Generally, when people think of action movies, certain images come to mind: a giant muscle-bound behemoth holding a giant machine gun in one hand, mowing down terrorists and avoiding enemy bullets. Or: an ex pop-star jumping through a CGI explosion on a motorcycle and landing on a moving train that turns into a robot. Many of these action movie conventions began in the ’80s and ’90s, but the preceding decade had already planted the seeds of modern cinematic action.
The action movies of the ’70s are far different than subsequent generations. They were all about building tension until a final cathartic burst of action. The emphasis wasn’t always on straight brawn; a hero had to be both physically and mentally tough. Or at least they had to be able to drive better than the bad guys.
Do you feel lucky? You should, because we’re looking at the most action packed films of the ’70s.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Assault on Precinct 13 is a thrill-a-minute Western-inspired action film from start to finish. It was written, directed, edited, and scored by John Carpenter. A cop, a secretary, and two criminals must band together to fight off a siege from a bloodthirsty street gang hell-bent on revenge. This one has a good slow burn, and when the stuff hits the fan, it hits hard. Brutal street warfare ensues and bullets fly. This same format of folks banding together in a “fortress” is one Carpenter would use again in his movies Prince of Darkness and Ghosts of Mars, but it’s never been as intense or creepy since this movie. Wonderful performances are given by the entire cast. There is also a moment that is still, to this day, one of the most graphic and shocking scenes ever put onto film. Watch it now on Amazon.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
You can’t talk about action films without bringing up writer/director Sam Peckinpah. While this film is not as well known as his other films like The Wild Bunch, The Getaway, and Straw Dogs, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a brutally realistic hot nightmare. A pianist, Bennie, and his prostitute girlfriend, Elita, travel through Mexico to collect a bounty which will change their lives — and it does, but not for the better. Star Warren Oates delivers one of his best performances as the tragic musician, Bennie. When the action happens, it happens fast, loud, and bloody. This story is not sugar-coated in any way, and it makes you feel just as empty inside as the characters on screen, but is still a tour de force worthy of recognition.
Death Wish (1974)
Death Wish is based on the novel Death Sentence by Brian Garfield and stars Charles Bronson in the iconic role of Paul Kersey. When Kersey’s wife is murdered, and his daughter raped, he becomes an after-hours vigilante who strikes back at the criminal underbelly with a loaded gun. Bronson, known for playing tough characters, actually plays this role very humanely. He’s not a tough-as-nails action hero. He is a terrified, distraught man doing what he thinks is right. This film is dark and brooding, turning the streets of NY into an urban jungle, filled with animals. It’s gritty and realistic, and one heck of a movie that stays with you. Comparatively, the rest of the sequels are cartoons.
When a crazed sniper attacks random citizens in San Francisco, Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan is charged with bringing the madman to justice. Between this role, and his Western roles, it’s easy to see why Clint Eastwood is the bad-ass who inspired generations of bad-asses to come. Callahan is the original tough-guy cop who carries a big gun. He doesn’t need words. He just understands that scum breeds more scum, and a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Dirty Harry offers some extreme violence for the time, and brings up very realistic fears which are still relevant to this day. This movie, along with The French Connection, laid the ground work for every cop movie and TV show that followed. Catch it on Amazon.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
Enter the Dragon is one of the most important martial arts movies of all time. This was the first time Hollywood had produced this type of film, and it brought Bruce Lee into the mainstream American cinema. The story follows a secret agent who must go undercover at a madman’s martial arts competition on an isolated island to uncover a secret opium-selling operation. Bruce Lee choreographed the amazing fights and stunt work. There are some truly notable fights in this movie, including the scene where Lee single-handedly takes on 50 men. The importance of this movie for both Chinese and American cinema, plus video-games and cartoons, cannot be overstated. There would be no Mortal Kombat without this movie.
The French Connection (1971)
Directed by William Friedkin, and starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, The French Connection would go on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and his partner Buddy Russo are New York cops on the trail of the biggest heroin smuggling ring in the city’s history. The film is notable for its amazing car chase scene, but the best parts of the movie are the stake-outs and foot chases. Without words, the camera work, music, and actors’ expressions tell you everything you need to know. The movie is based on a book written about the adventures of two real-life New York cops, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, both of whom have cameos in the film. Available on Amazon.
Mad Max (1979)
In the near future, Max, a policeman who’s lost everything, sets out on a vengeful quest against a vicious biker gang across the sun-scorched Australian outback. Written and directed by George Miller, and starring Mel Gibson in the title role, Mad Max brought action to a whole new level, only to be outdone by Miller’s own subsequent sequels. The bad guys are so evil that you smile when they finally get what they deserve. This is one of the few times in the series when we really see the humanity of the character of Max before he becomes the post-apocalyptic bad-ass most people know today. Chase it down on Amazon.
After the success of Bullit and The French Connection, producer Philip D’Antoni sat in the director’s chair for The Seven-Ups, an often overlooked cop classic. Starring Roy Scheider as the head of an elite special police unit in New York trying to find out about the death of his partner, this movie feels like a spin-off of The French Connection. The great Richard Lynch plays the villain, Moon, with the same perfect tenacity he brought to every role. The story is not quite as polished as D’Antoni’s preceding films, but still offers the same great tension and dark humor. Between the three D’Antoni police films, this one has the greatest, most realistic, and most edge-of-your-seat car chase.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three gets going at break-neck speed and doesn’t let up. Four men hijack a New York subway train and hold the passengers hostage for money. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, it stars Walter Matthau and the great Robert Shaw along with a who’s-who of New York actors. It’s a kinetic, frightening movie but it has a lot of dark comedy. Like many entries on this list, this is a perfect movie about New York city itself. There’s always something going on beneath the city we see (in this case literally). The unsung heroes are the everyday people that make the place run smoothly, even if it means throwing themselves into harm’s way.
The Warriors (1979)
Based on a novel by Sol Yurick and directed by Walter Hill, The Warriors is a taut little action flick about a tough street gang wrongfully accused of killing the most powerful gang leader in the city. They must fight their way back to their home turf while avoiding every other gang that’s out for blood. Walter Hill brings such a cool style to this story about rival thugs, capturing some of the most fun characters and fistfights of the time. The music, lingo, and clothing are all fantastic. This is a fun, funky ride with crazy street warfare, all wrapped up in a colorful bow with a nice quick run time. Can you dig it?