Is there a great stagnation in action movies?

Chris MacDonald asks me:

Should we expect stagnation, or continued improvement, in the action film genre? The new Bond flick, Skyfall, is getting rave reviews, with some calling it the best Bond film ever. Hyperbole aside, it is indeed very good. Should we expect the next Bond film to be less good (regression to the mean) or is this one of the fields — like baseball management — where mechanisms exist to facilitate further improvement on a fairly reliable basis?

I was less crazy about Skyfall (“M, pull out your cell phone and call for aid!”) but that’s neither here nor there.

As for the stagnation issue, there are two main developments.  The first is a resurrection of sorts, namely 3-D, which is a very real gain, but in my view it is a significant plus for fewer than ten movies, most notably Avatar.

CGI is a gain for some movies (e.g, Troy, Life of Pi, Lord of the Rings), though it often makes action scenes less visceral and more distant.

The main drawback for Hollywood action movies has been globalization, which leads to too many explosions and not enough subtle dialogue and characterization.  The other main drawback has been high marketing costs, which encourages tent pole franchises with prior name recognition with a core audience.  That often means too much clunky plot exposition, too many comic book characters, too great a need to heed the wishes of the hard core audience base, and too few surprises about the characters.  There is one very good Spiderman movie but overall I call this trend a negative.

Still, there has been major progress in action movies, at least if we are willing to accept a particular semantic switch.  I much prefer Goldfinger to the newer Bond movies, but I also don’t think of it as an action movie.  It doesn’t have much action, although I don’t think people at the time felt that way.  By my possibly distorted standards, the Bond movies start being action movies only with Diamonds are Forever.

King Solomon’s Mines is a very good movie, under-watched these days, as is Thief of Baghdad.  Nonetheless prior to the 1970s I think of the action genre as virtually non-existent.  I was stunned when I first (1981) saw the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, though these days it isn’t especially impressive, just well-executed.

One possibility is that each generation thinks it is the first to have had action movies.

To sum up, for all of the contemporary excess, we have been living in a Golden Age of Action Movies. Even a scorned movie such as Lara Croft is pretty awesome on the big screen.  And Asian action movies have reached their peaks only in the last twenty years, including early John Woo.  Call that the plus side of the globalization equation.

That said, a few impressive 3-D movies aside, the last five years have brought more negatives than positives, a’la “Transformers” and various overinflated, noisy, character-stuffed, and self-important Hollywood monstrosities.  We’ll get over it, but in reality stagnation is something we might have wished for instead.

Here is one list of the greatest action movies of all time.  Not many pre-70s movies can stand up to these for action.

The next trend will be RCT-like audience studies to find out exactly which action tricks, with which timings, thrill us and which do not.  Great directors have an intuitive sense for this but it could be made much more scientific.


Skyfall was a decent ripoff of Bourne, but not a great Bond movie.

I liked "John Carter" much more than I expected. It was fun, didn't try to teach me some lesson, did not feature an oppressive soundtrack (although I watched it at home), and did not try to explain everything (or even very much at all) about where all these different types of Martians and villains came from.

I think we should all come together this holiday season and buy Christopher Nolan an editor....and then convince him to stop directing as well.

"John Carter", good. Christopher Nolan, bad. Armond White, is that you?

"I liked “John Carter” much more than I expected. It was fun"

+1, It was better than I expected it to be also. And a lot better than a lot of the 'high' ranking' films on the Imdb list.

Low expectations make that possible. Most movies the culture completely trashes turn out not to be so bad really.
I'd add films like 'Ishtar' and 'Cable Guy' to the list of films 'everyone' hated or panned that are actually pretty good.
And the high ranking films suffer from the opposite problem, they get hyped so hard that they can't possibly live up to it.

"Hollywood action movies has been globalization, which leads to ... not enough subtle dialogue and characterization." Keep up the comedy writing: it suits you.

This is pretty widely known. Explosions translate in a way that dialogue doesn't. Wikipedia has box office #s for most recent movies; check out the foreign take for a couple of recent action films vs. a couple of recent comedies or dramas.

