Best Action Movies of All Time

From bullet ballets to sci-fi epics, kung fu classics to superhero adventures — the greatest big-screen adrenaline rushes ever

All you need to make a movie, a wise French man once said, is a girl and a gun. It helps, of course, if you throw in a few explosions, several car chases, some knockdown mano a mano fistfights, a smattering of kung fu and any number of swordfights as well. Action has been a part of the movies since the days of Keystone Kops and mustache-twirling villains tying up heroines on railroads tracks; you could even argue that the Lumiere brothers’ short of a train pulling into the station, which allegedly caused audiences to scream and flee the room, was the world’s first example of an action movie. The holy trinity of cinema, i.e. thrills, chills and spills, has been a main attraction of the medium for decades. And once the Age of the Blockbuster really kicks into gear in the early 1980s, you couldn’t throw a rock at a multiplex without hitting something that hyped up the “motion” into motion pictures.

Not all it-blowed-up-real-good films are created equal, however, so we’re shouting out the 50 best action movies of all time — the crème de la crème of martial arts flicks, bullet ballets, men-on-a-mission adventures, swashbucklers, superhero franchises, sci-fi spectacles, wuxia epics, and a whole lot more. These are the films we go to when we want an uncut dose of that kinetic-cinema rush. Strap yourself in.50

‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ (2015)

Photo : Daniel Smith/©Warner Bros/Everett Collection

You don’t need to be familiar with the original 1960s spy show — the one where Robert Vaughn and David McCallum got into Bond-lite adventures (though to be fair, Ian Fleming was a creative consultant for the series) — to dig Guy Ritchie’s big-screen adaptation, which channels the era’s espionage-a-go-go style while adding a dash of Cold War grit. Henry Cavill is Napoleon Solo, the C.I.A.’s suavest agent; a pre-scandal Armie Hammer is Ilya Kuryakin, his KGB counterpart. They’re both fighting over who gets to bring Alicia Vikander, as well as her scientist dad’s plans, back to their respective bosses. Eventually, the three of them team up to fight a common enemy. Taking a break from his Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur franchises, Guy Ritchie reminds you that he can put together some mean fights scenes and chase scenes — several, in fact — and make the sight of Cavill casually eating a sandwich before driving a cargo truck off a ramp and landing on top of a boat seem like the most natural thing in the world.49

‘Escape From New York’ (1981)

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, from left, Harry Dean Stanton, Kurt Russell, 1981, ©AVCO Embassy Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : ©Avco Embassy /Everett Collection

When the President’s plane goes down behind the walls of the nation’s most dangerous, maximum-security penal colony — a.k.a. the island of Manhattan circa 1997 — there is only one person you send in to rescue the leader of the free world: former Special Forces soldier, current federal prisoner and all-around badass Snake Plissken. John Carpenter’s gritty, dystopian B movie didn’t just give the world a truly unique antihero in Kurt Russell’s reluctant savior. (No one has ever rocked an eyepatch onscreen better. No one.) The writer-director also gifted moviegoers with a funhouse version of Horror City as a playground of the damned, perfect for shoot-outs with punk crazies and chase scenes across mine-laden bridges. And while everyone from Adrienne Barbeau’s magnum-wielding moll to Isaac Hayes’ A-No. 1 criminal, The Duke, to Carpenter’s synthy score contribute to this futuristic free-for-all, it’s Russell who makes this man-on-a-mission flick feel like it’s constantly on the move.48

‘Dead or Alive’ (1999)

Photo : ©Kino International/Courtesy Ev

You might possibly accuse Takashi Miike’s yakuza flick of being a little derivative in the narrative department: A cop (Sho Aikawa) is determined to take down a mobster (Riki Takeuchi) by any means necessary. No one can say that the prolific Japanese filmmaker doesn’t present this old chestnut of a story with a maximum amount of panache and a 200 beats-per-minute pace: It opens with a power chord-driven montage of falling bodies, superhuman drug binges, arterial spray and flying bullets. Even after Miike takes his finger off the puree button, it’s still a gonzo, go-for-broke version of a typical two-sides-of-the-same-coin movie. And as for the ending? Let’s just say it’s one of the greatest cinematic exit strategies ever, and one which takes the entire action-film genre to its logical endgame.47

‘The Rock’ (1996)

Photo : ©Buena Vista Pictures/Everett Collection

Welcome…to the Rock. The best Michael Bay movie by a huge margin (all apologies, Armageddon fans) turns Alcatraz into the sight of a hostage situation, with a gung-ho rogue general (Ed Harris) threatening to reduce the Bay Area to rubble. In order to neutralize the situation, the FBI enlists the only man to ever successfully escape the floating prison — and damned if it isn’t Bond 1.0 himself, Sean Connery. It’s one of the few of the director’s movies to actually put his signature “Bayhem” to good use, especially when it comes to blowing up San Francisco landmarks and staging some sly cat-and-mouse work within the tourist site. And the secret ingredient? That’d be Nicolas Cage, playing a nerdy biochemist and finding the perfect middle ground between his early-career goofball eccentrics and his mid-career men of action.46

‘Taken’ (2008)

TAKEN, Liam Neeson, 2008. TM and ©copyright Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights reserved./Courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : ©20thCentFox/Everett Collection

