The Evolution of the Action Film

When you think of an action film, what's the first thing that comes to mind?

Die Hard? Terminator 2? The Matrix?

Any of these are valid. Quite frankly, the first two had all but set the template for the modern action film in the years to follow. Not to mention, all of these set up some of the biggest action franchises we would come to know for the next few decades. And that's a big topic of conversation where action is concerned: the franchising of action blockbuster cinema.

What Makes a Good Action Film?

This is the question, isn't it? What does make a good action film? Of course, good is a subjective term when dealing with an art form. Which, cinema is. But, why do you like those films? Maybe you don't. But, if you answered yes, was it because:

They were character-driven? They had exhilarating action sequences? Well-choreographed fights? Dazzling visual effects?

Perhaps all of the above. Die Hard was released in 1988, for those who want to feel old. Yes, visual effects were a thing back then. But really, Die Hard mostly relied on practical effects. It had a very simple plot, and therefore, easy to follow. Check. A witty, sympathetic protagonist to root for. Check. And plenty of action to keep us occupied, but well-paced with room to breathe. Check.

It's fair to say Die Hard checks all the boxes. But, in a good way. The sequels are beloved by Die Hard die hards, but I don't feel too harsh in saying that the franchise saw a steady decline in quality the further we got from the original.

So, what happened?

Die Hard - The End All Be All of Action Films, or is it?

The franchising of contemporary action blockbusters were about one thing: making money. The only concern was: is the lead actor returning to this cash cow? Do we have a competent screenwriter penning the script? Do we have a tried and true director attached to the project? Is this concept just good enough to be a butts in seats box office draw? If the answer is 'yes' to all or most, the next installment in the franchise is getting made. Not to mention, all they had to do was put a number behind the title of the original film in the series, and off they went. Right there, they had at least half of the fans of the original returning to the theater for opening weekend. Sequels don't need to be well thought out or planned, just executed well enough to satisfy.

I want to cite an example. Sicario is one of my favorite films of 2015, and of all time. If you've seen the film, you would know that it was meant to be a standalone film based on its relatively ambiguous ending. However, they decided to tarnish its reputation with a sequel: Sicario: Day of the Soldado. In the hopes of making it a franchise, it was painfully obvious they left the ending open for a third Sicario film. This is not likely to happen, but it was a requirement of the studio to do so, just in case money happened. My point is, don't ruin a good thing. But, I understand the business end of things is almost always going to win out when the chips are down.

But, I'm not here just to shit on the idea of an action franchise or complain about the practically mandatory sequel-ization (Yes, I just made up a new word) of movies. In fact, I'm about to do just the opposite.

A Still from 'Sicario' (2015). Which also happens to be one of my favorite shots of all time.

Franchises That WORK

There are exceptions to this rule I just established. Sequels and franchises can work. And I'm about to tell you why and how.

Does it seem a little cheap that Hollywood is running out of ideas and has to base everything on existing intellectual property? Yes, and no. Franchises that come to mind are John Wick, Mission Impossible, Mad Max, and James Bond. These are franchises that I enjoy for a multitude of reasons. Mission Impossible seems to come up with the next "how did they do that?" stunt. John Wick manages to outdo itself with each turn. The Mad Max franchise had just crafted the greatest action film of all time (in my humble opinion) with Fury Road back in 2015. James Bond has reinvented itself multiple times in the past decade and a half to stay fresh and exciting.

How did they achieve this?

This is a man who needs no introduction.

John Wick

John Wick was born from a very simple premise. Although it does a solid job at world-building, the idea is very simple: man lost wife, wife gave dog, bad guys killed dog, man goes on killing rampage. But, here's the thing: the film was directed by two former stunt-men. The duo had shown their prowess with directing action sequences with this film. And, at the helm, you had a very dedicated actor who did the vast majority of his own stunts, learned mixed martial arts and had extensive gun training prior to filming. What separated John Wick from other action films of its kind were the non-shaky cam, visceral action sequences, impeccable fight choreography, and lush cinematography. For an action film, John Wick sported a relatively modest budget of $20-30 million and went on to make 2-3 times that amount, depending on who you ask. Needless to say, they struck gold and continued that model, but raised the bar with each chapter in the saga. There have now been three John Wick films, with a fourth to come, hopefully next year.

An interesting little tidbit about the two John Wick directors: one of them was Chad Stahelski, who went on to direct the second and third John Wick films. The second? David Leitch was then slated to direct Atomic Blonde, which is basically female John Wick, and Deadpool 2 as a result. If you care to know my opinion, these are two of the best directed, shot, and choreographed action films of the last decade. They're worth your time.

Charlize Theron in 'Atomic Blonde' - Oh yeah, you best believe she's about to kick some serious ass.

Mission Impossible

The Mission Impossible Franchise is an interesting case. I had mentioned before the James Bond Franchise had to reinvent itself a couple times to regain its relevancy. The same goes for Mission Impossible. After its admittedly weaker second installment, the future was uncertain for the franchise. Granted, this film had killed at the box office, following a lack of enthusiasm for what would come next.  JJ Abrams, who became a meme for rebooting (and saving) franchises came in to direct the third film in 2006. The third, which is one of my favorites, had reinvigorated the franchise as it desperately needed the injection of adrenaline, which it received with the success of that film. The third film more than doubled its whopping $150 million budget which then spawned several others that would follow in the coming decade.

The reason I find it to be interesting is because now, the franchise has a writer/director attached for what will now be his third in the series. The fourth, Ghost Protocol, was directed by Brad Bird, who is known for Disney animated films (go figure). The Mission Impossible films all, to this point, had different directors for each project. This would change for the next three. The fifth (Rogue Nation) and sixth (Fallout), and arguably most successful of them all, were both written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, most known for winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his 1995 film The Usual Suspects.

