It is a trend in all forms of art for artists of the same period to gain inspiration from a single event or idea. A long time ago a popular subject was the Crucifixion. Today it is the inherent desire for men to witness an explosion. Hence, the action film.
Essentially all action films employ the following criteria:
This is the most recognizable aspect of any action film. The hero embodies a number of positive human traits. The most popular attributes include motivation, strength, durability, a hidden though abundant pocket of sensitivity, and finally a genuine love for mankind and the survival of the human race. Unlike the villain, the hero does not usually have a number of people willing to help him.
Another characteristic heroes possess is the presumed lack of vocabulary. This is discerned by their continuous, overabundant spurt of one-liners. The one-liner is the hero’s trademark and is perhaps his most recognized and expected trait. James Bond’s famous “Shaken, not stirred” illustrates his impressive sophistication; Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back” denotes his confident determination; Keanu Reeves’ “Whoa,” suggests that even heroes may be briefly overwhelmed by the gravity of their tasks. When voiced noticeably by clear dialogue, the one-liner in most cases signals the heroes first step towards the triumph of evil. One-liners, like a cold shiver, occur spontaneously and in reflex.
The one-liner also calls to question an ironic issue in action films. That is: the ratio between the hero’s total dialogue and his hefty paycheck. For example, Schwarzenegger received a $15 million salary for T2 and spoke roughly 700 words of dialogue. That translates to $21,429 per word. “Hasta la vista, baby” cost $85,716.
No action film is complete minus a bloody close up of the hero during a fight scene. In most instances, the hero is shown with a sweaty, pained expression. Most actors exhibit this strain by squinting their eyes, lowering their brow and tightening their jaw. This image alone is another collectively recognized trait in the action film, as it is often displayed on the mposter (see: Die Hard).
The most distinguishing characteristic of the villain is that he is an intelligent person. Unlike the hero, the villain’s abundant (though misguided) intelligence is apparent in the first words out of his mouth. Most villains show signs of education, though they use their smarts to land more selfish goals. Villains also tend to have an incredible threshold for pain.
Every villain bears some type of instantly distinguishable scar, quirk, or lisp. James Bond villains were each unique for some type of burlesque accent. This unusual trait ultimately makes the villain a dynamic character. Think of Darth Vader, whose harrowing wheezing is not only one of the more familiar elements of Star Wars; his is the most recognized voice in film.
Finally, it is very typical for villains, especially the more dimwitted ones, to offer the hero a last-minute chance to join him in his quest for global domination, money, or whatever the villain’s controversial desire is. His effort is doubly effective; the villain’s ploy in doing this is first to hinder the hero’s threat. Secondly, in collaboration good is thus contaminated by evil. Though it is largely ridiculous that a clever villain would consider making such an offer, it almost always prompts the hero to hesitate just long enough to be captured.
Females in action films — not to be mistaken for heroines — are typically flat, lifeless companions to the hero, usually his girlfriend or wife, often buxom and voluptuous. Their purposes are simple; since most action films are aimed at entertaining men, the addition of an attractive female is the icing on the cake. Moreover, saving the female often serves as the hero’s primary goal.
Assuming that the typical action film is aimed at entertaining the typical male, understanding the hero’s desire to save the planet may be to broad a theme for a simple-minded male to comprehend. Understanding a man’s ploy to save a female (whose wardrobe is reduced to torn shreds by the film’s end if she hasn’t had a brief flash of nudity) is easy. Of course one may look deeper into the significant nature of the female’s role in the movie; she may be a metaphor for mankind. The simple-minded male may in result subconsciously understand this.
While shootouts in all action films arise due to events related exclusively to the film, all shootouts are essentially the same. Bullets fly, the hero receives a flesh wound, and the villain escapes with the female. To determine the true purpose of the shootout, one must look past its mere function.
The shootout is where all the main characters show their colors. Each primary character is forced to their functional end: the villain arrives at the brink of accomplishing his goal, the hero displays his lasting determination, and the female expresses her vulnerability by continually screaming. All this happens quickly, in a swarming cloud of bullets, glass, or shrapnel of some kind. It is typical for the hero to get injured during the shootout, forcing him to endure a near-fatal wound until the end of the film and often into the sequel (some even get a really cool scar). The shootout ultimately symbolizes the brink of loss for the hero. It is the closest he comes to failure.
Action movies are in essence male fantasies. Much in the same way as the ‘chick flick’ appeals to female interests, action movies adhere to typical masculine desires. Despite its seeming relation to an insipid trend, this structure has been evident for over two decades, and is discernable as the skeleton of many action films. By this token action is one of the most lasting, popular, and used genres in film.