From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
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.
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 (which easily dominated the 1960s) essentially introduced all the staples of the modern-day action film. The "Bond movies" were characterized 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 utilized quick cutting, car chases, fist fights, a variety of weapons and "gadgets", and ever more elaborate action sequences.
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).
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. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas even paid their homage to the Bond-inspired style with the mega-hit Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). 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 "Robo-cop"), horror-action (like "Aliens" and "Predator"), and even the occasional musical-action-comedy hybrid (like "The Blues Brothers").
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 CGI (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. Yet another hybrid, comic-book-inspired films like "Batman" and "Blade" (1998), would pave the way for the new millennium, their many sequels competing for box office with big-budget action fantasies like the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Pirates of the Caribbean", and "Spider-man", all of which (regardless of their sub-classification) qualify as "action movies".
At present, action films tend to be expensive, requiring big budget special effects and stunt work. As such, they are regarded as mostly a large-studio genre in Hollywood, 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 a growing degree of spectacle which was once only available from American studio releases ("Blood the Last Vampire" (Japan), "The Host" (South Korea), "Red Cliff" (China), etc).
While the action movie genre continues to evolve over time, they remain a staple of motion pictures.