The movie that officially kicks off the era of Liam Neeson: Greatest AARP-Age Action Hero Ever, starts innocently enough: A doting, overly protective dad tries to repair the relationship with his teenage daughter after years of being an absentee father. She wants to go to Paris with her best friend for the summer. He’s worried that something will happen to his baby girl. Naturally, she is kidnapped by Albanian sex traffickers within 12 hours of landing in the City of Light. Only her Pops used to be a “preventer” for U.S. intelligence agencies, see, and by the time Neeson delivers his justifiably famous “what I do have are a very particular set of skills” speech, you get the sense that he is not your ordinary helicopter parent. The fact that we get to those skills amply demonstrated over the next 100 minutes essentially remade the Irish actor into punching, kicking, shooting superstar. It turns out we had a genre icon hiding in plain sight the whole time.45

‘The Fugitive’ (1993)

Photo : ©Warner Bros/Everett Collection

“I didn’t kill my wife,” claims Dr. Richard Kimble, a man falsely accused of murder. “I don’t care,” replies U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard, determined to capture this fugitive regardless. Then, after Gerard has managed to get the jump on his target, Kimble dives off the side of a massive dam, right into the drink. That’s only one of several hold-your-breath high points in Andrew Davis’ big-screen adaptation of the 1960s TV show, with Harrison Ford desperately trying to hunt down the one-armed man actually responsible for the crime before Tommy Lee Jones can nab him. It is essentially one exhilarating featuring-length chase scene after another, all of them blessed with the addition of Ford in prime heroic form and Jones bringing the dry, cranky wit (his reading of “My, my, my, my, my… What. A. Mess.” is priceless). When we saw this in a theater back in the day, the audience spontaneously burst into loud applause after Kimble’s narrow escape from a prison bus. It still feels like an appropriate response.44

‘Speed’ (1994)

Photo : 20th Century Fox

Pop quiz, hotshot: There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes above 50 mph, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it’ll blow up. What do you do? If you’re LAPD officer Jack Traven, you “borrow” a civilian’s car, jump on to the moving vehicle on the freeway and make sure that the 13 passengers aboard don’t get blown to smithereens. Jan De Bont’s high-concept blockbuster is the sort of movie that looks positively idiotic on paper — Die Hard, but on public transit — and somehow completely works once you keep the engine at full throttle and put the right movie stars (thank you, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock) in the driver’s seat. It’s a blast, and that’s before they ram a bus into a 747 airliner.43

‘Wonder Woman’ (2017)

Photo : Warner Bros

Moviegoers had already met Gal Gadot’s Amazonian warrior briefly in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (let us never speak of this movie again). But it was Patty Jenkins’ take on the iconic DC Comics’ character in this solo outing that established Gadot’s Diana Prince — and her bulletproof bracelet-wearing, lasso-of-truth-wielding alter ego — as a screen superhero par excellence. Rewinding back to the future Justice Leaguer’s adventures during WWI, this blockbuster toggles between the no-man’s-land battlefields of the Great War — with Diana fighting alongside true love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) — and the all-female island of Themyscira, where her fellow Amazons are defending themselves from enemy invaders in search of a weapon. It eventually comes down to a battle between gods, with nothing more than the continuation of humanity at stake. Watch how Jenkins films Gadot stepping out of the trenches to take on the Kaiser, all strength and poise, and you understand the appeal of this character to generations of fans in an instant.42

‘Hero’ (2002)

Photo : ©Miramax/Everett Collection

Already an internationally renowned filmmaker, China’s Zhang Yimou took a page out of the Crouching Tiger playbook and mounted one of the most epic wuxia movies to date — a fable-like story filled with color, sound, fury, a cast of thousands and some truly jaw-dropping fight sequences. A nameless warrior (Fist of Legend‘s Jet Li) is granted a rare audience with the king, who’s recently survived several attempts on his life. The man claims to have fought all three assassins — Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Long Sky (Donnie Yen) — and defeated them. As he regales the regent with stories of these encounters, however, there’s a second plan that’s being out into play. There are any number of scenes that stand out, from Li and Cheung defending themselves on the roof of a red caligraphy house to Li and Yen imagining every move of a sword fight while they each stand still in a rainy courtyard. For our money, the image that sticks with us to this day is the sight of a lone man staring down hundreds of arrows raining down from the sky and quietly accepting the hand that fate has dealt him.41

‘La Femme Nikita’ (1990)

French director Luc Besson applies a cool, cinema du look Euro-gloss to a very Hollywood-style thriller: A gutterpunk junkie (Anne Parillaud) is arrested after a botched robbery. Instead of being arrested, she’s declared dead by the government, renamed “Nikita” and trained as a deadly assassin. She eventually settles down and wants out of the life. Her bosses have other plans for her. It inspired a popular syndicated TV series and numerous remakes, and Besson himself more or less came up with a carbon copy with his 2019 movie Anna; you can see traces of Jean Reno’s post-hit “fixer” character is dozens of films that came after this as well. Still, no one has topped Besson’s perfectly calibrated take on Nikita‘s centerpiece, in which our heroine’s handler takes her out to a fancy dinner, then informs her that she must kill two other patrons and figure out her own escape plan.40

‘The Warriors’ (1979)

Photo : ©Paramount/Everett Collection

It should be impossible to blend comic books, a cartoonish version of 1970s New York gang culture and Homer’s The Odyssey in to something that has stood the test of time. Thankfully, no one bothered to tell writer-director Walter Hill that. A massive gathering of “the armies of the night” from the five boroughs finds Coney Island’s own Warriors — you’ve heard about them, they’re a heavy outfit — venturing deep into the heart of the Bronx. After being framed for assassinating a charismatic leader, they’ve got to run a gauntlet of angry, colorfully costumed enemies in order to get back to their home turf. Yes, it’s largely one long chase scene punctuated by gang fights, but Hill knows exactly to keep things moving and when to throw some serious obstacles in our heroes’ path. We wouldn’t want to mess with the Gramercy Riffs or the Turnbull  ACs. And as anyone who’s ever dressed up as a Baseball Fury for Halloween will tell you, it’s one of the coolest looking action films of the Seventies. Can you diiiiig it?39

