If we really do go to the movies to escape it all, perhaps it is the action movie that represents the truest sense of what a movie is: escapism. No one really wants to live in a world of bloody gun battles, head-bashing bar fights, and death-defying car chases, but somehow seeing a badass in a tank-top take out a team of terrorists while walking away from their exploding SUV soothes our soul more than any bowl of chicken soup ever could.
In assembling this list, we’ve realized two things: 1: Superhero movies count as action films, and 2: Many of the great action movies also can be counted as other genres—like action-adventure, action-comedy, action-drama, or even just sci-fi. But we had to draw the line somewhere. There’s plenty of action in Star Wars, but we’re not calling it an action movie. After the dust settled, the following 50 films were left standing. Bruised, scarred, and missing a tooth, but standing nonetheless.
Ice down and check out our list of the 50 best action movies of all time below – in no particular order.
The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan simply captured lightning in a bottle with The Dark Knight. From Heath Ledger’s mesmerizingly maniacal performance as the Joker to Hans Zimmer’s pulse-pounding score, this movie is pure magic, regardless of genre, and we all knew it didn’t we? Back in the summer of ’08, long before we even left the theater. Had Nolan shaved 15 minutes off the runtime, not cast the unappealing Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes, and kept Christian Bale from doing that… that… voice, we might be inclined to call it the greatest film of all time.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
The rolling boulder. The snake pit. The sword-vs.-gun fight. The melting faces. There are so many memorable moments from this Spielberg-Lucas team-up that they practically eclipse the sum of the series’ other three sequels. Designed as a new spin on the swashbuckling serials of the 1930s and 1940s, Raiders redefined the action-adventure genre for a new era and made Harrison Ford a superstar. A thrill ride that still thrills 30+ years later.
Before there was Gladiator, there was Spartacus. (The 1960 release date helps us know that!) This epic adventure about a slave (Kirk Douglas) who leads a revolt at a school for gladiators brought home four Oscars thanks to its all-star cast (Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov) and grand scale. It’s not a movie most people associate with Stanley Kubrick, but he indeed direct it, though he also disowned the film in later years.
If someone poked with us with a stick and demanded we quickly name an action movie, we’d probably say “Die Hard” before we even inquired what the hell the deal was with that stick. 20th Century Fox may not have had much confidence in Bruce Willis, but Mr. Moonlighting did nothing but excel as John McClane, an off-duty cop who wiggles and worms his way through a skyscraper while taking out a truckload of terrorists. With explosions, catchphrases, and an against-all-odds hero, Die Hard is about as pure an action movie as they come.
The Bourne Identity
Author Robert Ludlum’s intriguing premise went to the big screen in 2002 with Matt Damon as the dude who has no idea what happened to him, but soon realizes he’s in something much more serious than just a pickle. The film’s fast-paced action and frenetic camerawork became a hallmark with future sequels. We’re open to the discussion that The Bourne Ultimatum might be better, but by 2007 we were pretty much shaky-cammed out.
Not many people will argue that Sean Connery was the best James Bond, but which film was the best? We’re gonna go for the Gold. Goldfinger features a delicious mix of 60s fun, with action, adventure, gadgets, girls, cool cars, and a preposterous villain. It’s everything you love about Bond, by the suavest Bond of the bunch.
Akira Kurosawa’s masterful Seven Samurai might be more of an adventure film, but we’re not gonna machete hairs on a truly influential and landmark work. This tale of a poor Japanese village under attack in the late 1500s and the samurai who come to their aid broke new ground for action and battle sequences. Like most 60-year-old movies, it’s a little tougher to sit through these days, but its impact on the action genre can’t be denied.
Clearly a work of science fiction, we’re labeling The Matrix as slightly more of an action film because that’s where it simply shines. The Wachowski Brothers had jaws on the floor in 1999 when their “bullet time” effect was introduced, and the film’s dazzling stunts and fight scenes rank among the greatest ever. We prefer to watch The Matrix without spending too much brainpower on the plot, and that goes double for the sequels.
Saving Private Ryan
There’s never been a more intense, more graphic, and more brutal 27-minutes of action than Saving Private Ryan’s first batch of frames. If the credits rolled after the Omaha Beach invasion, ya know, this would still rank as a legendary action movie. Of course it’s not so much an action movie as it is a terribly moving tribute to the heroes of World War II, with superb direction by Steven Spielberg and one of Tom Hanks’ finest performances. And don’t even get us started on us the ’98 Best Picture award loss to ::shudder:: Shakespeare in Love.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Special effects-enhanced action took a huge leap forward with James Cameron’s sequel to The Terminator. T2 was bigger and slicker in every way, and it marked the first use of natural human motion for a computer-generated character, as well as the first partially computer-generated main character. Shape shifting, plenty of gunplay, and the iconic monosyllabic appeal of Arnold Schwarzenegger make this an easy top 50 pick.
