The 25 Best Action Movies
They don’t call ’em motion pictures for nothing. At its heart, film is about motion, forward movement, momentum, unfolding spectacle. In a word, action.
There’s no medium like the movies for telling stories that are about the pure joy of movement, the heart-pounding excitement of grand events taking place before your eyes, the thrill of witnessing brave and foolhardy deeds you’d never attempt in real life. No wonder action films are a beloved movie genre. And these are 25 of our favorites.
(Note: While the overlap with action-oriented subgenres like fantasy, sci-fi and superhero mandated their inclusion here, we did not include Westerns or war films.)
25. ‘Blade Runner’ (1982)
Ridley Scott’s futuristic film noir may be the most expensive (and influential) cult movie of all time. Harrison Ford’s elegantly rumpled, rain-drenched, android-hunting sleuth finds himself outclassed by his prey (particularly noble villain Rutger Hauer), the ‘Metropolis’-influenced architecture of 2019 Los Angeles, and the crisis of human identity at the heart of this Philip K. Dick story. (But he still manages to be a typically Fordian man of action, acrobatic, resourceful, and with a very high pain threshold.) Look for the version without the superfluous voiceover, a cut that does a better job of preserving the ambiguity of whether Ford’s gumshoe is himself human or replicant.
24. ‘First Blood’ (1982)
Sylvester Stallone launches his second-most famous action hero franchise with this surprisingly somber and thoughtful tale of a Vietnam vet gone rogue. When he snaps, this Green Beret plays the part of the Viet Cong, living a guerrilla existence in the woods and holding his own against a numerous, well-armed enemy. In later films, Stallone would pump John Rambo into a steroidal cartoon, single-handedly capable of avenging America’s Vietnam disgrace and winning the Cold War, but here, he’s just a lone, desperate man, and all the more powerful for that.
23. ‘Spider-Man 2’ (2004)
Of the three Spidey films, this one has the most heart, but also some of the best action, from the clever opening sequence (Spidey as pizza boy) to the robo-tentacled menace of Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina). Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker struggles poignantly between being a hero and being a schlub like the rest of us, a tension satisfyingly resolved in the heart-stopping runaway elevated train sequence. Yep, you’re a hero, Spidey, but sometimes, even you need help. Don’t worry, we’ve got your back.
22. ‘Enter the Dragon‘ (1973)
Lots of kung fu stars can credibly take on an army of bad guys single-handedly, but no one seemed to have as much fun doing it as Bruce Lee. No muss, no fuss, minimal dialogue and character development, just gleeful, beautifully choreographed violence. ‘Fists of Fury’ may be Lee at his purest, but his final film, ‘Enter the Dragon,’ is probably his most accessible to Western audiences. With its claw-wielding villain and hall of mirrors finale, it’s also one of his most stylish and widely imitated.
21. ‘Top Gun’ (1986)
A valentine to military hardware and male bonding, ‘Top Gun’ has a rudimentary plot and laughable dialogue, but who cares? It’s all about the awesome F-14 fighter jets, which gleam almost as brightly as Tom Cruise’s grin. Like most Cruise movies, this one’s all about his character working out his daddy issues, but still, his swaggering Maverick gives us Cruise at his cockiest. He’s a walking Navy recruitment poster, and he’ll satisfy your need… your need for speed.
20. ‘The Wages of Fear’ (1953)
Leave it to the French to bring existentialism to the action movie. Of course, if you’re Yves Montand and you’re charged with the impossible task of driving a convoy of trucks loaded with nitro over bumpy mountain roads, you’d start questioning your place in an uncaring universe, too. Two and a half hours of nail-biting suspense make this an action winner in any language (not to mention a model for philosophical French action filmmakers from Melville to Besson). ‘The French Connection”s William Friedkin remade this in 1977 as ‘Sorcerer,’ itself an underrated action gem.
19. ‘The French Connection’ (1971)
The 1970s was a golden era for pulpy, gritty cop dramas, and they didn’t come pulpier or grittier than this based-in-fact drama. William Friedkin’s influential film won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, and Actor, but there’s no shortage of fistfights, gunplay, or other action in this tale of a New York cop (Gene Hackman) who’s tougher and more dangerous than the heroin smugglers he hunts down. More of a public menace, too, judging by Hackman’s careening race against an elevated train, still one of the most hair-raising car chase sequences ever filmed.
