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.