Part 3

Action Films

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Examples

Ultra-Violent Action Films and Their Major Action Stars from the 70s-80s Onward:

Hollywood has always enjoyed lucrative returns from the action-film genre, although the action film has been steadily worn thin with retreaded stories, excessive macho-posturing of the 'one-man-army' hero or hit-man vigilante, and overwhelming special-effects and insane stunts. By the 1980s, action films became more hyperkinetic, violent, and expensive to produce. Raw, indestructible, powerful and muscular heroes of modern, ultra-violent action films were very much unlike the swashbuckler action heroes of the past. Many of the films have morphed into other genre areas, including thrillers, sci-fi, and adventure dramas.

The biggest stars and their action films have been:

Major Action Stars
Character Prominent Action Films
Tom Laughlin
Billy Jack, Half-Indian Green Beret Vietnam veteran The Born Losers (1967) - Laughlin's first film, one of the earliest vigilante, motorcycle-gang exploitation films
  Billy Jack (1971)
  Followed by sequels: The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977)
  Billy Jack (2004), a remake version starring Keanu Reeves
Charles Bronson
Arthur Bishop, hit man The Mechanic (1972)
Paul Kersey, crime-fighting vigilante Death Wish (1974) and its many sequels, Death Wish 2 (1982), Death Wish 3 (1985), Death Wish 4 (1987) and Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994)
Vince Majestyk, ex-US Army Ranger instructor and Vietnam War veteran Mr. Majestyk (1974)
Nick Colton, Texas pilot Breakout (1975), a prison breakout film
Albert Johnson, an American trapper Death Hunt (1981)
Joe Don Baker
Sheriff Buford Pusser, real-life Tennessee lawman Walking Tall (1973), director Phil Karlson's biographical action drama
  Two sequels included Walking Tall, Part 2 (1975) with Leif Garrett, and Walking Tall: The Final Chapter (1977) with Bo Svenson
  A CBS made-for-TV pilot, titled A Real American Hero (1978), was aired in late 1978 with Brian Dennehy as Buford Pusser - the film was designed for a series based on the Walking Tall films
Thomas Jefferson Geronimo III, Texas sheriff Joe Don Baker starred as a Texas sheriff in the similar action film, Final Justice (1984)
  The original Walking Tall film was remade 31 years later with The Rock (wrestler turned actor Dwayne Johnson) as returning Special Forces veteran and stoic crimefighter sheriff Chris Vaughn, in director Kevin Bray's Walking Tall (2004).
Chuck Norris
(American kung fu and karate expert, following in the tradition of Bruce Lee, HK martial arts film actor)
Colt, martial-arts fighter Way of the Dragon (1972, HK) (aka Return of the Dragon), a martial-arts action comedy, directed by and starring Bruce Lee
Chuck Slaughter, and John David "J.D." Dawes, a California trucker Slaughter In San Francisco (1974) (aka Yellow Faced Tiger), a low-budget Hong Kong action martial-arts film, and Breaker! Breaker! (1977), Norris' first starring role
Major John T. Booker Good Guys Wear Black (1978)
Matt Logan, karate champion A Force of One (1979), a martial arts sequel
Scott James, martial artist The Octagon (1980)
Sean Kane, undercover SF narcotics cop Eye for an Eye (1981)
Josh Randall, HK casino security chief Forced Vengeance (1982)
"Lone Wolf" Texas Ranger Jim McQuade, ex-Marine Lone Wolf McQuade (1983)
Colonel James Braddock The Vietnam-based, Rambo-style trio of POW rescue films, Missing in Action (1984), Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985) (a prequel), and Braddock: Missing in Action 3 (1988), a sequel
Sergeant Eddie Cusack, Chicago police detective Code of Silence (1985)
Matt Hunter, ex-CIA agent Invasion U.S.A. (1985), with sequel Avenging Force (1986) (Michael Dudikoff substituted for Norris in the lead role)
Major Scott McCoy Delta Force (1986) with Lee Marvin, and the sequel Delta Force 2 (1990); another sequel was Delta Force 3: The Killing Game (1990), without Norris
Max Donigan, soldier of fortune Firewalker (1986)
Cordell Walker, Texas Ranger Walker: Texas Ranger (1994), CBS-TV crime-action series, inspired by the film Lone Wolf McQuade
Sylvester Stallone
John Rambo, ex-Vietnam War veteran, and member of Green Berets

First Blood - 1982A series of testosterone-filled, jingoistic, war-oriented films:

