Part 3

Action Films

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Examples

Recent Ultra-Violent Action Films and Their Stars:

Hollywood has always enjoyed lucrative returns from the action-film genre, although the action film has been steadily worn thin with retreaded stories, excessive macho-posturing of the 'one-man-army' hero or hit-man vigilante, and overwhelming special-effects and insane stunts. By the 1980s, action films became more hyperkinetic, violent, and expensive to produce. Raw, indestructible, powerful and muscular heroes of modern, ultra-violent action films were very much unlike the swashbuckler action heroes of the past. Many of the films have morphed into other genre areas, including thrillers, sci-fi, and adventure dramas. The biggest stars and their action films have been:

  • writer/director/actor Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack (1971); [Laughlin's first film, one of the earliest vigilante films, was The Born Losers (1967)]; followed by sequels The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977); a remake version Billy Jack (2004) starred Keanu Reeves

  • Charles Bronson (i.e., The Mechanic (1972), Death Wish (1974) and its many sequels, Mr. Majestyk (1974), Breakout (1975), and Death Hunt (1981), Death Wish 2, 3, 4 and 5 (1982, 1985, 1987, and 1994))

  • Joe Don Baker as real-life Tennessee lawman Sheriff Buford Pusser in director Phil Karlson's biographical action drama Walking Tall (1973); two sequels included Walking Tall, Part 2 (1975) with Leif Garrett, and Walking Tall: The Final Chapter (1977) with Bo Svenson; a CBS made-for-TV pilot, titled A Real American Hero (1978), was aired in late 1978 with Brian Dennehy as Buford Pusser - the film was designed for a series based on the Walking Tall films; [Joe Don Baker starred as a Texas sheriff in the similar action film Final Justice (1984)]; the original film was remade 31 years later with The Rock (wrestler turned actor Dwayne Johnson) as returning Special Forces veteran and stoic crimefighter sheriff Chris Vaughn in director Kevin Bray's Walking Tall (2004)

  • First Blood - 1982Chuck Norris, American kung fu and karate expert following in the tradition of Bruce Lee (i.e., Good Guys Wear Black (1979), Force of One (1979), Eye for an Eye (1981), Forced Vengeance (1982), the Vietnam-based, Rambo-style trio of Missing in Action (1984), Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985), and Braddock: Missing in Action 3 (1988); Code of Silence (1985), Invasion U.S.A. (1985), Delta Force (1986) and Delta Force 2 (1990), and Walker: Texas Ranger (1994))

  • Sylvester Stallone (his testosterone-filled, jingoistic, war-oriented films included First Blood (1982) with Stallone as a surviving ex-Vietnam Green Beret in Rambo: First Blood II (1985) and its sequel Rambo 3 (1988) as a Vietnam veteran/POW rescuer -- and twenty years later in Rambo (2008), and then in Cliffhanger (1993)). [Co-writer Stallone's Rambo 3 (1988) was the most expensive film ever made at its time - at $58 million.] Stallone also starred in Demolition Man (1993), The Specialist (1994), Judge Dredd (1995), Assassins (1995), and Cop Land (1997).

  • Steven Seagal, a stern-faced karate expert (i.e., Above the Law (1988), Hard to Kill (1989), Marked for Death (1990), Out for Justice (1991), Under Siege (1992), On Deadly Ground (1994), the sequel Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995), Executive Decision (1996), and Fire Down Below (1997))

  • Bruce Willis as an ordinary, smart hero in confined spaces in the high-octane Die-Hard action thrillers (i.e., director John McTiernan's Die Hard (1988), Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995) and Live Free or Die Hard (2007); also in The Jackal (1997), The Fifth Element (1997), and Armageddon (1998))

The Phenomenon of Arnold Schwarzenegger:

The Terminator - 1984Arnold Schwarzenegger belongs in a category all on his own. He made a career out of starring in action films in the 80s and 90s, most notably in the adventure/action films (and fantasy - sword and sorcery sagas) Conan the Barbarian (1982), Red Sonja (1985), Commando (1986), Raw Deal (1986), Predator (1987), Red Heat (1988), True Lies (1994), and Eraser (1996), but his recent End of Days (1999) didn't do as well as expected. Collateral Damage (2002) experienced a delayed release due to its resemblance to terrorist events in September 2001.

Many of Schwarzeneggar's action films crossed over into many other genres, including adventure, science-fiction, and crime. The Terminator (1984) and its sequels, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) (and the futuristic sci-fi films The Running Man (1987) and Total Recall (1990)) have incorporated other genre's elements into their plot themes.

Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) or James Cameron's Aliens (1986) featured a female action hero Sigourney Weaver battling the face-hugging and malevolent alien in outer space. In the Robocop series of vigilante crime thrillers, an indestructible half-human, half-cop super-android fought crime on the streets of Detroit (i.e., Robocop (1987), Robocop 2 (1990), and Robocop 3 (1992)).

Action-Oriented Adventure Films:

Action-oriented (and adventure-oriented) survival films have commonly been set in harsh, uncivilized locales - a desert, an island, a searing jungle, or a cold polar area, where an individual (or a group) must struggle against the forces of nature to keep alive. The threats of death, the selfishness of other individuals in the group, and other forces test the spirit (ingenuity, will-power, and altruism) of the survivors under these grueling circumstances.

The swashbuckler films, including pirate films (such as Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935)) and musketeer films, were best typified by the costume action/adventure drama The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The non-stop action/suspense film The Most Dangerous Game (1932) was set on an island where the evil Count Zaroff hunted his victims. The war-film The Lost Patrol (1934) portrayed a band of British cavalrymen stranded in the Arabian desert. Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (1953, Fr/It.) suspensefully presented a tale about the transport/shipment of highly fragile nitroglycerin through perilous and treacherous jungle terrain in Central America. Similarly, Werner Herzog's adventure/action film Fitzcarraldo (1982, W. Germ.) was noted for its depiction of a crazed Irishman's (Klaus Kinski) effort to haul a massive steamship up the Amazon.

The Road Warrior - 1981The Flight of the Phoenix (1966) told the story of a group of survivors following a desert plane crash. A remarkable film, The Naked Prey (1966), showed the endurance of a man pursued naked through the African jungle by a band of native warriors. Director John Boorman's Deliverance (1972) captured the intense white-water nightmarish experience of a Southern backwoods adventure for middle-class rafters. Australian director George Miller's post-apocalyptic trilogy, the Mad Max films, included the exhilarating second film in the series The Road Warrior (1981) (aka Mad Max 2) with its exciting, climactic chase scene. The film would strongly influence the development of the action-adventure genre hybrid.

Good-Ol' Boy Films in the 70s and 80s:

Low-budget action films with truckers, relentless backwoods or 'two-lane blacktop' classic chase scenes, heavy CB-radio users, and 'good-ol' boys' (or lovers) on the run, really reached a peak in the 70s and 80s. Some of the common denominators in the films were fast-action, car races or competitions, high-speed car chases by police after souped-up cars, independent/eccentric characters, actors such as Burt Reynolds, and simple-minded plots. See also a description of the distinctive sub-genre of 'road movies':

  • White Lightning (1973)
  • Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974)
  • Macon County Line (1974)
  • Return to Macon County (1975)
  • White Line Fever (1975)
  • Cannonball (1976)
  • Gator (1976)
  • The Great Smokey Roadblock (1976)
  • The Gumball Rally (1976)
  • Jackson County Jail (1976)
  • Breaker! Breaker (1977)
  • Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
  • Sam Peckinpah's trucker with CB-radio film Convoy (1978), based upon C.W. McCall's hit record in the 70s, featured Kris Kristofferson as Rubber Duck, Ali McGraw and a convoy of trucks on Interstate 40 near Flagstaff, Arizona and heading toward Texas
  • Hooper (1978)
  • Smokey and the Bandit II (1980)
  • The Cannonball Run (1981)
  • Heart Like a Wheel (1983)
  • Stroker Ace (1983)
  • Cannonball Run II (1984)

Other Action Films Series:

Rocky - 1976Sports-oriented action pictures have also appeared in this genre. Boxing pictures (the Rocky series of 1976, 1979, 1982, 1985, and 1990), car racing films (i.e., John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix (1966), the 'Cannonball Run' films (1976, 1981, and 1984), Days of Thunder (1990), Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) and The Fast and the Furious (2001)), aviation dogfight films (Top Gun (1986)), baseball flicks (i.e., Eight Men Out (1988)) and other sports topics have often appeared as subjects in action films.

Raiders of the Lost Ark - 1981There were cop actors in action-oriented crime films, such as Bullitt (1968), Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1971) with an exciting subway and car chase, and Lethal Weapon (1987) - a police action/thriller with many sequels starring mismatched, bantering bi-racial cops Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

The swashbuckler genre was honored and revived with Steven Spielberg's action-oriented adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and its sequels with mega-star Harrison Ford (i.e., Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)). Jan de Bont's Speed (1994) was one of the most relentlessly-exciting, non-stop action thrillers ever made, about a rigged-to-explode bus driven over 50 mph through LA traffic by a terrified Sandra Bullock.

Recently, female action heroes have been glorified, most memorably in Thelma and Louise (1991) and in the video game derivative Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) with Angelina Jolie.

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