The origins of arthouse action can be traced back to the Asian and European traditions of action filmmaking but in recent years, the genre has been garnering a global audience due to the popularity of directors like Nicolas Winding Refn. Instead of relying on the commercial appeal of action, arthouse action films employ stylised visual narratives and curate atmospheric experiences.
A modern pioneer of the genre, Refn said: “I am very much drawn to men of action, people that don’t talk but react. The action defines them as characters. By having these characters silent 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, “The darkness would not work without the light… There has to be a balance. You need one if you’re going to have the other, and that’s very important to the film. Action and violence and all those things are mechanics, so if you’re not emotionally invested they have no meaning, other than that they are very loud.”
In order to understand the unique sensibilities of the arthouse action genre, we take a look at a few masterpieces by acclaimed filmmakers ranging from Akira Kurosawa to Jim Jarmusch.
10 essential arthouse action films:
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 conducts a fascinating examination of political and philosophical ideals through the story of a group of rōnin who join the battle against lawless bandits.
Much is often made of the fact that I use more than one camera to shoot a scene,” Kurosawa wrote. “This began when I was making Seven Samurai, because it was impossible to predict exactly what would happen in the scene where the bandits attack the peasants’ village in a heavy rainstorm.”
Adding, “If I had filmed it in the traditional shot-by-shot method, there was no guarantee that any action could be repeated in exactly the same way twice. So I used three cameras rolling simultaneously. The result was extremely effective, so I decided to exploit this technique fully in less action-filled drama as well, and I next used it for I Live In Fear (1955).”
Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki – 1967)
An endlessly stylish masterpiece from the Japanese New Wave master, Branded to Kill is a yakuza film that follows a professional assassin who commits the cardinal sin of falling for 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.
“No-name directors like me had zero time,” Suzuki said. “So I had no choice but to stay up all night and never go home…The studio came to me with a script and asked me to make it. But whatever I cooked up after that was up to me… It’s not really the genre I’m interested in, but the character of the yakuza. They wander between life and death. As a character, they are more interesting than normal people.”
Point Blank (John Boorman – 1967)
A competent adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s pulp novel, John Boorman’s 1967 neo-noir gem is a true successor of the French New Wave. Inspired by the experimental spirit of the French auteurs, Boorman sets out to subvert film noir conventions and ends up with a fantastic evaluation of the human condition.
Boorman reflected: “I have a different relationship with different films. When I see Point Blank again I think: ‘How on earth did I get away with that?’ And Deliverance is very compelling. The craftsmanship is good. And as for Zardoz, I don’t know what the hell it is. But I think they’re all bold films, for better or worse.”
Gloria (John Cassavetes – 1980)
Starring Gena Rowlands as the girlfriend of a gangster, Gloria chronicles the destabilising effects of crime on the human psyche. While it isn’t one of Cassavetes’ very best, Gloria earned multiple awards and nominations and Akira Kurosawa even named it among his favourite films.
“A script is a series of words strung together,” Cassavetes said. “When I first start writing there’s a sense of discovery. In some way it’s not working, it’s finding some romance in the lives of people. You get fascinated with their lives. If they stay with you then you want to do something—make it into a movie, put it on in some way. It was that which propelled us to keep on working at it. Making a film is a mystery.”
The Killer (John Woo – 1989)
The Killer is one of the most popular Hong Kong action films ever, made by the iconic John Woo. It is a philosophical reflection on morality and societal norms which revolves around the unconventional life of a killer. Woo was influenced by films like Mean Streets and Le Samouraï while making The Killer.
“No, I’ve never storyboarded anything in a movie,” Woo revealed. “You know what? For this, ‘The Killer,’ I even shot without a script. With no script. Just an outline. The whole movie was in my head… Most of the action, I choreograph by myself, because I’m a pretty good dancer. An action sequence is like I’m making a dancing scene, or I’m dancing with the actors.”
Léon: The Professional (Luc Besson – 1994)
A beloved French action thriller from the ’90s, Luc Besson’s 1994 gem stars Natalie Portman as a 12-year-old girl who trains under the guidance of a highly skilled hitman (played by Jean Reno). Fans have been asking for a follow-up for quite some time now but such a project seems highly unlikely at this point.
The filmmaker shut down any rumours about a sequel, saying, “You can’t imagine how many people ask me for a Léon sequel. 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 an earlier interview with Cinema Blend, Besson elaborated on the topic, “Natalie is old now, she’s a mother … It’s too late. If I got an idea tomorrow about a sequel, of course I would do it. But I never came up with something 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.”
Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer – 1998)
Tom Tykwer’s experimental 1998 cult classic features a frenetic plot involving a woman who has to raise 100,000 Deutschmarks in just 20 minutes in order to save her boyfriend’s life. The film was awarded the Audience Award at Sundance as well as the Grand Prix by the Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics.
“The script was pretty precisely written in technical terms. I was always concerned people might be afraid while they were reading it, that they might think it was a completely technical film with no emotional elements anywhere. I was very sure we would have to avoid this impression of the film,” the filmmaker explained.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch – 1999)
Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 crime drama is definitely an underrated and neglected masterpiece from the ’90s. 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 morality.
Jarmusch explained, “I didn’t start with the Samurai thing. I started with the character and then he became a Samurai. But I’ve been interested in Samurai culture after first seeing Kurosawa’s interpretation of it in films, and then I found this book, Hagakure, when I was half way through the script. Ghost Dog is obviously heavily informed by Melville’s Le Samourai, but it also seems equally influenced by the Wu-Tang hip-hop cult, using the founding member RZA, for the score and so on.”
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow – 2008)
The Hurt Locker is an interesting deconstruction of the war film genre, focusing on the psychological trauma induced by combat which is often ignored by commercial flicks that glorify war. It won multiple Oscars, including the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay categories.
Bigelow commented: “Mark Boal’s script is probably the most extraordinary script I’ve ever worked with, and all of that density you see on the screen was there. All the layers, all the detail, the characterisation, even down to nuances – the description of the location, the description of the environment and the understanding of the 300-metre perimeter in which the bomb tech must work. It was all delineated in the script.”
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn – 2011)
Starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver/criminal motorist, Drive is the next step in the evolution of the arthouse action genre. Featuring a mesmerising visual narrative which is disrupted by volatile violence, the film is a well-crafted, poetic exploration of neo-noir sensibilities.
The director clarified: “Drive is more born out of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales more than anything else. The book that James Sallis wrote is really great and unique, almost like a script. It’s about the adventures within a sort of mythological city, and I wanted the film to feel like a fairy tale that the Brothers Grimm would write. It’s much more in the vein of that material than anything else.”