by William C. Martell
Let's look at some popular subgenres in action movies. I'm not talking about films like "Run Silent Run Deep" or "The Enemy Below" or "Destination Tokyo" or my films "Crash Dive!" and "Steel Sharks"... though maybe I am, there are certainly enough submarine movies to qualify for a Sub subgenre! Action movies cover a lot of ground... from buddy comedies like "48 Hours" to graphic violent revenge flicks like "Rolling Thunder"... and new subgenres are popping up every day.
As you read this, the #1 selling movie on DVD is The Wachowski Brothers' "Matrix", the hottest art house video is David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ", the hot import film is Spain's "Open Your Eyes", Roland Emmerich's "The Thirteenth Floor" is out on tape, and my "Virtual Combat" is playing again on CineMax. Somewhere in Hollywood a Devo is making the mistake of turning down an action script because "It has virtual reality, so it's too similar to Matrix," when that's the very reason they should be buying it! It's part of the hot new genre of Cyber- Thrillers that will only become more popular in the 21st century. Computers, virtual reality, and computer games are now a part of everyday life. My toaster has a computer in it! The Cyber- Thriller offers an interesting landscape for a variety of stories, just as the American West provided an interesting landscape for that genre called Westerns.
Here are the most popular action subgenres, a quick look at what makes them tick, plus a few example films to view. With new action subgenres popping up all of the time and old ones cycling into temporary obscurity, there is no possible way to discuss every subgenre. So these are thirty you're most likely to bump into while writing your next action script.
1) STRAIGHT ACTION. People, people who punch people, are the luckiest people, in the world. Your typical action flick boils down to the "man against man" conflict. A protagonist and an antagonist battling it out. Examples include "Commando", "Shaft's Big Score", plus stylish John Woo shoot 'em ups like "A Better Tomorrow" and "Hard Boiled." This is your basic, no- frills, action flick. Standard recipe.
2) ADVENTURE. Climb every mountain, ford every sea. The "man against nature" conflict fuels the Adventure subgenre. Movies like "Mountains On The Moon" about exploring the Nile, "White Dawn" about a group of American whalers trying to survive in the Arctic, and the mountain climbing adventures "K-2" and "Verical Limit" fit this spoke of the action wheel. These films focus on survival and exploration in rugged terrains.
3) ACTION ADVENTURE. Stir it up! The "man against man" conflict PLUS the "man against nature" conflict! This is my favorite subgenre because it offers two kinds of threats. People are climbing mountains and fighting each other at the same time! "The Guns Of Navarone", "Bridge On The River Kwai", "Raiders Of The Lost Ark", and "Where Eagles Dare" are some of my favorites. These films often have an epic scope and larger than life heroes and plots.
4) CHASE THRILLERS. The entire film is a chase. Usually a wrongly accused hero has to outrun the police and find the real killer. "North By Northwest", "The Fugitive", and "The Big Steal" are wrongly accused man on the run scripts. But "Dark Of The Sun" (1968) and "The Naked Prey" feature non-stop chases where the hero is just trying to outrun the villains to survive.
5) HEIST FILMS. Bad guy protagonists! A group of thieves with guns rob banks, casinos, armored cars... anyplace where money can be found. These films focus on the planning, the robbery, then what goes wrong. "5 Against The House", "The Killing", "Heat" and "Charley Varrick" are good examples. Check out the novels of Richard Stark (Don Westlake) for more on this subgenre.
6) CAPER FILMS. The flipside of the Heist Film subgenre. Usually lighter in tone, sometimes even comic. Burglary instead of robbery. Not smash and grab, but a clever plan to bypass alarms and steal some priceless item from a high security environment. "Topkapi", "11 Harrow House", "$", "The Hot Rock" and "Bankshot" fit this subgenre, as do "Entrapment" and "The Thomas Crown Affair". Some of these films tease the audience with a list of strange items required to pull of the burglary. In "11 Harrow House" they needed five different colors of nail polish, a dozen cockroaches, an industrial vacuum cleaner, and several other weird devices to steal half of the world's diamonds from an ultra-security underground vault. Check out the novels of Don Westlake for great comic capers.