  • First Blood (1982)
  • Rambo: First Blood II (1985)
  • Rambo 3 (1988), another sequel (co-writer Stallone's Rambo 3 (1988) was the most expensive film ever made at its time - at $58 million).
  • and twenty years later, Rambo (2008)
Marion Cobretti (code-named "Cobra"), in the "Zombie Squad" in LAPD Cobra (1986)
Lt. Ray Tango, in the Beverly Hills LAPD Tango & Cash (1989), a buddy, cop-action comedy with Kurt Russell
Gabriel "Gabe" Walker, mountain climber Cliffhanger (1993)
Sergeant John Spartan, in the LAPD Demolition Man (1993), futuristic action film with Wesley Snipes
Captain Ray Quick, CIA explosives expert The Specialist (1994)
  Judge Joseph Dredd Judge Dredd (1995), futuristic sci-fi action film
  Robert Rath, assassin Assassins (1995), action thriller
  Sheriff Fred "Freddy" Heflin Cop Land (1997), low-budget crime drama
  Jack Carter, mob enforcer Get Carter (2000), remake of 1971 film with Michael Caine
  Barney Ross, leader of elite mercenary team known as "The Expendables"
  • The Expendables (2010), co-written and directed by Stallone; cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • The Expendables 2 (2012), again co-scripted by Stallone; also featured Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, and Bruce Willis
  • The Expendables 3 (2014)
  James "Bobo" Bonomo, hit-man;
Ray Breslin
Bullet to the Head (2012)
Escape Plan (2013), also featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Emil Rottmayer/Victor Mannheim
Steven Seagal
Sergeant Nicolo "Nico" Toscani Above the Law (1988)
Detective Mason Storm Hard to Kill (1989)
Ex-DEA troubleshooter John Hatcher Marked for Death (1990)
NYPD detective Gino Felino Out for Justice (1991)
Navy SEALs counter-terrorist expert Casey Ryback Under Siege (1992)
Forrest Taft, oil fire specialist On Deadly Ground (1994) (directed by Seagal)
Navy SEALs counter-terrorist expert Casey Ryback Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995), the sequel
Detective Lt. Jack Cole The Glimmer Man (1996)
Lieutenant Colonel Austin Travis Executive Decision (1996)
EPA Agent Jack Taggart Fire Down Below (1997)
Bruce Willis
John McClane, NYC and LA Police Detective

The high-octane Die-Hard action thrillers:

The Jackal, an assassin;
Korben Dallas;
Harry Stamper

The Jackal (1997) - a spy action thriller, The Fifth Element (1997) - a sci-fi action film, and the sci-fi disaster thriller Armageddon (1998) directed by Michael Bay
  Frank Moses, ex- black-ops CIA agent;
Old Joe
Red (2010), an action comedy, and Looper (2012), an action thriller
Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger belongs in a category all on his own, most notably first making an impact in the adventure/action films (and fantasy - sword and sorcery sagas): Conan the Barbarian (1982), and the sequel, Conan the Destroyer (1984).

  • Lord Kalidor
  • Colonel John Matrix, a retired Delta Force operative
  • Mark Kaminski / Joseph P. Brenner
  • Ben Richards, a police pilot
  • Major Alan "Dutch" Schaefer
  • Capt. Ivan Danko in the Moscow police
  • Douglas Quaid/Hauser, secret agent
  • Harry Tasker, double agent
  • John Kruger, US Marshal
  • Jericho Cane
  • Adam Gibson

Arnold Schwarzenegger made a career out of starring in action films in the 80s and 90s, including:

  • Red Sonja (1985)
  • Commando (1985)
  • Raw Deal (1986)
  • The Running Man (1987) - a futuristic sci-fi film
  • Predator (1987)
  • Red Heat (1988), buddy cop action comedy
  • Total Recall (1990) - sci-fi action film
  • True Lies (1994), directed by James Cameron
  • Eraser (1996)
  • End of Days (1999), fantasy horror action-thriller
  • The 6th Day (2000), science-fiction action
Gordon "Gordy" Brewer, LA firefighter Collateral Damage (2002) - experienced a delayed release due to its resemblance to terrorist events in September 2001.
  • Terminator T-800 Model 101
  • Terminator/T-800 Model 101
  • Terminator/T-850

The Terminator - 1984Many of Schwarzeneggar's action films crossed over into many other genres, including adventure, science-fiction, and crime. His most famous was the Terminator series, with its many sequels:

Sigourney Weaver
Lt. Ellen Ripley

The series of Alien films by various directors featured a female action hero - who battled the face-hugging and malevolent alien in outer space:

Alex Murphy, Detroit police officer

In the Robocop series of vigilante crime thrillers, an indestructible half-human, half-cop super-android fought crime on the streets of Detroit:

  • RoboCop (1987)
  • RoboCop 2 (1990)
  • RoboCop 3 (1993)
  • RoboCop (2014), a remake and reboot


Action-Oriented Adventure Films:

Action-oriented (and adventure-oriented) survival films have commonly been set in harsh, uncivilized locales - a desert, an island, a searing jungle, or a cold polar area, where an individual (or a group) must struggle against the forces of nature to keep alive. The threats of death, the selfishness of other individuals in the group, and other forces test the spirit (ingenuity, will-power, and altruism) of the survivors under these grueling circumstances.