That list shows another reason why so many action movies are bad: Tarantino. I'm not a fan of his work, but I can acknowledge his skill. The problem most directors and writers lack that skill, so you have a lot of Tarantino Wannabes producing crap.

That list was awful. Kill Bill as #1 and #2... Now I'm depressed. How the standards have slipped.

Technology is a big reason to expect increases in the quality of movies (including action movies), but not necessarily for the reasons stated.

The cost of making a professional-quality film has dropped dramatically due to digital photography and editing techniques. This trend will only continue.
Marketing and distribution (through non-traditional channels) are also much less expensive.

How will this affect action movies? They remain expensive to make and distribute. But the existence of the low cost route means that the pool of movie-making talent is much larger and easier to discover. This should improve the quality of all movies.

On the other hand, the existence of the non-traditional channels could cause mainstream movies to be more commercial and formulaic than ever. Because people will no longer be beholden to the mainstream, those with niche tastes (such as not liking tent pole franchises) will consume their movies through other channels. Thus, not needing to appeal to the whole spectrum of tastes, the big-budget movies will become even more banal. This is what already happened with music.

I don't know if there is literature on this, but greenlighting more movies puts a lot of tripe out there before the audience. Perhaps when the bottleneck was on production then stories piled up and the best were picked.

"The next trend will be RCT-like audience studies to find out exactly which action tricks, with which timings, thrill us and which do not. Great directors have an intuitive sense for this but it could be made much more scientific."

I look forward to this trend, and expect many Moneyball-esque discoveries which ultimately show there is no correlation (or perhaps a negative correlation) between the cost of a trick and the amount of thrill it produces. I speculate that the most "undervalued" tricks will be those that quietly embody higher virtues such as comradeship and teamwork—see here starting at 5:50:

It's an interesting idea, but how far can it really be taken? Baseball has a fixed set of rules and definition of success, so it's possible to determine the optimal approach through rigorous analysis. In an art form, innovation and creativity are part of the definition of a quality product, so you are chasing a moving target.

"In an art form, innovation and creativity are part of the definition of a quality product, so you are chasing a moving target."

Your point is very true, but I don't see it as inimical to the idea that a scientific approach based on empirical data can improve a work of art. The fact that one of the factors determining the viewer's ultimate "thrill" factor is a moving target won't change the fact that there are other factors which may be more fixed and are still worth knowing about.
Also, it would be very useful to show scientifically just how much of a thrill comes from its "innovation/creativity factor" and how much comes from other factors.

"saw the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, though these days it isn’t especially impressive, just well-executed."
Uh, The opening scene of Raiders is nearly a direct copypaste of an earlier films, especially Raiders of the Ghost City (with Joe Sawyer as Idaho Jones). The genius of the film was that it had the feel of a huge production flick but was made for under $20 million.

The real innovation in modern entertainment is that we consume like five hundred hours of entertainment a year, but the quality of the two hundredth and three hundredth hour is extremely good today as opposed to in 1990 when after the hundredth hour you start seeing a serious decline. Further the ability to enter into these industries is much easier today, and much cheaper to get into. I think there's more greatness in enhancing this margin of our lives, instead of making the best film or the best opera or the best song, 5 or 10% better than the previous year's and it's easy to see why you miss it. I might even be willing to make my favorite film of the year slightly worse off - year on year - if it meant the tenth best one I watched was much closer to that top quality.

I think Patrick's latter point is key, but it can also be tied to a specific development related to Andrew' 's observation below.

People like action; people like drama and character development, people like challenging philosophical questions, people often like some comedic relief. One of the great developments in modern film and TV is tying all of those things (and others, such as technical skill) in one piece. I have not seen Raiders of the Ghost City, but my guess is that Lost Ark shows more technical skill and a "twistier," but still tight, storyline with more realistic character development than the old serials. On the other hand, I am sure there are plenty of Ghost City contemporaries that have drama just as compelling than Lost Ark. Lost Ark just put a bunch of different elements together when many prior movies had kept them separate. The genres are running together, and that is a good thing.

