7 Vintage Films That Laid The Foundation For Modern Action Movies

Before John Wick’s balletic gunplay or the mind-bending dreamscapes of Inception, there existed a range of vintage films that not only set pulses racing but also laid the groundwork for the action cinema we know today. Let’s journey back in time to explore these cinematic marvels and understand their influence on the modern action landscape.

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1. The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Synopsis: Directed by Edwin S. Porter, The Great Train Robbery is a silent western film that catapults us into the daring world of bandits and outlaws. The film recounts the bold exploits of a gang of bandits who hold up a train, commit a brazen robbery, and then scatter in the face of mounting pursuit from law enforcement.

Influence: Despite its mere 13-minute runtime, this pioneering film indelibly marked the genre with its dynamic storytelling techniques. Porter’s innovative use of composite editing, on-location shooting, and a moving camera transformed the very fabric of cinematic storytelling. These pioneering techniques made the narrative more intense and engaging, characteristics that are the hallmark of today’s action films. Moreover, its defining final scene, where a bandit fires directly at the audience, became one of the first instances of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ in cinema.

2. Bullitt (1968)

Synopsis: In Bullitt, director Peter Yates presents Steve McQueen in one of his most iconic roles. McQueen plays Frank Bullitt, a cool, determined San Francisco cop tasked with protecting a Mafia witness. As the witness is murdered, Bullitt delves into a web of deceit and corruption to uncover the truth.

Influence: Bullitt’s legendary car chase sequence, featuring a Ford Mustang GT and a Dodge Charger, forever changed action films. Filmed on the hilly streets of San Francisco, it exhibited an unprecedented level of realism. The visceral, adrenaline-pumping sequence with real cars and practical effects set the bar for future car chase scenes. This influence can be seen in action classics like The French Connection, and more recently, in the high-octane thrills of the Fast & Furious franchise.

3. Enter the Dragon (1973)

Synopsis: This martial arts classic, directed by Robert Clouse, features Bruce Lee in his final film role. Lee plays a Shaolin martial artist who infiltrates a martial arts tournament to expose the host’s criminal activities, revealing a world of drug trafficking and slavery.

Influence: Enter the Dragon revolutionized the action genre by spotlighting martial arts. Its meticulous fight choreography showcased Lee’s extraordinary abilities while also serving as a storytelling tool. Its success introduced Asian martial arts to Hollywood, and its influences can be seen in subsequent films like The Matrix, Kill Bill, and John Wick. This film demonstrated that action sequences, particularly fight scenes, could be more than mere spectacle – they could convey character motivations and drive the narrative.

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4. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

Synopsis: Directed by George Miller, The Road Warrior takes us on a high-octane ride in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world. Mel Gibson’s Max, a wandering ex-cop, comes to the aid of a group of survivors defending their oil refinery against marauding gangs.

Influence: The Road Warrior significantly contributed to the visual lexicon of the action genre. Its depiction of vehicular warfare, featuring raucously modified cars and daring stunts, was like nothing ever seen before. Its relentless pace, focus on practical effects, and unique aesthetic created a vivid, visceral cinematic experience. The film’s influence extended beyond cinema, inspiring numerous video games, comic books, and television series. Interestingly, if you’re a fan of such intense, conflict-driven narratives, you may want to check out the selection of war movies on Netflix for a similar adrenaline rush. Its themes of survival in a desolate, lawless world resonate in films like Miller’s own Fury Road, and Waterworld. The film’s influence can also be seen in many post-apocalyptic and dystopian narratives across media.

5. Die Hard (1988)

Synopsis: Die Hard, directed by John McTiernan, offers a gripping tale of resilience in the face of terror. New York City cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) is visiting his estranged wife at her Los Angeles office Christmas party when terrorists, led by the suave Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), seize the skyscraper. 

Influence: Die Hard redefined the action genre with its ingenious formula: an everyman hero, a confined location, and a relentless blend of tension, action, and humor. The film’s blend of character-driven humor amid pulse-pounding action can be seen in many contemporary films like Marvel’s Avengers series. Even the Die Hard series itself replicated the formula in subsequent entries.

6. The French Connection (1971)

Synopsis: This gritty crime thriller, directed by William Friedkin, features Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a hard-edged New York City cop who becomes obsessed with busting a heroin smuggling operation. The film chronicles Doyle’s relentless pursuit as he dives into the grimy underworld, leading to a suspenseful and deadly cat-and-mouse game.

Influence: The French Connection is renowned for its influential car chase scene, which was considered even more intense and chaotic than the one in Bullitt. This high-speed chase through the streets of New York was a visceral, kinetic spectacle that emphasized realism and danger. This film’s influence can be traced through a myriad of films, such as Ronin, and the Bourne series, which prioritize real driving and stunt work over CGI. Its uncompromising protagonist and the grim depiction of the crime world have influenced many gritty action films.

7. Dirty Harry (1971)

Synopsis: Dirty Harry, directed by Don Siegel, stars Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan, a hard-boiled San Francisco police detective. Callahan finds himself up against a psychotic sniper known as Scorpio, leading to a tense game of wits and wills.

Influence: Dirty Harry set a new template for the renegade cop archetype – a model that many action films have since replicated. Eastwood’s character, with his no-nonsense attitude, sharp one-liners, and readiness to defy authority, became a template for the action hero. This film’s tone and style influenced numerous action movies, including Lethal Weapon. It also popularized the trope of the loner protagonist facing off against a singular villain, a narrative device that has been echoed in countless action thrillers since.

The landscape of modern action cinema is a thrilling playground of edge-of-your-seat spectacle. Yet, it is important to remember and appreciate the vintage films that paved the way for this cinematic thrill ride. They continue to exert their influence, reminding us that sometimes, to understand where we’re going, we need to look back at where we’ve been.

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