The origins of arthouse action can be traced back to Asian and European traditions of action cinema, but in recent years the genre has gained global audiences due to the popularity of directors like Nicolas Winding Refn. Instead of relying on the commercial appeal of action, arthouse action films employ stylized visual narratives and organize atmospheric experiences.
A modern pioneer of the genre, Refn said: “I am very drawn to men of action, people who do not speak but react. The action defines them as characters. By silencing these characters, it makes them much more dangerous, but also much more pure, romantic and enigmatic. Their characters become an emotional expression more than anything else.
Adding: “Darkness wouldn’t work without light… There has to be a balance. You need one if you want to have the other, and that’s very important for the movie. The action, the violence and all of those things are mechanics, so if you’re not emotionally invested, they just don’t make sense other than being very loud.
In order to understand the unique sensibilities of the arthouse action genre, we take a look at a few masterpieces from acclaimed filmmakers ranging from Akira Kurosawa to Jim Jarmusch.
10 must-see arthouse action movies:
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa – 1954)
Akira Kurosawa’s widely celebrated magnum opus Seven Samurai is considered by many to be the apotheosis of the genre. The film offers a fascinating examination of political and philosophical ideals through the story of a group of rōnin who join the battle against the lawless bandits.
Much is often made that I use more than one camera to shoot a scene, ”Kurosawa wrote. “It started when I was doing Seven Samurai, because it was impossible to predict exactly what would happen in the scene where the bandits attack the peasant village during a severe rainstorm.
Adding: “If I had filmed it using the traditional shot-by-shot method, there was no guarantee that an action could be repeated exactly the same way twice. So I used three cameras running simultaneously. The result was extremely effective, so I decided to make full use of this technique in less action-packed dramas, and then used it to I live in fear (1955). ”
Marked to kill (Seijun Suzuki – 1967)
An infinitely elegant masterpiece by the Japanese master of the new wave, Marked to kill is a yakuza film that follows a professional assassin who commits the cardinal sin of falling in love with one of his clients. A true cult classic, Seijun Suzuki’s magnum opus helped establish his reputation as one of the most promising Japanese filmmakers of his time.
“Anonymous directors like me didn’t have the time,” Suzuki said. “So I had no choice but to stay awake all night and never come home… The studio came to me with a script and asked me to do it. But whatever I concocted after that was up to me… It’s not really the genre that interests me, but the character of the yakuza. They wander between life and death. As a character, they are more interesting than normal people.
At close range (John Boorman – 1967)
A competent adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s pulp novel, John Boorman’s 1967 neo-noir gem is a true successor to the French New Wave. Inspired by the experimental spirit of French authors, Boorman sets out to subvert the conventions of film noir and ends up with a fantastic assessment of the human condition.
Boorman said: “I have a different relationship with different films. When I see At close range I’m still like, “How the hell did I get away with this?” And Issuance is very convincing. The craftsmanship is good. And as for Zardoz, I do not know what it is. But I think these are all daring films, for better or for worse.
Gloria (Jean Cassavetes – 1980)
With Gena Rowlands as a gangster’s girlfriend, Gloria chronicle the destabilizing effects of crime on the human psyche. Although not one of the best in Cassavetes, Gloria has won numerous awards and nominations and Akira Kurosawa even named it among his favorite films.
“A script is a series of words in a row,” Cassavetes said. “When I start to write, there is a feeling of discovery. In a way it doesn’t work, it’s finding a little bit of romance in people’s lives. You are fascinated by their life. If they stay with you, then you want to do something – make a movie out of it, somehow put it on. This is what prompted us to continue working on it. Making a movie is a mystery.
The killer (John Woo – 1989)
The killer is one of Hong Kong’s most popular action films, directed by iconic John Woo. It’s a philosophical reflection on morals and societal norms that revolves around the unconventional life of a killer. Woo has been influenced by movies like Middle streets and the Samurai doing The killer.
“No, I’ve never scripted anything in a movie,” Woo revealed. “You know what? For that, ‘The Killer’, I even shot without a script. Without a script. Just a preview. The whole movie was in my head… Most of the action, I choreograph myself, because that I’m a pretty good dancer. An action sequence, it’s like doing a dance scene, or dancing with the actors.
Leon: the professional (Luc Besson – 1994)
Beloved 90s French action thriller, the 1994 Luc Besson Jewel stars Natalie Portman as a 12-year-old girl who trains under the direction of a highly trained hitman ( played by Jean Reno). Fans have been asking for a follow-up for some time now, but such a project seems highly unlikely at this point.
The filmmaker put an end to all rumors about a sequel by saying, “You can’t imagine how many people ask me for a Leon following. Everywhere I go, they ask me. If I was motivated by money, I would have done it a long time ago. But I don’t feel it.
In a previous interview with Cinema Blend, Besson developed the subject: “Natalie is old now, she is a mother… It’s too late. If I had an idea for a sequel tomorrow, of course I would. But I never found anything strong enough. I don’t want to do sequels for money; I want to do a sequel because it’s worth it. I want it to be as good or better than the original.
Course Lola Course (Tom Tykwer – 1998)
Tom Tykwer’s experimental cult classic from 1998 features a frenzied plot involving a woman who must raise 100,000 German marks in just 20 minutes in order to save her boyfriend’s life. The film received the Audience Award at Sundance as well as the Grand Prix from the Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics.
“The script was quite precisely written in technical terms. I was always afraid that people would be afraid while they read it, that they might think that it was a completely technical movie with no emotional element anywhere. I was very sure that this impression of the film should be avoided “, explained the filmmaker.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch – 1999)
Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 crime drama is definitely an underrated and overlooked ’90s masterpiece. It stars Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog, a samurai hitman who religiously follows his own code but works for the mafia. Jarmusch creates an interface between various cultures, resulting in a truly universal investigation of philosophy and morals.
Jarmusch explained, “I didn’t start with the samurai thing. I started with the character and then he became a samurai. But I got interested in samurai culture after first seeing Kurosawa’s interpretation in movies, then I found this book, Hagakure, halfway through the screenplay. Ghost Dog is obviously heavily informed by Melville the Samurai, but he also seems to be influenced by the Wu-Tang hip-hop cult, using founding member RZA, for the score, etc.
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow – 2008)
The Hurt Locker is an interesting deconstruction of the war film genre, focusing on the combat-induced psychological trauma that is often overlooked by commercial films that glorify war. It won several Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
Bigelow commented, “Mark Boal’s screenplay is probably the most extraordinary screenplay I’ve ever worked with, and all that density you see on screen was there. All the layers, all the details, the characterization, right down to the nuances – the description of the location, the description of the surroundings and the understanding of the 300-meter perimeter in which the tech bomb has to work. Everything was delimited in the script.
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn – 2011)
With Ryan Gosling as Hollywood stuntman / criminal motorist, Drive is the next step in the evolution of the arthouse action genre. Endowed with a compelling visual narrative that is disturbed by volatile violence, the film is a well-crafted poetic exploration of neo-noir sensibilities.
The director clarified: “Drive was born more from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm than from anything else. The book that James Sallis wrote is really great and unique, almost like a screenplay. It’s all about the adventures in some sort of mythological town, and I wanted the movie to look like a fairy tale the Brothers Grimm would write. It’s much more in the vein of this material than anything else.