Action Films

The term genre is a diverse categorical element, it does not give any absolute definition as to what extent a certain art-form can be categorized under a particular genre.  This is what plagues the realm of film simply because there are several elements incorporated in motion pictures.  The script or the screenplay, for instance,  is considered a form of literature, and the script is only one of the components.  Other elements such as character and plot serves as an aid to defining the genre and ultimately communicate how genre gives a better understanding of commercial cinema.

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Take the case of the action genre, films conforming to the usual conventions of action involve, exploding buildings and vehicles, hi-speed car chases, seemingly tough on-screen aura, remarkable martial arts and fight scenes, technologically advanced gadgets and weaponry, high-risk stunts, biological disasters that either threaten or bring human existence to a screeching halt, these are several of the recognizable elements and themes found in action films (Dirks 2008).  More often than not, action films rouse a certain form of excitement through its distinct elements, but apart from all the blatant spectacle action movies promise, the genre has also become a communication device for the mass audience to understand how genre is crucial in representing commercial cinema.

Mikko Lehtonen, Aija-Leena Ahonen (2000), and Kris Clarke write that there is a possible way to distinguish common ground where action can be able to send its message to the audience. In the case of action, the myriad of elements and themes that comprise action makes the genre defined. The series of odd circumstances that pile against the protagonist, the magnificence of the frequent explosions throughout the film, and the blood-rushing scenes that gives the audience a sudden rage in adrenaline hormones are common elements not found in drama or to some extent horror.  In addition, regardless if the character, events, and setting are fictional or real, action films mostly focus on a single male individual overcoming all odds to resolve the film’s conflict or series of conflicts.

In accord with Lehtonen, Ahonen, and Clarke (2000) mentioned, the protagonists of action films or action heroes contribute in large part to how the genre gives a better understanding of commercial cinema.  From the moment the reel for the motion picture Dirty Harry started rolling in 1971, the modern archetype for the tough guy action hero was born.  The vigilante incarnation of Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan may already be a cliché but Eastwood’s character in the film introduces to the audience a new breed of police character that does not feel bound to the limits of the law, but a liberal law enforcer willing to sacrifice the ethical principle of the law to let justice prevail.

Before the release of Dirty Harry, the police characters in action films do not project a character trait that engages a more serious approach to the audience.  This  “shoot first, ask questions later” type of character who does not establish any psychological capability of solving crime, nor any investigative approach to crime fighting eventually seemed to have become less palatable to the audience.  This is perhaps brought about by the tendency of films with such characters to become predictable and less interesting as a result of the aforementioned predictability.

In Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood’s characterization for Inspector Harry Callahan appears to be drawn from the western films he previously starred in (Lichtenfield 2007).  Modifying his previous role characterizations to a more modern, urbanized set up, Eastwood redefines the cop character and the action film through his constant collisions with his superiors.  Eastwood’s context of the action hero (and the action film for that matter) cannibalizes how police officers are traditional conformists to the law.

The film revolves around Inspector Harry Callahan’s struggle to change the incumbent system of enforcing the law, inciting arguments with police officials, the district attorney, and the mayor.  He starts to bend the rules while in pursuit of a sniper who is out on a killing spree threatening to only stop the brutal killings if the officials decide to pay him (Siegel 1971).  The protagonist in the film relates a form of social awareness relevant during the 60s and the 70s by challenging the suffocating norms being practiced by society at the time.

Eric Lichtenfeld (2007) writes that in his concept of maintaining law and order, Inspector Harry Callahan implies an individualistic approach.  Such premise of a rebellious side is quite feasible to the public taste considering that the time of Dirty Harry’s release was also the rise of modern liberalist ideologies that defies the authoritative and prejudiced norms that plague societies, especially America.  Furthermore, Harry appears to be compelled by the fact that the very law he attempts to enforce hinders him to effectively do his job and rid the social system of the practices and established constructs that delivers the fake sound of progress.

The big city clash found in action films in the 1970s evolved with much stakes during the 80s as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1984 film The Terminator involved the fate of the entire world and the human its plot.  More importantly, The Terminator gave the action genre a revamp in such a way that it incorporated elements of science fiction, by including the concepts of time travel and advanced robotics technology into the action genres.

Action once again played the vital role of how genre contributes to the understanding of commercial cinema.  In the context of The Terminator, action brings about the understanding commercial cinema tapping the prevalent fear of technological advancement during the time as Schwarzenegger threatened to exterminate the entire human race to give rise to machines as the new intelligent species of the world.  In a similar magnitude, Robocop features how the fear of technology can serve as an irony to humanity as Robocop experienced an identity crisis where he asserts whether he is a person or a mere weapon.  Robocop is shown to be a tool manifesting a few vestiges of what was once his humanity.  In this sense, the film showed how one man struggled to maintain his humanity with the aid of technology.