7) BUDDY COPS. Bickering, mismatched pairs of heroes. "Rush Hour", "48 Hours", "Lethal Weapon", "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid", and hundreds of others. There are two sub- subgenres to the Buddy Cop subgenre which are discussed in the Sidekicks chapter. Sapir & Murphy's "Destroyer" novels feature a great pair of bickering heroes.
8) COPS & ROBBERS. Police pursue criminals. Sometimes FBI or Military Police or some other law enforcement branch. "Dirty Harry", "The Line Up", "Code Of Silence", "Bullitt", and hundreds of others. A staple of the action genre, there will always be films about cops and crooks. Check out the films of Don Siegel, the best director who ever worked in the genre.
9) PROCEDURALS. Just the facts, ma'am. Ultra-realistic cops & robbers stories dealing with the actual procedures involved in solving crimes. Often using a documentary style. Think TVs "Dragnet", or "NYPD Blue" or "Law & Order". "The French Connection" is a police procedural, "T-Men" and "The FBI Story" show the inner workings of the FBI, "Manhunter" displays criminal profiling techniques, "Call Northside 777" follows an investigative reporter, and "The Friends Of Eddie Coyle" is a crook procedural. Check out Ed McBain's "87th Precinct" novels for a great example of the police procedural... McBain's books often contain photocopies of arrest records and crime scene reports to add to the realism. Cool! The FANTASTIC made for TV movie that introduced Kojak, "The Marcus-Nelson Murders", is one of the best police procedurals I have ever seen. The first "Prime Suspect" mini-series is also a fantastic example of this subgenre. This is another subgenre that seems prime for a major revival.
10) DETECTIVE MYSTERIES. Detectives use clues to solve crimes in this mystery based subgenre. Private eyes like Philip Marlowe in "The Big Sleep" and "Murder, My Sweet" or Jake Gittes in "Chinatown" or Lew Harper in "Harper". Homicide detective David Jansen follows the clues to solve a complex murder in "Warning Shot" as does detective Dana Andrews in "Laura". For more on mysteries, check out the bonus techniques on Clues and Suspects.
11) TECHNO THRILLERS. Action films centered around technology. Tom Clancy didn't invent this subgenre, but he sure made it popular! "The Hunt For Red October" and "Patriot Games" feature stealth submarines, spy-in-the-sky satellites, and other high tech devices. "Blue Thunder" and my own "Steel Sharks" are also part of the Techno Thriller subgenre. Check out the novels of Dale Brown and Tom Clancy for some thrilling examples.
12) DIE HARD IN A ________. The proof that a couple of similar films can suddenly start a subgenre. Devos take note! "Die Hard" spawned "Under Siege" (Die Hard on a battleship), "Sudden Death" (Die Hard at the Stanley Cup finals) and a remake of "Desperate Hours" (Die Hard in a house), and a new subgenre was born. Dozens of low budget "Die Hard" clones have popped up, as well as "Air Force One", "Beverly Hills Cop 3" (Die Hard at Disneyland), and my own contribution the HBO World Premiere movie "Crash Dive!" (Die Hard on a submarine). There's a joke around Hollywood about a Devo who bought "Die Hard in a very tall building"... which is just "Die Hard"!
13) DOOMSDAY THRILLERS. It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. The villain's plan is REALLY BIG - it may end life as we know it! "The Satan Bug" deals with germ warfare, as does "Outbreak" and "The Crazies". "Peacemaker" and a bunch of early 1960s films deal with world nuclear war. "Fail Safe" has one foot in the Techno Thriller subgenre and the other in the Doomsday Thriller subgenre. It's almost a guarantee that the President Of The United States will be a character in these films.
