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For car chases, fight scenes, high-level intrigue, and fast action, most everyone wants to see an action film.  Excitement is what draws audiences to these movies.

Action films are basically non-stop, high-energy films where the hero is almost constantly in motion, hunting down, chasing, and fighting against a villain and his henchmen, or trying to save someone from a major disaster like a fire or flood.  Audiences expect, and usually get, lots of stunts, sleek fast cars and dangerous chases, explosions, and battles, either on a large scale or more likely hand-to-hand combat.

The practical but imaginative hero may be faced with seemingly insurmountable odds but fights (sometimes by any means necessary, fair or foul) valiantly until the threat is eliminated, no matter what it takes.  The villains in action films are also larger-than-life characters with more and more fantastic weapons at their disposal, making their eventual defeat by the hero even more awe-inspiring.  Physical action, and lots of it, is what sets an action film apart from other dramas. 

In the early days of movie making most of the action in films was of the swashbuckling pirate variety such as “Captain Blood” in 1935 which starred Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, and “The Sea Hawk” in 1940, again starring Errol Flynn, this time with Claude Rains.  Action could also be found in early Westerns such as “The Duel at Silver Creek” in 1952 starring Audie Murphy, or war movies like “The Guns of Navarone” in 1961 with Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn.  But action films as a distinct genre didn’t begin to be recognized until the 1960’s and 1970’s.

With the production of “Dr. No”, the first James Bond movie in 1962, films focusing on action sequences and classified as “action films” began capturing audiences’ attention.  (“Dr. No” was directed by Terence Young and starred Sean Connery as Agent 007.)  Viewers were immediately gripped by the more than capable hero and his use of his quick wits to outsmart and outfight the enemy.  (“Casino Royale”, with Barry Nelson, was a 1954 television adaptation of Ian Fleming’s novel featuring James Bond.)  The Bond movies were perhaps the first to demonstrate to the studios how lucrative the genre was, and how perfect for sequels.  Other films of this type soon began appearing, such as “To Trap a Spy” (1964) (based on television’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” (1964-1968).  Both the television program and the movie starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.  This type of film is classified as the spy action film subgenre.

The late 1960’s marked the emergence of the detective or police action drama, featuring unconventional detectives or police officers who go to great lengths, sometimes outside of the boundaries of the law, to chase down and capture or kill their enemies.  Films such as “Coogan’s Bluff” (1968), with Clint Eastwood, “Bullitt” (1968) with Steve McQueen are examples of this sub-genre of the action film.

In the 1970’s martial arts action films were also an extremely popular sub-genre and featured action scenes between the hero and the villains using karate, tae kwon do and kung fu as they fought their battles.  Two of these popular films are 1971’s “Fists of Fury“ (also known as “The Big Boss”) starring Bruce Lee, and “Good Guys Wear Black” in 1978 starring Chuck Norris.

The 1980’s is sometimes called “the action era” because of the sheer number of action films made during that period, with many films including stars like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris.  The decade was full of action films, from the traditional action film, to the war action, science fiction action, and horror action films sub-genres, and even comedic buddy-cop action films, and many sequel films were also produced during that time.

One of the earliest action films (even though they weren’t labeled as action films yet) is “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932), directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack, distributed by RKO Radio Pictures, and starring Joel McCrea, Fay Wray and Leslie Banks.  Set on an island where a big game hunter has been shipwrecked, he becomes the prey of Russian Count Zaroff.  Count Zaroff is also a hunter, but is tired of the usual targets, and is now hunting even bigger game.

Thunderball” is the fourth James Bond spy action film.  Released in 1965, the film was directed by Terence Young and distributed by United Artists.  This time out James Bond (Sean Connery) is up against S.P.E.C.T.R.E., an enemy espionage organization who has hijacked a NATO nuclear bomber and is threatening to detonate them unless a huge ransom is paid.  Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) is the criminal mastermind behind the plot that the sophisticated and lethal Agent 007 must stop.  Standing between Bond and his goal are three beautiful women, Largo’s mistress Domingo Derval (Claudine Auger), Paula Caplan (Martine Beswick), a British spy, and Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), an enemy agent.  This film was preceded by “Dr. No” in 1962, “From Russia with Love” in 1963, and “Goldfinger” in 1964, all starring Sean Connery.  The Bond franchise would continue—between 1962 and 2008 there have been twenty-two official James Bond movies.

