Explosions! Car chases! Shootouts! Sword fights! Action films burst from the screen with stunts and pyrotechnics. As with any other genre, action films have evolved over the decades. Some movies completely reinvented what's possible in cinematic action, while certain directors revolutionized the concept of on-screen action so vividly they were imitated for years.
Before we can talk about action films, we need to define what one is. Some movies explicitly label themselves action movies; that is, action is the center of attention, with the plot often stringing together exciting set pieces. But lots of films that we don't consider "action movies" include action. Often some other aspect of the movie is more prominent than the action, or the movie falls into another, more easily recognized genre. "The Matrix," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "Star Wars" obviously belong in science fiction, but they're loaded with spectacular action. Ditto for war movies and sports movies.
So instead of looking at action movies as a genre, we're going to focus on the idea of action in films. Which movies showed action in new ways? Which ones used action so successfully they changed our perception of film action? It doesn't matter if the movie was science fiction, a Western or a flat-out, no-holds-barred action movie. We think these are the ones that changed everything. Here we go, in chronological order.
Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film "Seven Samurai" set the standard for the modern action film. Yep, almost every movie on this list (all of them influential and important in their own ways) was itself influenced by "Seven Samurai."
It's not that there were no action movies before Kurosawa made one. Frantic comedies and action-packed Westerns were among the earliest and most popular films made [source: Dirks]. But before the Japanese filmmaker came along, filming action largely meant pointing a camera at something exciting. Kurosawa used film technology to depict action in ways no one had ever seen. He shot every scene with multiple cameras, some of them operating at different speeds. This allowed him to emphasize certain actions with slow-motion effects or intercut rapidly between angles to increase the pace of a scene [source: Nixon]. "Seven Samurai" established the visual language of modern action movies.
Watch "Seven Samurai," and you'll also find many modern action movie tropes. There's the process of assembling a team of heroes, misfits and iconoclasts who don't fit into society; the romantic entanglement; the duty-bound warriors doing a thankless job because no one else will – all of that could describe a gritty crime movie or countless espionage thrillers, but Kurosawa did it first [source: Ebert].
'The Wild Bunch'
There had to be a Western on this list, and it had to be "The Wild Bunch." Sam Peckinpah's 1969 movie about a gang of outlaws getting together "for one last score" rewrote cinematic violence. The Motion Picture Production Code, which set strict limits on the types of crime, sex and violence that Hollywood movies could depict, was abandoned in 1968, giving Peckinpah a lot more freedom to make the kind of modern Western he wanted to make [source: Ferrara].
"The Wild Bunch" takes violence to a new level not simply by being more violent, although it certainly does that. Peckinpah makes the carefully orchestrated gun battles and gory deaths key elements of the movie, emphasizing the theme that the life of an outlaw is ultimately empty and can only end in violent death. It isn't a movie with violence in it; "The Wild Bunch" is a movie about violence.
Peckinpah's editing style — fast edits, slow-motion, action shot from multiple angles — inspired a generation of film directors. It's easy to see that Peckinpah himself was influenced by Kurosawa.
'Enter the Dragon'
You can't talk about action movies without talking about kung fu. These movies are built on Chinese wuxia stories, folktales about wandering heroes. They were immensely popular in Asia for decades, but until the 1970s they remained more of a novelty to Western audiences [source: Vaux].
Then Bruce Lee came along.
Lee was a charismatic performer with incredible skill at martial arts. Building on his moderate success in kung fu films released in Hong Kong, Lee cowrote and coproduced "Enter the Dragon," with the intention of breaking into the U.S. film market. The movie was distributed by Warner Bros. and shown in U.S. theaters, where it earned $25 million [source: IMDb].
"Enter the Dragon" arguably is an excellent martial arts action movie, and Lee makes for a great, intense action hero, but it's not necessarily a better movie than many other kung fu films released only in Asian markets. It was the success of "Enter the Dragon" in the U.S. that changed everything. American audiences wanted more kung fu action, and directors who grew up watching Bruce Lee's movies would go on to infuse their own films with elements borrowed from kung fu. You can see the kung fu influence on Hollywood in movies like "The Matrix" and in the American success of Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat.
