences would be the coy one liner delivered upon achieving success. The Bond films were also adorned with many car chases and Martial Arts combat.
The 1970's ushered in gritty detectives and loose canon police officers in urban crime dramas. Movies like Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971) served up these characters quite well.
A huge 70's development was the introduction of the Dirty Harry Franchise in 1971 thanks to Clint Eastwood. This new "rough around the edges" police genre signaled an end to the action of Cowboy Westerns. Along with this change came the major introduction to Martial Arts Action. Movies like You Only Live Twice, Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee and Good Guys wear Black with Chuck Norris brought forth this new action genre. Chuck also starred in A Force of One (1979) during this period.
The 1980's gave us the Summer Blockbuster. Always in the action genre, these films introduced us to action giants such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson and one of my all time favorites, Harrison Ford. When Steven Spielberg and George Lucas teamed up to create Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Harrison's ascendance to action stardom was absolutely assured. (please forgive the alliteration, but I simply couldn't resist...)
Arnold Schwarzenegger as "The Terminator"
The 80's are also responsible for creating some very interesting Sub Hybrid Film Genres. Of particular note would be the "Buddy-Cop" action genre, brought to us with films like 48 Hrs. (1982) with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, as well as Lethal Weapon (1987) with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.
Three other sub hybrid film genres were developed during the 80's. Firstly, there is the War-Action genre, realized through films such as First Blood with Sylvester Stallone portraying John Rambo, and Missing in Action with Chuck Norris as Colonel James Braddock. Then there's another favorite of mine, the Science Fiction-Action genre. The Terminator with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robocop are classic offerings of this new sub-genre. Also a favorite is the Horror-Action genre where Sigourney Weaver kicks butt in Alien while Arnold again "takes names" in Predator. There is actually a fourth sub hybrid genre (I lied...) from the 80's typified by The Blues Brothers. This of course, would be the Musical-Action-Comedy sub genre.
Of special note during the 80's is the film Die Hard (1988). This film, starring Bruce Willis as Officer John McClane, was so popular and successful that it spawned a sub hybrid genre of it's own - the "Die Hard" genre. This very unique and often imitated genre typically describes a plot where the hero battles villains (usually "terrorists") in a single major location, such as a plane, airport or skyscraper. (such as Die Hard itself...) Other movies employing the "Die Hard" genre would be 1992's Under Siege, where the hero fights terrorists on a battleship and Air Force One (1997), where the President battles terrorists on a plane (instead of snakes, of course...).
Bruce Willis as Officer John McClane in Die Hard
Now we reach the 90's which brought us sequels, self-parodies, huge budgets, CGI (computer generated imagery), ongoing action franchises and even more sub hybrid action genres. Of course the ongoing action franchises we're speaking of are Dirty Harry and James Bond. The new sub hybrid genres would be the Comic Book Movie, with 1989's Batman and 2002's Spider Man leading the way, as well as The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Pirates of the Caribbean.
So who are the film actors who gave us these wonderful and exciting action genres on the screen? In the 1950's and 1960's it was folks like John Wayne, Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen. In the 70's we had Chuck Norris, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and Bruce Lee. The 80's brought us Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal and Bruce Willis. The 90's and 2000's gave us Wesley Snipes, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat. New female action heroes brought us Milla Jovovich, Lucy Liu and Michelle Yeoh. Let us also not forget Keanu Reeves, Harrison Ford and Matt Damon.
Also, Europe's acting contribution to the action genre would include Time Cop's Jean Claude Van Damme, The Professional's Jean Reno, and The Transporter's Jason Statham.
There are well known directors of action films as well. In the 1960's and 1970's you have Sam Peckinpah who directed The Wild Bunch (1969), a bloody, violent, and Nihilist toned Western.
From the 80's on there is James Cameron, who directed both Terminator movies, Aliens, and True Lies in the action vane. John Woo gave us Hard Boiled and Hard Target. From Ridley Scott we received Black Hawk Down. The Wachowski Brothers directed The Matrix trilogy and Michael Bay directed Bad Boys and Transformers.
What is is it you love about the action genre? What movies made in this category really stuck with you after you saw them? We as fellow film lovers are interested in what you have to say, so please consider saying it below. We've provided a very convenient Content Submission Form below, and you're more than welcome to make great use of it!