Sunday, 22 July 2012

10 Key Titles in Action Cinema

With Stallone’s Expendables sequel blasting its way onto our screens this summer and The Raid introducing director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwaiswas as names to watch, 2012 could be a significant year for action movies. 

So here I present ten movies that helped shape the genre.

1. The Wild Bunch (1969)

Famously using more blank rounds than during the entire actual Mexican Revolution of 1914, The Wild Bunch is modern cinema’s first example of total balls-out shooting mayhem.  Events culminate in a Gatling gun, six-shooter and rifle orgy of violence as the dusty landscape is painted blood red. 

Legacy:  The level of violence displayed onscreen; any action movie that climaxes in a massive shoot-out (that’s all of them, then).

Fun fact:  The climatic gun battle sequence took 12 days to film.   

2. Dirty Harry (1971)

 The Clint Eastwood-starring iconic police procedural is a benchmark for one man and his gun powerhouse cinema:  in a world where he can’t rely on his fellow cops to keep the streets clean, Inspector Harry Callahan has to take his sideburns and Smith & Wesson Model 29 and do the dirty work of testing punks’ luck all by himself.

Legacy:  Cop-orientated fare like Lethal Weapon; a vigilante taking care of things His Way such as in The Crow; Keanu Reeves discarding his badge at the end of Point Break.

Fun fact:  The movie was loosely based on the real-life current case of the Zodiac Killer in San Francisco, made into a more straight-up thriller in David Fincher’s Zodiac.

3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Indy’s dabbles into the realms of child kidnapping, possession and human heart extraction were, strangely, at odds with the family-friendly PG rating in the US, and thus the first Jones sequel is attributed with introducing the PG-13.  For the UK, see the fuss over Spiderman (2002) and the 12A, although The Bourne Identity was the first film to receive the new classification.

Legacy:  Watered down action movies ever since, but especially in the last ten years.

Fun fact:  Temple of Doom is the only film in the saga where Indy tries to sacrifice his love interest to an ancient Hindu Goddess.

4. Commando (1985)

Col. John Matrix’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) daughter Chenny is kidnapped by evil vaguely South American types for some unimportant reason, resulting in the big guy tracking her down and playing a real life version of those classic shoot-the-screen arcade games with a never-ending succession of extras sporting invisible targets.

Legacy:  The one-man killing machine; the cementing of Arnie as an action legend.

Fun fact:  Future star Bill Paxton has a cameo as a coastguard.

5. Lethal Weapon (1987)

Mel Gibson is the suicidal loner ying to Danny Glover’s family-man yang in this classic, and decidedly dark, chalk and cheese cops comedy-thriller.

Legacy:  Too many mis-matched buddy-buddy movies to mention, some good (The Last Boy Scout, Bad Boys) some painful (the Rush Hour series).

Fun fact: 
Gibson’s anguished performance as Martin Riggs earned him a stab at playing the original tormented soul in Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Hamlet.

6. Die Hard (1988)

Blue collar copper John McClane (Bruce Willis) evades Alan Rickman’s group of Euro-scum terrorists who have taken over his wife’s office building, saving both the day and his marriage.  All whilst barefoot.

Legacy:  The ‘Die Hard on a…’ sub-genre:  any film featuring hostages and their liberation by one brave hero. See Under Siege (train), Speed (bus), The Rock (disused off-shore prison), etc.

Fun fact:  TV star Willis wasn’t deemed famous enough to have his mug on early posters of the movie, which instead focused on its principal building, the distinctive Nakatomi Plaza (really LA’s Flox Plaza).

7. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

The return of Arnie’s (almost) indestructible cyborg wasn’t rendered any less potent by him being the good guy, thanks to the sinister efforts of the eye-bogglingly effective ‘liquid metal’ T-1000 and director James Cameron’s liberal doses of top class chases and gun fights.

Legacy:  The film broke the boundaries of the use of special effects in thrill-flicks, and even today you can’t see the joins.

Fun fact:  Was the most expensive movie of its time.

8. Hard Boiled (1992)

‘Bullet ballet’; ‘an orgy of violence’; ‘heroic bloodshed’ – all terms used to describe John Woo’s last Hong Kong flick before his foray into Hollywood.  The Killer is the superior movie, but for sheer unadulterated carnage it doesn’t get much better than this particular example of Chow Yun-Fat jumping around holding two guns and blasting holes into everybody.  

Legacy:  Hollywood had seen the future of action, and it came from the East.  The bar had been raised.

Fun fact:  The climatic hospital shoot-out includes a two minutes, forty-two seconds single take sequence.  And it’s bloody brilliant.

9. The Matrix (1999)

Hacker Neo discovers that our existence on Earth is really a dream world and we are being harvested by a non-friendly alien species.  Only one thing to do then, and it involves ‘guns, lots of guns.’

Legacy:  Bullet time, a new physics-bending way to film action sequences. Something original for the first time in ages, even if the novelty wore off pretty quickly.

Fun fact:  The sequels are crap.

10. Rambo (2008)

Stallone drags his weary, rubber-faced John Rambo back into the battlefield.  Heads, arms, legs and plenty of other things that don’t usually detach go flying.  Complete nonsense in the best possible way.

Legacy:  So far this this splatter fest hasn't seen a return to Eighties style ultra-violence (boo!), but certainly it showed modern audiences that the old boys could still have some gas in the tank.

Fun fact:  Working titles included the enticing Rambo: To Hell And Back and the somewhat muddled Rambo: First Blood Part IV.


  1. RoboCop was another significant action movie which dealt with themes of identity and revenge as well as being a futuristic satire.

  2. Great Blog Jonathan, congratulations from: