Action film is a film genre in which the protagonist or protagonists end up in a series of challenges that typically include violence, close combat, physical feats, and frantic chases. Action films tend to feature a resourceful hero struggling against incredible odds, which include life-threatening situations, a villain, and/or a pursuit which generally concludes in victory for the hero.
Advancements in CGI have made it cheaper and easier to create action sequences and other visual effects that required the efforts of professional stunt crews in the past. However, reactions to action films containing significant amounts of CGI have been mixed as films that use computer animations to create unrealistic, highly unbelievable events are often met with criticism. While action has long been a recurring component in films, the "action film" genre began to develop in the 1970s along with the increase of stunts and special effects.
Early action films
Some historians consider The Great Train Robbery to be the first action film. During the 1920s and 1930s, action-based films were often "swashbuckling" adventure films in which actors, such as Douglas Fairbanks, wielded swords in period pieces or Westerns.
The 1940s and 1950s saw "action" in a new form through war and cowboy movies. Alfred Hitchcock ushered in the spy-adventure genre while also establishing the use of action-oriented "set pieces" like the famous crop-duster scene and the Mount Rushmore finale in North by Northwest. The film, along with a war-adventure called The Guns of Navarone, 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 films or series (which dominated the action films of the 1960s) introduced a staple of the modern-day action film: the resourceful hero. Such larger-than-life characters were a veritable “one-man army”; able to dispatch villainous masterminds after cutting through their disposable henchmen in increasingly creative ways. Such heroes are ready with one-liners, puns, and dry quips.
During the 1970s, gritty detective stories and urban crime dramas began to evolve and fuse themselves with the new "action" style, leading to a string of maverick police officer films, such as Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971) and The Seven-Ups (1973). Dirty Harry (1971) essentially lifted its star, Clint Eastwood, out of his cowboy typecasting, and framed him as the archetypal hero of the urban action film. In many countries, restrictions on language, adult content, and violence had loosened up, and these elements became more widespread.
In the 1970s, martial-arts films from Hong Kong became popular with Western audiences and inspired big budget films such as Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon (1973). Chuck Norris blended martial arts with 'cops and robbers' in films such as Good Guys Wear Black (1978) and A Force of One (1979).
From Japan, Sonny Chiba starred in his first martial arts movie in 1973 called the Karate Kiba. His breakthrough international hit was The Street Fighter series (1974), which established him as the reigning Japanese martial arts actor in international cinema. He also played the role of Mas Oyama in Champion of Death, Karate Bearfighter, and Karate for Life (1975–1977). Chiba's action films were not only bounded by martial arts, but also action thriller (Doberman Cop and Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon - both from 1977), jidaigeki (Shogun's Samurai - 1978, Samurai Reincarnation - 1981), and science fiction (G.I. Samurai - 1979).
In the 1980s Hollywood produced many big budget action blockbusters with actors such as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lorenzo Lamas, Michael Dudikoff, Charles Bronson and Bruce Willis. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas paid their homage to the Bond-inspired style with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). In 1982, veteran actor Nick Nolte and rising comedian Eddie Murphy broke box office records with the action-comedy 48 Hrs, credited as the first "buddy-cop" movie. That same year, Sylvester Stallone starred in First Blood, the first installment in the Rambo film series which made the character John Rambo a pop culture icon.
1984 saw the beginning of the Terminator (franchise) starring Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger. This story provides one of the grittiest roles for a woman in action and Hamilton was required to put in extensive effort to develop a strong physique.
1987's Lethal Weapon starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover and Darlene Love was another significant action film hit of the decade, and another "buddy-cop" genre classic, launching a franchise that spawned 3 sequels.
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 use of a maverick, resourceful lone hero has always been a common thread from James Bond to John Rambo, but John McClane in Die Hard is much more of an 'everyday' person whom circumstance turns into a reluctant hero. The film set a pattern for a host of imitators, like Under Siege (1992) and Sudden Death, 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.
Like the Western genre, spy-movies, as well as 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. This led to an increasing number of filmmakers to create new technologies that would allow them to beat the competition and take audiences to new heights. The success of Tim Burton's Batman (1989) led to a string of financially successful sequels. Within a single decade, they proved the viability of a novel subgenre of action film: the comic-book movie.