In the same way, when we look back on the truly great old films, they kind of did the same thing. Gone With the Wind, which I believe is still--inflation adjusted--the highest grossing film ever, had great drama, great characters, and strong action and adventure. But that was the exception! Of course there is plenty of schlock out there today, but we really do expect more from our films, in general.

The same goes for TV. While there are exceptions, great TV has clearly ballooned in the last 10-15 years. Maybe the reason is economic (HBO moving into episodic production of its own, free of OTA rules) rather than being some great artistic awaking, but the result is still compelling. The dialogue in Deadwood is really poetic in a way that few since shakespeare have been able to hit, but its not just the dialogue, its the deep character development, challenging moral questions, and gruesome visuals that make it so compelling. Even the shows that are pop hits have a lot more depth--compare Sopranos to the Cosby Show (let alone the Brady Bunch). I don't think its just that the latter show was better at one thing, its that it tied together more elements. In 1985 you could get drama, comedy, action and some moral challenges by watching Days of Our Lives, Family Ties, Air Wolf, and M.A.S.H. But now you can get all that in any one of many shows, such as Sopranos or Breaking Bad.

Wow, did you lose me with that second to last sentence.

Hawkeye carried his cross of pointless war and foolish generals for you, pal.

Yes, until 1983.

Has anyone looked at that list. That list was made by one person. Grindhouse is #3, Team America World Police is #30 I find it hard to believe a comedy with puppets qualifies as an action film and then there was a Steven seagal movie listed. The action film has been innovative but it goes through cycles . i think die hard was very innovative for an action film if anything innovative for a Christmas movie, but the series stagnated after the first one same with the lethal weapon series.

And no Bourne films, the best action of the last 10 years at least. Every action movie made since Bourne has been a copy of Bourne, which is at least an improvement over copycatting Tarantino.

The other striking thing is how many horrible movies are on the list. Is Action just a horrid genre by definition? Is Saving Private Ryan not on there because it is considered not to be part of the action genre? If you just edited out the significant parts of the movie it would still make the top 10 of that list just on its action sequences.

The Bourne Identity pitch:

"So he's James Bond, but because of amnesia, he feels guilty about. So it will also appeal to women."

Also, am I the only one tired of movies where Matt Damon is really good at something?

And to dnb's point, yes, it's a terrible, terrible list.

It may be true, but then why is James Bond now Jason Bourne+Bruce Wayne. Bond's family mansion even burns down for goodness sake!

This explains everything.

Art is theft?

Neither Bond nor Wayne apologize for what they do. That's the essence of Bourne. I do all this kick-ass stuff, but because I explicitly acknowledge it's wrong, it's acceptable for women and liberals to acknowledge enjoying it.

I agree the TBI was well executed.

Bond used to not question and just enjoy the ride, a bit like The Comedian from Watchmen, now he does seem to question, but he never really digs for the answers. At some point, as the reboot runs its course, it seems he becomes The Comedian of the earlier/later Bond films.

Eh? The action scenes in the Bourne films are much better than those in Bond films of the same era. That's the fundamental difference (plus, it treats its viewers as if they had at least a marginal level of intelligence).


I agree that The Bourne Identity is a lot better than The World Is Not Enough. But it's chief distinguishing feature is angst and guilt. And it's not in the same league as From Russia With Love. It's trying to be all things to all people by making the assassin all moral and sad. Blech. That's easy. And it's not in the spirit of the action movie. :)

One specific gripe about TBI is that the action is shot too close in, which everyone seems to want to do since the late 90s, and which allows cheap CGI to substitute for stuntmen and choreography.

I hate the quick cutting, but Bourne is that style done right. Everything else is doing it wrong.

WHAT! Mask of Zorro isn't even on the list!

There's some kind of wild energy to Transformers 3 that I don't think should be dismissed so quickly.

It was wondering if the third movie was some kind of celebration of the G1 series. Full of direct plot elements from several episodes, along with a vastly over complicated plan by Megatron. If only they had Prowl's face randomly vanish ( ) would I be sure that it was done on purpose.