14) EROTIC THRILLERS/FILM NOIR. A spider woman lures a man to his doom. "Body Heat", "Double Indemnity", "Basic Instinct", "Sea Of Love", "Out Of The Past". I have an entire booklet on this subgenre that combines sex and violence in a most exciting way. These films usually depend on what James M. Cain called a "love rack" (the reason why the man MUST have the spider woman is the same reason why he SHOULDN'T have her.) Film Noir is filled with people who do the wrong thing and have to pay for it. Happy endings are rare. In my "Hard Evidence" a real estate developer cheats on his wife and ends up killing a man. Now he must cover up the affair to cover up the crime. But a vicious group of blackmailers will turn him over to the police unless he pays them a cool million. Now the real estate developer must fight the blackmailers while evading the police... and repairing the damage to his marriage.
15) MEDICAL THRILLERS. More thriller than action, but chases are a major part of this subgenre and they can edge into action territory at times. Doctors are usually the leads, and they stumble onto some medical conspiracy throwing their lives into peril. "Coma" is the still the best. Runners up include the classic "Green For Danger" (1946), "The Sleeping City" (1950), and "Intent To Kill" (1958). With novelist Robin Cook always on the best sellers list and "E.R." still a hit on TV, medical based thrillers may be the next big thing. They are certainly under- used at this time, except for the occasional bomb like "Extreme Measures".
16) WAR MOVIES. Military action films from "The Dirty Dozen" to "Platoon" to "The Great Escape". Shoot outs, fist fights, chases... but the heroes are soldiers and the villains are the enemy. A staple in the 1940s, resurrected in the 60s and 70s with Viet Nam as the backdrop. "Hell Is For Heroes", "Fixed Bayonets", "The Steel Helmet", "The Big Red One", "The Boys In Company C", "The Longest Day", "A Bridge Too Far", "Saving Private Ryan", and "They Were Expendable" all fit this subgenre.
17) SCI-FI ACTION. The shoot outs may use laser guns and the chases may be in space ships, but underneath the sci-fi elements these films are really action movies, "Total Recall" is a great example, as are "Westworld", "The Terminator", "Terminator 2", "They Live", my own "Grid Runners" and The Wachowski Brothers' "The Matrix". "The Matrix" takes the cool choreography of John Woo shoot outs, the acrobatic stunts of Jackie Chan kung fu scenes, and the slow-mo stylings of Sam Pechinpah's westerns and marries them into a fantastic futuristic story. The flick was produced by the King Of The Modern Action Film, Joel Silver ("48 Hours", "Lethal Weapon 1-4", "Die Hard", etc.). In the 1950s they used to remake cop movies as westerns, in the 1990s and 2000s they'll be remaking action movies as sci-fi. "Minority Report" is a detective film in a sci-fi skin.
18) WESTERN ACTION. The shoot outs are the same, but the chases use horses rather than cars. Pechinpah films like "The Wild Bunch" and "Ride The High Country", "The Professionals", "The Wild Wild West" (buddy, western, sci-fi, doomsday... talk about mixed genres!), and "The Magnificent Seven". Films that use the west as a background for an action based story. It was common in the 1940s and 1950s to rework old cops and robbers scripts as westerns, creating some really weird movies like "The Fiend Who Walked The West" about a serial killer cowboy based on "Kiss Of Death".
19) MOB FILMS. Action films about organized crime. "The Valachi Papers", "Scarface", "The Big Combo", "The Sicilian Clan", "Pay Or Die", and "The Public Enemy". I'm leaving off "The Godfather" movies because they are basically family sagas with shoot outs. When the focus of the film isn't about the crime, but the criminal organization and often the guy who runs it and the guy who brings him down. "The Roaring 20s" is my favorite film in this subgenre, and one of the best action flicks ever made.
