Action Films – Shootouts, fistfights, car chases, explosions and a host of stunts are commonplace in this genre. Also known as “Popcorn Flicks” – most action films are not critically acclaimed, but they do normally have large budgets … and in most cases make good returns on the investments for studios. Action films also offer a major international box-office appeal.
These films provide audiences with a visceral thrill through excitement and energy, offered through mayhem, carnage, intense sound design, emphatic music scores, and engaging sound and visual effects.
Three components in nearly every action film:
- A hero (or heroic force) as the protagonist facing a potential life-ending (or world-ending) force(s) of antagonism. The lives at stake could be one, many, or an entire population.
- Over-the-top or exaggerated violence, stunt work, explosions, gun battles and fist fights, or special visual effects.
- Unbelievable or unimaginable situations or characters.
The character development in these films happens as a result of the hero engaging in challenging and violent confrontations. Sometimes you will find a character that is quite prepared for the conflicts at hand like a well-trained military officer, special agent, or athlete. On other occasions, a regular Joe (or Jolene) may stumble into the devious plot and serve as an unwilling participant for the challenges facing them. Motivated by self-preservation, and no particular interest in obligation to country or others, these (everyday person) characters may seek to run from the danger. But they discover that the more they attempt to escape, the more that chaos surrounds them, and the only option is to take the conflict head on. These “accidental heroes” usually experience more character arc and development than the “trained experts.”
While action films have been popular since the 40s & 50s (usually as war films of Westerns), the action film became a dominating force in Hollywood during the 1980s and ‘90s when names like Sylvester Stallone (Rambo), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator, Commando, Raw Deal, True Lies, Predator), and Bruce Willis (DieHard) proved to be major box-office draws for this genre, and thus establishing it as a money-making genre-category of its own.
Action films are sometimes political films in disguise. Key elements of the action genre are also used in various other genres (or genre-hybrids) for the sake of audience engagement.
Universal elements of adventure (and fantasy) films include:
- Rebels battling an evil king or tyrant or righting wrongs for the common man (Robin Hood, Three Musketeers, Zorro, Star Wars).
- Characters Searching for hidden or lost treasure (physical or mental). (Indiana Jones, National Treasure, Robert Langdon series)
- Battles with Pirates, warlocks and characters with unique powers (Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, Prince Caspian*these are a sub-genre of action/fantasy).
- Characters trying to leave, escape or runaway from a past only to be drawn back in (John Wick, The Equalizer, Taken, The Bourne Identity, Jack Reacher, The Man from Nowhere).
The 73 best action movies of all time, according to critics (2018)
Film Critic Tom Ogg combines action/adventure and list these as his top-50.
Rotten Tomatoes has these films listed as the best Adventure films of all time.
Izod, J. (2001). Myth, mind, and the screen: Understanding the heroes of our times. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Manning, N. T. (2020, October 6). Getting into the action [PDF].
Modleski, T. (1986). Studies in entertainment: Critical approaches to mass culture. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.