Yeah. Definitely.

Come to think of it, there's this kind of "wild energy" in Transformers 2 as well. I wonder if action-movie directors will be able to puzzle this elusive concept out.

Problem is a good action movie, after normalizing for improvements in tech has to go beyond the fireworksand the story to become memorable, with the exceptions of technically innovative landmarks. For the hero/franchise type this usually translates in psychological introspection of the characters, executing special motivational justifications. A part of what made Batman Begins et al. so special is further explored in the Bond movie, answering and fitting whatever was impeccable of the hero while showing the vulnerable character development, bringing them closer to life. For Bond, we never had that before.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service ?

With the possible exception of the lead actor, hands down the best Bond film.

Finch is correct best one of the series. Want to see a movie fail at trying to mix action and character development watch the world is not enough.

On his psychological test: skyfall.

Shouldn't we also consider the rise of dvds/streaming/pirated films/tv? Outside options for audiences are much better - they can get subtle characterization at home in a few minutes via Netflix. The `dumbing down' of action films could easily just be an attempt to appeal to the demographic which is less likely to settle on the sofa with a glass of wine - i.e. 16-25 year old men, or to the part of us that want to go to the cinema just to see stuff blow up.

too many comic book characters, too great a need to heed the wishes of the hard core audience base, and too few surprises about the characters.

It takes a little bit of skill to appeal to wide audiences without alienating the core base, but not that much skill. And most fans of superhero characters are completely at ease with multiple continuities, so changing things up isn't that hard. The usual complaint among most fans isn't "they did the characters wrong" but "the movie was boring." (Sometimes they decided the movie sucked even before the movie came out, like with The Last Airbender or The Green Lantern, but those are exceptions.)

Joss Whedon directed the biggest grossing movie of 2012 by keeping that in mind. He was probably the perfect person for the job, having been practicing for the part for some 15 years.

Hello? The problem is society's progressive intolerance for originality in creative works. There is a reason why every blockbuster movie for the past 5-10 years has been some sort of reboot, revival, or sequal based on existing works. Bond, The Avengers, Star Trek, etc. are merely the most recent examples of this. Even Avatar was nothing more than Medicine Man cast in outer space.

We can put up our noses about the action films of days gone by, but the fact of the matter is that spaghetti westerns had to be invented before they became cheesy. The Deathwish movies are not revolutions in storytelling, but the sad fact of the matter is that even today's best action films lack plots as "innovative" as the average Charles Bronson movie.

Same is true for books, music, and visual art. We have been delibarately killing originality in art ever since the 1940s, and we are reaping what we have sown. Until people start to reacquire a taste for "deviation from the norm" we are pretty much SCREWED.

The vast majority of people have never appreciated "deviation from the norm", and few films represent a radical departure from all precedent. Maybe 2001.

Skyfall is an atrocious film... Boring, self important, earnest.

Expendables 2 is far better - Enjoyable and self effacing.

"Here is one list of the greatest action movies of all time. Not many pre-70s movies can stand up to these for action."

I'm guessing that list has much more to do with driving clicks to IMDB pages for movies that somebody still hopes to make a buck on. You could count out old war movies, westerns and thriller, because they don't exactly conform to our contemporary notion of an action movie. Even then, this list gives itself away by the fact that it's so overweight the 2000s and underweight the 1980s. Is there anyone would contend that Sucker Punch, Hellboy 2 and all three Underworlds are "greater" action movies than Die Hard for other than commercial reasons?

"CGI is a gain for some movies (e.g, Troy, Life of Pi, Lord of the Rings), though it often makes action scenes less visceral and more distant."

I have to wonder if TC has ever really watched LOTR. The other night I happened across the first one, the Moria sequence. First you get the unfortunate CGI cave troll, with standard characters-getting-flung-around-but-magically-unhurt and lots of unrealistic movement and then you have the cartoon CGI orcs that scurry down the walls like monkeys, then you have some pointless CGI crumbling bridge stuff, then the oversized, cliche-demonic CGI balrog. There isn't an undreary moment. That film would have been so much better if the computer had never been invented. Yes, they were able to make the hobbits small but maybe they could have just used shortish actors and clever camera angles.