Kill Bill Vol. 1
Kill Bill: Volume 1 sees Quentin Tarantino focused solely on action; vicious, stylish, bloody action. With Uma Thurman starring as The Bride who seeks unbridled vengeance after an assassination attempt at her wedding, Tarrantino’s passion for martial arts movies is impossible to ignore here, as the homages to Asian action films are abundant.
The Mark of Zorro
We all know Zorro, but not many people realize just how long this masked swashbuckler has been around. The character was created in 1919, and this 1920 silent film was Zorro’s first of many on the big screen. We’re paying tribute to the original here, with the legendary Douglas Fairbanks in the starring role, as its impact on the action-adventure genre cannot be understated. Need proof? Batman creator Bob Kane specifically cites this film as being one of the key influences in creating the Dark Knight.
If there’s any genre that calls for the inclusion of guilty pleasures, it’s action; and here’s maybe our guiltiest choice of them all. With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weather, and Jessie Ventura, this jungle romp is jam-packed with testosterone. The plot and acting chops are thinner than the alien’s dreadlocks, but with pop culture lines that will forever be referenced (“Do it! Do it now!” And “Get to the choppa!”), Predator is too classically cheesy to not have on our list.
Superman The Movie
Superman is probably the film that kicked off America’s still-standing love affair with superhero movies. There had been some before, sure, but their scope and special effects paled in comparison to this classic featuring a pitch-perfect performance by Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. The extra star power being generated by Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, and Ned Beatty didn’t hurt, and the John Williams theme can still raise goose bumps.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The man who would go on to direct Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain, and Hulk (and if that ain’t a bizarrely impressive trio, we don’t know what is), first wowed the world in 2000 with this martial arts masterpiece. Do we still have any idea what the deal was with the airborne fight scenes? No. But we sure as hell watch them every time we see ‘em.
Sometimes you don’t wanna hear thespians get thespy with it. Sometimes plot is not a concern. Sometimes all you wanna see are musclebound warriors bashing each other’s heads in. Zack Snyder’s take on Frank Miller’s graphic novel features relentless battles depicted in jaw-dropping visual style. Need a testosterone boost? We’ll see you in Sparta.
The classic buddy cop movie. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover are – of course – a mismatched pair of L.A.P.D. detectives who need to put their wacky differences aside to nail the bad guys. Of course it’s quite easy to see now how Gibson played a lunatic so convincingly. There are some great stunts here, a fun performance by Gary Busey, and the birth of the classic “I’m getting too old for this…” line, which we use every time we wake up wearing diapers.
Special effects are the lifeblood of action movies, and no film changed the SFX game like Jurassic Park. At some point during the production, Steven Spielberg made the switch from Stan Winston’s animatronic dinosaurs – which looked great — to the revolutionary computer-generated imagery being churned out by the Industrial Light & Magic team. The result was a thrilling action-adventure romp with a terrifying T-Rex and vicious velociraptors that still stands up today, effects and all.
Rambo: First Blood
The story of John Rambo began here and launched a slew of sequels, but none of them had the heart that First Blood does. Sylvester Stallone is a Vietnam vet and drifter who gets abused by the local cops before escaping into the woods and pulling out every survival trick in the books. The action is tense and gritty, and the underlying subject matter — basically PTSD — is pretty heavy stuff.
The Three Musketeers
Just think: There’d be no soft, nougaty chocolate bar if it weren’t for this first foray into film for the iconic trio. Another silent picture starring Douglas Fairbanks, The Three Musketeers features a swashbuckling Fairbanks pulling off a – brace yourself — one-handed handspring to grab a sword that’s considered one of the first great stunts in movie history. We still can’t do one.
Throwing in just enough romance to keep the ladies content, a classic 80s soundtrack (“Danger Zone,” “Take My Breath Away”), and more thrilling aerial stunts than a week’s worth of Blue Angeles shows, Top Gun was a massive hit. Tom Cruise skyrocketed to superstardom after playing Maverick, a ballsy navy pilot who rises to the occasion when needed most, and the film was the highest grossing at the box office in 1986.
The Spy Who Loved Me
We had to give Roger Moore his due on this list. The Spy Who Loved Me is probably the best Bond featuring Moore, in this, his 3rd appearance as 007. This one stands out for the introduction of Jaws, the frightening steel-mouthed henchman, and one of the better Bond songs, “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon.
