Action movies throughout the ages
The action movie has been around in some form since the beginning of film. The Great Train Robbery, released in 1903, is the first one that I can think of. While the film runs a whopping 12 minutes, it shares some traits in common with modern action movies including macho men, stunts, and an overall sense of excitement.
Later action movies would include gangster movies, war movies made during and right after World War II (in contrast to today's war movies, these often made war seem fun and exciting), the western and possibly even epics such as Ben-Hur. The modern action movie, however, probably originated in the late 1970s with the concept of the summer blockbuster. Movies like Jaws in 1975, Star Wars in 1977 and Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 set box office records. If there's one thing studio executives understand, it's how to make money using a formula, and they've been following one that's been pretty standard for the past 20 years or so.
What is an action movie?
The action movie, at its core, consists almost universally of a lone hero facing insurmountable odds and overcoming them with highly stylized and gratuitous violence. The personification of this hero is probably Arnold Schwarzenegger, famous for his roles in movies such as Conan the Barbarian, Commando, Terminator and Predator. He's stoic, buff, and is always ready with a silly one-liner after he kills a badguy. He may or may not have a sidekick or team members, but he'll eventually have to take on the head badguy alone. Women are occasionally cast as action leads (Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies is the best example) but they are the exception rather than the rule.
Action movies rarely take themselves too seriously, as the entire point is to provide a bit of escapist fun. The best action movies may ponder deeper issues (see The Matrix), but ultimately their aim is to thrill their audiences.
You could divide the action movie genre into an endless variety of sub-genres such as sci-fi/action, thriller/action or guy-stuck-in-a-building-that-has-been-taken-over-by-terrorists/action, but for the purposes of this write-up we'll assume any movie with strong action elements qualifies. The James Bond series of movies, which have been made almost continuously since 1962's Dr. No have also influenced and been influenced by the modern action movie; the Bond films, however, have a rather distinct formula that is all their own.
Because action movies tend to be so formulaic, there are many examples of bad ones. The genre is a favorite of straight to video releases and cable movies. Because no viewer is expecting things like quality acting, a B movie producer can cut these costs out of their budget and still deliver plenty of stuff blowing up. The line between good and bad action movie is often a fine one, however, due to the fact that most aim so low. This leads to most big-budget action movies being considered "critic proof" -- critics dislike them as they don't inspire any sort of thought, but audiences love them because they're more likely to want to use movies as escapism.
The action movie is the antithesis of the chick flick.
Action movies: the international genre
Another reason action movies are so commonly made in Hollywood is that they play well to foreign audiences. Since the dialogue is typically light and fairly unimportant, it is easy to dub for people that don't speak English. Since many movies these days make as much in the international market as they do in the domestic one, this is an important consideration for the movie studios that finance films.
It is also worth noting that this write-up has been rather focused on the action movies of the United States: other countries have different takes on the genre. Hong Kong has created two very influential sub-genres: the martial arts movie (also called the Kung Fu movie) and the so-called "blood opera." The latter, most popularized by director John Woo in movies such as Hard Boiled, feature extremely stylized violence and a bunch of guys wearing cool shades shooting insane numbers of bullets at each other. In recent years American movies have been borrowing from Woo's style, most notably in The Matrix. The martial arts genre has also seen a rise in popularity in America, with the "importation" of stars like Jackie Chan and movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The Kung Fu genre was probably first introduced to most Americans by Bruce Lee, whose seminal work Enter the Dragon has had a major influence on American martial arts movies.
The European action movie is a genre with which I'm not too familiar, but the works of Luc Besson would spring to mind, particularly Nikita. These are similar to American movies only with a French sensibility: more style and more attention paid to cinematography and character development. Ronin is a good example of what I can only describe as an American-made European action movie.
Noteworthy action movies and stars
Some of the most notable action movies of the last two decades include: the Terminator series, the Die Hard series, the Rambo series, the Alien series, the Jurassic Park series, the Indiana Jones series, the Star Wars series (arguably more sci-fi than action), the Mad Max series, the Batman series, the Lethal Weapon series, the two The Mummy movies, the Mission: Impossible movies, Waterworld (at one time the most expensive movie ever made), Predator, Commando, The Killer, Hard Boiled, Speed, Independence Day Armageddon, The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Gladiator.
Some of the most notable directors in the genre are: James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, John McTiernan, John Woo, Roland Emmerich, Luc Besson, John Frankenheimer, Renny Harlin and Jan de Bont. Some of the most notable producers (often seemingly more influential on an action movie than the director): Jerry Bruckheimer (who is so influential he towers above the rest of the names on this list), Don Simpson, Dean Devlin and Steven Spielberg once again.
Some of the more notable actors: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Slyvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Sean Connery, Chow Yun-Fat, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Mel Gibson, Keanu Reeves and Sigourney Weaver.
The Internet Movie Database located at http://www.imdb.com was used as a reference for things such as release dates and spelling of names.