"Star Wars" is the perfect example of a movie you probably don't think of as an action movie. It's science fiction. Or adventure. Or space opera. But it has sword fights, gun battles, explosions and chases. There's no doubt "Star Wars" is packed with action.
It's easy to see how "Star Wars" changed everything. The film achieved astonishing success when it was released back in 1977, but that success goes far beyond box office numbers. "Star Wars" has become a massive part of pop culture, one film trilogy spawning another, numerous rereleases, TV shows, comic books, games, toys, theme parks, novels and even more movies. It's a cultural juggernaut. It's difficult to imagine a world without droids, Wookiees, Jedi and the Force because they've become ubiquitous.
Hollywood went straight to work trying to repeat that success. The film industry's new willingness to gamble on big-budget, sci-fi action movies in hopes of another "Star Wars"-size jackpot led to the "Terminator" series, the "Alien" movies, "RoboCop," "Jurassic Park," "The Matrix" and dozens of others. Sure, a lot of those series might have been made without "Star Wars" paving the way, but they might have had smaller budgets or fewer big stars.
"Superman" arguably is not a great movie. It's a good 1978 action movie starring Christopher Reeve as an alien with superpowers in a bright blue outfit. But it made more than $130 million in the U.S., and that's why it changed everything [source: IMDb].
There had been a few minor superhero movies before "Superman," but none of them achieved any significant success. "Superman" is, of course, based on the DC Comics character. And when Hollywood sees success, it tries to replicate it. Several more (less successful) Superman movies followed. In 1989, another DC hero, "Batman" made more than $400 million, and the era of the superhero movie really began [source: IMDb].
Superheroes dominate the action movie market today. "The Dark Knight," "The Avengers," "Spider-Man," "The Watchmen," "X-Men," "Iron Man," — all huge hit movies. Plenty of less successful or lesser-known superhero movies have been made, too. Remember "Tank Girl," "Daredevil" or "Green Lantern"? Superheroes are now a much bigger part of pop culture than they were in 1978, and it was the box office success of "Superman" that opened the door.
When you saw the title of this list, there's a good chance you pictured Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo, his massive muscles covered in grime, a bandana holding back his hair as he clutched a huge machine gun, a triumphant sneer on his face. Rambo is the ideal symbol of the '80s action movie, a cliché of endless violence, infinite ammo and a single invincible American hero taking on an army of inept Communist bad guys.
But the ultimate action movie series started out as something very different. The first Rambo movie, "First Blood," was released in 1982. It's a violent, exciting movie to be sure, but it explores complex themes (a Vietnam veteran returning home to find only alienation and rejection) and has a dark, intense ending.
The bombastic sequel, "Rambo: First Blood Part II," established the '80s action movie template. "Rambo III" brought more of the same, and a parade of muscular action stars came along, too. In this author's opinion, "First Blood" is by far the best movie in the series, and it introduced the world to the man who would become the ultimate action hero: John Rambo.
One of them is a hard-nosed veteran who wants things done his way. The other is a wise-cracking loose cannon who never plays by the rules. Together, they have to stop a cold-hearted criminal. Sound familiar? That's the classic buddy cop formula, and "48 Hrs." is the 1982 action movie that created the entire subgenre. Except the main characters in "48 Hrs." aren't even buddy cops.
The pairing of Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy establishes the buddy cop rhythm. They have contrasting personalities, come from different worlds and don't really get along. But only Nolte is a cop -- Murphy plays a con on furlough to help catch a merciless killer. "48 Hrs." isn't as lighthearted as later buddy cop movies -- the crook is a psychopath, the violence is horrific and the characters deal with racism throughout the movie. But the formula is there, and Hollywood is still using it today.
"Lethal Weapon," "Rush Hour," "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," "Men in Black," "Beverly Hills Cop": the list of buddy cop movies is practically endless. There are even variations on the buddy cop theme, like buddy cop movies where one of the buddies is a dog. We have "48 Hrs." to thank for it.
'A Better Tomorrow'
John Woo is best known in the U.S. for his blockbuster action movies like "Face/Off" and "Hard Target." It was the first part of Woo's career, in Hong Kong, where he truly made his mark on action movies. Back in 1986, "A Better Tomorrow" was Woo's first successful film, and the one where he established his unique style of shooting action scenes.
