Action movies usually involve a fairly straightforward story of good guys versus bad guys, where most disputes are resolved by using physical force. Action movies are usually "high concept" films where the whole movie can be easily summarized in a simple sentence (eg. "a scientist brings dinosaurs back to life only to find them trying to dominate earth, again" for Jurassic Park). Who exactly the good guys are differs from film to film, but in Hollywood films they usually are patriotic and rather conservative Americans, whereas the bad guys are usually either criminals or agents of foreign powers. In the 1980s and before, they were very often Communists, which brings some action films fairly close to propaganda films. With the fall of Communism, Communists were no longer the villains, and the focus turned to drug lords or Middle Eastern terrorists. Action movies also tend to have a single heroic protagonist and often portray institutions such as the military or police as incompetent and limited by rules and regulations which the protagonist has no regard for. This creates the stereotypical conflict between an action hero and the establishment.
Action films tend to be expensive requiring big budget special effects and stunt work. Action films are mainly an American genre, although there have been a significant number of action films from Hong Kong which are primarily modern variations of the martial arts film.
Because of these roots, Hong Kong action films typically center on acrobatics by the protoganist while American action films typically feature big explosions and cool gadgets.
Action films also constitute very good examples for feminist film theory, because in them, the separation between the physical male who controls the scene and the look and the female, who is almost always the object of the look is very clear. Although female characters in most action films are nothing more than objects, a prize for the winner, hostages, loving wives and the like, there has been a move towards stronger female characters. These are maybe best exemplified in works by James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow.
Current trends in action film include a development toward more elaborate fight scenes, perhaps because of the success of Asian martial arts films in Western film. Actors in action movies are now much more skilled in the art and aesthetic of fighting than they have been in the past, apart from a few acknowledged fighters like Steven Seagal. Now, a distinction can be made between films that lean toward physical agile fighting, such as The Transporter, and those that lean toward other common action film conventions, like explosions and plenty of gunfire, such as Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever or Lethal Weapon, although most action movies employ elements of both.
The first modern action film was The Seven Samurai of Akira Kurosawa. Although the plot is more complex than many action movies today, the premise was very simple: set in Feudal Japan, the basically good, weak villagers are about to be attacked by a large horde of bandits. So, the villagers hire seven samurai to protect their village and train their people for the upcoming onslaught. This movie introduced basic, recurrent action film themes such as good vs. evil, sacrifice, the vigilante spirit of the protagonists, and the use of an action climax (which until then had been restricted to westerns).
Other common action film conventions saw their birth in the release of James Bond series (containing many of the original elements of spy movies still seen today) and Bullitt, which contains one of the earliest car chases, a feature that is almost standard in action films.
Due to their widespread appeal, many of the following films have also spawned one or more sequels.
For more genres see List of movie genres.