‘Atomic Blonde’ (2017)

Photo : Focus Features

Charlize Theron had already proven that she could hold her own, action movie ensemble-wise, against postapocalyptic thugs — now she steps red-stilettos-first into the spotlight solo, to demonstrate that she can just as easily dispatch Eastern European bad guys circa the end of the Cold War. The mention of her shoes isn’t gratuitous: Finding herself in a tight spot in a moving car in Berlin, her MI6 agent Lorrain Broughton is forced to employ some fashionable footwear as a lethal weapon on a villain’s windpipe. Things only get more violent from there, as director David Leitch (one half of the team behind the original John Wick) turns this adaptation of the graphic novel The Coldest City into a spy-vs-spy obstacle course for his star. (Theron apparently worked with eight physical trainers to get into fighting shape, and her efforts paid off.) The seven-minute, “single shot” shootout sequence in an apartment complex, climaxing with a nasty one-on-one brawl, remains a tour de force of giving and receiving pain.38

‘The Mission’ (1999)

Photo : Subway Cinema/Everett Collection

What, you thought their wouldn’t be at least one Johnnie To movie on this list? Hong Kong’s answer to Michael Mann has made more than his share of action-movie classics, but this 1999 story of five bodyguards hired to protect a triad boss is arguably the high point of the filmmaker’s suave-tough-guys oeuvre. The mall shoot-out sequence alone is enough to earn the movie a a shout-out here — it’s a perfect example of how to use geography, editing, camera movement, actors (including To’s rep-company MVPs Anthony Wong, Simon Yam and Lam Suet), and impeccably geometrical compositions to craft an absolute banger of a set piece.37

‘Predator’ (1987)

Photo : ©20thCentFox/Everett Collection

It should have been your run-of-the-mill rescue mission in Central America for Major “Dutch” Schaefer and his elite squad of special-ops soldiers. Except someone is tracking Dutch and his men in the jungle, picking them off one by one. Or rather, some “thing” is —  specifically, a creature from outer space who, per the trailer, “kills for pleasure, [and] hunts for sport.” An ingenious combination of Alien and the type of bullets & biceps movie that Arnold Schwarzenegger made his bread and high-protein butter in the 1980s, John McTiernan’s movie feels like a dry run for his cat-and-mouse action movie Die Hard, only with extraterrestrials and way more firepower. (That’s a compliment, by the way.) The final act, in which Schwarzenegger realizes that in order to catch a predator, you have to think like a predator — and also smear yourself in mud — feels like its own miniature action flick nestled inside a larger one.36

‘Point Break’ (1991)

Photo : ©20thCentFox/Everett Collection

It’s the ultimate FBI agent vs. Zen Buddhist adrenaline-junkie surfer-crook movie — and should anyone still have needed proof that Katheryn Bigelow was a first-rate action director after the lip-smacking, bloodsucking mayhem of Near Dark, consider this Exhibit A. Keanu Reeves is Johnny Utah (that name!), a Fed tracking down a group of bank robbers known as “the Ex-Presidents.” He ends up getting close to a bunch of local waveriders led by Bodhi, the sandy-haired philosopher played by Patrick Swayze. The two men bond over thrill-seeking and, well, you know what they say about the dangers of going too deep undercover, right? It has everything: a chase scene through a residential area involving a man wearing a Ronald Regan mask while on fire; some bro-tastic skydiving; Gary Busey eating a meatball sandwich; a Red Hot Chili Pepper getting clocked in the face; and a climactic surfside scuffle in the rain that may bring a well-earned tear to your eye. Vaya con dios, Bodhi.35

‘The Five Deadly Venoms’ (1978)

Photo : IFC FILMS

Director Cheng Cheh (The One-Armed Swordsman, The Brave Archer) and a who’s who of Shaw Brothers’ screen talent assemble to introduce the world to the five types of “Poison Clan” kung fu: Scorpion, Centipede, Snake, Lizard and Toad. A dying master has taught five of his prized pupils one of each style; he now needs one last student (Chiang Sheng), who knows a little of each style them to make sure that none of them are using his venomous martial arts for nefarious aims. The training sequences alone make this one of the most exciting of the legendary production company’s epics; the battle royale fight scene between the Venoms is pure chop-socky delirium.34

‘The Great Escape’ (1963)

Photo : Everett Collection

When you were to sent Stalag Luft III, it meant you were a Grade-A troublemaker — this German P.O.W. camp was home to the biggest pain-in-the-ass Allied soldiers who’d been captured. The Nazis considered it inescapable. The prisoners considered it a challenge. John Sturges’ war movie remains a benchmark in Sixties all-star he-man cinema (this was the decade that gave us The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven, The Professionals, and The Guns of Navarone!) and, once a number of this elite group of inmates manage to liberate themselves, a film that more than lives up to its name. You probably remember the prisoners’ attempt to make it to the Swiss border via plane, or the tense encounter at a train station that ends in tragedy. You almost assuredly remember Steve McQueen’s motorcycle ride with guards in hot pursuit, and that hits its high point with him jumping over a barbed wire fence. Iconic.33

‘Avengers: Endgame’ (2019)