The seventh film is currently in production, and constantly battling COVID like most productions right now. As stated, Mission Impossible is known for its ridiculous stunts with each new film. But, what has caught my eye is McQuarrie's ability to maintain the franchise's freshness, despite treading familiar grounds with the genre. If your franchise manages to continually beat its predecessor, you must be doing something right.

The latest Mission Impossible installment is also shockingly the best. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Pay no attention to that release date, it's been moved several times. We're in November now, I think?

James Bond

James Bond is one of the longest, if not the longest, running franchise in film history. While it might seem like The Fast & Furious franchise might be, shockingly, it's not. James Bond is another interesting case because of the aforementioned reinvention of itself it had to do to reestablish relevancy and regain popularity. Most might remember that the recasting of Bond was somewhat controversial back when Pierce Brosnan stepped down and Daniel Craig took up the proverbial crown. What the franchise desperately needed was to add some humanity to the character of Bond. He had become something of a superhero with the last of the Brosnan Bonds, and consequentially, the campiest as well. What the Craig Bonds set out to do was to reinvent itself as a darker, grittier Bond. We had the fun, campy, and loose Bonds. It was out with the old and in with the new, in a manner of speaking.

Casino Royale supposedly is the most loyal adaptation of the novels in the series, and it took forever to obtain the rights to make. Once they finally did with 2006's Casino Royale, the Bond franchise saw some of its biggest success in the history of its existence. The film went on to make four times its budget and the sky was the limit for the franchise. The next installment, Quantum of Solace, was weaker in both quality and box office success. This was following the unspoken model of "one on, one off" for the Bond franchise. It's a long running joke that for every "good" Bond, there's a "bad" one to follow. So, naturally, this means that the next Skyfall would have to be a roaring success, correct? Yes. In more ways than one. Not only did Skyfall rake in over a billion dollars worldwide, this was the Bond franchise's attempt at a "prestige" Bond, bringing in a prestige filmmaker, cinematographer, and really going for gold. This did bring more Oscar nominations, but only one golden statue was taken home that night for Sound Editing. It is easily the most well shot Bond film ever made, and it also hearkened back to the humanizing of Bond that I mentioned with Casino Royale. Skyfall dove deep into the Bond psyche, and even tread down memory lane with mentions of his childhood, upbringing, and parents. It will be fascinating to watch how No Time To Die performs in the age of COVID, and following the lackluster reception of Spectre (I liked it!).

The Bond team seemed to have adopted this model of injecting some prestige filmmakers into their projects, not just for Skyfall. Sam Mendes returned to direct Spectre after the success of Skyfall and Hoyte Van Hoytema shot Spectre after his Oscar nomination for Interstellar. Renowned director Cary Joji Fukunaga co-wrote and directed No Time to Die, and was shot by La La Land cinematographer, Linus Sandgren. Phoebe Waller-Bridge also helped pen the script after her resounding success with several projects, including critical and award favorites Fleabag and Killing Eve.

They're not messing around.

A shot from Spectre (2015) which set the Guinness World Record for largest controlled explosion on a feature film set.

Mad Max Fury Road

Possibly the most interesting case of the effective contemporary action film of the 2010s was George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road from 2015 which took the Oscars' technical awards by storm. Admittedly, I haven't seen the first few films of the franchise. My understanding, from what I've heard of Mad Max fans, is that the first is looked back on fondly, 2 is the best, and Beyond Thunder Dome has a cult following. I really can't speak on it. I went in cold when watching Fury Road for the first time. I had lukewarm feelings about it the first time. Mad Max Fury Road is and has been one of the only films to get better each and every time I revisit it. I firmly believe now that it is a masterpiece. What is astonishing about the film is that it was story-boarded, it was not a screenplay in the traditional sense, it features mostly practical effects, which is insane if you've seen it, and the editor was given 480 hours of footage to edit down to a two hour film. Not to mention, the last Mad Max film was released 30 years before Fury Road was finally made after being in development and production hell for YEARS.

Absolutely wild.

My point here is, action films can still be of high quality, despite the fact that most action franchises are born from a desire to put butts in seats merely for box office dollars. It's clear to me that Mad Max Fury Road was a passion project, born of labor and love.

Mad Max: The Wasteland is finally set for production after years of dispute between George Miller and the studio regarding rights and royalties after the massive success of Fury Road. Despite my heart being broken over the fact that Charlize Theron will not return as Furiosa, I have high hopes.

Mad Max: Furiosa Road - They should've called it that. I'll miss Charlize in the next installment. Hype for Atomic Blonde 2?

What Does the Future Hold for the Modern Action Film?

I have confidence in action films and franchises at large after destroying the game in the 2010s. I truly believe that action, if done well, can be a viable genre in the years to come. The aforementioned franchises have proven that action, in the right hands, can not only enthrall audiences, but keep them coming back for more while still delivering in the quality department.

The future is bright for the action film. I'm trusting you.

Don't mess this up.

Rob McNeil

My name is Rob McNeil. I was born and raised in Normal, Illinois and I am a 28 year-old award winning screenwriter. I am very passionate about film, so much that I watch far too many films on a daily basis. I have written fifteen feature screenplays, a spec pilot thriller series, and several short scripts. I aim to make filmmaking a career, but for now, I will write about it.

Rob McNeil

My name is Rob McNeil. I was born and raised in Normal, Illinois and I am a 28 year-old award winning screenwriter. I am very passionate about film, so much that I watch far too many films on a daily basis. I have written fifteen feature screenplays, a spec pilot thriller series, and several short scripts. I aim to make filmmaking a career, but for now, I will write about it.

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