Also, apparently TC is not a big fan of westerns, because they go unmentioned but isn't that what a large proportion of older "action" films were? Westerns? (Maybe also war films, but I don't think there were so many). Soon there will be a Wild Bunch remake and this time they'll improve upon the famous bridge scene. Thanks to CGI the bridge will be hundreds of feet up in the air and we'll have hundreds of horses on the bridge and lots and lots of rocks falling off cliffs and men on horses shooting as they fall through the air and even though we won't really be able to see what's going on because of all the fast cutting it will all be so much more impressive. And the original will seem as dull as dirt, or as dull as any Yakima Canutt stunt.

I surprised by the easy dismissal of Raiders Of the Lost Arc that even my three young boys (who love CGI animation) loved that movie and series. I do think that most critics have underestimated the quality of action (along with horror and animation) because it takes a generation to grow up to argue their quality. That said I recommend the following pre-1970s:
1) Connery's Bond Movie - The series made action movies big budget A movies for the first term. Before this big budget action (not Westerns) were the exception not the rule of cheap B movies.
2) Buster Keaton The General & Seven Chances (or any other silent) - Although lumped into slapstick comedy, these have a lot of action in them as well. You can put Harold Lloyd in this category as well although his movies are not as strong.
3) King Kong - Yes classic Hollywood can put a great popcorn movie for the market and does show that modern action movies dependence on numerous action sequences does slow down the narrative
4) The Adventures Of Robin Hood - The ultimate swashbuckler with great acting up and down the screen.
5) The Thief Of Bagdad - Yes, the action star of silent screen Douglas Fairbanks was one of a kind and all his swashbluckers are worth watching.
6) North By Northwest - The master in his funhouse while creating the Bond series blueprint.
7) Rio Bravo and Stagecoach - For the most part the main action movies of the later studio era were the Westerns and come from two of the masters of filmmking.


" Nonetheless prior to the 1970s I think of the action genre as virtually non-existent."

First, movie-production pre-1940 was fairly limited. So you are comparing a 3 decade period (40's-60's) with a 4-5 decade period. And the later decades have a much larger volume.

Second, as many have said there were plenty of movies in the action genre from pre-1970. Many westerns, war movies, sci-fi (West World series, Planet of the Apes, Godzilla and other monster movies), etc.

Also, films in early decades were strictly censored, and b/w images make action seem less visceral.

A great stagnation? Surely the opposite, what? I put it to you that we've been through the slump and are in the middle of a renaissance ... a rennaissance where Stallone is Da Vinci, leading the charge; his paintbrush is an automatic assault rifle, his paint ithe blood of the hapless baddies. Following the latest, non CGI Rambo, we have been given Expendables and Expendables 2. Stallone has resuscitated a genre. Arnie is also back and Van Damme is getting (a bit) better alongside. Okay, so these action movies won't win any oscars but that's not the point of an action movie. And if we look abroad we have films like The Raid that have come out of nowhere and have set new standards for action scenes. To me, the question is whether this wave is a last hurrah or whether some new, young actors and directors can step up to the mantle.

"The main drawback for Hollywood action movies has been globalization, which leads to too many explosions and not enough subtle dialogue and characterization."

Bad Tyler. You are suffering from the liberal vice, which is to rule out foreigners from the relevant moral universe. Chinese people did not have many films to watch forty years ago, and French people had arty pieces by people whose idea of popular culture was Samuel Beckett.

A vastly under-appreciated movie that really benefited from 3D is Sex and Zen 3D.

There's been a noted increase in the willingness to treat violence as brutal, and people who commit violence as unpleasant people, even if they are "good guys." This primarily started with the Bourne movies, but is also true of the Christopher Nolan's Batman and the new Bonds (even if those are pretty comicbooky). It's a very good trend for reasons both aesthetic and non-aesthetic.

