(Full Disclosure: The author interviewed me two years ago for this book, and I'm quoted twice in 340-odd pages. Take it as you will)
Action Speaks Louder by Eric Lichtenfeld is one of the few books analyzing American action movies as a genre. Possibly the only one that's actually fun to read without sacrificing its scholarship.
Lichtenfeld traces the influences in American film that led to the emergence of the first Action (capital "A" intended) films in the 70's. He illustrates how three mid-century American film genres -- police procedurals, film noir and Westerns -- got stoned, spat in a glass, swirled it around and gave birth to Dirty Harry. The DNA of each of these progenitor genres rise and fall in influence as the Action genre evolves over the next thirty-five years.
His approach is loosely historical. Lichtenfeld follows one run of movies as they define the genre, then backs up a bit in the next chapter to show the chronological overlap as a new style emerges. As America changes, from the 70's through the 80's and 90's up until 2004, so do the heroes -- and the villains. His research is thorough, always placing movies in not just the proper cultural but Hollywood business context of the time. In an interesting bit of honesty, at the end of the book he details how his analytical framework isn't quite as ironclad in dealing with newer movies -- the "Action" movie as a genre has, well, smeared out a bit as the PG-13 rating changed the market forces involved.
His insights are often pleasantly surprising. In particular, making the Action hero the inheritor of the Western hero tradition of, well, the half-breed, is fascinating. When you look at the Action hero as the new, grittier version of familiar "The Man Who Knows (the Other)", it helps you understand why some action heroes work as protagonists, and others don't (possibly even the protagonist in your movie). As I never went to film school some of this may indeed be old hat. But ... I have to pay Lichtenfeld the ultimate compliment: He made me look at movies I thought I knew, and see them in a different light.
The only time the book fizzes a bit is when Lichtenfeld has to tackle disaster movies. He arrives at the conclusion (rather late in the relevant chapter) that disaster movies seem to be a recurring subgenre that echoes in and out of existence every twenty years or so. When they rise within the context of Action movie supremacy, they seem to ... bend to the tune of whatever Action movies are doing at the time. At the same time, they diffuse the ordinary rules of the Action genre. Dealing with disaster movies' odd nature derails Lichtenfeld's thesis somewhat. The chapter's still entertaining and informative, but you can feel the train chunk back onto the rails as soon as he can return to hero-driven model he's been using for most of the book.
Granted, this book's a bit more theoretical than the usual Spec-Monkey recommendation. However, the book will add to your toolbox -- if you're writing an action film, you'll gain considerable insight into why certain choices feel right, and also help you understand where you can subvert the script in order to serve it. It certainly helped me as I looked at a few projects I have kicking around, which is always my measuring stick for recommending a book. I'd say this is one for the graduate-level section of your Spec-Monkey library.
Eric Lichtenfeld also writes for Slate and blogs at his own joint, Reaction Shot.