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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: What is the first modern action movie?

Cary Grant in North by Northwest

Carrie Rickey, the Philadelphia Inquirer film critic, tweeted an interesting question yesterday:

Is “North by Northwest” the first modern action movie?

She thinks yes. I think it’s a great question:

What is the first modern action movie?

This depends on two factors: how you define action movie, and how you define modern.

I think it’s probably safe to say that the James Bond movies of the 1960s set the groundwork for what we know as the action movie today… and North by Northwest set the groundwork for them. Is that going back too far, however? Should we come a little further forward, to, perhaps, The French Connection, which is closer to the “modern” idea of an action movie, in which the action is more relentless. (Then again, North by Northwest and the Bond movies also feature lots of smart, witty comedy, which I suspect many of us feel is an essential part of the action movie.) Should we come even further ahead, into the 1980s, when the one-two punch of Die Hard and Lethal Weapon — which are still better than most of what they’ve spawned in the wake of their success — kicked off a race to outdo them that still has not ended?

Have fun!

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • xLeeroycranex

    What an old topic. I guess I’ll comment anyway.

    I’d say Kurosawa set up the first modern action hero in Yojimbo. The rogue-like action hero who had witty sayings and could cut down a swath of enemies like nothing. What was previously only tied to perhaps war movies and/or the epic genre (kill counts) is instead shifted to an individual caught up against wrongdoers.

    Without that, we don’t get Clint Eastwood and we don’t get the Rambos and John McClanes. James Bond may not have become the killer he is today either.

    Of course, Yojimbo may not have been the first modern action film due to its pacing but like Seven Samurai and the subsequent film, Sanjuro, it laid out many modern action film elements.

    Otherwise, North by Northwest may indeed be the first modern action movie. I don’t think they make as many James Bond movies without that film providing the basis.

  • grassrox

    Rambo-1st Blood pt. 2 is the genesis of what the genre is today. Well ahead of Die Hard, and chocked full of absolutely impossible seneros are achieved again and again in pyrotechnic splendor, Rambo, in my humble opinion, was the 1st of the brain-numbing action blockbuster genre that sadly still dominates cinema today.

  • RogerBW

    Ah, but that was exactly my point: Die Hard moved the action genre away from the muscle-bound impossibles and back to the “ordinary guy” template. It’s been a gradual crawl back from there to the current cartoonish impossibility of a Fast and Furious film.

  • grassrox

    Technically speaking, wouldn’t Die Hard be a police movie if FBpt.2 was a war movie? I think you’re getting into sub-genres here… FBpt2 may not be the 1st, BUT the outline is the proof that DH isn’t the1st.

    A. Lone hero?
    B. Insurmountable odds
    C. Lots of big fireballs
    D. Saves the innocents from the evil villain(s)

    That could probably be improved upon, but the theory would stand, I.e., the film would have to meet specific requirements. The earliest film to meet these specific requirements would be the 1st

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