Apart from the cybernetic hero, the 1980s also saw the emergence of the new action hero with a macho look and “me versus the world” attitude.  Eric Lichtenfeld (2007) attributes the introduction of the new action hero such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone with then president Ronald Reagan’s nationwide call for fundamental change in the economic, political, and moralistic planes.

This new archetype of the action hero brings a never before seen masculinity reminds the viewers of the United States’ warrior myths and racial supremacy issues indicated by the nation’s past.  The action hero’s  seemingly impossible body build, heavy armaments, and ridiculously impossible fighting ability has then become appropriate for the havoc wreaking,  extreme stunt perpetration and the overwhelming explosions of action films.

In creating the identities for the action heros, the basis for characterization were injected with anti-Soviet implications and similar threats to what then President Reagan considered a threat to the norms of democracy.  The dangers and hazards the fiendish villains pose to society is recognizable enough to be related to what Ronald Reagan called “the Evil Empire” which was the Soviet Union (Lichtenfeld 2007).  As a result, the hero’s goal became apparent, total annihilation of the threats to a democratic society.  For the general public this meant the hero’s display of compassion to the norms and principles being held by American society during the time, and any threat to what freedom loving Americans value was not good, and should therefore be eradicated once and for all.

The character type projected by actor Sylvester Stallone did not only establish a macho, tough guy- feel for the action hero, but it also marks a new era wherein the action hero poses both as an underdog and a superhero (Lichtenfeld 2007).  Although the concept of the superhero already ventured in to the realm of film in 1978 with Richard Donner’s Superman starring Christopher Reeve, Rambo revolutionized the action hero as a hero possessing superhuman capabilities.

For one, John Rambo became a superhero by having an origin to his aggressive character.  His experience in Vietnam as a soldier prompted grassroots activism and public unrest together with hostile treatment from local police officers  in turn caused John Rambo to vent out his aggression to society.  Based on his origins as a superhero, Rambo became an underdog through the harsh treatment of society which is the foundational purpose of his superheroism and destructive nature in the first place.

But putting the context of origin aside, Rambo became action superhero through the daring stunts that he did out of desperation.  Cliff-jumping, or in a more modern, urbanized context, building hopping has become a constant feature of future action films.  For Rambo, it is a move to avoid hot lead from sticking to his skin and penetrating through his internal organs.  Simply put, the seemingly dangerous stunts performed by the action superhero is his own ironic way of cheating death in order to continuously advocate his mission of curing the destructive way of cancer-stricken “moral society.”

Through the superhero qualities portrayed by Sylvester Stallone, the comic book superheros have found a way in the world of motion picture.  during the 80s and early in the 90s, costumed fighters seemed to have found luke-warm acceptance from the mass audience.  This is because of the fact that most of the hero’s experiences were originally printed on paper and thereby absurd.  However, the spectacle of special effects together with more emotional, and highly dramatic origin concepts, the superhero characters have found a home in the accomodating hearts of the mass audience.

The motion picture adaptation for the comic book series Iron Man for instance goes beyond the borders of its comic strip origins to create a social awareness in a post 9/11 America.  Receiving a wake-up call from his captivity in Afghanistan, Tony Stark (through Iron Man) decides to stop manufacturing weapons that seek destruction to people’s lives and property before the margin reaches in a more global scale.  With the height of terrorist attacks in several parts of the globe, the motion picture dares the audience to answer the question “what solution can be brought to put an end to humanity’s lust for power.”

Similarly, in a much smaller setting, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight further attests that every action hero is a superhero and vise versa.  The Dark Knight, particularly, the Joker, challenges the moral consciousness of Batman, the district attorney Harvey dent, and the entire Gotham Police Department.  In contrast to the traditional context of the action hero as projected by Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan, the Dark Knight’s villain, Joker, argues that the very law the police officers enforce is what hinders justice to prevail.  Joker individualistically wreaks havoc all over Gotham to prove that the so-called decent people who uphold the ethics of the law do not practice what they preach but simply bend them to their own advantage.

For more than two decades, the action genre of film has communicated cinema through the events and experiences in the lives of the protagonists.  Although it blatantly promotes violence and destruction, action movies present the world with possible consequences of human acts.  Beyond the spectacle of perfect physique, explosions, and stunts, the action genre poses as a morbid distorted reality of human tendency.


Dirks, T. 2008, Action Films.  Filmsite Organization Official Website, Available at:

Lehtonen, L. et al. (2007) Cultural Analysis of Texts. London, Sage Publications.

Lichtenfeld, E. (2007) Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action

 Movie. Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press

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