What makes a good action movie? For that matter, what makes a piece of cinema an “action movie” in the first place? Is it all about explosions, gunfights, and car chases? Well, pretty much. Not that character-driven stories and philosophical dialogue have no place here, but really, nobody heads to the theater for the next Fast and Furious movie because they think it’s going to be an Oscar winner. Action movies are a guilty pleasure; an indulgence; a delectation, if you will. But which ones are the best? It’s not an easy question to answer, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying! In this article, we’re going to take a totally biased look at the ten greatest action movies of all time.
Now, there is still the slight problem of being able to properly define an action movie. Some people would even go so far as to argue that “action” isn’t a film genre in and of itself at all. For the purpose of this list, let’s agree that an “action” movie is one that delivers a potent adrenaline rush but doesn’t easily fit into any other specific genre. With that in mind, we’ll refrain from considering any movie that is clearly a work of comedy, sci-fi, fantasy, or horror. And, just for simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick with English language films only (did we mention this list was a bit subjective?). Also no period pieces, military movies, or superhero flicks. Whew! That still leaves us with a lot of movies to consider. Buckle up, this is going to be a long, bumpy ride!
Let’s jump right in with a look at a classic that happens to be the tenth most amazing action film ever made:
Maybe the beginning is a little slow, a little predictable. Maybe Liam Neeson is a bit stiff playing protagonist Bryan Mills. Maybe the dialogue is occasionally strained. But all of that works out just fine when it comes to the end result, which is a movie without a lot of unnecessary chatting, characters that take a back seat to high-octane action (although Olivier Rabourdin’s taut portrayal of slightly scary French cop Jean-Claude deserves a mention), and that, once at full speed, never slows down for a second. That, in a nutshell, is the beauty of director Pierre Morel’s 2008 Taken – with its non-stop, front-to-back, ridiculously high-paced action, it’s a relatively pure form of escapism; don’t think, just watch.
“I will find you, and I will kill you.” The words are etched into the minds of action movie fans all over the world, as are the numerous moments of extreme suspense that punctuate the film, like when the hero’s daughter realizes that she is being preyed on, and the predators are already in her apartment. Some writing gurus teach that promises of action are just as powerful as the real thing. In Taken, there is just one promise, and a whole lot of action to back it up. The payoff is a 90 minute movie that feels like a blur, a hearty fear of human trafficking rings, and a whole lot of respect for those rare people who have “a very particular set of skills.”
If our challenge was to name the best ten action movie characters, surely James Bond would belong at the top. Hopefully it’s enough, however, that one of his many adventures on film makes this list. Considering that the Bond franchise spans over 50 years and more than 20 films, it isn’t exactly easy to name one movie to represent it on this list. Of course, this being a countdown of all-time greats, it’s not a given that any Bond film would inherently belong. Maybe, however, we can agree that Casino Royale is deserving of both honors. After all, it remains one of the most popular and best-reviewed of all the Bond films, despite many misgivings about the direction in which the franchise chose to head, and particularly about its choice for a new lead actor in Daniel Craig.
Bond’s comeback in the 2006 film, directed by Martin Campbell, had a lot to live up to in terms of suspense and action, and it somehow managed to exceed expectations. One of the movie’s opening scenes featured the hero taking a leap of death from a crane (which might sound underwhelming until you see it) and went on to top some polls as audience’s favorite James Bond stunt ever. Setting the bar high early on didn’t prevent the movie from delivering the goods throughout, though, and some consider the fight scenes in Casino Royale to be the gold standard for fighting in movies. That may be debatable, but on the whole, at least we can all agree that this flick is no slouch in the action department.
8Bad Boys 2
Martin Lawrence and Will Smith’s dynamic duo did not jumpstart the buddy-cop action drama. In some ways, they actually came pretty darn late, following the likes of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover (in the Lethal Weapon franchise) and Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell (in Tango and Cash;). In fact, both Bad Boys and Bad Boys 2 draw pretty heavily on those films, Tango and Cash especially. But the point is that Bad Boys 2 did it better – a lot better. There’s so much mayhem, destruction, and obliteration (of everything from helicopters, to exotic cars, to a multi-million dollar mansion, to an entire shanty-town) in the 2003 movie that it’s hard to believe it only cost $130 million.
Bad Boys 2 is at times serious, at times funny, and at times ultra-suspenseful. Keeping all of those possibilities on the table allowed director Michael Bay (who else could be behind that level of chaos?) to weave the comfortably predictable plot points into a movie that is both entirely believable in terms of character motivations and incredibly ridiculous in terms of kinetic action. But then, what can we judge the greatest action movies by, if not the sheer ridiculousness of their exploits? It might be slightly on the ironic side, then, that in the midst of the all-out, totally unbelievable pandemonium the movie features, one of its most-remembered taglines became the line, “Shit just got real.”