While action films continued to flourish as the medium-budget genre movie,[example needed] it also fused with tent-pole pictures in other genres. For example, 2009's Star Trek had several science fiction tropes and concepts like time travel through a black hole. However, most of the film was structured around action sequences, many of them quite conventional (hand-to-hand, shooting). While the original Star Wars featured some of this kind of fighting, there was just as much emphasis on star-ship chases and dog fights in outer space. The newer films featured more light-saber duels, sometimes more intense and acrobatic than the originals. Some fan films also have similar duel scenes like those the prequel trilogy. It was action with a science fiction twist. The trend with films such as The Matrix and The Dark Knight series, is that hand-to-hand fighting and Asian martial-arts techniques are now widely used in science fiction and superhero movies.
The cross-over of action with science fiction and superhero films continues with many Marvel Comics characters and settings being used for big budget films.
Hong Kong action cinema
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Currently, action films requiring extensive stunt work and special effects tend to be expensive. As such, they are regarded as mostly a large-studio genre in Hollywood, although this is not the case in Hong Kong action cinema, where action films are often modern variations of martial arts films. Because of their roots and lower budgets, Hong Kong action films typically center on physical acrobatics, martial arts fight scenes, stylized gun-play, and dangerous stunt work performed by leading stunt actors. On the other hand, American action films typically feature big explosions, car chases, stunt doubles and CGI special effects.
Hong Kong action cinema was at its peak from the 1970s to 1990s, when its action movies were experimenting with and popularizing various new techniques that would eventually be adopted by Hollywood action movies. This began in the early 1970s with the martial arts movies of Bruce Lee, which led to a wave of Bruceploitation movies that eventually gave way to the comedy kung fu films of Jackie Chan by the end of the decade. During the 1980s, Hong Kong action cinema re-invented itself with various new movies. These included the modern martial arts action movies featuring physical acrobatics and dangerous stunt work of Jackie Chan and his stunt team, as well as Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung; the wire fu and wuxia films of Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Yuen Woo-Ping and Tsui Hark; the gun fu, heroic bloodshed and Triad films of Chow Yun-Fat, Ringo Lam and John Woo; and the girls with guns films of Michelle Yeoh and Moon Lee.
- Action adventure - A subgenre of the adventure film genre as well. Typically, these films take place in exotic locations and frequently involve the hero travelling to several locations around the world. Examples include the Indiana Jones, National Treasure, and James Bond franchises.
- Action comedy - A subgenre involving action and humor. The subgenre 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. Comedy films such as Dumb & Dumber and Big Momma's House, that contain action-laden sub-plots, are not considered part of the genre. Action scenes have a more integral role in action comedies. Examples of action comedies include 48 Hrs. (1982), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Lethal Weapon (1987), Midnight Run (1988), Bad Boys (1995), Rush Hour (1998), The Rundown (2003) and Hot Fuzz (2007).
- Action horror - A subgenre combining the intrusion of an evil force, event, or supernatural personage of horror movies with the gunfights and frenetic chases of the action genre. Themes or elements often prevalent in typical action-horror films include gore, demons, vicious animals, vampires and, most commonly, zombies. This category can also take elements from the fantasy genre. Examples include Alien, Army of Darkness, Resident Evil, Ghost Rider, Planet Terror, Undead, Doomsday, Underworld, Constantine, Priest, The Crow, Dawn of the Dead, Deep Rising, From Dusk till Dawn, Blade, The Mummy, Legion and End of Days.
- Buddy Cop - A subgenre that became incredibly popular in the 80's with films such as 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, and Beverly Hills Cop. They typically involve two mismatched heroes, who are almost always police officers, whose relationship evolves as they advance the plot. This genre saw a minor resurgence in the 2000s with films like Rush Hour, Bad Boys, The Nice Guys, and On Probation.
- 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, pandemics, etc. Examples include Independence Day, Daylight, Earthquake, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Poseidon, The Towering Inferno, Dante's Peak, Deep Impact, Volcano, The Core, Armageddon, Twister, and San Andreas.
- Martial arts - A subgenre of the action film, martial arts films contain numerous hand-to-hand combats between characters. They are usually the films' primary appeal and entertainment value, and are often the method of storytelling, character expression and development. Martial arts films contain many characters who are martial artists. These roles are often played by actors who are real martial artists. If not, actors usually fervently train in preparation for their roles. Another method of going around this issue is that the action director may rely more on stylized action or film making 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, Enter the Dragon, Mortal Kombat, The Raid: Redemption, Flash Point, Champion of Death, Karate Bearfighter, Doberman Cop, Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon, Shaolin Soccer, Big Trouble in Little China, Charlie's Angels and The Street Fighter series. A variant of the genre is Wuxia, a stylized action fantasy period genre typically set in Ancient Asia where skill in the martial arts can enable fantastic abilities like flying and magic like abilities.