The Raid: Redemption
If this one slipped past you (and we can’t blame you, being that it came out of Indonesia), you owe it to yourself to fire it straight to the top of your personal queue. A SWAT team gets trapped inside a rundown apartment building, and the resulting chaos is all sorts of insane. The action, thrills, and carnage are relentless.
The Adventures of Robin Hood
The defining Robin Hood film. Errol Flynn shines as the outlaw Saxon lord who leads an underdog ragtag army against the oppressive powers that be—all in glorious Technicolor! A true swashbuckling Hollywood classic; there’s action, adventure, a smidgen of romance, and everything else that we still hope to get from modern day action movies.
James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger team up again to deliver a great popcorn-muncher of a blockbuster. There’s huge stunts, Bond-like spy thrills, some laughs, and a striptease scene with Jamie Lee Curtis that, even after 20 years and 200 Activia commercials, we still can’t get out of our heads.
Beverly Hills Cop
After Eddie Murphy’s entertaining movie debut in 48 Hrs., he was given another role in a big budget action-comedy mashup. Playing a fast-talking Detroit cop who winds up out of his element in posh Beverly Hills, Murphy brings raunchy wit and charm to the part. Mix in some car chases, shootouts, and that Axel F theme, and it’s a perfect piece of the 80s.
There were a lot of doubts about how convincing a movie about giant talking robots from space could be, but given the subject matter, we’d say Michael Bay pulled it off remarkably well. Shia LaBeouf brings a fun, very watchable presence to the screen, and that final battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons is like 20 minutes of watching trains collide in a dynamite factory—only a little louder.
The Dirty Dozen
“Train them! Excite them! Arm them! Then turn them loose on the Nazis!” If the poster post for The Dirty Dozen didn’t indicate what kind of war movie it was going to be, then nothing did. Lee Marvin leads a crazy deep cast (Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, and Jim freaking Brown!) of macho men in this World War II film that stunned critics with its violence in 1967.
The Legend of Drunken Master
The superhuman Jackie Chan is at the top of his game in this action-comedy flick out of Honk Kong. The stunts and choreography throughout the whole film are just plain nuts, culminating with one of the greatest martial arts fights on film. If the only way you know Jackie Chan is from the Rush Hour movies, be sure to check this out.
Speed passes all the tests for an entertaining summer action movie: there’s suspense, wild stunts, and an overarching vibe that says, “Sure, all these people could die on this bus, we’re still having fun here.” The premise – a city bus has a bomb on board that will explode if the vehicle dips below 50 mph – drives the adrenaline, and Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock do a solid job of keeping up with film’s fast pace.
It may seem like one long chase scene, but The Fugitive is still a great film. Critics like it. Audiences liked it. One-armed guys loved it. Harrison Ford is the wrongfully convicted Dr. Richard Kimble who escapes from custody and is hunted down by U.S. Marshal Deputy Samuel Gerard, played by Tommy Lee Jones. With action, suspense, and a mystery to solve, this one checks off a triple play of adrenaline boxes.
A lengthy epic that’s stuffed with more drama and romance than we’d normally like in an action movie, Braveheart earns its place here because of its incredible battles scenes and rugged and raw violence. Mel Gibson stars and directs in this 1995 Best Picture winner that tells the story of a Scottish patriot and his quest for freedom.
Iron Man was the first installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it represented a fresh new step for its heroes. All credit has to go to Robert Downey, Jr. here, as his portrayal of Tony Stark was uniquely charismatic and witty, making the non-action scenes plenty entertaining. After a jarring opening, the joys of seeing Stark’s newly-created suit in action with Downey’s quick quips made for action movie excellence.
Heat earns its place on our best action flicks for two reasons: the rare team-up of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, and one of the better gunfight scenes we can remember. De Niro’s the crook in this one while Pacino’s the cop obsessed with bringing him down. There’s more dialog here than in many action films, but when you’ve got two of the greatest actors of all time, that’s not a bad thing at all.
Here’s a bit of a surprise pick, no? Mel Gibson’s epic film focused on the last days of the Maya civilization, and a tribesman who must escape human sacrifice and rescue his family after the capture and destruction of his village. Loaded with brutal, often sadistic savagery, the action in Apocalypto is visceral and unforgettable.
Figuring out the plot of Inception takes some work. Being wowed by its visuals and action does not. Christopher Nolan followed up The Dark Knight with this mind-bending tale of a professional thief who dips into the subconscious minds of his targets to get the goods. There’s an all-star cast here, but they still take a backseat to the visual effects, led by the signature rotating environments. Can’t forget the Hans Zimmer horns too.