The swashbuckler films, including pirate films (such as Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935)) and musketeer films, were best typified by the costume action/adventure drama The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The non-stop action/suspense film The Most Dangerous Game (1932) was set on an island where the evil Count Zaroff hunted his victims. The war-film The Lost Patrol (1934) portrayed a band of British cavalrymen stranded in the Arabian desert. Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (1953, Fr/It.) suspensefully presented a tale about the transport/shipment of highly fragile nitroglycerin through perilous and treacherous jungle terrain in Central America. Similarly, Werner Herzog's adventure/action film Fitzcarraldo (1982, W. Germ.) was noted for its depiction of a crazed Irishman's (Klaus Kinski) effort to haul a massive steamship up the Amazon.

The Road Warrior - 1981The Flight of the Phoenix (1966) told the story of a group of survivors following a desert plane crash. A remarkable film, The Naked Prey (1966), showed the endurance of a man pursued naked through the African jungle by a band of native warriors. Director John Boorman's Deliverance (1972) captured the intense white-water nightmarish experience of a Southern backwoods adventure for middle-class rafters. Australian director George Miller's post-apocalyptic trilogy, the Mad Max films, included the exhilarating second film in the series The Road Warrior (1982) (aka Mad Max 2 (1981)) with its exciting, climactic chase scene. The film would strongly influence the development of the action-adventure genre hybrid.

Good-Ol' Boy Films in the 70s and 80s:

Low-budget action films with truckers, relentless backwoods or 'two-lane blacktop' classic chase scenes, heavy CB-radio users, and 'good-ol' boys' (or lovers) on the run, really reached a peak in the 70s and 80s. Some of the common denominators in the films were fast-action, car races or competitions, high-speed car chases by police after souped-up cars, independent/eccentric characters, actors such as Burt Reynolds, and simple-minded plots. See also a description of the distinctive sub-genre of 'road movies':

  • White Lightning (1973)
  • Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974)
  • Macon County Line (1974)
  • Return to Macon County (1975)
  • White Line Fever (1975)
  • Cannonball (1976)
  • Gator (1976)
  • The Great Smokey Roadblock (1976)
  • The Gumball Rally (1976)
  • Jackson County Jail (1976)
  • Breaker! Breaker (1977)
  • Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
  • Sam Peckinpah's trucker with CB-radio film Convoy (1978), based upon C.W. McCall's hit record in the 70s, featured Kris Kristofferson as Rubber Duck, Ali McGraw and a convoy of trucks on Interstate 40 near Flagstaff, Arizona and heading toward Texas
  • Hooper (1978)
  • Smokey and the Bandit II (1980)
  • The Cannonball Run (1981)
  • Heart Like a Wheel (1983)
  • Stroker Ace (1983)
  • Cannonball Run II (1984)

Other Action Films Series:

Rocky - 1976Sports-oriented action pictures have also appeared in this genre. Boxing pictures (the Rocky series of 1976, 1979, 1982, 1985, and 1990), car racing films (i.e., John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix (1966), the 'Cannonball Run' films (1976, 1981, and 1984), Days of Thunder (1990), Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) and The Fast and the Furious (2001)), aviation dogfight films (Top Gun (1986)), baseball flicks (i.e., Eight Men Out (1988)) and other sports topics have often appeared as subjects in action films.

Raiders of the Lost Ark - 1981There were cop actors in action-oriented crime films, such as Bullitt (1968), Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1971) with an exciting subway and car chase, and Lethal Weapon (1987) - a police action/thriller with many sequels starring mismatched, bantering bi-racial cops Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

The swashbuckler genre was honored and revived with Steven Spielberg's action-oriented adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and its sequels with mega-star Harrison Ford (i.e., Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)). Jan de Bont's Speed (1994) was one of the most relentlessly-exciting, non-stop action thrillers ever made, about a rigged-to-explode bus driven over 50 mph through LA traffic by a terrified Sandra Bullock.

Recently, female action heroes have been glorified, most memorably in Thelma and Louise (1991) and in the video game derivative Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) with Angelina Jolie.

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