- Sci-fi action - Sharing many of the conventions of a science fiction film, sci-fi action films emphasizes gun-play, space battles, invented weaponry, and other sci-fi elements weaved into action film premises. Examples include G.I. Samurai, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Matrix, Total Recall, Minority Report, The Island, Star Wars, the Men in Black franchise, Aliens, I Robot, Transformers, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Equilibrium, District 9, Serenity, Akira, Paycheck, Predator, Robocop, Avatar, Mad Max 2, Divergent, They Live, Escape From New York, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and The Fifth Element.
- Spy film: In which the hero is generally a government agent who must take violent action against agents of a rival government or (in recent years) terrorists. They often revolve around spies who are involved in investigating various events, often on a global scale. This subgenre deals with the subject of fictional espionage, either in a realistic way (such as the adaptations of John Le Carré) or as a basis for fantasy (such as James Bond). It is a significant aspect of British cinema, with leading British directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed, making notable contributions and many films set in the British Secret Service. The subgenre showcases a combination of exciting escapism, heavy action, stylized fights, technological thrills, and exotic locales. Not all spy films fall in the action genre, only those showcasing heavy action such as frequent shootouts and car chases fall in action, spy films with lesser action would be in the thriller genre (see the spy entry in the subgenres of thriller film). Action films of this subgenre include Casino Royale, the Mission: Impossible franchise, Ronin, True Lies, Salt, From Paris with Love, The International, Patriot Games, XXX, Colombiana, Miss Congeniality (film) and the The Bourne series.
- Action thriller - Featuring guns, cool explosions, and amazing set pieces, this movie type first developed in the 1970s in such films as Dirty Harry and The French Connection, and became the exemplar of the Hollywood mega-blockbuster in the 1980s in such works as Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. These films often feature a race against the clock, lots of violence, and a clear—often flamboyantly evil—antagonist. Though they may involve elements of crime or mystery films, those aspects take a back seat to the action. Other significant works include Hard Boiled, True Romance, Point Break, The Warriors, Bullitt, The Seven-Ups, Cobra and Rambo: First Blood Part II, Taken. 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. The Die Hard subgenre has become popular in Hollywood because of its crowd appeal and the relative simplicity of building sets for such a constrained piece. Examples include Under Siege (terrorists take over a ship), Broken Arrow (terrorists hijack a nuclear weapon from a B-2 bomber), Snakes on a Plane (poisonous snakes take over a passenger plane), Speed, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory and Derailed (hostages are trapped on trains and buses), 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).
- Superhero film - Usually having elements of science fiction and fantasy, they focus on the actions of one or more superheroes, who usually possess superhuman abilities and are dedicated to protecting the public. These films are almost always action-oriented and the first film of a particular character often includes a focus on the origin of the special powers, including the first fight against the character's most famous supervillain archenemy. Examples include Batman, Iron Man, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, The Avengers, X-Men, Thor, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk and Superman.
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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 Bruce Lee, Tom Laughlin, Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, Clint Eastwood, and Sonny Chiba. 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 ex-bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone wielded automatic weapons in a number of action films. Stern-faced martial artists Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme 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 American actors Wesley Snipes and Vin Diesel both had many roles.
Female actors with major, active roles in action films include Michelle Yeoh, Lucy Liu, Michelle Rodriguez, Milla Jovovich, Kate Beckinsale, Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Uma Thurman, Sandra Bullock, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton, Sanaa Lathan, Geena Davis, Halle Berry, Emily Blunt, Zhang Ziyi, Maggie Q, Keira Knightley, Charlize Theron, Demi Moore, Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Connelly, Brigitte Nielsen, Carrie-Anne Moss, Lori Petty, Jessica Alba, Jamie Lee Curtis. After a successful career in stunts Zoe Bell has recently crossed over to become an action star in her own right and Ronda Rousey and Gina Carano have both come from a mixed martial arts background to action roles.
While Keanu Reeves and Harrison Ford both had major roles in action science fiction films (The Matrix and Blade Runner, respectively), they later branched out into a number of other action genres, such as action-adventure films.
