July 29, 2012

The History of the Action Movie

Action movies have been a part of our lives since the dawn of cinema itself. It features one of the most simplistic stories a movie can tell. A hero faces daunting odds and an evil villain and must save the day. Whether the hero is John McClane, Batman, John Matrix, Neo, or even Blade, it features a man that have to overcome huge odds in order to defeat the evil forces that be (terrorists, criminals, monsters, etc.). Let’s take a look at how action movies have evolved over the decades and how the genre has transformed and changed becoming more elaborate and diverse.

The 1920s and 30s featured swashbuckling epics as some of the first action films. Movies like The Three Musketeers (1921), The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) featured plenty of sword fighting and heroic characters saving the day. Since the silent film era was still going strong, these films relied on the fight scenes to tell the story. The 40’s and 60’s saw action films transition to war and Westerns with some establishment of action “setpieces”. The 60’s saw the rise of James Bond which can be considered the first true action franchise and iconic Westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The 70’s is when action films became part of the action genre. Action movies transitioned from light hearted fare like spy thrillers and adventure films to more serious themed films involving sadistic criminals, hardcore violence, and many taboo subjects. Films like The French Connection, Taxi Driver, and Dirty Harry infused gritty stories in the grimy underground of American cities and became less glamorous and more realistic. Car chases became a big staple for these films as well as a showcase of disturbing violence. Around this time, martial art films have also gained popularity particularly Bruce Lee’s films like Enter the Dragon and Way of the Dragon. Other stars like Sonny Chiba gained popularity through his many martial art films with hits like The Street Fighter series.

The 80’s are considered by many action fans as the golden era of the action genre. The 80’s transformed the action genre from the gritty and serious stories to the big Hollywood blockbusters that we mostly know of them today. Films like Die Hard (which remains the most influential action movie of all time), Commando, The Terminator, the Rambo series, and the Lethal Weapon series remain classics of the genre. This time period also gave us most of out icons of the genre like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Mel Gibson. It was the era of the “fun” action movie where big budgets and huge A list casts was the main draw. Add a wealth of creativity brought to life through practical effects and a loving embrace of violence and gratuitous nudity became the benchmark of the genre.

The 90’s would become the era of CGI. Ever since films like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, CGI had taken the place of practical effects in order to fully show off action sequences and opening the door to many possibilities. It also became the era for sequels as Hollywood attempted to recreate the magic that the original had with numerous sequels to Die Hard, James Bond, and Batman. However, action films remained at the top of the Hollywood’s money makers list with numerous action films having some of the biggest budgets out there and still delivering many classics like Speed, Universal Soldier, The Matrix, Con Air, and The Rock.

The 2000s saw the action genre fade into obscurity and then morph once again into a different side from the One Man Army or the buddy cop formula and that is superheroes. Comic book adaptations of Spider-Man, Batman, Daredevil, Iron Man, Hellboy, and Blade have dominated the genre and the box office by giving our heroes a cape and costume while delivering these bigger than life action set pieces. Other action films have concentrated more on expanding their audience by limited themselves by applying the PG-13 rating in order to gain a wider appeal with films like the Bourne series and the Transformers films. Meanwhile, new action stars like Jason Statham and Scott Adkins have arisen thanks to their constant work in the genre and their mark with films like the Undisputed sequels, Crank, and of course the Expendables.

Now, where does the genre go from here? Do we get more shoot em’up action films or more superheroes? So far it looks like a cloudy future for the genre, but nevertheless it is going to keep changing due to the times we are in just like every other genre in film.

About the Author

My name is Omar and I love action movies. I grew up loving action films thanks in part to my father who would deliver a healthy dose of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Seagal in my movie diet. Ever since then, I continue to love the genre more and more and go along perfectly with my love for the horror genre. What other movie genre can specialize in giving you pure adrenaline and excitement in every turn?



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