That said, the best action movies were quite clearly in the 1970s. If you can stand all the brutality the ending sequence of Straw Dogs is perhaps the best directed action sequence ever. Nazi-Hunter films like The Quiller Memorandum are tightly drawn with great characterizations. And of course there's never been a cooler action hero than Michael Caine. It was a good time to be a spy.

"That said, the best action movies were quite clearly in the 1970s. "

This is not quite clear to most of us. There are good action movies throughout history from the silent era right through to the current year. If anything, the expectation should be that more recent movies will be better because they're able to build on the many technical and stylistic innovations that weren't available to earlier filmmakers.

"If you can stand all the brutality the ending sequence of Straw Dogs is perhaps the best directed action sequence ever."

Straw Dogs is a fantastic film but most people wouldn't put this scene in the top 20 action sequences of all time.

"The Quiller Memorandum"


Dear Professor Cowen,

Please familiarize yourself with Hong Kong kung-fu movies from the 70s and 80s. By the time the West caught on to the cruel trick of our homoerotic action films, the Jackie Chans of the world were on their 3rd phase of their careers. "Rumble In The Bronx" (1995), which effectively eliminated the era of Van Damme crotch shots and Austrian biceps, offered far less intricate and athletic sequences compared to "Wheels On Meals" (1983).

"two main developments ... 3D ... CGI"

You're underselling the state of innovation.

Fully rendered movies ala Pixar are a bigger innovation than 3D and are our best bet to democratize content production as next generation machinima authoring tools go mainstream.

CGI as you've labelled it here (CGI characters and settings) short changes innovations like bullet time or taking traditional wuxia wirework out of the shadows.

And we haven't touched on interactivity i.e. video games, particularly immersive MMO's. It might appear out of bounds for "action film" discussion but that's honestly a definitions problem like cars not fitting into a proper discussion of horse drawn carriages.

I don't know what constitutes an "action" movie in your view.

I don't agree at all with your low view of pre-1970 action movies.

I think the greatest decade of pure, unadulterated action films was the 20s/30s.
Keaton's silent classics and ofcourse some of the early Hitchcock films in 30s made in Britain.
Stuff like 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Those are near flawless films.

Also how about the Cagney classics - gangster films like Roaring Twenties, White Heat.

I think there are two issues with modern action films:

1. The genre has become so broad that pretty much anything that involves weapons and explosions qualifies.

2. Given the almost complete disappearance of several popular genres of earlier generations--including notably war flicks and westerns--the niches formerly occupied by those genres in the ecology of movie-making have been largely filled by action movies, thus further contributing to problem #1.

One other point: while globalization can flatten out the nuances of a movie, it isn't altogether necessary. I recently saw a movie, The Thieves, Korean-made and set in Korea and China, in Korean with subtitles (including Korean subtitles for the dialogue in Chinese and Japanese!), which certainly holds up to the best of what Hollywood produces, whether acting, dialogue, or cinematography.

What's fascinating is that even if you're not reading the subtitles, you can often make out the gist of what's going on simply by a close following of the tone and body language of the actors: they're that good.

Of course, The Thieves is (what used to be called) a caper movie rather than an action movie, but certainly one could easily make out a case...and in any event, the point is that subtlety and nuance need not be lost simply for globalization's sake.

'I was less crazy about Skyfall (“M, pull out your cell phone and call for aid!”)'

You clearly have never tried to get a phone signal in the Scottish Highlands! Even a satellite phone struggles to get through the clouds...

Stipulating that they all have more dialogue than later films, I submit these as excellent pre-1970 action films:

Bullitt--not just the great car chase, but two excellent, brutal action sequences.

The Wild Bunch--okay, it's a Western. But still.

Bonnie & Clyde--not my favorite at all, but without B&C, none of the movies you list might ever have been made.

Guns of Navarone--the prototypical "assault the fortress" flick. Plus, Irene Pappas and Anthony Quinn being totally badass.

White Heat--"Stuffy in there? Let me give you some air!!" Hurt by the police procedural stuff, but not to be dismissed lightly.

If you're going to say that the only criteria for an action film is how much action, rather than the quality of the action, then I'd argue you are missing the point.

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