From Mad Max to John Wick, learn the tricks of the trade from the best action movie directors of all time.
Let’s start on something we all should agree on. Movies are awesome. And sure, they also make us think. They make us laugh, make us cry, and make us feel a wide array of emotions. But at the end of the day, they simply entertain us. My personal take is that the movies that understand this and don’t try to do more than that are some of my favorite films of all time.
And no film genre seems to understand this more than action movies. From Predator to Die Hard to the recently released Nobody, action movies are the perfect vehicle to smack you in the face with some hard-boiled entertainment—if that’s what you’re into, of course.
But, from a filmmaking perspective, what makes an action movie a good action movie? And, more specifically, how can you learn to create these adrenaline-fueled action flicks on your own?
Well, to understand action movies, we simply have to look back and study the masters. Let's do that today.
Most Notable Action Movie: The Wild Bunch (1969)
Lessons in Action: Cinema can be rough.
Starting off our list we begin with Sam Peckinpah, the notable tough guy movie director known for his prolific revisionist westerns of the 60s and 70s, as well as his early forays into genre action cinema.
While Peckinpah was a bit before the bulk of the action explosion of the 80s and 90s, his early films paved the way as he taught audiences to appreciate tough-guy heroes and cinema that could be challenging, rough, and violent.
Peckinpah certainly had a reputation as a filmmaker as well, as you can see in this SNL sketch from 1985 where Peckinpah’s “tough director” persona is lampooned in a portrayal by John Belushi.
However, you can learn a great deal about Peckinpah’s straightforward, headstrong, and “tough” approach to filmmaking in this rare interview from 1976 (a year before he’d release one of the greatest action war films of all time with Cross of Iron).
Most Notable Action Movie: Die Hard (1988)
Lessons in Action: Action movies can be fun.
While his later legal troubles would derail much of his modern career, for a time in the late 80s and early 90s, John McTiernan was the biggest name in action cinema, directing blockbuster hits like Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988), and The Hunt for Red October (1990).
He also directed one of my favorite action movies of all time with Last Action Hero (1993) which might best epitomize the director’s overall direction for action. It should be grounded and real, but at the end of the day fun.
With iconic action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dutch in Predator, Bruce Willis in Die Hard and Schwarzenegger again as Jack Slater in Last Action Hero, McTiernan proved time and time again that action movies indeed made the perfect vehicle for major blockbuster entertainment creating character archetypes and franchises that are still going strong today.
Most Notable Action Movie: Hard Boiled (1992)
Lessons in Action: Action and shoot-outs live in slow-motion.
While Peckinpah and McTiernan might have been helping to shape the early stages of American action cinema, Hong Kong action cinema was developing martial arts, wuxia, and shoot ‘em up crime thriller styles of its own.
One of the most iconic and influential directors of his time, John Woo, was able to take his Hong Kong action cinema style, which he expertly displays in his early Hong Kong films like A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), and Hard Boiled (1992), into mainstream Hollywood success as he made the jump in the late 90s with hits like Face/Off (1997) and the action spy film Mission: Impossible 2 (2000).
You’ve seen Woo’s work either directly or pastiched by other action directors since his penchant for slow-motion, fluttering doves, and highly chaotic shootouts became staples of action cinema to this day due to his vision and expertise.
Most Notable Action Movie: Point Break (1991)
Lessons in Action: Audiences love well-executed set pieces and chase scenes.
Years before Kathryn Bigelow would go on to become the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for her work The Hurt Locker (2008), Bigelow honed her action chops creating genre-challenging actioners like Blue Steel, Point Break, and Strange Days.
All three of these films have gone on to be regarded as action, horror, and thriller classics which are most notable for their excellent set pieces, chase scenes, and climactic shootouts and heists gone awry.
Looking at Point Break in particular (which I’ve held for years now as the perfect blend of ironic and sincere filmmaking), Bigelow brought a much-needed sense of both realism and spectacle to her action features, exciting audiences with highly technical, challenging, and often explosive set pieces which were well-woven into the unique stories they were able to tell.
