What Makes an Excellent Action Movie?

As we look at movies today, there are many genres and sub-genres that are made to cater to a varied and fickle audience. Within these genres, be they action, horror, romantic comedy, drama, or science fiction, there are always staples that define each movie. In every romantic comedy there’s always the dynamic expression of love at the end of the film, or in every horror movie, the killer comes back to exact his final revenge. As an action movie buff, I have noticed several clichés that all the better installments into the action genre contain which not only exemplify excellence in that action genre, but in the film industry as a whole.

 A key point to good storytelling is conflict and good action movies are no exception. According to Rob Biesenbach, at its simplest, a story consists of three critical elements: A story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of an obstacle or challenge. There must be some obstacle for the hero to overcome to make it interesting to the audience. In addition to moving the plot along, the conflict keeps the characters interesting and also gives us a bit of insight into the main characters motivations. In the 1988 action classic, Die Hard, John McClane must not th (4)only fight terrorists, but also the police and later FBI who don’t believe that John is on their side. The roof scene for example takes this theory at its most primal. John McClane is trying to save the hostages on the roof but is at his wits end, so after firing into the air to get them off the roof, the FBI assume he is , in fact, one of the terrorists. The audience must not only look at the situation from the point of view of the hero but also the antagonists as well. The FBI also want to thwart the terrorist plot but given the evidence that they see, which is a mad man firing a gun within the vicinity of innocent hostages. This scene brings the factors of engagement  up to a higher level than most standard action fare as the audience is taken in more cerebrally than most ‘popcorn flicks’.

 Another component that will raise the stakes in any action movie is adding a bit of drama. The easiest and best way to do this is to establish that the main character has something to lose, which harkens back to a time before the action movie as seen today was even created. Rather, I argue that the action genre inherits a melodramatic narrative tradition that predated, and -was absorbed by, classical Hollywood cinema said Scott Higgins in a 2008 article entitled, “Situations: Melodramatic Narrative and the th (5)Contemporary Action Film.”  A filmmaker will lose audience interest much quicker if the protagonist is invulnerable and will stand to lose nothing at all. Commando (Lester, 1985) is one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best films. In it he is a retired Special Forces soldier asked to do one final mission. After declining, terrorists seize his daughter and force him his hand, telling him if he doesn’t do it, they will kill his daughter. He of course breaks free and instead goes to save his daughter. He follows one of his kidnappers in an attempt to save his daughter going so far as to kidnap a flight attendant and breaking into a gun store to get weapons in order to bring his daughter back. As the plot moves along, we are taken on this wild ride through the eyes of the kidnapped flight attendant as she begins to help the John Matrix in getting his daughter back and we as an audience want to see him succeed that much more.

   And finally, an excellent action movie must contain a hero who is quick on his feet. One of the key elements of an action movie is that, the hero is usually left alone with very few tools that he can use for the task at hand so he or she must use whatever they can wherever they can. First Blood (Kotcheff, 1982) is a prime example of this and shows that an action movie can be both character and plot driven. John Rambo is not only on the run from the law, but he is also dealing with his past in the Vietnam War. As he is chased into the wilderness, he relies on his army training to find warmth in a tarp and twine as well as living off the land while evading capture. The scene where Rambo is in ath (3) cave, talking to his former superior officer exemplifies the man’s inner struggle while also backing up his training in the field, shows that he has been in more than one situation where he had to think on his feet.

I have been a movie buff for most of my life and I have centered mainly on the action and horror genre. As I look at the examples of the action movies and the reasons that I find them on to be excellent, I am reminded of why there are so many action movies are excellent. They tend to be the biggest blockbusters every summer, they are the remembered more often than any other genre movie, and they are just plain fun. They give audiences the chance to forget the challenges of daily life and to give them the opportunity to think about what they would do were they in the same situation. Ultimately, what makes an action movie great is the audiences’ ability to relate to the characters in a fantastic situation, which is one of the most excellent qualities of any move in the film industry.


Biesenbach, R. (2013) Tell me a story: A three-step process for creating riveting stories. Public Relations Tactics. Pg. 15 para. 8

Gordon, L. (Producer). &  McTiernan, J (Director). 1988. Die Hard  [Motion Picture]. United States of America:  Twentieth Century Fox

Higgins, S. (2008) Suspenseful Situations: Meiodramatic Narrative and the Contemporary Action Film. Cinema Journal. Pg 75. Para. 1

Silver, J (Producer) & Lester, M (Director). 1985. Commando [Motion Picture]. United States of America: Twentieth Century Fox

Feitshans, B (Producer) & Kotcheff, T. (Director). 1982. First Blood [Motion Picture]. United States of America: Orion Pictures


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