Enter the Dragon
Bruce Lee’s last film, his most famous film, and the defining martial arts film—all in one. It’s Kung Fu at its finest, with Lee delivering kicks, spins, and punches like it was a damn Olympic sport and his goal was to take the gold, silver, and bronze. When Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung are simply the stuntmen in your movie, you know the bar is set high.
Forget the recent remake. Oh, you already have? OK. Fine. The original Robocop delivered a heaping helping of futuristic violence with a satirical jab at big business, greed, pop culture, and the media. It’s rare to get so many messages in a movie about a bullet-spraying robot in Detroit, but director Paul Verhoeven did it.
A visual knockout, Looper surprised a lot of people in 2012; and for those that haven’t seen it, it’s probably surprising to see it on a top 50 list. But we’re sticking to our guns here. It scratches our itches for action, sci-fi, and a good thriller, and while there may be a plot hole or two, it’s also got a cerebral side to it.
You don’t often find an action movie winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, and that’s probably because Gladiator is an action/adventure/drama hybrid. A Roman general’s (Russell Crowe) family is murdered, and he exacts revenge the hard way: by slaying his way through the gladiatorial arena. Director Ridley Scott doesn’t hold back on the brutality at all; something previously unseen in most of the Roman Empire films of yesteryear.
Where Eagles Dare
Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton star in this World War II thriller about a rescue raid on a Nazi castle. There’s no shortage of excellent action scenes, be it gunfights, explosions, or the fight on top of a cable car that still makes us nervously clutch the arm of our recliners.
Black Hawk Down
Full of hyper-realistic battle scenes, Black Hawk Down is a frenetic and nerve-pinching account of the battle of Mogadishu, a harrowing real-life mission that went FUBAR for some 100+ U.S. Army Rangers in October of 1993. Seeing the Somalis take down that first chopper with an RPG is made infinitely more dramatic when you know real service members died that way.
Daniel Craig’s first turn as Agent 007 was a dramatic style switch up for the Bond franchise, and it worked. All of a sudden Bond was human, flawed, gritty, and raw. Casino Royale is a prequel of sorts, focusing on the start of Bond’s career, with a few hallmarks of the series missing, but the realism is amped up, and that parkour chase scene is a classic.
Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s last big film is a take on Shakespeare’s King Lear tragedy, with a 16th-century warlord giving up the throne to his three sons, only to get crossed by two of them. Ran is a sprawling, sweeping epic, but there’s absolutely no shortage of action either.
By 2012, we had already seen a decade’s worth of Marvel superheroes on screen, but it was very early on in that decade that Marvel began laying the groundwork for the ultimate team-up blockbuster, and that level of preparation paid off. With writer/director Joss Whedon’s tangible passion for the subject matter, a great ensemble cast, and a special effects-stuffed extravaganza to save the world, it’s easy to see how The Avengers became the fastest film to gross $1 billion.
A cult classic. There’s no shortage of silly cheese here, but there’s something about The Warriors that makes it incredibly watchable. There are no big stars, the premise is laughable, and the costumes are ludicrous. But cannnn weeeee diggggg itttt? Always.
A young Michel Bay showed he was ready for prime time thrills with this action-packed story about a chemical weapons expert (Nicholas Cage) and former British spy prisoner (Sean Connery) who need to infiltrate Alcatraz to get rid of an insane Marine Corps general. Features one of the all-time great chase scenes, with a wild ride through the hills of San Francisco.
X2: X-Men United
With so many characters to focus on in X-Men, it wasn’t until the second installment in the series that director Bryan Singer found his groove. With some great actors (Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen), great eye candy (Famke Janssen, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Halle Berry), and great action, X2 was the highlight of the trilogy that tore up theaters in the early 00s. Cocktail Party Usable Factoid: Screenwriter David Hayter was also the voice for Solid Snake in the Metal Gear Solid games.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
OK fine, Tom Cruise. If you’re gonna recklessly perch yourself on the danger side of the tallest building in the world (the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai) for this movie, we’re gonna put you on our list. After a mixed bag of M:I films, director Brad Bird (of Pixar fame) delivered a winner in 2011, thanks to a really fun mix of daredevil stunts, gorgeous locations, and original thrills.
It’s easy to dismiss Tim Burton’s Batman now, in light of the vastly superior The Dark Knight, but this was a real spectacle at its time. With eye-catching visuals, a great performance by Jack Nicholson, and the biggest and best treatment of the caped crusader on film until the 2000s, Batman still perilously clings to a spot on our top 50.
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