Photo : Marvel Studios

It’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe showdown to end all showdowns, the Phase 1 series finale (never mind that Spider-Man: Far From Home came after it), the big match-up that some 21 separate movies have been leading up to. Joe and Anthony Russo finish what they started with Avengers: Infinity War, as Iron Man, Captain America et al. whizz around alternate timelines to gather the infinity stones, restore the balance of the world before Thanos snapped his fingers, yadda yadda yadda. There are any number of thrilling bits of business and unexpected detours — ‘fess up, who really saw Fat Thor coming? — as a long, serialized blockbuster narrative bids farewell to some franchise heavy hitters. But it all pales in comparison to the climactic battle royale, when seemingly every MCU superhero introduced over the past 20 years assembles to battle an intergalactic army of creeps. It’s such a splash-page–worthy spectacle that not even that cheap shot of a hastily assembled superheroine group (every female character here deserved better) can totally ruin the buzz.32

‘Total Recall’ (1990)

Photo : ©TriStar Pictures/Everett Collection

Paul Verhoeven’s two masterpieces to date — Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997) — operate on a perfect ratio of 75 percent satire, 25 percent slam-bam-splatter. For this fast ‘n’ loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” the Dutch director reversed that recipe — and ironically, delivered the single best action movie of his career. Arnold Schwarzenegger is your average Joe who works construction in the year 2084, living the dream life with his dream wife (Sharon Stone). So why is constantly plagued by nightmares about life on Mars? He eventually learns that he was once a secret agent on the Red Planet…at which point he’s got to find out why his memories were erased or die tryin’. Exploding prosthetic heads, cartoonishly gory shootouts, chase scenes involving robotic cabbies, quips galore (“Consider this a divorce”): it’s a great example of how to attack a genre with tongue firmly in cheek yet still deliver Saturday matinee-style thrills.31

‘Goldfinger’ (1964)

GOLDFINGER, Sean Connery, 1964

Photo : Everett Collection

Dr. No established the first screen incarnation of James Bond as equal parts debonair and ruthless (“You’ve had your six”), and From Russia, With Love proved that he was a man of action. But you could argue that the franchise really starts with the third entry, which finds the quip-ready British agent taking on a megalomaniacal villain who — sing it with us — “loves only goooold.” His name may sound “like a French nail varnish,” but Auric Goldfinger is a worthy opponent to Ian Fleming’s hero. This was the Bond film that introduced his gadget-laden Aston Martin; that gave us Sean Connery’s 007 engaging in a knockdown brawl with bowler-hatted henchman Oddjob that rivals his fight with Russia‘s “Red” Grant; and that climaxes with Goldfinger getting his trip to Cuba cut short by some unexpected “turbulence.” It’s also the one that would inform the next fives-plus decades of Bond movies the most, until 2006’s Casino Royale gave the character a needed roughening up.30

‘Train to Busan’ (2016)

Photo : Well Go entertainment/Everett Collection

You can find elements of action filmmaking in just about every modern zombie-apocalypse movie, from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… to World War Z. No one film has better fused the two genres together, however, than this South Korean movie about an outbreak that causes folks to get sick, contort and instantly crave human flesh. And as we all know, it only takes one infected person to turn a train full of passengers into [dramatic pause] a one-way express to death! After that terror-at-first-bite moment, filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho keeps the pace set to relentless through most of the film, and has a knack for enlivening scenes you’d expect from a zombie movie (the surging mass of walking dead, the fight through a gauntlet of ghouls, the sprinting away from a sudden influx of angry, hungry corpses) with a real sense of flair and pulse-pounding panache.29

‘The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ (2002)

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: TWO TOWERS, Viggo Mortensen, 2002, (c) New Line/courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : ©New Line Cinema/Everett Collection

Peter Jackson’s gamechanging, Oscar-winning adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s sword-and-sorcery epic qualifies as one extended action movie, among many other things (fantasy, melodrama, romance, tragedy, road movie, antihero character study, hobbit-related buddy comedy) — and every one of the three films that make up the New Zealand director’s series has some incredible clashes involving warriors, slithering creatures, spiders, Dark Lords and other Middle Earth citizens. But it is the centerpiece of the entire trilogy, which takes place roughly two-thirds into the second film, The Two Towers, that stands head and broad shoulders above the rest: the Battle of Helm’s Deep. A massive set piece in Tolkien’s book, it is the first major skirmish in the War of the Rings, with the armies of men and elves defending a castle from legions of Orcs. And in terms of scope and choreography, it is the mother of all screen sieges, lasting close to 40 minutes. Arrows fly, swords clang, demonic enemies grunt, wood and stone are shattered under the weight of opposing forces until finally, the calvary — in the form of a white-haired wizard and his riders — come to the rescue. It is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome.28

‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (2014)

Photo : Village Roadshow Pictures

Drop out of a plane and fight hordes of creepy-crawly aliens. Die on the beaches in a massacre that makes D-Day seem tame by comparison. Wake up the next morning, rinse, repeat. Doug Liman’s sci-fi spin on Groundhog’s Day makes for a truly top-notch star vehicle, and introduced the notion of Emily Blunt, Action Hero to an unsuspecting, but extremely grateful public. How many times can we violently kill one of the world’s most recognizable movie stars? let us count the ways. Once Cruise and Blunt learn how to weaponize this time-loop quirk, we’re then treated to a host of scenarios that combine war movies, spy thrillers, alien-invasion pulp and, well, a Tom Cruise movie. The promise of a sequel keeps dying on the vine — we keep praying a potential Part II wakes up again to fight another day.27

‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)