20) SWASHBUCKLERS. Period action films. Swords instead of guns. From classic Warner Bros. films like "Captain Blood" (Errol Flynn as pirate) and "The Adventures Of Robin Hood" (Errol Flynn as Robin) to more realistic recent films like "Rob Roy" (Liam Neeson as Scottish bandit) and "Flesh + Blood" (Rutger Hauer as Knight in rusted armor) to romantic desert films like "The Wind And The Lion" (Sean Connery as a sheik) and high adventure like "The Man Who Would Be King" (Sean Connery as King) to romantic action like "The Flame And The Arrow" (Burt Lancaster as an Italian version of Robin Hood) and "The Crimson Pirate" (Burt Lancaster as a pirate). Every time I think this genre is dead, a brilliant film like Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot's "The Mask Of Zorro" comes along and revives it!
21) POLITICAL THRILLERS. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't really out to get you! The post-Watergate era was filled with films about government conspiracies and the innocent people caught in the middle, but recent films like "Enemy Of The People" and bombs like "Murder At 1600" and "Absolute Power" have shown renewed interest in this subgenre. Another of my favorite subgenres, with films like "The Parallax View", "The Manchurian Candidate", "The Conversation" and "Three Days Of The Condor" on my best list.
22) MARTIAL ARTS. Ain't that a kick in the head? The roots of this genre go back to films like "Across The Pacific" (1942) which featured mysterious Eastern fighting styles. Imports like "Fists Of Fury" and TV shows like "The Green Hornet" and "Kung Fu" lead to "Enter The Dragon"... and the Martial Arts Film was officially born. With so many ass-kicking stars like Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Don "The Dragon" Wilson and Chuck Norris this has become a very active subgenre. Unfortunately, too many people try to imitate "Enter The Dragon" which has resulted in hundreds of practically identical "ring fighting movies" like "Ring Of Fire", "Lionheart", "The Quest", "Blood Sport", "Death Match", "Blood Fist", "Blood Fist 2", etc. These films are nothing more than a series of no-rules fights... often featuring a guy who enters the competition after his brother was killed in the ring. The key to writing a good film in this subgenre: Think of martial arts as the weapon, not the plot. Come up with a great action story, but have the hero use his hands & feet instead of guns. Some great examples are "Avenging Force" and "Above The Law"... You could remove the martial arts from either film and it would still work.
23) UNDERCOVER. People pretending to be somebody else... will they be discovered and killed? Cops undercover, reporters undercover, FBI agents undercover. Sometimes the person going undercover is impersonating someone (as in Don Winslow's "The Death And Life Of Bobby Z" novel), but usually they are just pretending to be criminals when they are not. This subgenre creates instant suspense in every scene, because there's ALWAYS a chance of slipping up. "Donnie Brasco" is the best of the recent films, with classics like "Street With No Name" (Mark Stevens is a cop who joins the mob) and "House Of Bamboo" (Robert Stack joins a vicious gang of post WW2 black marketeers) plus flicks like "Deep Cover" (Lawrence Fishburne works for drug kingpin Jeff Goldblum) and "No Man's Land" (D.B. Sweeny steals cars for Charlie Sheen - script by "Law & Order"s Dick Wolf) as other good examples. My original script for "The Base" fit this subgenre.
24) REVENGE. Tired of taking it, they begin dishing it out. In "Death Wish" Paul Kersey's wife is killed and he tracks the scum who did it... and kills them. When Lee Marvin is shot by his wife and best friend in "Point Blank", he rises from the dead to track them down in Los Angeles, killing anything that gets in his way. In "Get Carter" Michael Caine's brother is killed, so he does some killing himself (great trunk scene!). In "Ms. 45" a woman is gang raped, but doesn't take it lying down - wearing a variety of disguises she gains each of her attacker's trust... then kills them. After the mob kills Glenn Ford's wife and daughter, he becomes a one man army in "The Big Heat". Revenge is the way to have your cake and eat it, too. The audience gets to cheer people doing really mean things.
