So, what makes a great action movie? Well, obviously action has to be front and center – but how about a plot and some decent dialog to move things along? Movie Crunch has assembled our picks for the 20 greatest action films, stripping out the war movies (see our Civil War and WWII movie lists for more of those), space flicks (sorry Star Wars, Aliens fans) and epics like Gladiator and Braveheart.
We’d like to think that a great action movie has momentum from start to finish – a thrill ride, if you will… but if we know our readers, you likely have your own opinion about the best action flicks out there.
20. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is probably the most artful of the action movies on our list… the choreography of this film is really dreamlike and imaginative, but never skimps on the action element. Maybe for action movie purists, there’s a little too much romance here, but the dynamic wire/flying sequences more than make up for any romantic notions.
19. Ronin (1988)
Robert De Niro
Ronin has to take the cake for the action movie with the best car chase scenes. Ever. Robert De Niro and Jean Reno star as intelligence agents who team up with a group of ex-CIA, KGB types to steal a briefcase – though the contents are unknown (love that). Watch out though… there’s a double-crosser in the bunch. Edge of your seat car chase sequence below – that’s what action’s all about:
18. Speed (1994)
Okay, hear us out on this one. Speed may not have one of the greatest plots of all time, but you can’t dispute that it’s action-packed. Seriously, with a bus that can never go under 50 mph, you’ve got nothing but action for most of the film. There’s a great bad guy in Dennis Hopper, the cute good guy in Keanu Reeves, and a super adorable young Sandy Bullock (pre-fame), plus explosions! Wheee… thrill ride! A little light on substance maybe, but a fun ride all the way.
17. Desperado (1995)
Antonio Banderas at his best, Desperado delivers the action goods in this tale of ultimate revenge. Director Robert Rodriguez doesn’t need a huge budget blockbuster to make an excellent action-packed flick. Desperado doesn’t have much downtime, with all the gun fighting and building jumping, and with great performances by Banderas, Salma Hayek and Steve Buscemi, this sometimes over-the-top movie has to make our list of best action flicks. Check it out… best bar fight scene ever?
16. Wanted (2008)
A seemingly loser-ish guy goes from office drone to superhuman hero in the fast paced Wanted, starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman. The bullet bending, train crash, and the rats… oh, the rats… that lead to one kickass attack on The Fraternity freakin’ rocks. Wanted isn’t the smartest of the action films on our list, but mindless fun and plenty o’blood count for something.
15. Mission Impossible (1996)
Kristin Scott Thomas
Mission Impossible may very well be the most confusing of the action films on our list – with the multitude of characters to keep track of and the confusing plot, MI left lots of theater-goers scratching their heads. But they were entertained, nonetheless, by a boatload of action and some pretty brilliant performances. Tom Cruise hanging by a wire had audiences holding their collective breath… that drop of sweat… that slow motion knife falling…
14. Enter the Dragon (1973)
Enter the Dragon is your go-to martial arts action movie, with the man – the legend – Bruce Lee. No two ways about it, Enter the Dragon has some of the best fight sequences ever caught on film, capturing a variety of martial arts disciplines, all choreographed to perfection. Sadly, this was Bruce Lee’s final movie appearance – the film was released six days after Lee’s death.
13. Lethal Weapon (1987)
The buddy cop formula works so well in this action flick starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover because this pair has chemisty. We’ll look the other way on the Lethal Weapon sequels because, let’s face it, the first film was the original and still the best. This classic action entry is only enhanced by a batshit crazy partner in Mel Gibson’s Riggs and the most memorable of all buddy flick quotes uttered by Danny Glover’s Murtaugh: “I’m too old for this shit!”
12. The Killer (1989)
John Woo is without a doubt one of the big name directors of action movies and with good reason. Woo always delivers thrill-a-minute action for anyone looking for a little adrenaline rush with their movie viewing. Before he made Hollywood movies, John Woo directed some great Hong Kong action films, most notably The Killer, starring Chow Yun-Fat, which put Woo on the map with American audiences. If you like your action ultra-violent, give The Killers a shot.
11. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Loaded with action, Spider-Man 2 makes our list for, among other sequences, the amazing train fight scene with Doc Ock. Adrenaline pumping? Yeah, you might say so. Spidey 2 may take jabs for being over-CGI action packed, but really, what do you want from your superhero movie?