Photo : Twentieth Century Fox

When George Lucas gave the world the first Star Wars movie in 1977, the filmmaker managed to synthesize a heap of old action-adventure influences — from Flash Gordon serials to WWII aerial-dogfight movies — into one pulpy, crowd-friendly package. It was a turning point in American movies, and introduced a certain type of thrill-ride cinema to a whole new generation. And while you can find stand-out action sequences in every one of franchise’s entries to date, why not go with the best movie of the bunch for this list? The second film of the original trilogy not only builds off the momentum of its gamechanging predecessor, it remains the high point in the the series’ storytelling; introduces some vital new characters (Yoda! Lando! Boba Fett!!!); and drops one hell of plot surprise in regards to our jedi hero Luke Skywalker. It also has that rebels vs. AT-ATs showdown on the planet Hoth, the Millennium Falcon’s evasive maneuvers through an asteroid field, a daring escape from Cloud City, and that climactic duel between Luke and Darth Vader. If we’re going with one Star Wars movie, we’re going with this one.26

‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938)

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, Patric Knowles, Herbert Mundin, Errol Flynn, 1938

Photo : Everett Collection

There were plenty of swashbuckling films before Errol Flynn’s take on the English folk hero who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. (See: the entire career of Douglas Fairbanks — who also played the character in a 1922 silent film.) But director Michael Curtiz’s fleet, undeniably fun Technicolor romp through Sherwood Forest “when history hung  on the flight of an arrow, or the slice of a sword,” may be the textbook example of a swashbuckler as pure, Old Hollywood adrenaline rush. Flynn swings, leaps, bounds, rides and battles his way through every set piece with a seemingly minimal amount of effort and maximum amount of charm; you’re still left breathless watching this display of acrobatic derring-do 80-plus years later. And to witness his dashing Robin cross blades Basil Rathbone’s dastardly Sir Guy at the movie’s climax is to see the DNA of modern action moviemaking form before your very eyes.25

‘The Villainess’ (2017)

THE VILLAINESS, (aka AK-NYEO), KIM Ok-bin, 2017 © Well Go USA /Courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : Well Go USA/Everett Collection

South Korean filmmaker Jung Byung-gil takes a familiar story — trained as an assassin, a young woman (Kim Ok-bin) must use her skills against her mentors after she’s double-crossed — and hits the overdrive button. Some inventive first-person-POV fight scenes and a dizzying battle on a bus immediately distinguish this from other “Asia Extreme” action flicks, but it’s the three-way sword fight on speeding motorcycles (!) that still has action-movie fans asking, “How the hell did they do that?”24

‘Fast Five’ (2011)

FAST FIVE, from left: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, 2011. ph: Jaimie Trueblood/©Universal Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : Jaimie Trueblood/©Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

It’s the Fast & Furious movie that is truly the cornerstone for all future F&F entries — the expanded and diverse mix-and-match crew from previous entries, an exotic locale perfect for a well-executed plan, the WTF physics-defying stunts and liberal use of the word “family” — and the one that allows the series to finally shift gears from carsploitation to first-rate action franchise. Five is also the one that introduces Dwayne Johnson’s federal-agent frenemy Hobbs and features a classic Rock-vs-Vin Diesel brawl that’s a flurry of bald heads and biceps.23

‘Kill Bill (Vols. 1 & 2)’ (2003-2004)

KILL BILL, Uma Thurman, 2003, (c) Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : ©Miramax/Everett Collection

Yes, we’re counting the “whole bloody affair” as one movie. Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to international exploitation cinema — from the Shaw brothers’ kung-fu epics to spaghetti Westerns to Swedish revenge thrillers — pits the Bride (Uma Thurman) against her ex-partners in crime and her ex lover, Bill. Both halves are filled with showstoppers, and we’ll cop to having a weakness for Daryl Hannah’s one-eyed Elle Driver and our hero reducing the inside of a trailer to rubble. But Vol. 1’s blood-splattered House of Blue Leaves centerpiece (so gory it was converted to black and white to avoid an NC-17 rating) remains the highlight. “If this doesn’t just fucking rock, then I’m just not as good as I think I am,” Tarantino said. “Kill Bill has to be to fight scenes what the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ in Apocalypse Now is to battle scenes.” Mission accomplished.22

‘Logan’ (2017)

Photo : Sony Pictures

Hugh Jackman’s swan song as the sharp-clawed, ill-tempered Wolverine is a strong contender for the bleakest superhero film ever made: His “indestructible” mutant is dying, Patrick Stewart’s Professor X suffers from dementia and salvation comes in the form of a feral, psychotic 12-year-old girl. But it’s also the answer to the question, “What if the notoriously violent X-Man was able to channel his inner berserker onscreen?” — which results in some of the most vicious, exhilarating stand-offs in the entire series. It starts with Logan slicing up a group of car thieves; once his young ward X-23 enters the fray — this mutant has some deadly “customizations” of her own and gets one hell of an introduction — things only get more extreme and haywire from there. It’s a dark addition to the X-canon, and a fitting send-off for a warrior who finally gets to retract his claws once and for all.21

‘Snowpiercer’ (2013)

SNOWPIERCER, from left: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, 2013. ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : ©Weinstein Company/Everett Collection

In the future, humanity survives a new ice age by living upon a perpetually moving express train — the further down the locomotive’s cars, the lower the class. To liberate themselves, Chris Evans’ freedom fighter and his guerilla army must work their way to the front one car at a time, fighting axe-wielding mercenaries and machine gun-toting teachers along the way. Long before the Oscar-winning Parasite, South Korean director Bong Joon Ho took on social inequity in a far more genre-centric way, turning his adaptation of a French graphic novel into a visceral, vicious satire of the clash between the haves and the have-nots.20