7The Bourne Identity
Like many other great films, this one was adapted from a book and became the first in a franchise. Even after the release of quite a few sequels, it’s hard to imagine that this one is already 15 years old. Some might argue that any one of the sequels (and particularly 2007’s Bourne Ultimatum😉 was a better movie, but this is the one that got it all started. After all, before 2002, there was no movie character quite like Jason Bourne, and despite his impressive range as an actor, this is the role that Matt Damon is most memorable for. Can you ever forget the “pen versus knife” scene, ending with an unnamed fellow assassin throwing himself out a second-story window to his own death? Or how about the first time we see Bourne’s almost automatic skills put to use on the police officers in the park? Watching this action flick, even the most capable fighter pilot, neurosurgeon, or quantum physicist is likely to be left feeling a little inferior in comparison to the sharp wit, reflexes, and physical prowess of Jason Bourne.
Part mystery, part thriller, part neo-noir, Bourne Identity runs wild in a controlled way, painting a believable (if ambiguous) masterpiece of espionage that features amnesia, assassins, car chases, stunning fight choreography, and what is undoubtedly the best photographic memory this side of Sherlock Holmes. No matter how many times you watch this one, it keeps you right on the edge of your seat, and that’s what ranks it among the greatest action movies of all time. At risk of going overboard with cliché, it could even be safely referred to as “action-packed,” but in fairness, so could every movie on this list.
6Enter the Dragon
If you think kung fu films deserve a separate top ten list, then you’d probably be right; so many movies have centered on flying fists and feet that maybe “martial arts” really ought to be considered a genre of its own. Still, it would feel unfair to talk about the greatest action movies ever and not bring up 1973’s Enter the Dragon. It’s quite possibly the world’s most renowned martial artist (we’re talking about Bruce Lee, of course) starring in quite possibly the most entertaining hand-to-hand combat movie of all time. (A cameo by a young Jackie Chan also hints at what the future would hold for both action movies and martial arts in cinema as a whole.)
Portrayals of kung fu battles just don’t come any better than they do in Enter the Dragon. And it’s not just one suspenseful battle, but numerous, each with its own unique elements of personality and intrigue. Sure, there are some moments that could more or less politely be described as “overacted” (that face of Lee’s after the showdown with O’Hara, namely – you know the one), and overall the premise might be little on the unoriginal side, but this classic has withstood the test of time, remaining one of the most critically acclaimed movies of its sort for almost 45 years, leaving an indelible mark on the world of cinema. If only Bruce Lee’s life and career had not been cut tragically short, we might have seen many more like it.
They say that audiences love to learn, and so all good screenwriters incorporate teaching moments into their movies. There’s a lot to learn from Point Break, which remains the popular favorite from among director Kathryn Bigelow’s filmography, despite having since made such critically acclaimed movies as The Hurt Locker. In this 1991 classic, we learn (indirectly, of course) how to surf the break with style, how to commit daring bank robberies with pizzazz, how to skydive fearlessly without a parachute, and the all-important life lesson that some things just can’t be faked.
In spite of (or maybe because of) its occasional lapses into the realm of the unrealistic, this movie as a whole remains highly believable, whether focused on the calm and cocky Jonny Utah, played by Keanu Reeves, the immovably cool Bodhi, played by Patrick Swayze, or even the slightly unhinged FBI man played by the actually-unhinged Gary Busey. For all its adrenalin-fueled antics, this has a distinctly different feel among action flicks, largely thanks to the Zen-like surfing wisdom that underlies much of the characters’ motivations and dialogue. Undercover cops, bank heists, surfing, skydiving, and one of the absolute best foot chases ever filmed cement Point Break as an action movie for the ages, but what makes it so satisfying is the masterfully created tension that exists between Johnny and Bodhi, thanks in no small part to an incredibly astute combination of great writing, acting, and cinematography.
Heat may have been released in 1996, but it’s as powerful a piece of cinema today as it ever was – all three hours of it. This masterpiece from writer/director Michael Mann (of Miami Vice fame) has just about everything you could ask for in a good action film: car chases, gun fights, bank robberies, smart cops, smart criminals, a star-laden cast (including heavyweights Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, along with the always-talented Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore, among others), and the best (and hardest to follow) advice for would-be career criminals: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you’re not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”
Heat is so good because it works as an action movie, period (can anyone deny that the midday robbery scene is one of a kind?), but it also contains some heavy, thought-provoking commentary (albeit somewhat between the lines) on relationships of all kinds – professional, romantic, familial – and is an aesthetically beautiful movie, to boot, with its cool blue color palette and memorable soundtrack (which, by the way, was impressively created without the use of a single soundstage). This blend of action-junkie escapism with art house depth and feel makes for something that almost effortlessly transcends itself, becoming a steadfast icon of cinema and the quintessential example of a cat and mouse crime thriller.