Ice Station Zebra” is a 1968 cold war action film directed by John Sturges and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson), in charge of the American atomic submarine Tigerfish, is ordered to get to Ice Station Zebra, a civilian weather station drifting with the ice pack in the Arctic, to rescue the workers there.  Also on board the submarine are: David Jones (Patrick McGoohan), an Englishman; Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), a former Soviet officer; and Captain Anders (Jim Brown), an American Marine officer.  The plot thickens when it becomes clear that the mission is not to rescue the staff of an innocent weather station, but to recover a satellite that has crashed nearby before the Soviets do.

In 1971 the film “Billy Jack” was distributed by Warner Brothers.  The movie was directed by Tom Laughlin, who also starred, along with his wife, Delores Taylor.  Billy Jack is a Green Beret Vietnam War veteran, an American Cherokee Indian, a hapkido master and a gunslinger.  In the film Billy Jack is the hero defending the hippie-themed Freedom School from the local town whose citizens don’t understand or like the students and the school.  (“Born Losers” was a Billy Jack prequel in 1967, and “The Trial of Billy Jack” is a 1974 sequel.)

Bruce Lee wrote, directed, and starred in “Return of the Dragon” (also known as “Way of the Dragon”), a 1972 martial arts action film distributed by Golden Harvest.  Tang Lung (also known as Dragon) travels to Italy to help his niece, Cheng Ching Hua (Nora Miao) and family defend their restaurant from being taken over by the Mafia, including a showdown with the American karate fighter Colt (Chuck Norris) hired by the Mafia.

“Death Wish” is a 1974 action crime drama directed by Michael Winner and distributed by the Dino De Laurentiis Company.  When Paul Kersey’s (Charles Bronson) wife Joanna (Hope Lang) is murdered and his daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) is raped by three street punks he is frustrated by the police’s inability to catch the killers, and he turns to vigilantism.  (The original film was followed by four sequels: “Death Wish II” in 1982; “Death Wish 3” in 1985; “Death Wish 4” in 1987 and “Death Wish V: The Face of Death” in 1994.)

Directed by Hal Needham and released by Warner Brothers, “Hooper” is a 1978 comedy action film.  Sonny Hooper (Burt Reynolds) is an aging stunt man whose body cannot take much more abuse who lives with his girlfriend Gwen Doyle (Sally Field).  When Hooper meets young, up-and-coming stunt man Del “Ski” Shidski their antics of one-upmanship escalate into more and more dangerous stunts.

Another popular comedy action film is “48 Hrs.”, directed by Walter Hill and distributed by Paramount Pictures in 1982.  The film teams Det. Sgt. Jack Cates (Nick Nolte), a San Francisco police detective, and Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy), a prisoner the detective has sprung temporarily from prison, as unlikely partners.  Hammond is Cates’ link to Albert Ganz (James Remar), an escaped prisoner and cop killer.  The partners have been given forty-eight hours to track down Ganz and capture him.  The sequel, “Another 48 Hrs.” was released in 1990.

In 1982 Orion Pictures released the action thrillerFirst Blood”, directed by Ted Kotcheff.  Also known as “Rambo” or “Rambo: First Blood”, this was the first of the Rambo films, followed by “Rambo: First Blood Part II” in 1985 and “Rambo III” in 1988.  Trouble erupts when Special Forces Vietnam War veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) arrives in the small town of Hope, Washington.  The town’s sheriff, Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) spots Rambo and takes an instant disliking to him, believing he is there to cause trouble.  After being driven out of town by the sheriff, Rambo returns, only to be arrested and mistreated by his jailers.  Escaping, and being pursued by the officers, Rambo uses his jungle combat skills to evade capture.

“The Terminator”, distributed by Orion Pictures and directed by James Cameron, is a 1984 science fiction action film.  Set in Los Angeles in 1984, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is being hunted by a cyborg assassin, The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenneger), who has been sent back in time from the year 2029 to kill her.  By killing Sarah, Skynet, the artificial intelligence network of the future that is eliminating all human beings, plans to stop Sarah from having a son who will lead the resistance fighters in the future to stop Skynet.  Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a resistance fighter from the future, has also been sent back to protect Sarah from The Terminator.  There have been three Terminator sequels.

In the mood for some fast-paced, non-stop action—helicopter flights, car chases, fist fights and gunfights, bigger-than-life heroes and evil villains?  Pop some popcorn, get a soda or two and settle down to be entertained as you watch the great action films you can find at Matinee Classics.

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