Of Crazy Max to John Wick, Learn the tricks of the trade from the best action film directors of all time.
Let’s start with something that we should all agree on. Movies are great. And of course they also make us think. They make us laugh, cry and make us feel a variety of emotions. But at the end of the day, they just keep us entertained. My personal opinion is that the films that understand this and don’t try to do more are some of my favorite films of all time.
And no film genre seems to understand this better than action films. Of Predator to to die Heavy to the recently published Nobody, Action movies are the perfect way to slap your face with die-hard entertainment – if that’s what you like, of course.
But what, from the filmmaker’s point of view, makes an action film a good action film? And more specifically, how can you learn to make these adrenaline-pumping action films yourself?
Well, to understand action films, we just have to look back and study the masters. Let’s do that today.
The most notable action film: The wild bunch (1969)
Lessons in Action: Cinema can be rough.
Starting with our list, let’s start with Sam Peckinpah, the notable tough film director known for his prolific revisionist westerns of the ’60s and’ 70s, as well as his early forays into the action cinema genre.
While Peckinpah was ahead of much of the action explosion of the 80s and 90s, his early films paved the way by teaching audiences to appreciate tough heroes and cinema that could be challenging, rough, and violent.
Peckinpah certainly had a reputation as a filmmaker as well, as you can see here SNL sketch from 1985, where Peckinpah’s “tough director” is ridiculed in a portrayal by John Belushi.
However, you can learn a lot about Peckinpah’s straightforward, idiosyncratic, and “tough” approach to filmmaking in this rare 1976 interview (a year before he released one of the greatest action war films of all time with him) Iron Cross).
The most notable action film: Die Hard (1988)
Lessons in Action: Action movies can be fun.
While his later legal troubles would ruin much of his modern career, John McTiernan was the biggest name in action cinema for a time in the late 80s and early 90s, making blockbuster hits like Predator (1987), to die Heavy (1988), and The hunt for Red October (1990).
He’s also directed one of my favorite action films of all time Last action hero (1993), which could best embody the direction of action of the director. It should be grounded and real, but fun at the end of the day.
With iconic action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dutch in Predator, Bruce Willis in the Die Hard and Schwarzenegger again as Jack Slater in Last action hero, McTiernan proved time and again that action films are indeed the perfect vehicle for big blockbuster entertainment, creating character archetypes and franchises that are strong to this day.
The most notable action film: Hard boiled (1992)
Lessons in Action: Action and shootouts live in slow motion.
While Peckinpah and McTiernan may have helped shape the early stages of American action cinema, Hong Kong action cinema developed its own martial arts, wuxia and shoot ’em up crime styles.
One of the most iconic and influential directors of his day, John Woo, was able to adopt his Hong Kong action cinema style, which he expertly shows off in his early Hong Kong films A better tomorrow (1986), The killer (1989), and Hard boiled (1992), achieved mainstream Hollywood success when he hit the end of the 90s with hits like. made the leap Face / off (1997) and the action spy film Mission: Impossible 2 (2000).
You have seen Woo’s work either directly or staged by other action directors since his penchant for slow motion, flapping pigeons and highly chaotic shootouts became a staple of action cinema to this day due to his vision and expertise.
The most notable action film: Point break (1991)
Lessons in Action: The audience loves well-executed set pieces and car chases.
Years before Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to do the Oscar for best director for your work The injured locker (2008) Bigelow honed her action chops and created genre-challenging actioners like Blue steel, Point break, and Strange days.
All three of these films are considered action, horror and thriller classics, which are characterized above all by their excellent set pieces, car chases and highlights of shootings and robberies that went wrong.
Look at Point break in particular (which I’ve kept for years as the perfect mix of ironic and sincere filmmaking) brought Bigelow a much-needed sense of realism and spectacle into their action features, wowing audiences with highly technical, challenging, and often explosive set pieces that were well incorporated into the unique stories they were able to tell.
