Film > Genre Study > Action
Action Films

Action film is a film genre where commonly one or more heroes are thrust into a series of challenges that require physical feats, extended fights and chases. They occasionally have a resourceful character struggling against incredible odds such as, life-threatening situations, an evil villain, or being chased in several ways of transport, 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.

Action Timeline

During the 1920s and 1930s, action-based films were often 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 Navaronne" 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 essentially introduced all the staples of the modern-day action film. The "Bond movies" were characterised 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 utilised quick cutting, car chases, fist fights, a variety of weapons and "gadgets", and ever more elaborate action sequences.

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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, the truth is Chuck Norris had been blending kung fu cops and robbers since "Good Guys Wear Black" (1977) and "A Force of One" (1979).

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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. 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. Films like 48 Hrs., and 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) 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 "Terminator", and "RoboCop"), horror-action (like "Aliens" and "Predator"), and even the occasional musical-action-comedy hybrid (like "The Blues Brothers").

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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 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.

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Key Players In The Action Genre


Bruce Willis -


Dolph Lundgren -


Steven Seagal -


Jean Claude Van Damme -


Arnold Schwarzenegger -


Sylvester Stallone -


Jackie Chan -



Sam Peckinpah


James Cameron


John Woo


The Wachowskis Brothers


Michael Bay


John Mctiernan




Famous Action Movie Quotations:
Die Hard - ''Yippe Kay Yay MotherF*#*er''

Con Air - “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I have the only gun on board. Welcome to Con Air.”

Scarface - “Say hello to my lil’ friend!”

The Rock - “Your ‘best’! Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and f* the prom queen.”

Dirty Harry -
“Do I feel lucky…”

Sub - Genres**
  • 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), 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 (Die Hard on a bus), 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 ofCGI. 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 and Enter the Dragon.
  • 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 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.