The Stylistic Evolution of the Action Film Genre

Classic Style, 1900 – 1930

Realistic scenarios, simple plots, simplistic morality

ex – The Great Train Robbery

notable genres – The Western

The Epic, 1900 – 1950s, at its height

Large spans of time, huge budgets, Good vs. Evil as fundamental forces

ex: Ben Hur, Spartacus

notable genres – The Western, The Epic, Sci Fi Action, Disaster, which lead to Tokusatsu, Giant Monster

notable actors: John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Sir Laurence Olivier

Hero Style, 1940 – Present 

Focus on one charismatic hero, first franchises, special abilities/devices, sidekicks/support team,

ex: James Bond, Bruce Lee’s films, Star Wars Original Trilogy

notable genres – Spy, Martial Arts, Noir, Science Fantasy, Fantasy

notable actors: Sean Connery, Bruce Lee, Clint Eastwood

Urban Realism, 1960s – 1990s

Cities, Crime, Grey morality, Anti-heroes, Inhumane Living Conditions, Horrible Corruption and Predatory Villains

ex: Dirty Harry, The Italian Job, Soylent Green, Rocky franchise, the first Rambo film, Mission Impossible 1

notable genres – Action Thriller, Gritty Crime, Horror

notable actors: Clint Eastwood, Charlton Heston, Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise

Big Show Style, late 1970s – 1990s 

This action genre style is what most people think of first when Action Films are discussed.

Larger than Life Heroes, Massive Explosions, Lots of Guns/Gunplay, Car Chases, Quippy One-liners, Casual killing, Campy Villains.

ex: Die Hard, Star Wars, Superman, Expendables, the majority of the Rambo franchise, Terminator 2, Predator 1 & 2, Robocop, Star Wars Prequels, The Fast and the Furious 1 – 3, Sam Raimi’ Spiderman, Superman Returns, Mission Impossible 2

notable actors: Arnold Schwartzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Steven Segal,

notable genres – Big Show Style is a genre unto itself practically, Horror, Scifi

Neo Realism, late 1990s – Present

A response to the cartoonish excess of Big Show Style. A significant shift for the genre

Focus on flawed main characters, dull palettes, shakey-cam, parkour, Government Conspiracies, Assassins, the nature of Good and Evil

ex: Heat, Bourne Identity, Nolan Batman Franchise, James Bond Reboot, Terminator Salvation, No Country for Old Men, Drive, Man of Steel, Children of Men, The Raid

notable genres: Neo-noir, Western resurgence

Genre + Franchise, Late 2000s – Present

Introduction of more Science Fiction/Fantasy stories, with Action as its structure. Episodic film-making, reboots/sequels/prequels/remakes/relaunches, very focused on franchise characters, photorealistic CGI, slick/sophisticated camera work

ex: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avatar, Star Trek Reboot, Star Wars: The Force Awakens,

Big Show Resurgence, Present, blends with Genre + Franchise 

return to famous action actors, tropes, and character types present in Big Show style, nostalgia, simple plots, brings a polished shine to the spectacle of the 80s/90s

ex: Fast & Furious 4-7, Expendables, Terminator Genisys, Transformers



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