How do you define an action movie? Fight scenes? Car chases? Shootouts? My rule of thumb is: if two out of three of these check out, it's an action film. Token scantily-clad female non-characters are also common, but not enough to make the cut, and the same goes for oiled-up muscley men. Therefore, I wouldn't consider films like Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as “action” because they have neither car chases nor shootouts, which puts them in the “wire-fu piece of crap” category.
Now, how would you define an art house flick? Character-focused? Boring? Camera angles? I also have a rule of thumb for that one: if you show a movie to a dude wearing short shorts and a scarf and he shifts in his seat more than three times for its duration in order to attain the best pose to scratch his chin with, all the while gazing at it with a detached half-lidded expression that's meant to communicate thoughtful analysis but usually is just the hipster equivalent of a mating dance, then it's an art house joint.
You could call those the two extremes of the film making spectrum. I have favorites on both ends but usually I like stuff that is closer to the center — like film noir, westerns and crime thrillers. It seems, however, that those ends are starting to meet each other halfway on the other side, to create the exciting new genre of “art-house action” (or “Artion” as I like to call it).
Those are films like Drive and Hanna, which don't feel that the need for excitement precludes a film from having strong characters, believable dialogue, and striking and unusual visuals. They don't follow the videoclip style of choppy editing and dizzying camerawork for their aesthetics, instead pacing themselves according to the emotional value of each scene — but they never give up on their car chases, shootouts and fight scenes. Of late, there have been an increasing number of movies that fit that particular bill, including Haywire, The American, and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (yes, believe it). Not all of them have been very successful because, like with any new experiment, makers of "artion" have to prod around a little before they find their voice, but one guy has been putting them out with a reliable level of quality...
Nicholas Winding Refn may be the foremost authority on that front, with movies like Valhalla Rising and the aforementioned Drive (which was like... Wow ... I mean ... Just wow...). This trailer for his new movie Only God Forgives, his second endeavor to headline Ryan Gosling, heralds a new entry to that category, and it looks so awesome that other films are starting to resent it like it is the smart kid in school that your mom uses as a benchmark for all your achievements.
Refn's cinematic output is made symbolic by the fact that he is Danish, just like “Misogynist King of Pretentious Art House Bullshit” himself, Lars Von Trier. Instead of falling into the tired old formula of equating bleakness with quality like his more celebrated countryman, he is treading into new territory and bringing new life to a stale genre, giving an ever-growing market of discerning moviegoers who want good stories and character development but are turned off by mind-numbing melodramas.
I really look forward to watching Only God Forgives, because Drive rates up there with my top 10 movies of the last five years, and I hope it's as successful as the director's previous work, so that there is demand for more movies in that style, and we see it mature into a fully fleshed-out niche within the film making business.
There are interesting new waves being made in the ocean of the action film genre, and it looks like those waves may be fully formed into a giant tsunami. A giant tsunami that is on fire. And constantly exploding.
May the "artion" genre live forever.