Action Movies, Summer 2008

Film 4280

Course Description

Action movies are cinema at its most kinesthetic. How do filmmakers turn images on a screen into sensations of motion which viewers can feel in their bodies?

Action heroes present ideals of masculinity and (more rarely) femininity. What kinds of values do these icons embody?

Action movie narratives hinge on violent conflict. What kind of stories do they tell about how the world works?

This class will attempt to answer these questions as we contrast two action cinema traditions: Hollywood and Hong Kong (with a few other stops along the way). In both the intersections and divergences, we can track some of the ways that motion can produce emotion, and some of the consequences.


Three books are required for this course:

Tom Shone, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer
David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong
Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, Batman: The Killing Joke

The books can be ordered from online retailers such as or

Additional readings will be distributed online and via email.


The films assigned on Mondays will be screened in class except for Iron Man, which is currently playing in local theaters. The films assigned on Wednesdays will be screened during the screening period before class in A&H 406 except for The Dark Knight, which will be released on July 18.
Class Schedule

Hollywood Today

6/9    Introduction

6/11    The Bourne Supremacy (Greengrass, 2004) and United 93 (Greengrass, 2006)
Read Slavoj Zizek, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,”;

6/16    Iron Man (Favreau, 2008)
Read Spencer Ackerman, “Iron Man vs. the Imperialists,”

History I: Hong Kong and Beyond

6/18    Enter the Dragon (Clouse, 1973)
Read Planet Hong Kong 1-81; Aaron Anderson, “Kinesthesia in
Martial Arts Films: Action in Motion,”

6/23    The Killer (Woo, 1989)
Read Planet Hong Kong 82-170

6/25    Legend of the Drunken Master (Liu, 1994)
Read Planet Hong Kong 171-260

6/30    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Lee, 2000)
Read Planet Hong Kong 261-289; L. S. Kim, “Making Women Warriors:
A Transnational Reading of Asian Female Action Heroes,”;
Felicia Chan, “Reading Ambiguity and Ambivalence:
The Asymmetric Structure of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,”

7/2    Run Lola Run    (Tykwer, 1998)
Read Claudia Mesch, “Racing Berlin: The Games of Run Lola Run”,

History II: The Hollywood Blockbuster

7/7    Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
Read Blockbuster 1-81

7/9    Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
Read Blockbuster 82-173
Take-home midterm due

7/14    Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986)
Read Blockbuster 174-232

7/16    The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999)
Read Blockbuster 233-315

Back to the Present

7/21    Class choice
Reading TBA

7/23    The Dark Knight
Read Batman: The Killing Joke

Take-home final due 7/30

Screening Schedule

All screenings are Mondays 8:55-10:45 in 406 Arts & Humanities. All films are also available on DVD.

6/11    The Bourne Supremacy
6/18    Enter the Dragon
6/25    The Legend of the Drunken Master
7/2    Run Lola Run
7/9    Aliens
7/16    The Matrix
7/23    No screening – see The Dark Knight in theaters


The class assignments add up to total of 100 possible points. Your final grade for the class is determined by adding up your grades for each assignment, adjusting for attendance, then applying the final number to the following scale:

A     100-93        B+    89-87        C+    79-77        D    70-65
A-    92-90        B    86-83        C    76-70        F    64-0
B-    82-80

Presentation – 10 Points
Pick your favorite action movie scene. Give a presentation discussing what makes the scene exciting. See the attached handout for more details.

Take-Home Midterm – 45 points
The take-home midterm will require you to relate concepts from the readings and lectures to the films screened for the first four weeks. Due in class July 9.

Take-Home Final – 30 points
The take-home final will be structured just like the midterm, covering the final three weeks. Due July 30.

Attendance Adjustment
As Woody Allen put it, “80 percent of success is showing up.” It’s less than that in this formula, but the bottom line is that you can’t contribute to the class if you’re not there. You’re allowed one unexcused absence for the semester. After that, each unexcused absence subtracts one point from your grade total. Excused absences include medical and family emergencies. You will be expected to schedule any employment responsibilities around this class, or accept the consequences of missed classes for your grade. If you do need to miss a class, please contact me ahead of time, and make arrangements to catch up on missed material.


Re-Writes and Makeup Tests
Opportunities for revision and improvement will be available for the midterm, the presentation, and the research paper prospectus. In addition, I will look at optional drafts of the research paper submitted on or before April 28. One rule: a 24-hour cool-down period after the return of any assignment. Wait a day before coming to talk to me, and I’ll be happy to listen to your concerns and help you improve your work.

Late and Unsubmitted Papers
Late papers will be marked off by ½ point for every day overdue unless an extension is agreed upon before the due date. Any unsubmitted papers will receive a 0. Likewise, any unanswered exam questions will receive a 0. So, if you answer only 2 out of 3 required exam questions, you will get a 0 on the third question.

Academic Honesty
The university’s policy on academic honesty is published in On Campus: The Undergraduate Co-Curricular Affairs Handbook, available online at The policy prohibits plagiarism, cheating on examinations, unauthorized collaboration, falsification, and multiple submissions. Violation of the policy will result in failing the class, in addition to disciplinary sanctions.

The Internet makes it easy to plagiarize, but also easy to track down plagiarism. Bottom line: Don’t plagiarize. It’s wrong, and it’s not worth it. There’s always a better way. Cite all your sources, put all direct quotations in quotation marks, and clearly note when you are paraphrasing other authors’ work.

Incompletes may be given only in special hardship cases. Incompletes will not be used merely for extending the time for completion of course requirements.

Changes to the Syllabus
This syllabus provides a general plan for the course. Deviations may be necessary. Presentation Assignment

Pick your favorite action movie scene and give a presentation on what makes it exciting.

Begin by choosing a scene of about 5 minutes in length. (It should be about the length of one DVD chapter.) Watch it through several times. What strategies does the director use to create a sense of motion and intensity? Pick at least one film element to discuss in class, and at least 3 examples from the clip where the element is effectively used.

Next, calculate the exact length of the scene, in seconds. Then watch the scene one more time, counting every cut. Divide the length by the cuts to find the Average Shot Length (ASL).

After that, research whatever background you can find on the making of the scene, from DVD commentaries, special features, books, articles, and other sources. If nothing is available on the specific scene, look for more general information on the director’s style. At least 3 sources are required.

The presentation should follow this structure:

1. Hand out an info sheet on the scene. (You’ll need to make 17 copies.) The sheet should include the following information:
Name of the film
Director’s name
Average Shot Length of clip
Film element or elements you’ll be discussing, and a list of the specific examples in the clip
List of sources used

2. Introduce the clip, including background on the making of the scene and any narrative context necessary to understand the scene.

3. Screen the clip.

4. Present your analysis of the clip, discussing how the director effectively uses the film element(s).

5. Answer questions from the class.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s