‘Midnight Run’ (1988)

MIDNIGHT RUN, Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, 1988, (c)Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : ©Universal/Everett Collection

All tough-guy bounty hunter Jack Walsh has to do is bring the world’s most annoying Mob accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas from New York to Los Angeles in order to collect $100,000. Sounds simple, until you factor in that the duo is being chased cross-country by thugs, Feds, another tracker-for-hire and a helicopter filled with hit men. And with that, Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin (R.I.P.) and director Martin Brest both delivered the blueprint and set the bar for the perfect action buddy-comedy. Think of all of the extremely mismatched duos you’ve seen hack their way through cut-rate chase-and-chuckle movies. The more you watch the god-awful entries in this subgenre, the more you appreciate how easy the folks behind Midnight Run make it all seem.19

‘Casino Royale’ (2006)

Photo : Columbia Pictures/MGM

Taking some tips from the early Connery years (and a few notes from the Bourne movies), Daniel Craig’s inaugural 007 outing immediately establishes this version of Bond as ruthless: From the moment we see him handily dispatch an informant in a restroom and gun down a double-crossing agency chief, you understand that this is someone who’ll make good use of a license to kill. Craig’s suave yet brutish Bond was a shaken-not-stirred infusion of fresh blood for Ian Fleming’s hero, and this reset brought him firmly into a world where intimate hand-to-hand combat and parkour chases were as much a part of the job as looking good in a tuxedo.18

‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout’ (2018)

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT, Tom Cruise, 2018. © Paramount /Courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : ©Paramount/Everett Collection

The continuing adventures of superspy Ethan Hunt and the Impossible Missions Force has been one of the most reliable action franchises around — a potent blend of old-school espionage, star power and stunts that suggest Tom Cruise has a death wish. This sixth M:I film is the series’ apex, from Cruise’s actual 25,000 foot skydive to Vanessa Kirby’s white widow showing off her skills with a knife. The bathroom brawl, in which Henry Cavill locks and loads his “guns” before wading into the fray, is a clinic on how to stage a close-quarters fight scene.17

‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000)

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, (aka WO HU CANG LONG), Michelle Yeoh, 2000. ©Sony Pictures Classics/courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : ©Sony Pictures/Everett Collection

Drawing from the works of filmmakers like A Touch of Zen‘s King Hu, Ang Lee’s addition to the Wuxia Movie Hall of Fame — a tale of two 19th century warriors (Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh) in love — is both a reverent homage to vintage sword-and-fist epics and a lyrical revision of modern wire-fu smackdowns. The sight of Chow and Zhang Ziyi clashing their blades while quietly whooshing atop a bamboo forest is transcendental; the scene in which Zhang and Yeoh test their mettle against each other leaves your jaw on the floor.16

‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ (1991)

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1991, © TriStar/courtesy Everett Collection, TR2 173, Photo by: Everett Collection (81271)

Photo : TriStar/Everett Collection

James Cameron’s sequel to his lean, mean 1980s pulp masterpiece would be a blast even if you didn’t factor in the FX — think of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reformed Terminator putting a mini gun to good use, that white-knuckle motorcycle chase, the clever reprise of the original’s “I’ll be back,” or the instantly iconic sight of a ripped Linda Hamilton single-handedly cocking a shotgun. But then you see Robert Patrick’s sleek, metallic, next-gen T-1000 take a shotgun blast to the head, only to re-form his split cranium before your eyes … and suddenly, a world of movie possibilities seem like they’re just a few keystrokes away. Hasta la vista, analog action.15

‘The Dirty Dozen’ (1967)

THE DIRTY DOZEN, Lee Marvin, 1967

Photo : Everett Collection

You’ve got a number of high-ranking Nazis who need to be eliminated at the same time, so the Allies can storm the beaches at Normandy — who do you get to pull off this suicidal commando raid? Why, 12 of the Army’s most homicidal and degenerate prisoners, that’s who! Robert Aldrich’s WWII adventure wasn’t the first men-on-a-mission movie, but it’s arguably the most influential and boasts the most stubbly, brawny cast of them all. (Bronson! Cassavetes! Robert Ryan! Telly Savalas!) Throw in Lee Marvin at his flintiest, Cleveland Browns MVP Jim Brown throwing grenades down airshafts and one hell of a shootout between the Dozen and German soldiers, and you have the makings of an action landmark. You can practically smell the testosterone wafting off the screen.14

‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)

THE DARK KNIGHT, Christian Bale, 2008. ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : ©Warner Bros/Everett Collection

All Bruce Wayne wants is to hang up the cape and let District Attorney Harvey Dent clean up Gotham City. How do you do that when someone with no regard for either side of the law — who thrives on chaos — just wants to watch the world burn? Christopher Nolan’s Batman magnum opus is rightfully remembered mostly for Heath Ledger’s unhinged Joker. Yet that opening heist scene feels like a top-notch Heat tribute, the (somewhat divisive) midtown chase scene moves like gangbusters and Batman’s abduction of a Mob accomplice via jet airplane will leave your palms sweaty. Along with its seriousness of purpose and Ledger’s sociopath in greasepaint, it’s The Dark Knight’s stellar set pieces that made this feel like the superhero movie had just leveled up a notch.13

‘Police Story’ (1985)

POLICE STORY, (aka GING CHAT GOO SI), Jackie Chan, 1985, © Cinema Group/courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : Cinema Group/Everett Collection

