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From “Apocalypse Now” to “Lethal Weapon”: An Action Film Genre Breakdown

Jourdan Aldredge

Here are five main types of action films, including how we define them and how to make new, innovative, and explosive action movies of your own.

If there’s one genre of story that is as old as mankind itself, it’s action. For better or worse, it’s been a part of human history from the very earliest days. And, if you look back through the genre histories of literature, theater, and art, they all tell tales of heroes, villains, fights, and — eventually — plenty of explosions.

The art of cinema and filmmaking is no different. From the first shots of The Great Train Robbery onward, action has been a staple of cinema, film, television, and digital video. But, what makes an action movie an action movie? Better yet, how can you make better action films?

If you’re looking for a basic guide to film genres and “genre theory,” check out this article first.

1. War and Military Action

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now

War and military action intertwine throughout the history of filmmaking. (Image via United Artists.)

Many of the earliest examples of action in film came in the form of war and military fiction. The rise of mainstream cinema coincides closely with several great wars, not just in the United States, but worldwide, and film was one of the best media for depicting not only news but also stories of heroism and valor.

Among the first war and military action movies is D.W. Griffith’s The Fugitive. On through the decades (and notable conflicts), we have films like Wings (1927), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Apocalypse Now (1979) and American Sniper (2014). And, while the scale and scope of war and military action might seem unattainable for many small or indie projects, there are plenty of examples of filmmakers finding more manageable and contained stories within the genre by using simple techniques, while employing many of the icons and elements you’d find in the big features. Here are some resources:

2. Spy and Espionage Action

Sean Connery in Dr. No

Bond movies encapsulate the Spy Action Genre. (Image via United Artists.)

Almost an offshoot of war and military action, the spy and espionage genre emerged as warfare advanced from the battlefield into everyday life. Esteemed directors and notable franchises include Fritz Lang’s Spies (1928); Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936); and franchises like James Bond (1962–present), Mission: Impossible (1996–present), and Bourne (2002–2016).

Spy action includes elements of mystery and suspense, but it is also the sub-genre that defined the car chase. Eventually it integrated martial arts and hand-to-hand combat and elements of the shoot ‘em up. Here are some articles with a bit more information:

3. Martial Arts Action

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon

Bruce Lee is the quintessential Martial Arts icon. (Image via Warner Bros.)

One of my favorite sub-genres, martial arts action, includes karate, kung-fu, and samurai films, focusing on hand-to-hand combat and stunt choreography. And, while traces of martial arts action appear as early as the 1950s, it rose to prominence globally in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, including films like Enter the Dragon (1973), Drunken Master (1978), Bloodsport (1988) and The Raid: Redemption (2011).

The sub-genre shares many, but not all, elements with the rise of Hong Kong action cinema, and it certainly owes its roots to the ancient martial arts practices of Asia and Europe. The filmmaking styles of martial arts action are similar to the western, focusing on a solo hero and straightforward plots pitting the protagonist against a clear adversary. However, more of the martial arts action film focuses on the stunts and fight choreography. You can read more on the subject below:

4. Western Shoot ‘Em Up Action

Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Elements of the western appear in various modern action films. (Image via United Artists.)

While it might feel like a timeless, classic genre, these days, the western is largely a new and uniquely American style that comes directly out of the rise of Hollywood as an international cinema center. And, while the icons of the American West are a large part of the genre, the shoot ‘em up stylings have progressed over the years, spanning titles like the aforementioned The Great Train Robbery (1903), Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), and into contemporary Westerns like Hell or High Water (2016).

However, the style is so ingrained with the action genre that elements of the western shoot ‘em up appear in all manner of action films, with classic shootouts, standoffs, and comic book-style heroes fighting dynamic villains — and the Man with No Name plot. Here are some more in-depth resources on the art of the western shoot ’em up.

5. Action Hybrid Genres

Lethal Weapon

The Lethal Weapon franchise is a perfect example of the buddy cop action hybrid. (Image via Warner Bros.)

The action film genre can be one of the hardest to qualify these days because so many films and projects include action elements. And, like most classic film genres, most of the industry relies on finding new, creative ways to cross genres that can be hard to categorize. Other than the action sub-genres detailed above, there are tons of other, smaller modes that we could call action or action-hybrid, including the following:

  • Buddy and buddy cop
  • Action adventure
  • Action comedy
  • Action crime
  • Action drama
  • Action horror
  • Action thriller
  • Science fiction action
  • Superhero film
  • Swashbuckler film
  • Disaster film

Consider how you might borrow from the different action genres for your next project, and see if you can’t create a new experimental mode of your own.

Cover image via John Wick (Lionsgate).

Looking to develop action genre projects — or any manner of genre hybrid? Here are some more resources for action and other genre filmmaking:

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