Cinema and Media Studies Action Cinema
James Kendrick
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0157


A hybrid genre that fuses the moral landscape of the western and the urban settings of film noir and police procedurals, the action film as we know it today is a relatively new genre, having taken shape in the late 1960s and early 1970s and become a fully recognized and immensely popular cinematic form in the 1980s. Because physical action and movement have always been a fundamental part of the cinema—they aren’t called “movies” for nothing—for decades there was no explicit recognition of a separate “action genre” among either producers or audiences. When the term “action” was used as a generic descriptor prior to the 1970s, it was typically conjoined with “adventure” to describe a range of films, particularly exotic types such as swashbucklers and jungle adventure films that were either set in the past or took place in a distant and unfamiliar locale. Although not labeled as such at the time, recognizable action films stretch back to the course comique or “comic chase films” of the 1910s, while for marketing purposes, the term “action-adventure” can be traced back to at least 1927 when Film Daily used it to describe a Douglas Fairbanks film called The Gaucho. Since the 1970s, though, the action film has emerged as a distinct genre in which physical action and violence have become the organizing principle, from the plot, to the dialogue, to the casting. However, even though the so-called “pure action film” is now recognized as a distinct genre that has become a staple of mainstream Hollywood cinema, as well as numerous international film industries (particularly Asian cinema), the genre remains problematic from a definitional perspective because it continues to overlap and interface with numerous other genres, including fantasy, science fiction, and war films. This has been particularly true since the early 2000s, as the “pure action film” has been largely displaced by an increasing focus on action-oriented science fiction narratives and adaptations of comic books featuring superhero protagonists.

General Overviews

Action films are built around a core set of characteristics: spectacular physical action; a narrative emphasis on fights, chases, and explosions; and a combination of state-of-the-art special effects and stunt-work. However, because the action film has only been recently recognized as a distinct cinematic phenomenon, most of the major overviews of the genre have been published since the 2000s and constitute a new avenue of scholarship in film studies. The only outlier is Alloway 1971, which was written just as the action film was being recognized and therefore focuses on popular genres whose primary unifying component is the centrality of violence. Since then, the major overviews of the action film have grappled with questions of definition and significance of the genre, as well as its generic hybridity and how the action film deals with and embodies various social and cultural themes, particularly issues of gender, race, and justice. Neale 2004 provides a concise overview of the genre that covers both history and thematic issues, while Lichtenfeld 2007 contributes what is arguably the most thorough treatment of the genre, with an emphasis on how it has developed via its various subgenres. Tasker 2002 remains the most thorough and complex work in its treatment of the intersection of social and cultural issues, which O’Brien 2012 takes up in an overview, discussing action films primarily in terms of their ethics and how they respond to threat, trauma, and anxiety. For a discussion of recent developments, Welsh 2000 examines the action film in the context of Hollywood in the 1990s and Purse 2011 limits its analysis to the action films of the 2000s, which necessarily involves a discussion of how 9/11 influenced the genre.

  • Alloway, Lawrence. Violent America: The Movies 1946–1964. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1971.

    Published as a companion book to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1969 film series on American action films from 1946 to 1964, Alloway’s book provides a comprehensive overview of the genres on which the modern action film is built, including gangster films, prison films, war films, private-detective films, and westerns.

  • Lichtenfeld, Eric. Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie. Rev. and exp. ed. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007.

    Originally published in 2004, the revised edition of Lichtenfeld’s book is one of the most thorough treatments of the genre, using a variety of methodological approaches to examine the development of the action film via the various trends it has followed over the years.

  • Neale, Steve. “Action-Adventure as Hollywood Genre.” In Action and Adventure Cinema. Edited by Yvonne Tasker, 71–83. London: Routledge, 2004.

    Neale’s chapter on action-adventure films is one of the most useful and concise primers available, as he historicizes the genre while also touching on theoretical concerns (particularly the role of gender and race) and discussing the various subgenres.

  • O’Brien, Harvey. Action Movies: The Cinema of Striking Back. London: Wallflower, 2012.

    Part of Wallflower Press’s “Short Cuts” series, O’Brien’s book covers the historical development and aesthetics of the genre, although the main focus of the book is on political and cultural themes involving conflict, social opposition, individuality, the role of the body, and redemption and restoration.

  • Purse, Lisa. Contemporary Action Cinema. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748638178.001.0001

    As the title suggests, Purse’s book focuses on action cinema of the 2000s, and while it employs many of the same critical and thematic categories used in other studies of the genre (narrative, gender, race), she also looks quite extensively at the role played by homosexuality and how the genre was affected by 9/11.

  • Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre, and the Action Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    The first, and still the most thorough, book-length theoretical analysis of the action film. Tasker argues persuasively that the pleasures of the genre are quite complex and that it should be taken seriously for the way it deals with social and culture issues like gender, class, sexuality, race, and national identity.

  • Welsh, James M. “Action Films: The Serious, the Ironic, the Postmodern.” In Film Genre 2000. Edited by Wheeler Winston Dixon, 161–176. New York: State University of New York Press, 2000.

    Welsh’s chapter discusses the development of the genre in the 1990s, with particular focus on the question of authorship (is it a director or a producer’s genre?), the impact of large budgets and blockbuster expectations, and the manner in which action films interface with other genres.

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