Summer is in full swing and with it comes action-filled blockbusters from around the world. While action movies cover a wide gamut of film styles and can range from the mindblowing to the downright putrid, there is nothing quite as thrilling as a well made action spectacle. From star-driven ‘80s flicks to high concept thrill rides, these are the movies that keep people flocking to the theater every year.
What makes a great action movie? Well, clearly the fights, shootouts, chases, battles, and anything else meant to thrill has to be done right. But it’s also the winning combination of great writing, great directing, and memorable characters. And while some may only think of muscle-bound action stars firing giant guns when they think of action movies, there is far more to the genre than may first meet the eye. Often, mashing together the action genre with science fiction, fantasy, horror and any other style of moviemaking can result in something even greater.
What qualifies a film to be ranked as one of the greatest in the action genre? It has to have a strong focus on the action, with thrilling setpieces being an integral part of the entire movie. It also has to be thoroughly enjoyable on its own merits. A terrible movie with a few great action scenes won’t make the cut, even if some of those scenes are the greatest of all time. Combined with a story that either defines that genre, helped to create a new subgenre, or perfected a style of moviemaking unlike any others and you have an action movie that will withstand time and imitators.
30. Conan the Barbarian
Director John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian is machismo in film form. Full of epic sword battles, wild adventures, and Schwarzenegger’s muscles, it’s a movie that is meant to be the most bravado film possible. Based on Robert E. Howard’s pulp comics, Conan the Barbarian tells of the ancient Hyborian warrior Conan, who sets out on a quest for revenge after his family is murdered and he is enslaved as a young child by the evil Thulsa Doom. From start to finish, this is a mighty action movie that pulls no punches, wholeheartedly embracing the violent ways of its protagonist and the campy roots of its creation. But the movie’s commitment to the epicness of the tale makes this one of the best sword and sorcery epics ever.
Best Action Scene: Conan and his companion are surrounded and outnumbered in the mounds, but fight to the bloody end, with brutal attacks and many lost limbs along the way. “Grant me revenge. And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!”
29. Lethal Weapon
The epitome of the buddy cop movie, the original Lethal Weapon movie is still a classic when it comes to ‘80s action. While the setup may seem cliché today, the partnering of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as an unhinged cop and a world weary one as unlikely partners created a kind of spark that is equal parts natural charisma and the result of high quality direction by Richard Donner and great writing by Shane Black. Cops Riggs and Murtaugh take on former special operations forces running a drug ring in Los Angeles and crisscross the city as they work to crack the case and take them down. While the sequels have their own redeeming qualities, they are all derivatives of the original, along with countless other copycats.
Best Action Scene: Riggs and the villainous Joshua (Gary Busey) fight in brutal hand-to-hand combat at the film’s climax. It may be over the top and unnecessary, but it works incredibly well to cap off an incredibly enjoyable action film.
Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto pulls no punches. Chronicling one giant chase in ancient Mesoamerica, the film follows Jaguar Paw, who fights for his life and the life of his family after being kidnapped for use as a Mayan sacrifice. Yes it’s all done in an ancient language and its directed by post-breakdown Mel Gibson, but Apocalyptois the best kind of insanity. While the languages are subtitled, it’s all done so the action speaks louder than words, with ideas of fear and survival in a brutal civilization playing out along the way. Shocking violence and a massive scope are balanced by a simple and closely-focused chase story. Apocalypto is both a no holds barred blood-soaked action film and an extremely artistic piece of filmmaking.
Best Action Scene: While there are many outstanding moments, the second half of Apocalypto is really one massive action setpiece, with Jaguar Paw and his pursuers running and fighting through the jungles without a moment to breath.
Years after Sylvester Stallone’s horrendous Judge Dredd, the lethal future cop of 2000 A.D. finally gets his due in Dredd– a tightly focused and brutal action film that was sadly overlooked on its debut. Set in the dreadful future of Mega-City One, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and his fellow judges are able to capture, sentence, and execute any criminal in order to keep the crime-ridden city under control. When Dredd and new Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) are sent into a gigantic slum tower block to take down the drug lord known as Ma-Ma, they are thrown into the fight of their lives. Like the comics it is based on, Dreddis a full-blown R-rated spectacle that is meant to both entertain and shock in its violence. It’s proof that a great practical effects focused sci-fi action movie is still possible today, even if it doesn’t win at the box office.
Best Action Scene: Dredd and Anderson are cornered when Ma-Man and her goons pull out Vulcan miniguns, ripping through walls and bystanders to take out the judge. It doesn’t work.
