The Action Movie is defined by car chases, martial arts, gunfights, spectacular stunts, and lots of things blowing up. The Action Hero has to pull off all of this and look convincing doing it. All movies have some kind of action, but the Action Hero as a specific type of movie genre evolved from the Antihero movies of the 60s and the 70s.
The ancestor of all Action Movie car chases is the famous car chase in the movie Bullitt (1968), starring Antihero superstar Steve McQueen. This chase has been copied, parodied, and referenced in countless movies, as car chases in general have become a staple of Action Hero films.
Bruce Lee epitomized Kung Fu and popularized the martial arts movie as a whole new genre of world cinema. Because of Bruce Lee, Karate, Kung Fu, and Tai Kwan Do became the primary form of cinematic unarmed combat. This style of martial arts quickly became a staple of action films starring actors such as Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jackie Chan and more recently Jason Statham.
The two biggest influences on Action films are James Bond films and Star Wars (1977). The James Bond of the Ian Fleming novels was the protagonist in Cold War era espionage/suspense novels but the James Bond of movies quickly evolved into an Action Hero with technological gimmicks, car chases, spectacular stunt work, and improbable Special Ops combat. For example, in Thunderball (1965) frogman armies fight underwater battles to recover stolen atomic bombs; and in You Only Live Twice (1967) a Ninja army breaks into a secret underground space launch facility hidden in a fake volcano.
Possibly the biggest single impact on the development of the Action Film was Star Wars (1977). The inspiration for Star Wars was the Flash Gordon (1936)serials of the 1930’s and 1940’s. With light sabers, barroom brawls, exploding Death Stars, and non-stop action Star Wars ushered in a new era of action packed blockbuster film.
Like Star Wars, the hugely successful Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) starring Harrison Ford, paid homage to the 1930s & 1940’s serials with a breathless fast paced series of cliffhangers, special effects, and incredible stunts. The movie also copied the look and feel of the 30s and 40s serials with a pre WWII era setting for added effect. The rock-jawed hard-boiled Indiana Jones is considered by many to be the greatest of all Action Heroes. Indiana Jones was featured in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1985), and Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008).
Mel Gibson also became a superstar by playing the Action Hero. The Road Warrior films and the Lethal Weapon (1987) series are hugely successful Action franchises. Bruce Willis entered the fray with Die Hard (1988). Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated the science fiction action genre with his Predator (1987) and Terminator (1984) series, while Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo character introduced in First Blood (1982) has become so infamous it is now an eponym. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “Rambo” as “A person resembling or displaying characteristics of Rambo; an exceptionally tough, strong, and uncompromising man (esp. in militaristic contexts); one who is characteristically aggressive and violent.”
While the Action Hero has some of the elements of the Swashbuckler from the serials of the 1930s and 1940s, the Action Hero also reflects the characteristics of the Antihero. All of the chivalry, romance, and gallantry of the Swashbuckler and classic Western Hero are gone. James Bond for example takes on the persona of his creator Ian Fleming who once said “I’m going to be quite bloody-minded about women from now on. I’m just going to take what I want without any scruples at all…” In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana’s guiding principles are “Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.” In the Mad Max films like the Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985); Max rarely shows the slightest hint of a code of honor or a sense of right and wrong, nor any romantic interest whatsoever. He is “a scavenger…living off the corpse of the old world.”