That style is instantly recognizable -- ultra slow-motion shots that display the violence of gun battles with slow grace, shell casings tumbling through the air. The heroes almost always wield two guns at the same time, often while diving headlong across a room, trigger fingers pumping. Woo's Hong Kong style never translated well to his Hollywood movies, but movies like "A Better Tomorrow," "Hard-Boiled" and "The Killer" caught the attention of prominent American directors. The Wachowskis used several of Woo's visual elements in "The Matrix," while Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" stands as practically a John Woo homage [source: Marx].
Of course, Woo was heavily influenced by Kurosawa. It's impossible to escape "Seven Samurai."
Many elements work together to make 1988's "Die Hard" one of the greatest action movies of all time: an impeccable script, a charismatic lead actor, an isolated setting, scene after scene of tense action and a bunch of memorable lines. "Yippee-ki-yay!"
But "Die Hard" didn't change everything just by being really good (although the fact that it takes place during Christmas has made it an unusual holiday tradition for fans). It shook things up by having such an iconic, perfectly executed plot that, as with "48 Hrs.," dozens of movies have tried to duplicate.
What's the "Die Hard" formula? You need an isolated location (and "Die Hard" proves that even a downtown skyscraper can be isolated if you're clever). You need a solitary hero cut off from his friends and allies, with nothing but his own wits and skill to rely on. You need to put that hero through hell. Finally (and here's the part so many "Die Hard" imitators overlook), you need to care about that hero. He needs to be an interesting, complex character.
The bare-bones version — a solitary hero in an isolated setting — is so common it's become a meme. "Die Hard" on ... a plane? A submarine?
'The Bourne Identity'
"The Bourne Identity" was released in 2002, the same year that the James Bond film "Die Another Day" came out. "Die Another Day" made twice as much money as "Bourne," but "Bourne" is the movie that landed on our list [source: IMDb]. Both are international espionage thrillers, but "The Bourne Identity" has gritty realism, brutal fights and plausible car chases whereas "Die Another Day" has a secret satellite doomsday weapon and people changing their faces with DNA restructuring.
James Bond fans are no doubt wondering why Bond himself isn't on this list. The Bond series is massively influential, but it's hard to pick a single movie that was a game-changer. "The Bourne Identity," on the other hand, marked a turning point. Action movies after "Bourne" came out tended to skip the sci-fi evil villain plots and stick to more grounded, real-world plots and antagonists. The Bond series itself completely changed direction -- the next one was "Casino Royale," a far more realistic reboot with a new James Bond.
Other realistic action movies came out in the decade before "The Bourne Identity" ("Ronin," for instance), but "Bourne" was a turning point, and the success of the Bourne series had a lasting impact on action movie style.
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Author's Note: 10 Action Movies That Changed Everything
It's really fascinating to trace the threads of influence across multiple generations of film directors. Getting to know a director (I'm a big Steven Soderbergh fan myself) and understanding how he or she constructs a story, builds a scene or portrays a subject makes being a film buff so much more rewarding. Kurosawa is a good place to start.
More Great Links
- Dirks, Tim. "The History of Film: The 1920s, The Pre-Talkies and the Silent Era." AMC Filmsite. (March 2, 2015) http://www.filmsite.org/20sintro3.html
- Ebert, Roger. "The Seven Samurai." RogerEbert.com. Aug.19, 2001. (March 4, 2015) http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-seven-samurai-1954
- Ferrara, Greg. "The Wild Bunch." Turner Classic Movies. (March 3, 2015) http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/21717/The-Wild-Bunch/articles.html
- IMDb. "Box Office/Business for 'Batman.'" (March 4, 2015) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096895/business
- IMDb. "Box Office/Business for 'Die Another Day.'" (March 4, 2015) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0246460/business
- IMDb. "Box Office/Business for 'Enter the Dragon.'" (March 4, 2015) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070034/business
- IMDb. "Box Office/Business for 'Superman.'" (May 7, 2015) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078346/business
- Marx, Cristy. "The Wachowski Brothers: Creators of the Matrix." Rosen Pub Group. 2005.
- Nixon, Rob. "Pop Culture 101: The Seven Samurai." (March 4, 2015). http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/191476|0/Pop-Culture-101-Seven-Samurai.html