All movies are action movies, in a way, if you simply define “action” as characters walking around and saying stuff to each other. However, there are movies that are more action-packed than others. Indeed, there’s an entire genre of movies packed with action. Back in the glory days of video stores, there were shelves and shelves of action movies. Now we have the Internet, and with it comes thousands of action movies just waiting for you to experience.
But with such great access and power comes great responsibility – the responsibility to know which action movies are the best. Herewith, a list of the best action movies ever made.
Air Force One
“Get off my plane!” bellows President Harrison Ford to one of the Russian terrorists who skyjacked Air Force One. And that, friend, is the gist of this “Die Hard on Air Force One” action flick. Enjoy!
Ridley Scott’s Alien was a gothic horrorshow dripping with gloom and doom. The sequel, directed by James Cameron, is a straight-up action flick, pitting space Marines against swarms of Aliens, ending with a fistfight between Sigourney Weaver and the Alien Queen. As Bill Paxton says, “Game over, man!”
Probably the best James Bond movie since GoldenEye, Daniel Craig’s debut as 007 is a fast-paced, intense, and gritty reintroduction to the British secret agent. The chase on the airport runway is nail-biting; so is the finale in the sinking Venetian mansion. Hell, even the poker scenes are pretty tense.
Maybe the best “guns & muscles” blow-’em-up flick that the 1980s had to offer. Certainly the best Schwarzenegger movie called Commando. The former Governor of California plays a guy named John Matrix who demolishes everything in his path toward the mercenaries who kidnapped his daughter. “Somewhere, somehow, someone’s going to pay.” Indeed!
Crank: High Voltage
This movie is utter insanity. The sequel to Crank, Jason Statham falls from a helicopter, gets abducted by Asian gangsters, and has his heart replaced with an artificial one. In order to keep his new heart beating, he must expose himself to lethal volts of electricity. In. San. I. Ty.
The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight is an epic crime saga in disguised as a superhero flick. It’s a serious meditation on human nature, the kind of film that requires use of phrases like “meditation on.” It’s also an amazing action movie, with jawdroppingly cool chase and fight sequences.
This Christmas story about a New York cop waging a one-man war against terrorists/thieves in an LA skyscraper reinvented the action-movie game. The sardonic wisecracking Bruce Willis and the grimly clever Alan Rickman are perfect adversaries. This launched dozens of “Die Hard in a … ” imitators.
Enter the Dragon
This is sorta the Citizen Kane of martial arts movies. It’s cliche to say that Bruce Lee was the master, but he really was. Watching him fight his way through an island full of bad guys is like watching a really badass ballet performance.
Oh man, what were the filmmakers on when they made this movie? John Travolta and Nicolas Cage swap faces, and explosions and gunfights ensue. It’s directed by John Woo, so of course there’s a lot of slow motion, and shots of doves flying around.
The first four installments of the Fast and Furious franchise were mere street-racing movies: fun but forgettable. Fast Five changed the equation, being a knockout, frenetic heist flick with hella fast cars. If you love cars, though, you might watch this through your fingers: this movie’s merciless toward its vehicular stars (as well as physics).
Compared to its three sequels, First Blood is bloodless: only one person dies in the whole movie, and it’s by accident! Plenty of people get maimed and plenty of property is destroyed though, after some small-town cops decide to mess with a Vietnam vet named John Rambo. You do not mess with John Rambo.
By far the oldest movie on this list, but The General, starring the iconic Buster Keaton, is a classic. From the silent-film era, this is by definition all action. The crazy physical stunts, which Keaton did himself of course, are harrowing and fantastic to this day.
Before he went Hollywood in the mid-’90s, John Woo made a bunch of bloody and bullet-riddled action movies in his native Hong Kong, and Hard Boiled is his bloodiest and most bullet-riddled. Chow Yun-fat plays a cop called Tequila who seeks to bring down the crime syndicate that murdered his partner. The tea house gunfight is one of the best ever filmed … so is the warehouse battle … and so is the finale in the hospital.