Jackie Chan was already a martial-arts movie star by the time he made this cops-vs.-mobsters classic — this was the film, however, that would firmly establish him as the Buster Keaton of Hong King cinema. Its breakneck opening, in which Chan drives straight through a sloping hillside town and hangs off the side of a bus, would be the pièce de résistance for most movies. Then the actor-director tops it by sliding down an 80-foot pole covered in lightbulbs and dropping through a mall kiosk’s glass ceiling. Those end-credit outtakes confirm some extremely close calls.12

‘The Bourne Identity’ (2002)

BOURNE IDENTITY, Matt Damon, 2002 (c) Universal, Courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : ©Universal/Everett Collection

Robert Ludlum’s amnesiac hero Jason Bourne has been a fixture in the author’s novels since the early 1980s; by the time Matt Damon took on the role in the early 2000s, however, only the most devoted beach readers/spy-lit fans could have told you who he was. Then director Doug Liman’s film expounded the character’s close-combat styles, integrating Krav Maga and various Filipino martial arts into the mix, and added a jittery you-are-there sense to the action sequences. (Paul Greengrass, who’d take the reins on the next few Bourne movies, would double down on that last part.) Watch Damon’s Bourne take down three embassy security guards in quick succession and prove to an assassin that it’s ok to bring a pen to a knife fight, and you’ll see screen fights evolve in real time. Suddenly, everybody knew Bourne’s name — and every movie wanted their melees to be more inventive and intimate.11

‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981)

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, 1981. ©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : ©Paramount/Everett Collection

Meet Indiana Jones, globetrotting college professor, star archeologist, fedora model and longtime hater of snakes. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ whipcracking treasure hunter was a throwback to the heroes of 1930s serials, and the first of their Jones movies feels like a series of cliffhangers: Will Indy escape the cave with the booby traps and rolling boulders? Can he rescue Marion Ravenwood and the ark of the covenant from the Nazis? How’s he going to get himself out of that pit of writhing serpents? Rarely have such vintage thrills and spills felt so timeless, though the chase scene in which Harrison Ford hangs off the front of a moving truck remains the epitome of Eighties movies’ derring-do.10

‘Aliens’ (1986)

ALIENS, Sigourney Weaver, 1986, TM and Copyright (c)20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

Photo : ©20thCentury Fox/Everett Collection

Legend has it that James Cameron pitched his sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1980 horror/sci-fi hit by writing “Alien” on a blackboard, then added a “$” on the end. The filmmaker would do more than just up the number of xenomorphs (and indeed make Fox a lot of money). The future Titanic director’s follow-up doesn’t try to replicate Ridley Scott’s slow-burn horror-sci-fi mojo; instead, he pits Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and a platoon of space marines against these extraterrestrials and turns everything up to 11. Like the creatures themselves, Aliens is relentless and fueled by pure forward momentum; it also turned Weaver into a bona fide female action icon. By the time the Alien Queen shows up to take on Ripley, you know this maternal monstrosity doesn’t stand a chance.9

‘Black Panther’ (2018)

Photo : ©Marvel Studios 2018

Wakanda forever! Ryan Coogler’s contribution to the MCU is more than just the high point of Marvel’s ever-expanding soap opera — it’s Exhibit A that superhero blockbusters can be not just entertaining but thought-provoking, representative, and have a point of view without losing mass appeal. It is to men-in-cape movies what Stagecoach was to the Western, i.e. a major genre level-up. And Coogler displays an incredible sense of how to stage action, whether it’s T’Challa taking on a few terrorists, a firefight in a South Korean casino that involves wig-throwing or a massive spectacle that will decide the fate of an African utopia. Rest in power, Chadwick Boseman.8

‘Seven Samurai’ (1954)

THE SEVEN SAMURAI, (aka SHICHININ NO SAMURAI), Toshiro Mifune, 1954

Photo : Everett Collection

A village needs protection for bandits. They recruit seven expert fighters to keep them safe. Using this simple premise, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa more or less invents modern action moviemaking, choreographing everything from one-on-one sparring to a full-blown siege with an eye toward character, drama, and advancing the story. Its climactic battle in a rainstorm is deservedly studied by film students and veteran filmmakers, because Kurosawa cracked the code on how to use sound (or silence) and fury to delivering both emotional payoffs and adrenaline rushes. All that, plus Toshiro Freakin’ Mifune. And though this classic inspired its share of ingenious genre-switched remakes (1960’s The Magnificent Seven) and amped-up redos (Takashi Miike’s 2010 eye-popping 13 Assassins), in terms of scale and fury, you simply can not beat the original.7

‘Hard-Boiled’ (1992)

HARD BOILED, Chow Yun Fat (l.), 1992, (c)Rim/courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : ©Rim/Everett Collection / Evere

You could conceivably fill a list like this with almost nothing but John Woo movies — the Chinese director has done more for the genre over the last five decades than almost any other living filmmaker. Our personal favorite Woo film, however, kicks off with one of the single most amazing gunfights ever committed to celluloid: a chaotic teahouse shoot-out incorporating ballistics, birds and beaucoup slo-mo, and which peaks with supercop Chow Yun-Fat sliding down a staircase’s banister with both pistols blazing. You can see why his movies are referred to as “bullet ballets,” and this sequence (along with a blow-up in a maternity ward) shows you why.6

‘The Matrix’ (1999)

THE MATRIX, Carrie-Anne Moss, 1999. ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection (image upgraded to 17.9 x 12 in)