26. Kill Bill Vol. 1
Writer and director Quentin Tarantino’s homage to kung fu films, Kill Bill Volume 1 is easily his greatest action movie. The Bride (Uma Therman) is a former assassin who was betrayed by her fellow killers and left for dead along with her unborn child. Now, she’s on a brutal quest for vengeance. While Kill Bill, Vol. 2 is just as good, and deeper, it’s Vol. 1 that offers the best setpieces and the most thrilling fights. The Bride’s quest for vengeance is incredibly violent, but the hyperkinetic style and exaggerated effects make this feel like a blend between old chopsocky movies and modern anime. Twists and turns in the plot are mixed with the clashes between The Bride and her quarry for a good time through and through.
Best Action Scene: In her bid to kill the deadly O-Ren Ishii, The Bride is ambushed by her targets goons, forcing her to hack her way through literally dozens of criminals before facing off in a duel in the snow with Ishii.
25. The Rock
Without a doubt director Michael Bay’s best film (not that there is much competition), The Rock is insanely satisfying action done with just the right amount of over-the-top craziness. The plot centers around a rogue group of Marines that seize control of Alcatraz and threaten to bombard San Francisco with nerve gas, forcing U.S. Navy SEALs and FBI Agent Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) to team with the one man who ever escaped the island prison – John Mason (Sean Connery). This is Cage and Connery working at their best and with great chemistry as they are quickly outnumbered and outgunned. Plus, Connery is almost like an old James Bond here. Bay is also stylish without being cliché and is actually directing with brain and heart here, instead of phoning it in like usual. If you’re looking for action that defines the ‘90s without aging badly, it’s The Rock.
Best Action Scene: When Mason escapes in a Hummer after his recruitment, Goodspeed is forced to chase him down in a Ferrari. Both men blaze down the hilly streets of San Francisco and cause astounding amounts of damage in the process.
24. John Wick
Along with a few other films (which you will see later on this list), 2014’s John Wick is a brilliant piece of action among the bloated and CGI-heavy bevy of action movies today. The setup is simple and even bordering on the outlandish – a retired hitman’s puppy is killed by criminals, so he goes on the warpath to kill everyone involved. The brilliance of John Wick is that the plot works insanely well and makes you deeply care from very early on. After that, it’s just tons of amazing action scenes, all filmed incredibly well. Eschewing the modern shaky cam blur and fast editing for clear direction and visceral choreography, there are so many amazing scenes here and Keanu Reeve is in excellent form as a simultaneously dangerous and sympathetic man. This is proof that great action is still possible in the modern CGI superhero fest of today’s cinema.
Best Action Scene: John enters a nightclub in search of the one man that started it all, but it soon goes south, with the target escaping and John forced to eliminate a dozen different men. The blend of hard hits, quick deaths, and realistic fights makes this unforgettable.
23. Enter the Dragon
Even years after his untimely death, Bruce Lee is still an icon of the action genre. Even though he only produced a handful of films in a few years, the martial arts icon brought the genre to people around the world and has influenced countless films and actors over the years. Enter the Dragon is easily his most well made movie. Here, he stars as Shaolin master Lee, who takes part in a fighting competition on a mysterious island in an effort to take out the man running the fighting ring. Filled with high energy fights, afros, and funky guitars, this is ‘70s action in full effect. While the acting may suffer in some parts and the film may have aged, there’s no denying that Lee was a true action star and this fun piece of martial arts action is still loads of fun.
Best Action Scene: Any time Bruce Lee fights. You can’t go wrong with a Bruce Lee fight.
22. The Legend of Drunken Master
Also known as Drunken Master II, this is easily Jackie Chan’s most intense and memorable action film, with amazing stunts and mind-blowing choreography throughout. He stars as Wong Fei Hung, a master of the drunken boxing martial arts style who fights for his people in early 20thcentury China against the British Consulate. While the story is simple, Chan shows off the comedic chops and insane martial arts work that made him an international superstar. Few actors have as much charisma and versatility as Chan, who can be both charming and dangerous at the same time in a variety of settings. If you’re not convinced of Chan’s legendary status among the pantheon of action stars, Drunk Master will prove it.
Best Action Scene: The finale, with Wong Fei Hung fighting against his two main opponents at the same time in a dangerous factory. Chan’s physicality and superb performance is equal parts hilarious and eye popping. Plus, it features his fall into a bed of hot embers, one of his craziest and most excruciating stunts.
21. The Bourne Ultimatum
Every Bourne movie is a creative and memorable action spectacle. The Bourne Identityrevolutionized the spy genre with its intense and grounded take on action as it followed an amnesiac former spy’s journey to remember who he is and escape government agents. But it’s The Bourne Ultimatum that took the trilogy to its greatest heights in the conclusion to the story of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). There are so many fantastic action scenes throughout, each with their own unique thrills while still maintaining the style an focus that people have come to expect from a Bourne movie. Given that this is the conclusion to the amnesiac spy’s story, it also has more heft and satisfaction to its story beyond mere fights and chases.