American 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, later morphed into an action hero with the car-chase-and-gunfire-filled Jason Bourne franchise. European action actors such as Belgian Jean-Claude Van Damme (Bloodsport, Hard Target, Timecop), French Jean Reno (Ronin, Léon: The Professional, Mission: Impossible), Swedish Dolph Lundgren (Showdown in Little Tokyo, Universal Soldier, The Expendables), Irish Colin Farrell (SWAT, Daredevil, Miami Vice), and English Jason Statham (The Transporter, The Expendables, Crank) appeared in a number of action films in the 1990s and 2000s.
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. Influential and popular directors from the 1980s to 2000s include James Cameron (for the first two Terminator films, Aliens, True Lies); Andrew Davis (Code of Silence, Above the Law, Under Siege, The Fugitive); John Woo (Hong Kong action films such as Hard Boiled and US-made English-language films such as Hard Target, Broken Arrow and Face/Off); John McTiernan (the first and third Die Hard films, Predator, The Last Action Hero); Ridley Scott (Black Rain, Black Hawk Down); The Wachowskis (The Matrix trilogy), Andrzej Bartkowiak (Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds, Cradle 2 the Grave, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li), Robert Rodriguez (Mexico trilogy, From Dusk till Dawn, Machete) and Michael Bay (the first two Bad Boys films, The Rock, Transformers pentology); Louis Leterrier (the first two Transporter films, Unleashed). For a longer list, see the List of action film directors article.
- Avi Lerner (born 13 October 1947) is a film producer, primarily of American action movies.
- Boaz Davidson (Hebrew: בועז דוידזון, born 8 November 1943) is an Israeli film director, producer and screenwriter. He was born in Tel Aviv, Israel and studied film in London.
- Bob Weinstein (born October 18, 1954) is an American film producer. He is the founder and head of Dimension Films, former co-chairman of Miramax Films, and current head, with his brother Harvey Weinstein, of The Weinstein Company.
- Don Simpson (October 29, 1943 – January 19, 1996) was an American film producer, screenwriter, and actor. Simpson, along with his producing partner Jerry Bruckheimer, produced such hit films as Flashdance (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Top Gun (1986), and The Rock (1996). Their films would go on to earn $3 billion.
- Harvey Weinstein (born March 19, 1952) is an American film producer and film studio executive. He is best known as co-founder of Miramax Films. He and his brother Bob have been co-chairmen of The Weinstein Company, their film production company, since 2005. He won an Academy Award for producing Shakespeare in Love, and garnered seven Tony Awards for producing a variety of winning plays and musicals including The Producers, Billy Elliot the Musical, and August: Osage County.
- Jerry Bruckheimer (born September 21, 1945) is an American film and television producer. He is known as the producer with many machine guns in his films and has achieved great success in the genres of action, drama, and science fiction. His best-known television series are CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, Without a Trace, Cold Case, and The Amazing Race. Some of his best-known films include Beverly Hills Cop, Flashdance, Top Gun, The Rock, Con Air, Armageddon, Bad Boys, Enemy of the State, Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbor, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the National Treasure franchise. He also serves as a Director at ZeniMax Media.
- Jerry Weintraub (born September 26, 1937 – July 6, 2015) is an American film producer and former chairman and CEO of United Artists. He now lives in Palm Desert, California.
- Joel Silver (born July 14, 1952) is an American film producer, known for action films like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. He is owner of Silver Pictures and co-founder of Dark Castle Entertainment.
- Menahem Golan (born May 31, 1929 – August 8, 2014) (Hebrew: מנחם גולן) is an Israeli director and producer. He has produced movies for stars such as Sean Connery, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Charles Bronson, and was known for a period as a producer of comic book-style movies like Masters of the Universe, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Captain America, and his aborted attempt to bring Spider-Man to the silver screen. Using the pen name of Joseph Goldman, Golan has also written and "polished" film scripts. He was co-owner of Golan-Globus with his cousin Yoram Globus. Golan produced about 200 films, directed 44, and won 8 times the Violin David Awards and The Israel Prize in Cinema.
- Yoram Globus (born 21 October 1941), is an Israeli film producer who is famous for his association with Cannon Films Inc., a company he ran with his cousin Menahem Golan.
- The Wachowskis—Lana Wachowski (born June 21, 1965) and Lilly Wachowski (born December 29, 1967), known together professionally as the Wachowskis, are Polish-American film directors, screenwriters, and producers.
- Hong Kong action cinema
- List of action heroes
- List of action films
- List of movie genres
- List of women warriors in literature and popular culture
- List of genres
- Martial arts film
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