10. Predator (1987)
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character and his team of men embark on a rescue mission in a Central American jungle… only they end up being the hunted by an invisible alien lifeform. Weird, right? Yes, we’re treading into sci-fi territory, but we couldn’t leave the action-packed Predator off the list. Best part is that there are no romantic storylines to muddy the waters – this is pure and simple testosterone overload. Plus, Predator gets bonus points for the sheer volume of quotable lines.
9. Casino Royale (2006)
A best action movie list just wouldn’t be complete without a James Bond flick, and really, this was a hard choice… but we settled on Casino Royale, arguably one of the best of the Bond bunch and for our purposes, a thrill ride of action from start to finish. Bond fans may have winced a teeny bit by the notion of Daniel Craig filling the 007 shoes, but Craig owns it. Is the action sometimes over the top? Hell yeah… Is there something wrong with that? Hell no!
8. Seven Samurai (1954)
A poor Japanese village hires a group of samurai to help defend themselves against bandits. Yeah, it’s not the stuff of modern-day action films, but you can’t deny the total ass kickery that goes down in Seven Samurai. The action scenes deliver a huge rush – not bad for the days of pre-flashy sequences that now punctuate movies of the action genre. But here’s the thing – while there’s not all the flashy stuff going on (we’re looking at you CGI), Seven Samurai still delivers an awesome punch.
7. Iron Man (2008)
Robert Downey Jr.
Can we all have a moment of silence to thank Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. for bringing Iron Man to life? Iron Man is that perfect storm of great acting (RDJ is a most excellent Tony Stark), directing, action sequences and storyline, making for one of the most exhilarating summer movies of all time. To say that Iron Man 2 is one of the most highly anticipated movies this year would be an understatement!
6. The Bourne Series (The Bourne Identity, 2002, The Bourne Supremacy, 2004, The Bourne Ultimatum, 2007)
Jason Bourne is perhaps the coolest action hero ever to grace the screen (no worries, Mr. Bond, you’re pretty cool too), playing an assassin with no memory, who we see piece together his life throughout the three films. All around, the Bourne films are a great collection of spy thrillers, packed with fast-paced action that Matt Damon carries flawlessly. The fight choreography and chase scenes never disappoint and every movie in the series is solid.
5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The Terminator movies all have their action merits, but here’s no doubt in our minds that Terminator 2 has to be the best of the franchise. With heart-pounding, edge of your seat action, not to mention T2’s most excellent special effects, Arnold and the gang deliver. And director James Cameron is no slouch either.
4. The Dark Knight (2008)
You want action? The Dark Knight delivers. And then some. What’s great here is the visual element of it all – you’ve got your comic book hero Batman brought to life on the big screen, the intense villain, and incredible acting and storytelling, adding up to the dark thrill ride of a lifetime. We really love the balance of drama and action in The Dark Knight, with the latter part of the film really delivering some non-stop action sequences that made this rightfully one of the best summer blockbusters ever.
3. The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix is a no brainer on our best action movies list, with plenty for the geek set and for the cool kids too. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is a computer programmer and hacker who soon discovers that humanity is being overtaken by the machines as the humans live in the simulated reality of the Matrix. Can our unlikely hero really be “the one” to save mankind? The Matrix made the “bullet time” special effect popular in films and the lobby shootout is among the very best action scenes ever to play out.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Drama, adventure… and action! Raiders of the Lost Ark pretty much has it all and really stands the test of time as one of the greatest action/adventure movies ever. Indiana Jones is a classic action hero character – a man’s man, an archeologist with a sense of humor… and a whip. What’s really great about Raiders is the story, a plot that involves action and isn’t just an excuse to blow shit up or insert a car chase. Raiders excels in the great storytelling, and bonus – there’s never a dull moment.
1. Die Hard (1988)
The classic action movie, Die Hard is often imitated and should receive the “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” award, if such a thing existed. Bruce Willis’ John McClane takes on some wicked bad guys (Alan Rickman plays an awesome baddie) – and while all the action goes down in one location, Die Hard never skimps on excitement and gives us one hell of a cool action movie hero… “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!”
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