Photo : ©Warner Bros/Everett Collection

The Wachowskis’ magnificent mash-up of cyberpunk, S&M couture, comic books and cult sci-fi scenarios didn’t just introduce a fringe simulation theory into the mainstream — it also established Keanu Reeves as the 21st century’s first real action hero a year before the millennium started, and changed the way blockbusters were made. (Let’s forget about the whole “red pill” thing that got hijacked from here, shall we?) We’re still feeling the aftershocks from what this film did in terms of upping the ante with FX, fight-training and a “what if” concept taken to its logical extremes. The reality-bending rescue mission that ends with a helicopter crashing into a rippling skyscraper still feels mind-blowing. The “bullet time” sequences still feel revolutionary.5

‘Enter the Dragon’ (1973)

ENTER THE DRAGON, Bruce Lee, 1973

Photo : Everett Collection

Say “kung fu movies,” and what’s the first image that comes to mind? A shirtless Bruce Lee, his chest scarred and his hands in a fighting position. Having done time in TV as the Green Hornet’s sidekick, the Chinese-American star went east in the early 1970s to star in a series of movies for the Hong Kong production company Golden Harvest. The results — The Big Boss (1971) and Fists of Fury (1972) — made him a household name all across Asia. Hollywood wanted to lure the continent’s biggest star back, so a story about an undercover agent infiltrating a nefarious villain’s fighting tournament was ginned up for him. The rest is history. Enter the Dragon would cement Lee’s legacy as something close to a real-life superhero, and to see the man plow through dozens of men in a flurry of fists, feet, staffs and nunchucks is to understand how he was singlehandedly able to turn martial arts into a global phenomenon. The final battle, in which Lee fights his metal-clawed nemesis in a hall of mirrors, is an all-time banger.4

‘The Raid: Redemption’ (2011)

THE RAID: REDEMPTION, (aka THE RAID, aka SERBUAN MAUT), Iko Uwais, 2011. ph: Akhirwan Nurhaidir/©Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : ©Sony Pictures/Everett Collection

A S.W.A.T. team — including an officer (Iko Uwais) with a personal stake in the mission — must capture a drug kingpin who lives an apartment tower’s penthouse suite in Jakarta. Each floor in the building, however, is filled with henchmen ready to pick off the cops one by one. Gareth Evans’ instant action classic uses a videogame’s boss-level concept as an excuse to throw every type of imaginable option at his heroes imaginable. Gun play? Hand-to-hand combat (including the brutal Indonesian fighting style known as Penkat Silat)? Machetes, axes and knives, oh my? It’s all here, with each impeccable set piece delivered at a frantic, kinetic pace designed to leave you shellshocked. The Raid‘s bigger-faster-more methodology was such a gamechanger that it’s now become the go-to template for choreographing fight sequences, from those John Wick/Atomic Blonde carnage-fests to Evans’ own, just-as-great-the-second-time-around 2014 Raid sequel.3

‘John Wick’ (2014)

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Photo : David Lee

His name alone is enough to strike fear in both underworld bigwigs and his professional-killer peers. He’s a one-man killing machine that people refer to as a mythological boogieman. You do not want to make John Wick angry, in other words. Which is exactly what some Russian mobsters do. Bad move. Cue payback, mayhem and a pile of corpses. Ignore the modest name: Stuntmen-turned-codirectors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski quickly turn this revenge thriller into a three-ring action-movie circus, with Reeves demonstrating an ability to handle anything (bullets, elbows, kicks, an assortment of sharp objects) fired at him. It’s a gun fu nirvana complete with eccentric worldbuilding — a hospitality industry catering solely to assassins? — and a go-for-broke mentality that somehow suits its stoic star to a tee. May this franchise never, ever end.2

‘Die Hard’ (1988)

DIE HARD, Bruce Willis, 1988, TM & Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film corp./courtesy Everett collection

Photo : ©20thCentFox/Everett Collection

“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs….” NYPD officer John McClane just happens to find himself at his estranged wife’s Christmas party in a Los Angeles skyscraper when terrorists take over the building. What comes next is a cat-and-mouse game that utilizes the limitations of a single, contained locale to incredible effect. It would also help Bruce Willis make the jump from TV wisecracker to tough-guy movie star, firmly establish John McTiernan as a first-rate action director and become such a successful concept that it gave birth to a million “Die Hard but on a [fill in the blank]” pitches. Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!1

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015)

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, from left: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, 2015. ph: Jasin Boland/©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

Photo : ©Warner Bros/Everett Collection

His name is Max, and his world is fire and blood. Australian filmmaker George Miller had already established the postapocalyptic, predator-or-prey landscape inhabited by ex-cop Max Rockatansky in three previous movies, all starring Mel Gibson; his first sequel, known on these shores as The Road Warrior, had been considered the gold standard for dystopian car-chase extravaganzas. When it came time to revisit Mad Max decades after 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome, Miller decided he’d try to do the film the old-fashioned way, with lots of practical stunts. The director wanted nothing less than to outdo himself. He succeeded.

To watch Tom Hardy’s world-weary Max, Charlize Theron’s one-armed protector Imperator Furiosa, her fugitive female wards, a gaggle of biker-gang cosplayers, and those manic War Boy soldiers duke it out on the open plains at 120 mph is witness action-moviemaking at its finest, and its most fearless. There isn’t a single moment when you don’t feel like this ongoing clash of metal and bone isn’t happening before you without real stakes — not just narratively, but in terms of everyone’s safety. (“It was literally like going to war,” stunt coordinator Guy Norris said.) We’re still not sure how they pulled off some of these stunts, and how they didn’t leave dozens of brave men and women in traction afterward. Fury Road is a turbocharged version of an action movie that makes every chase scene, explosion, and death-defying bit of business somehow feel organically crafted with both tremendous care and total abandon. Accept no substitutes.

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