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5 best action movie directors, ranked

Action movies have long been some of the most popular and beloved pictures in cinema history, and they wouldn’t have gotten to where they are today without some incredible innovators. Acclaimed directors like John Woo (Face/Off), the Wachowskis (The Matrix), and John McTiernan (Die Hard) have given audiences some memorable movies featuring explosions, shootouts, car crashes, sword battles, and kung fu fights, and these all sometimes happen in the same scene.

But these films aren’t just shots of mindless action spliced together. Out of the many directors who have created countless action movies, only a select few have had enough precision, resources, and imagination to make beautiful and thoughtful masterpieces of the genre. Specifically, these five directors brought audiences some of cinema’s greatest action movies, and their work should serve as examples for film students who aspire to do the same.

5. James Cameron

James Cameron at a ceremony for Gale Anne Hurd to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Angela George/Wikimedia Commons / Angela George/Wikimedia Commons

James Cameron is famous and infamous for pushing his movie productions to their limits, no matter the costs or constraints, expanding notions of what could be done in the cinematic medium. With his work on thrilling blockbusters like Aliens, True Lies, and the first two Avatar and Terminator movies, he became one of the most innovative filmmakers the industry has ever seen.

This is particularly thanks to his use of bombastic action and violence, new filmmaking technologies, and well-written female protagonists. All in all, Cameron proved to everyone no movie was ever too big to pull off as long as you had the right crew and equipment.

4. Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan with a film camera.
HellaCinema/Wikimedia Commons / HellaCinema/Wikimedia Commons

Much like Cameron, Christopher Nolan rose from creating indie darlings like Memento to being one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, mainly known for his creative and ambitious action movies. However, due to his strong preference for practical effects over computer-generated imagery, Nolan has presented some of the biggest and most mind-blowing stunts ever performed on the big screen.

From the zero gravity hallway fight in Inception to the “inverted” action pieces in Tenet to the many battles and chases in The Dark Knight Trilogy, Nolan proves to audiences that they don’t always need CGI to make movie magic. And now, after releasing his blockbuster biopic Oppenheimer, rumors have gotten around that Nolan wants to make a swift return to acting with his own take on James Bond, whose movies served as a great inspiration for him as a filmmaker.

3. George Miller

George Miller at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015.
Wikimedia Commons/Georges Biard / Wikimedia Commons/Georges Biard

George Miller became an international sensation in 1979 with his dystopian action film Mad Max. After that, he put the pedal to the metal with its epic post-apocalyptic sequel, The Road Warrior, which is now considered one of the greatest movies in the genre. However, even after steering away from action films for 30 years, the Australian auteur proved he hadn’t lost his touch, as he reinvented the wheel once more with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road.

Basically a two-hour desert car chase with incredible writing, this extravagant film raised the bar even higher when it comes to creating realistic, heart-pounding, and high-octane blockbusters, and one can only imagine how he’ll top it with the movie’s upcoming prequel, Furiosa.

2. Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images / Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Steven Spielberg isn’t much of an action director, as evident by his diverse filmography stretching way back to the 60s. Nevertheless, he has helmed some of the most successful and thrilling action movies that have both transcended and reinvented the genre. Such thrilling examples include Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic ParkThe Adventures of Tintin, and Ready Player One.

However, Spielberg’s 1998 war epic, Saving Private Ryan, is hands-down the most influential action film he’s ever directed, as its immersive and unrelenting depiction of violence on D-Day revolutionized how warfare is portrayed not just in cinema but in many other mediums in pop culture. And now, it looks like Spielberg’s next big project as director will be a reboot of Steve McQueen’s classic 1968 film, Bullitt, which should rev up everyone’s engines.

1. Akira Kurosawa

Director Akira Kurosawa on the set of "Seven Samurai."
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Starting as a filmmaker in Japan in 1936, Akira Kurosawa created over 30 movies over the course of a 50-year career. With many influential pictures such as Yojimbo, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, Rashomon, and The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa has inspired countless directors around the world across multiple genres with his innovative style of filmmaking and storytelling. Thus, traces of his work can be found in popular franchises like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Magnificent Seven, Justice League, The Avengers, and Mad Max, just to name a few. Simply put, cinema, as everyone knows it today, wouldn’t even exist without Kurosawa.

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Anthony Orlando
Anthony Orlando is a writer/director from Oradell, NJ. He spent four years at Lafayette College, graduating CUM LAUDE with a…
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