25) DISASTER MOVIES. Here's a subgenre I thought was long dead, until a rash of fairly recent films brought it back for a while. Though it looks as if it's dead again, it could be resurrected at any time. Recent hits "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" have traces of the disaster subgenre in them. In these films some gigantic natural disaster is the background for a story of survival. A cousin to the Adventure Movie in that both are man against nature. Usually there is a strong conflict within the group of survivors - a question of leadership or responsibility for the disaster. Best disaster movie ever made is still "San Francisco" (1936), with the all-star "Towering Inferno" and "Airport" better examples than more recent films like "Daylight", "Dante's Peak" and "Volcano".
26) SPOOFS. Action played for laughs. The two "Austin Powers" movies are great recent examples - they make fun of all of the conventions of the action movie while strictly adhering to them. The Kentucky Fried Theater guys are the masters of this subgenre, from spoofs of disaster movies like "Airplane!" to spoofs of spy flicks like "Top Secret!" to cops and robbers spoofs like the "Naked Gun" movies and that wicked martial arts spoof in "Kentucky Fried Movie". Some of my favorites in this subgenre are "The Liquidator" (based on the first of John Gardner's Boysie Oakes novels), "Our Man Flint" and "Royal Flash" (a swashbuckler spoof based on George MacDonald Frasier's Flashman novels). The key to a good spoof is (oddly enough) to take the conventions of the genre seriously. What makes the "Enter The Dragon" parody in "Kentucky Fried Movie" so funny is that it's right on the money!
27) SPIES. Except for James Bond movies, this genre seems to be dormant, but if James Cameron decides to do another "True Lies" movie that may change. This is a catch-all subgenre for foreign intrigue movies, from the glossy exploits of Bond in movies like "Goldfinger", "Goldeneye" and "The World Is Not Enough" to more cerebral films like "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" and my favorite "The Ipcress File". Exotic locations, double crosses, and questions of loyalty. Check out the novels of Charles McCarry ("The Secret Lovers") for an interesting look at the spy business.
28) POST APOCALYPSE. What happens after a Doomsday Thriller. Civilization as we know it is over. There is no society, no rules, no law. People have to fight to survive. I could list a dozen films that fit this genre, but I've decided only to list the best - "Road Warrior" ("Mad Max 2"). Max comes from the anarchy of the outback, joins a make-shift society, and ends up fighting the anarchy he was a part of. It's the quintessential Post Apocalypse Action flick.
29) SURVIVAL. In that gray area between adventure and disaster movies you'll find this subgenre about a group of people forced to work together to survive the elements (including angry natives). These movies usually rely on drama more than action, but the fight for survival creates a fair amount of action. Fights, shoot outs, chases. "Deliverance" is a prime example, but it all started with 1939's "Five Came Back" and 1934's "The Lost Patrol". Don't miss "Southern Comfort", "Sahara", and my personal favorite "Flight Of The Phoenix".
30) MIXED GENRE. Not it's own subgenre, but another umbrella covering those weird hybrids of action and some other genre. Take one genre and add action for a whole new subgenre. Though it's hard to imagine combing the musical with action, "Streets Of Fire" is a kick-ass action musical. Shakespeare and action? Try "Joe MacBeth" (1955). There have been several films combining sports and action, most notably "Rollerball". My "Night Hunter" is a vampire action film with World Kickboxing champ Don "The Dragon" Wilson shooting, kicking, and staking a group of villainous vampires... years later "Blade" parroted the idea at a much higher budget with a much dumber script. "End Of Days" combines the Satanic horror subgenre and the action flick so that Ah-nuld can trade gunfire with Satan (Gabriel Byrne) on the streets of New York. By mixing genres you can come up with something seemingly original, yet action packed enough to fill the theater on Friday night.
There are dozens of other action subgenres, but not enough space to mention all of them. A remake of "Gone In 60 Seconds" is currently in production starring Nick Cage... will this revive the "car crash subgenre"? Meanwhile a new version of "Smokey And The Bandit" is in the works, maybe resurrecting the "trucker chase subgenre" that was popular in the late 1970s, early 1980s. And there are three disaster movies in outer space in production! Every few years, a new subgenre is born. Maybe you'll be the lucky father or mother of the next trend!
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