Best Action Scene: Bourne chases after a fellow spy in order to save a life, running along rooftops and jumping from building to building with abandon. The iconic shot of him jumping through a window leads to a brutal close quarters fight that is easily one of the series’ best.
20. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Over the course of four (soon to be five) films, the Mission Impossible series has morphed from a classic spy story to a wild action adventure. Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocolis the height of the franchise, taking lead Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and surrounding him with the series’ best characters yet in a globe-spanning chase that features mind-blowing stunts. Here, Hunt and the remaining members of a shut down IMF have to stop another plot that would lead to worldwide catastrophe. The mission leads them to wild chases through massive sandstorms, terrifying climbs up the sides of skyscrapers, and deadly fights in all manner of exotic locales.
Best Action Scene: Ethan Hunt is forced to climb up the side of the massive Burj Kalifa tower in Dubai while using magnetic gloves that are failing at a disturbing rate. Like the entire film, countless things go terribly wrong at the worst time possible, sending thrills and chills through the audience. It helps that Tom Cruise actually filmed this scene while actually climbing the real building!
19. Die Hard with a Vengeance
While the original Die Hard may have inspired five sequels (and countless imitators), there’s only one follow-up that is truly great, and that is Die Hard with a Vengeance. Here, Lt. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is forced to play games across New York City due to a bomber with a grudge against the police officer. Along the way, he teams up with Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson), a shop owner who accidentally gets caught up in the madness. Not only do these two great leads elevate the movie, but the plot is simply the best outside of the original and the action scenes are downright incredible. While there is plenty at stake and both the language and action earn a hard R rating, With a Vengeance is insanely fun through and through.
Best Action Scene: McClane investigates the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which he realizes has been the real target of Simon (the bomber) all along. Going down in an elevator, he realizes the guards surrounding him are all Simon’s men, leading to a fast, brutal, and bloody shootout in cramped quarters.
18. Hard Boiled
If director John Wu is the god of wild shootouts and stylish violence, then Chow Yun-fat is his patron saint. Together, they made a masterpiece of bullet-riddled mayhem in Hard Boiled, which centers around tough as nails Inspector “Tequila” Yuen (Yun-fat), who teams up with undercover cop Tony (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) to take out Hong Kong’s triads. This is the movie that branded the image of an action hero jumping through the air while firing two guns at once. Yes, it’s an idea that has become an overblown parody and an emblem of excess in action moviemaking, but it’s amazing here. That’s thanks to the great character and wonderful direction, which uses tons of practical effects to blow audiences away. While Wu transitioned to Hollywood after Hard Boiled, this is his greatest work and still one of the all time great Hong Kong action films.
Best Action Scene: Tequila and Tony discover that the triads’ base of operations is run from underneath a full hospital, leading to a 40-minute shootout with cops desperate to save innocent bystanders and countless bad guys getting dropped. This is pure insanity in one perfect package.
17. The Adventures of Robin Hood
If you are looking for a definition of the term “swashbuckling,” look no further than The Adventures of Robin Hood. Starring Errol Flynn as the titular hero of Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood is the height of classic Hollywood action. It’s also the first film shot in Technicolor, filling it with vibrant colors that are timeless. The fight choreography is also brillian and the stunts are incredibly, with men springing over castle walls and clashing swords at breakneck speed. The cast, musical score, and design may be more than 80 years old, but its just as fun today as it was on its debut.
Best Action Scene: In the finale, Robin and the dastardly Guy of Gisbourne face off in a lightning fast duel while war wages in the castle around them. The life of Maid Marian is at stake, so Robin fights with all his heart to save his love. Classic movie sword fighting doesn’t get any better than this.
Akira Kurosawa made countless masterpieces in his career, with the Japanese director’s output ranging from small character pieces to epic retellings of Shakespeare’s works. But Yojimbo is his most brashly action-packed. Telling the story of a wandering samurai who is caught between two warring gangs in a tiny town, Yojimbois a deft blend of several genres, with this samurai story feeling more like a Western in most of it’s themes. As Kurosawa’s first widescreen film, there’s a freshness and stark beauty to what can be a brutal and violent film. As the man known as Sanjuro looks to eliminate both gangs and make a nice profit in the process, countless men and cut down with lightning fast strikes and the bodies quickly pile up.
Best Action Scene: Sanjuro faces down the last of the remaining gang, who had nearly killed him previously. But when their leader holds a pistol against a man armed with only a sword, can Sanjuro’s skills be enough?