Big, bold, and brightly colored, Iron Man is, in this era of “gritty, realistic” adaptations of superhero stories, the closest thing to a live-action comic book. When he was first cast, Robert Downey Jr. seemed like an unlikely choice to play a superhero. Now it’s impossible to imagine anyone else as Tony Stark/Iron Man.
Kill Bill, Vol. 1
Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to Asian pop culture is a zany, gory mess, a live-action cartoon for adults. The climactic swordfight between Uma Thurman’s Bride and the Crazy 88s is a standout.
After warring on the road as Mad Max, Mel Gibson played Martin Riggs, a suicidal cop, who’s investigating the death of a young woman with burnt out Detective Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover). This buddy cop movie is an action classic.
Yeah, the sequels were kinda weird and lame, but the one that started it all kicks ass and is super, surprisingly smart. And despite years of imitations and parodies, those slowed-down “bullet time” sequences still make you go, “Whoa,” just like Neo.
Tony Jaa is the modern Bruce Lee and Ong-Bak is a latter-day Enter the Dragon. That is all you need to know.
Keanu Reeves infiltrates a gang of bros who rob banks while wearing U.S. Presidents masks, and who also like to surf. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, before she went on to make The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Point Break balances the silly and the serious, all while showcasing cool surfing and shootout scenes.
In which a squad of super swollen dudes (including two future governors, Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger) drop into a South American jungle and fight some rebel soldiers. Oh, and there’s an alien too. Don’t forget about the alien.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
This 1981 homage to classic adventure films of the 1930s and ’40s, a pet project of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s, is itself a classic. Indiana Jones is the coolest archaeology professor ever.
The Road Warrior
Before he lost his mind and offended much of the world with his comments, Mel Gibson was Mad Max Rockatansky, a police officer who patrols the roads of a post-apocalyptic Australia, where everyone seems to have a tricked-out ride, perfect for chasing and ramming.
Bloody and brilliant, RoboCop envisions a future where a bankrupt Detroit is run by a huge corporation – which, frankly, doesn’t sound too outrageous given Detroit’s current status. After he’s brutally shot up by some gangsters, our hero becomes RoboCop, sworn defender of Detroit. Watch it before you watch the upcoming remake.
Michael Bay is now basically just the Transformers guy, and that’s too bad because he used to make some pretty decent popcorn flicks back in the day, like The Rock. A group of Marines and mercenaries take over the prison island of Alcatraz and hold the city of San Francisco hostage, threatening to launch missiles carrying super-deadly nerve gas. Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage infiltrate the island to thwart the bad guys.
Speed demonstrates that the combination of small spaces and intense pressure creates diamonds. A madman sets a bomb on a bus. The bomb will activate once the bus reaches 50 miles per hour, and will detonate if the bus dips below 50 mph. Only Keanu Reeves can save the day, and does he ever.
A very violent Verhoeven vehicle. In the distant future, the nations of Earth come together as one federation and expand through space. They encounter a race of space bugs, called, appropriately, Bugs. What happens next? All-out war happens next.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
The first Terminator was a minimalist indie project compared to Terminator 2, a bigass blockbuster action juggernaut containing all the trappings of a James Cameron film. This set the standard for Hollywood’s computer-generated spectacles.
True Lies is one of those movies that goes over the top, only to find another top to go over, and another. Both a straight-up action movies and a send-up of action flicks, James Cameron made this delightfully crazy movie before he went all Oscar-bait on us with Titanic.
Die Hard on a boat! Well, a Navy battleship. A group of terrorists, led by Tommy Lee Jones, take over a recently decommissioned battleship. Seems like all is lost, right? WRONG! They forgot about the chef (and former Navy SEAL), Steven Seagal.
The Wild Bunch
An elegant elegy to the Western, this Sam Peckinpah-directed film is a violent masterpiece. Four grizzled veterans outlaws set out for one last job, then get wrapped up in the Mexican Revolution of 1913. The finale alone is spellbinding.
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