18. ‘The Road Warrior’ (1981)
One of the rare sequels that’s even better than the original, this follow-up to ‘Mad Max’ cemented Mel Gibson’s status as an international star. As the unlikely savior of a group of gas hoarding families facing a marauding tribe of punk bandits, Mel turns a post-apocalyptic fairy tale into an epic chase. The characters may be short on fossil fuel, but the movie doesn’t stint on forward motion.
17. ‘Gladiator’ (2000)
Revenge is a dish best served cold, and nobody serves it more chillingly than Russell Crowe, who barely raises his voice as he avenges his wife and son by bringing down an empire. Buried beneath the swordplay is some modern satire about our age of media spectacle (and how political power is won and lost by manipulating the masses through entertainment), and director Ridley Scott shoots the film like a contemporary, digital-video war movie. But really, this Best Picture Oscar-winner is pretty much only about old-fashioned ass-kicking. “Are you not entertained?” Crowe demands. Yes, yes we are.
16. ‘Lethal Weapon’ (1987)
Mel Gibson and Danny Glover create the template for the buddy-cop action comedy with this story of mismatched detectives who are magnets for mayhem. Later movies in the series went over the top with cartoonish spectacle, but here, where the two are still warily approaching each other like coiled rattlesnakes, there’s still some enjoyable conflict between them. Loose cannon Gibson and stolid family man Glover have an unlikely chemistry; they’re like the Two Stooges, only more competent.
15. ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)
Technology is usually Batman’s friend, since he’s a superpower-less superhero dependent entirely on skills and gadgets, as well as the center of an action franchise dependent on explosions and FX. But here, the Joker turns technology against the Caped Crusader, and it’s Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning, incandescent performance as the anarchist villain that is the film’s most explosive special effect. Sometimes, though, that’s all you need, and it’s the Joker’s unfathomable, impenetrable mask of menace that keeps the film hurtling headlong for two and a half hours.
14. ‘The Great Escape’ (1963)
Based on a true story of a WWII POW camp prison break, this epic adventure features a rogue’s gallery of future two-fisted action stars, including Charles Bronson, James Coburn, James Garner, and scowlin’ Steve McQueen, who executes a legendary motorcycle jump at the film’s climax. The model for all wartime ensemble-capers to come, from ‘The Dirty Dozen’ to ‘Inglourious Basterds.’
13. ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954)
This Japanese classic marks the birth of the action film as we know it. Akira Kurosawa’s epic, about a team of underemployed samurai who rise to the occasion when hired to protect a village from a gang of bandits, pioneered such action tropes as the stand-alone prologue and the use of slow motion for dramatic effect. No one could choreograph a battle like Kurosawa (using moving tides of men, or close-ups to make war scenes look more populous), though many borrowed his techniques. At the heart of the film is the clash between traditional codes of honor and evolving social roles, which made the movie perfect for adaptation into a Hollywood Western (1960’s excellent ‘The Magnificent Seven’).
12. ‘Hard Boiled’ (1992)
Proposition: Chow Yun-Fat is the most charismatic action star ever. Need proof? Watch the hospital climax of this film as Chow fights off the bad guys with a gun blazing in one hand and a crying baby in the other. Who else could pull that off? Besides director John Woo, of course, at the peak of the early Hong Kong period of his career, reaching new heights of lush, stylized violence.
11. ‘Goldfinger’ (1964)
All the elements we know and love in the James Bond film formula really came together for the first time in the third film of the venerable franchise. There’s lasers, nukes, a pimped-out car full of cool spy gadgets (the Aston-Martin DB5, still the 007 connoisseur’s favorite car), a bizarre and eccentric villain, a ruthlessly efficient henchman (the unforgettable, silent Oddjob, with his lethal bowler hat), an army of beautiful and deadly women, and the baddest of all Bonds, Sean Connery. If that’s not enough, there’s also Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore, the most brazen, butt-kicking Bond girl ever.
10. ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ (2007)
Matt Damon’s resourceful, brutally efficient assassin turns out to be the perfect spy for an age of soulless corporatism and job insecurity. He manages to sustain his drive for vengeance against his bosses throughout three movies, and even though he has some severe disadvantages (like amnesia), it’s really not a fair fight. All three movies are gripping, taut thrillers that debunk the James Bond spy movie template (Bourne enjoys precious little in the way of glamour, gals, and gadgets), but the third one finds director Paul Greengrass exploring new ways to create excitement, whether through editing or reinventing the car chase yet again.
9. ‘Kill Bill: Vol. 1‘ (2003)
There’s more swordplay crammed into Quentin Tarantino’s tale of elaborate vengeance than in any dozen samurai movies combined. Much of it comes in the celebrated House of Blue Leaves sequence, where Uma Thurman’s single-handed dispatching and dismemberment of an army of thugs goes beyond cartoonish excess to achieve some kind of demented poetry and grace. Thrilling as the Bride’s exploits are, it’s clear she’s going to have to pay a price herself somewhere down the road. Nobody serves up revenge bloodier than Tarantino — or with greater awareness of revenge’s psychic toll.
8. ‘Aliens’ (1986)
If the original ‘Alien’ was an austere haunted house movie in space, James Cameron’s sequel is an all-out battle epic, species vs. species in a fight to planetary extinction. Cameron’s movies often have a message, but this one (aside from some mild anti-corporatism directed at Paul Reiser’s weaselly company man) is just about continuous, visceral, kinetic action. Oh, and about admiring (as Cameron often does) the strength of women, whether it’s the alien queen or cinema’s most badass heroine ever, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley.
7. ‘Speed’ (1994)
On paper, this preposterous ‘Die Hard’-on-a-bus caper shouldn’t have worked. Still, the mysterious chemistry among straight-arrow Keanu Reeves, plucky Sandra Bullock (in the role that made her a star), villain Dennis Hopper, and foil Jeff Daniels, plus the unstoppable forward momentum provided by director Jan de Bont, makes for a fittingly explosive combination.
6. ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ (1991)
James Cameron raises the bar again, this time with the CGI breakthrough of the morphing, protean T-1000 villain. Even without the influential special effects, there’s still plenty of old-school action in the form of chopper-riding Arnold Schwarzenegger and bicep-baring Linda Hamilton. All that, plus a moving story about parenthood, technology, and destiny.
5. ‘Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)
Hardcore ‘Star Wars’ fans cite Irvin Kershner’s pivotal sequel as the best of the franchise’s six films. Besides some breathtaking action sequences (the snowy battle on planet Hoth, Luke’s Jedi training, that final lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth Vader), there’s the overall sense of foreboding, the spectacle of the cloud city, the treacherous charm of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the grim efficiency of bounty hunter Boba Fett, and of course, the best third-act plot twist in the history of modern cinema.
4. ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ (2003)
There are some landmark action sequences in all three of the ‘Rings’ films, from the combat in the mines of Moria in the first movie to the brutal siege of Helms Deep in the second. But they pale next to the epic battle of the Pelennor Fields in ‘Return of the King.’ Peter Jackson also pushes the envelope with the army of ghosts, the giant spider, and the tear-jerking spectacle of sidekick Sam (Sean Astin) coming into his own as a hero capable of bearing any burden. Even after the victory over Sauron, you’ll feel battle-weary and cathartically sad.
3. ‘Die Hard’ (1988)
The granddaddy of all latter-day action films, with its much-imitated, claustrophobic, hostages-in-an-unlikely-place plot. Director John McTiernan’s fondness for explosions and shattered glass makes the film seem more extravagant than it really is; there’s not a wasted scene or piece of information, and there’s a seamless blurring of the distinction between action and character development. Performance turns out to be crucial, which is why this movie made both hero Bruce Willis and villain Alan Rickman into instant movie stars.
2. ‘The Matrix’ (1999)
The most influential action movie of the digital era, largely for the way it erased the boundary between action film and videogame. Think of how much in this film quickly became a cliché when copied by others (the motion-stopping “bullet time,” Yuen Wo-Ping’s elegantly choreographed wire-fu). Plus, there was a graduate seminar’s worth of postmodern philosophy and theology stuffed into the film’s mind-bending premise. An action film that really makes you think? As Keanu Reeves’ Neo so elegantly put it, “Whoa.”
1. ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981)
Because of its instantly iconic Harrison Ford hero, its two hours of nonstop forward momentum, its clever updating of stock adventure clichés (like when an impatient Indy dispatches a swordsman by shooting him), its hard-drinking heroine (Karen Allen) who’s as tough and quick-thinking as Indy, and its endless inventiveness and creativity, we think ‘Raiders’ will endure as the best action movie ever made.