Most Notable Action Movie: Cliffhanger (1993)
Lessons in Action: Develop and follow the action movie formula.
Another name on the Mount Rushmore of 80s and 90s action, Renny Harlin found his initial success directing the fantasy slasher film A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master before stringing together a highly successful career as a go-to action director throughout the 90s with films like Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Deep Blue Sea.
It’d be hard to say that any of Harlin’s action hits were groundbreaking or new, but at the time that’s not really what audiences wanted. Instead, Harlin was able to develop an action movie formula of his own starting with Die Hard 2, which was based on the success of the original.
You could argue that Cliffhanger too was one of the first of many films which would be inspired by Die Hard as a “Die Hard but on a…” formula that saw Sylvester Stallone go all John McClane against his own John Lithgow turned Hans Gruber.
However, in this formula, which Harlin perhaps best perfected, we still find many mainstream action movies today. Since his 90s heyday, though, Harlin has transitioned through some DTV and independent action films before finding his new home in China’s emerging action market.
Listen to our interview with Harlin here!
Most Notable Action Movie: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Lessons in Action: Don’t hold anything back.
Looking back at the action career of the creator of the Mad Max franchise, you might be surprised to learn that the Australian filmmaker also helmed several non-action features like Lorenzo's Oil, Happy Feet, and Babe: Pig in the City.
But don’t let the mixed filmography fool you. Miller’s work introducing the world to Mel Gibson’s “road warrior” in the original Mad Max was truly some of the most innovative, insightful, and downright DIY action filmmaking that we’ll ever see.
However, while he might have experimented with different approaches to action cinema and storytelling with his first Mad Max films, he perfected it with Fury Road, which showcased Miller at the top of his action game and the perfect example of how the best action films are the ones that truly hold nothing back.
F. Gary Gray
Most Notable Action Movie: Set it Off (1996)
Lessons in Action: Stay true to your roots.
Making his start as a music video director for major label rappers like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Outkast, F Gary Gray got his break into feature films with the critical and commercial hit Friday (1995). While Gray may have started in comedy, his real talent would be in action as he directed hits like Set It Off (1996), The Italian Job (2003), and Law Abiding Citizen (2009) before being given the reins to helm the eighth installment of the Fast & Furious franchise with The Fate of the Furious. (Which could be argued as one of the best movies of the entire franchise.)
While he’s moved on to bigger and bigger blockbusters and budgets, Gray’s films have remained grounded in the real-world styles of his early music video and film efforts, which were at the time highly narrative and focused on characters and story over the more flashy elements that you’d usually find in music videos or action vehicles.
Set it Off is perhaps my favorite example, as it features some brilliant bank robbery heist sequences comparable to Bigelow’s Point Break camera work, yet still finds enough space to balance his action with real characters and storylines.
Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
Most Notable Action Movie: John Wick (2014)
Lessons in Action: Let the action be the narrative.
Finally, we round out our list with two of the biggest names currently working in modern action cinema, John Wick filmmakers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch.
Since the duo teamed up with the original John Wick in 2014 (although only Stahelski received the directorial credit due to DGA guidelines), they’ve been making major waves in mainstream action cinema with follow up projects like John Wick: Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 – Parabellum (Stahelski) and Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Hobbs & Shaw. (They’re also rumored to be attached to several new projects including a Bloodsport remake).
The duo initially learned their crafts in stunt work though as both made their way up from stunt performers, to coordinators, to second-unit directors before they finally were able to make their directorial debuts with the surprising hit John Wick.
And, if you watch their films from the John Wick franchise, you can see the amount of respect that they pay for stunts and fight sequences as they make up the majority of many of their films’ run times—as well as often providing the bulk of their films’ plot and narrative storytelling.
While we only named a few on this list, there are undoubtedly many, many more action movie directors who have made great strides in the 80s and 90s as well as in the modern action game. If there are any that we left off, or that you'd like to shout out, drop us a line in the comments below to keep the conversation going!
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