1988’s Die Hard gave us many memorable moments, from the unforgettable fire hose-swinging, window-smashing antics of self-deprecating, last-chance hero cop John McClane, to the, well…pretty much everything, down to its Christmastime setting. It gave us something else memorable in the form of actor Bruce Willis (playing McClane) on the world stage of mainstream cinema for the first time. After nailing down McClane, Willis would go on to play some of the most iconic and unforgettable characters of the 80s, 90s, and beyond, continuing to embody the very best of sardonic, hard-boiled, nitty-gritty roles to this day. But Die Hard is more than just Bruce Willis, much more. It’s a cultural signpost, consistently ranked among the most liked movies of all time. Just try finding someone who hasn’t heard the famous line “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!”
Like The Bourne Identity, this classic was adapted from a book (in this case, the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp) and spawned numerous sequels (Die Hard 2, Die Hard With a Vengeance, Live Free or Die Hard, A Good Day to Die Hard;). None of these, however, has ever come close to achieving the level of fame or critical appreciation as the 1988 movie, directed to perfection by Hollywood veteran John McTiernan. Do movies get any better than this one? Well, sure, probably. But do action movies get any better? It’s debatable, but maybe the rest of this list will shed a little light on the matter.
Is it possible to predict how good a movie will be based on a list of names? Probably not. But what if that list included the names Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin…would that change anything? Let’s just say The Departed is good – really, really good. It has a complex plot with even better writing, a stellar cast with even better acting, and a twist of an ending that you just can’t see coming, no matter how hard you try.
At its heart, The Departed is a story about loyalty, trust, and betrayal. It’s a neo-noir of sorts that fabulously pulls off the difficult task of building empathy for multiple protagonists with opposing goals. It’s shades of L.A. Confidential, but with a darker tint and edgier violence. Mostly, it’s a fantastic action movie, through and through, with potential for multiple viewings that never get any less fun. If we’re counting awards as evidence of a good film, this one has plenty, including four (yes, four) Oscars, including ones for writing, editing, directing, and acting. Not an easy feat for a hard-boiled action/cop drama.
1Raiders of the Lost Ark
It’s debatable whether Steven Spielberg ever made a bad movie. It’s equally debatable whether George Lucas ever wrote a bad story. What’s not debatable is the genius filmmaking that transpired when the two of them got together, along with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, on 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Raiders is Indiana Jones at his finest, and Harrison Ford in classic form. It’s grand adventure, grander conspiracy, grave and mortal danger, airplanes, whips, swords, and good triumphing over evil. In more than just a few ways, it is nothing less than the very epitome of an action movie, modern or otherwise. Everything about this film, from the setups to the punch lines, from the buildups to the payoffs, is top-grade. Sporting commercial and entertainment values that are through the roof doesn’t stop Raiders from also having its moments as a standalone work of true art. It simultaneously paid homage to its cinematic roots while laying the groundwork for what could be possible in the action movie genre moving forward, and that’s no mean feat. Seriously, where would action movies be today if not for the extreme pushing of the envelope that this film undertook?
In short, even as it pushes forty years old, Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the first films that jumps to mind whenever the words “action movie” are spoken. Is it cheesy? A bit. Is it realistic? Not at all. Is it culturally iconic in a way achieved by only the tiniest handful of films? You betcha. The best action movie of all time? Well, we think so.
Without the genre constraints laid out in the introduction to this list, attempting to name the top ten action movies of all time would have been slightly more challenging. Okay, it’s true, it would have been downright impossible. Even with all the limitations we imposed, there are a ton of truly amazing action movies that barely missed making the countdown.
For instance, what about Fast Five or The Italian Job, two brilliant crossover films that blended the heist and carsploitation sub-genres? How about The Rock, Lethal Weapon, or The Long Kiss Goodnight? It wasn’t easy leaving those off this list, and then there’s the glaring lack of anything starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Chuck Norris, or Steven Seagal.
What do you think? Is there an obvious choice that got left out? Is there anything on this list you strongly disagree with? Moreover, what sort of criteria is most important in determining the greatness of an action movie? Is it the number of explosions? The body count? The insanity of the stunts? The depth of the characters? What does your top ten action movies look like, and how do you choose? Let us know in the comments below.