As far as I can tell, there are three major classes of standard action movie:


In this case, like a musical, every moment is a set up for the action aria. Usually, a pure action movie will feature an actor known for his (and very occasionally her) martial arts skills or bubble-muscles (or both), such as Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Jason Statham, Vin Diesel, Jean-Claude van Damme, or all-time leader, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The dialogue often features wooden pre-and-post-violence-catchphrases such as “Time to take out the trash,” or “That hit the spot.” At the same time, such films are often sanitized in the sense that there is a small amount of blood and gore in proportion to the impressive volume of shooting and killing; as a result, the victims of the violence are not sympathetic figures, but instead merely stunt men. The relationship between good and bad, meanwhile, is cartoonish, but satisfying to those of us with simple hearts.


Here the scenario is king as our hero is caught in a tricky situation that he (or occasionally she) has to escape or resolve. The action can be impressive, but is directed by the necessity of the plot and so makes each obstacle that our hero must defeat exciting and significant. Our hero’s moxie, however, is more crucial than his martial arts skills. Consider Die Hard or much of Harrison Ford’s work. Once again, the good guy is juxtaposed with a bad guy who does evil things to people’s grandmothers, but since the focus is as much on the brains and personalities of both sides as it is their swinging back kicks, it is easier to invest oneself in the characters. And our hero and villain’s humour is usually more wit than punch-line-based.


In this case, the story is once again significant, but it is usually dark and blurs the distinction between good and evil. The action, when it happens, is harsh, loud, and disconcerting. The action hero again doesn’t have to be a black belt in anything, but he (and very rarely she) must be ready to be moody about a dark past. Dim lighting throughout the film often causes the protagonist’s morose mood to infect ours, as does the disconcerting violence, which features grisly death, rape, and torture. The characters are generally humourless (who could blame them?), as they’re rather focussed on revenge at the moment. Films such as Law Abiding Citizen and Payback are classic examples.

When done skillfully, all three genres can produce work that I like, but it has come to my realization that I generally prefer situation action movies because I find them to be a fun place for my imagination to play. I appreciate the fact that they don’t take themselves too seriously, deriving their humour from wit and personality traits as opposed to the slapstick death of a pawn character or a clichéd punch-line. The heroes usually endear themselves to me to the point that I actually care about what happens to them when the action starts. (Rank 1 on the action genre list.)

In contrast, pure action movies, whilst also not taking themselves too seriously, are rarely able to provoke any connection between the hero, the action, and me. The violence is so constant and unlinked to a recognizable scenario or character I care about that I find myself bored with the constantly flashing movement on screen and the noise reverberating in my eardrums. (Rank 3.)

Meanwhile, gritty action films work hard to connect us with the characters, but, since they have such ambiguous morality levels, they’re not particularly likeable. And, because the story is told with a dark and pessimistic tone and often involves serious and controversial subject matter, I find myself less entertained as I am sad about the world. The action itself, meanwhile, is so raw and blood-spattered that it’s not particularly pleasing to view. Nevertheless, given the dark story takes on some challenging subject matter, it generally at least provokes my disconcerted brain to have some unexpected thoughts. (Rank 2.)

These distinctions are helpful, I think, because they can allow us (even if we’re not always conscious of them) to select the type of movie that best suits our taste buds. Moreover, it would be helpful for movie critics to keep genre conventions in mind in order to avoid unfairly condemning a movie for having too much or not enough action, humour, character development, complexity, or gravitas. For instance, when watching a pure action film, it would be unreasonable to expect the same degree of character development as in Citizen Kane, because that is not its function. Rather, a pure action should be judged based on its successful implementation of the genre’s key elements.

At the same time, it is rather irritating to me when an action movie tries to reap all the benefits of each genre, and ends up being none of them. Consider Safe House, which I took in last night. It brands itself as a gritty action, and certainly it possesses sufficiently dark themes for that (I was definitely good and depressed as I watched). The hero (played by Ryan Reynolds), per specifications, is under-appreciated and faced with difficult decisions in which he has to choose between love and work. And we have plenty of brutal, cold-blooded killing, along with a realistic scene of torture (the actor-victim, Denzel Washington, explained afterwards that he allowed himself to be water-boarded—albeit briefly—so as to get the good grit). Fine. Gritty action it is: my thoughts were primed for provocation.

But then the movie quickly turns into a situation flick where our quick-thinking hero has to navigate the Safe House world using only his brilliant maneuvering, reluctantly bonding with his sometimes-prisoner in a formulaic father-son, mentor-student relationship. And the action, itself, while dark and extreme like a gritty movie, is constant, gratuitous, and sometimes even nonsensical, featuring indiscriminate and hopeless shooting by the enemy, lots of fancy fight moves, and virtually pain-free car crashes, all meeting pure action requirements. Thus, even though the movie tries to get the intellectual credit for being gritty, it actually relies on the conventions of pure and situation action to entertain us. The result is an unharmonious blending of genres that is too dark to be enjoyable and too silly to be interesting. Whereas I was initially sympathetic to the protagonist because of the frightening situation he is caught in and the invocation of various situation-action conventions, the paradoxical mixing of gritty with silly eventually deflated my concern as I could no longer take the film seriously.

EPILOGUE: I also recently watched the situation action movie Man on a Ledge, which officially will get much lower marks from the critics because it is an unashamedly lowbrow movie (featuring some implausible moments and unnecessary cleavage). To me, it’s underrated redeeming quality is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Instead of genre-hopping like Safe House, it stays consistently in its own lane. Consequently, by knowing its limitations, it succeeds at being something; whereas, by trying to be everything, Safe House fails to be anything.

4 thoughts on “GENRE-HOPPING MAD”

  1. Also note that the film’s alleged “deepness” did not apply to the female love interest at all, a hollow shell of a person, who, although she was a med student, was unable to detect that her boyfriend was lying about working at a clinic. Please! I suppose this could make sense, since there is no evidence that they talk about anything, as the one relationship-defining scene involves unspoken shenanigans in a shower.

  2. Well put! Upon reflection, there was really no reason to care about her except that that the main character told us to. And, yeah, if (per his cover) he worked in a clinic, and she was an oncologist, wouldn’t medicine-y talk come up at some point in their relationship? I especially like your point because, while the Denzel Washington character was supposed to be a master of human nature, his skills were more denoted by his penetrating facial expressions than his verbal ones. Yours was a much more intelligent comment on the characters than he ever made. You’ve earned a SethBlogs Golden Smile. 🙂

  3. Nicely thought out and written piece, in my opinion. It was nice to get the relationship angle from Natalie as well, as our male focus tends to be on plot etc. No smiles please.

  4. Yes, TomM, we must stay in our gender lanes, too! (Well played asking for “no smile”: that way, when you don’t get one, you can claim you didn’t want one. Instead, you get a golden wink. 😉

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