The action movie genre is one that needs to constantly innovate in order to stay afloat. Filmmakers today in the action industry need to be aware of the trends and tropes of action films over the years if they want to make original and critically acclaimed films.
In the 70s, films like Dirty Harry, Rocky, Alien and Enter the Dragon relied mainly on strong storylines and character development, exotic and often breathtaking locales and excellent casting to ensure cinematic excellence. The ‘action’ in these action films would seem dull by today’s comparison, but it is the finer points of filmmaking that would appeal to viewers if they watched these films today. After all, there’s a reason they’re called classics!
The 80s saw a rapid change in the action movie cinema that would define the genre for years to come. This decade saw the release of the some of the most iconic action films ever made, such as Die Hard, The Terminator, Aliens, First Blood, Predator, Lethal Weapon and Robocop. Suddenly guns, explosions, grizzled and muscled heroes, out-of-this-world villains and generally high-concept storylines were the recipe for a blockbuster action movie. Die Hard in particular set the standard for many future films in its pioneering (at the time) themes of one man against several baddies, a sophisticated and calculating villain and a henchman that proves to be more than a match for the hero. Several later films, even great ones like Under Siege, Speed and Sudden Death were unfortunately seen to be Die Hard clones and did not receive their due praise.
This decade also saw the creation of several action movie stars who would become the mainstay of the action movie industry. Actors like Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone became the go-to guys for a sure-hit action film.
The 90s saw mainly a continuation of the tropes and themes created in the previous decade, and was dominated by Terminator, Rambo and Robocop sequels and similar films like True Lies, Demolition Man, The Rock, Con Air and Hard Target. Hard Target was notable in that it was among the first examples of Asian directors experimenting in American markets. John Woo, Tsui Hark and other East-Asian directors had worked extensively in Asian cinemas, specializing in kung-fu and crime based films like Hard-Boiled, Once Upon a Time in China, Drunken Master and Police Story, which often won critical and box-office acclaim. Now, as American audiences got their first taste of the Asian masters, we got films like Face/Off and Broken Arrow (directed by John Woo) and Asian stars Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat in films like Rush Hour, Shanghai Noon, Lethal Weapon 4, The One and Bulletproof Monk. A gradual shift from guns, mayhem and one-man-army themed films to martial arts, character development and comedy themed ones occurred.
The late 90s films were complex, varied and quite distanced from the gung-ho ones established in the 80s, even if they were not as wildly popular. It is safe to say that very few actors have managed to surpass or equal the impact and popularity of action stars established in the 80s and early 90s. In the twilight years of the decade came The Matrix, The Lost World and The Mummy, action films that were trailblazers in the merging worlds of action and fantasy – the action-fantasy or action-adventure genre – that would take audiences by storm.