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Action movies are a film genre where in the story is largely told through physical action as opposed to dialogue. The action typically involves individual efforts on the part of the hero. While action has long been an element of films, the "Action film" as a genre of its own began to develop in the 1970s. The genre is closely linked with the thriller and adventure film genres.

While action films have traditionally been a reliable source of revenue for movie studios, relatively few action films garner critical praise. While action films have traditionally been aimed at male audiences, from the early teens to the mid-30s, many action filmmakers from the 1990s and 2000s added female heroines in response to the times, glorifying the strong female archetype.


During the 1920s and 1930s, action-based films were often "swashbuckling" adventure films in which Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn wielded swords in period pieces. The long-running success of the James Bond series of spy films in the 1960s and 1970s helped to popularise the modern day action film. 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. Dirty Harry (1971) can be considered "the action film's first true archetype."The genre came about as a synthesis of the existing western and film noir genres, with some elements of the police procedural.

However, the action film did not become a dominant form in Hollywood until the 1980s, when it was popularized by actors such as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson. 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 Yorkmarker police detective who inadvertently becomes embroiled in a terrorist take-over of a Los Angelesmarker 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 when requiring big budget special effects and stunt work. As such, they are regarded as mostly a Hollywoodmarker 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, car chases, stunt work and (more recently) CGI special effects technology.

Most recently, thanks to the better availability of CGI technology at a lower price, action cinema outside of Hollywood has been able to provide viewers with the same degree of spectacle as was once only available from big budget American action films, and in fact, many American filmmakers will outsource CGI special effects work to Asian companies in order to decrease the overall production cost.

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 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.

Another trend of growing appearance is the tendency of fight scenes to be filmed with actors being filmed one at a time in front of a blue or green screen, so that special effects experts can then combine the different images. This means that the two actors do not have to be swinging swords, knives or fists at each other, as was done through much of the history of action and adventure movies. This, coupled with computer graphics used to enhance and edit the eventual film makes stunts less expensive, less time consuming and less dangerous, and permits swifter movement by actors and a new range of options for the director.


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), Midnight Run (1988), Bad Boys (1995), Rush Hour (1998), and Charlie's Angels (2000).

Die Hard Scenario

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, 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. Among the many films that have copied this formula are Under Siege (terrorists take over a ship), 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).

Girls with guns

This sub-genre of films and animation, especially Hong Kong action films and anime, uses a female protagonist in a strong lead role, set in a modern context. The genre involves gun-play, stunts and martial arts action. Some of the best known female fighters are Angela Mao Ying, Cheng Pei-pei, Moon Lee, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and Cynthia Rothrock. European and US films with female protagonists include Nikita (1990); Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001); and Kill Bill (2003/2004).

Heroic bloodshed

This Hong Kong sub-genre revolves around dramatic themes such as brotherhood, honor, redemption and the effects of violence on the individual and society at large. It often features stylized shootouts with slow-motion scenes of barrages of gun fire with large-caliber automatic pistols.

Notable individuals


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 Charles Bronson, martial artist Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Clint Eastwood. 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 actor Wesley Snipes 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 sci-fi 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 and French-Born Jean Reno and English-born Jason Statham appeared in a number of 1990s and 2000s-era action films (Timecop, The Professional, and The Transporter respectively). 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); John Woo (Hong Kong action films such as Hard Boiled and US-made English-language films such as Hard Target); Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down); The Wachowski Brothers (the sci-fi The Matrix trilogy) and Michael Bay (Bad Boys 2). For a longer list, see the List of action film directors article.


See also



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