What is the first modern action movie?
I was having a beer with a buddy last night and he said either Raiders of the Lost Ark or maybe one of the early Bond movies…
I don’t have my own answer yet.
To me modern action films as an art form were something perfected in the 1980s and into the early to mid 90s. Sure, there are still great action films being produced but so far that 80s/90s period seems to have not only produced the greatest amount of action films but also the best of the bunch too. Simply put, it was a golden age for blowing shit up and quipping about it on the silver screen.
And this is also the time when what I think of as the modern action film came into being.
Action films are like heavy metal in that unlike most other types of art their inclusion in either category can change over time as what we deem “metal” or “action” changes. Because since inherent to both is an aesthetic of extremism and what we think of extreme always continues to escalate by the nature of extremism itself, things that were once thought of as metal, say Black Sabbath or early Zep or Deep Purple, become merely hard rock or just rock after bands inspired by them push things even further. Likewise films which were once billed as action films, The Great Escape, Dirty Harry, any western starring John Wayne, looking back at them now, they’re so slow, character driven, and devoid of relentless action we now consider them either action/adventures or crime dramas or simply westerns; all with elements of action but not wholly defined by this attribute as proper action movies are.
Which is weird and unique feature for any genre on both accounts. Because, ska for example, doesn’t become not ska enough over time. A drama doesn’t become no longer dramatic enough a decade after it’s released. Gangsta rap might sound dated now but it’s still what we would call gangsta rap. Even horror films, sure, many older ones seem slower paced and less scary to modern audiences but we don’t stop considering them part of their genre for not keeping up with the trends.
Action films though keep getting more actiony, at least they did. There’s was a huge leap from the 60/70s to the 80s/90s and on. But I don’t know anymore, I don’t watch as many as I used to. I’ve outgrew them a bit, I got old and now I want to know why someone wants to kill someone not just how. Maybe there’s a ceiling on action, maybe we reached peak action in the 90s or early 2000s and there’s no way to go now but sideways?
Which is fine with me, more extreme doesn’t make a better action film (or a better metal album either) the stuff that makes any movie better is what makes a better action movie.
But for sure there is a certain level of actioness that manifested itself for the first time sometime in either the late 70s or early 80s and that’s what I think of when I think of action films.
Dirty Harry, The French Connection, stuff like that had scenes, whole sequences that were proto-modern action movie to me, another musical analogy, sorry, what Stooges is to punk, that’s what these type of films are to action films.
But they’re not the true debut of the new type of action film that we think of when we say action movie.
So what is?