The most notable action film: Cliffhanger (1993)
Lessons in Action: Develop and follow the action movie formula.
Renny Harlin, another name on Mount Rushmore of the ’80s and’ 90s action, found his first success as a director of the fantasy slasher film A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master before embarking on a hugely successful career as a go-to-action director with films such as Die hard 2, Cliffhanger, The long kiss good night, and Deep blue sea.
It would be hard to say that any of Harlin’s action hits were groundbreaking or new, but that wasn’t really what the audience wanted at the time. Instead, Harlin was able to develop his own action movie formula, starting with Die hard 2 which was based on the success of the original.
One could argue that Cliffhanger was also one of the first of many films to be inspired by him Die Hard As a “Die slowly, but on a …Formula that saw Sylvester Stallone go all John McClane against his own John Lithgow transformed Hans Gruber.
Yet in this formula, which Harlin may have perfected best, we still find many mainstream action films today. However, since his heyday in the ’90s, Harlin has gone through a few DTV and independent action films before finding his new home in China’s burgeoning action market.
Listen to our interview with Harlin here!
The most notable action film: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Lessons in Action: Don’t hold anything back.
If you look back on the action career of the creator of the Mad Max franchise, you might be surprised to learn that the Australian filmmaker also likes several non-action features Lorenzo’s oil, happy Feet, and Babe: Pig in town.
But don’t let the mixed filmography fool you. Miller’s work, which introduced Mel Gibson’s “Street Fighter” to the world in the original Mad Max, was truly one of the most innovative, insightful, and downright homemade action films that we will ever see.
However, while his first film may have experimented with different approaches to action cinema and storytelling Crazy Max Movies, he’s perfected it with Anger street, which featured Miller at the top of his action game and is the perfect example of how the best action films are the ones that really don’t hold anything back.
F. Gary Gray
The most notable action film: Turn it off (1996)
Lessons in Action: Stay true to your roots.
He started out as a music video director for major label rappers like Ice cubes, Dr. Dre, and Outkast, F Gary Gray made his breakthrough to the feature film with the critical and commercial hit Friday (1995). Indeed, while Gray may have started out in comedy, his real talent would be in directing hits like that Turn it off (1996), The Italian job (2003), and Law abiding citizen (2009) before heading the eighth installment of the Fast & Furious Franchise with The fate of the angry. (Which could be argued as one of the best films of the entire franchise.)
As he moved on to bigger and bigger blockbusters and budgets, Gray’s films stayed anchored in the real styles of his early music video and film work, which at the time were very narrative and focused on characters and story over the more noticeable elements usually found in music videos or action vehicles finds.
Turn it off is perhaps my favorite example as it has some brilliant bank heist heist sequences similar to Bigelow’s Point break Camera work, but still finds enough space to balance his action with real characters and storylines.
Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
The most notable action film: John Wick (2014)
Lessons in Action: Let the story be the story.
Because the duo teamed up with the original John Wick In 2014 (although only Stahelski received the director’s credit due to DGA guidelines) they made big waves in mainstream action cinema with follow-up projects like major John Wick: Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 – Parabellum (Stahelski) and Atomic blonde, Deadpool 2, and Hobbs & Shaw. (They are also rumored to be attached to several new projects, including a Bloodsport remake).
However, the duo first learned their craft in stunt work, when both rose from stunt actors to coordinators to second-unit directors, before they could finally make their directorial debut with the surprising hit John Wick.
And if you like your films from the John Wick Franchise, you can see the respect they pay for stunts and fight sequences as they make up the bulk of the running time of many of their films – and often also provide the bulk of the plot and narrative storytelling of their films.
While we’ve named just a few on this list, there are undoubtedly many, many more action film directors who made great strides in the ’80s,’ 90s and modern day action game. If there’s anything we left out or you’d like to shout out, drop us a line in the comments below to keep the conversation going!