The 100 Greatest Action Movies Ever Made, Part I
Before we begin our countdown of the greatest action movies ever made, a word on what classifies as an action movie.
For this series of articles, we have specifically excluded comic-book franchise movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC. You're right, they are action movies, but they're that prevalent that they'd almost require their own series of articles themselves. We have, however, made one exception in the entire series - 'Blade', starring Wesley Snipes and Stephen Dorff.
The same goes for Bond movies as well for the same reason. As well as this, we've also included a small selection of war movies. The likes of 'Battle of Britain', 'Where Eagles Dare' and 'Black Hawk Down' feature in the series, but 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Dunkirk' have been left out. It's more a question of tone per se than anything else.
It's the same with action-comedy and action-horror. For example, we excluded 'The Blues Brothers' as it has more music and comedy than action, even though the mall chase is pure action. Likewise, 'Aliens' features in this series as it's action-horror, being that it's about a squad of soldiers being picked off one-by-one by a horde of aliens. 'Alien', meanwhile, was left off as it's much closer to horror.
With that all cleared up, here are the first 20 of the 100 greatest action movies ever made.
100 'Where Eagles Dare'
Quentin Tarantino might have liberally borrowed from 'The Dirty Dozen' in 'Inglorious Basterds', but the almost gleeful violence visited upon Nazis takes a big chunk from 'Where Eagles Dare'. For nearly two hours, Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton shoot, stab, strangle and explode Nazis like it's rapidly going out of fashion and with zero attempt at humanising or understanding them.
99 'Under Siege'
Steven Seagal's sole entry in this entire series, 'Under Siege' may be rolled into the "Die Hard On A..." subgenre of the '90s, but there's a lot to love about it. For one, Tommy Lee Jones as a villain is something that's criminally absent from his filmography. Not only that, fellow '90s stalwart Gary Busey is in there as the corrupt officer who's working with the terrorists. Our man Colm Meaney is also in there as one of the henchmen, but it's really Andrew Davis' sharp directing that keeps it together - something that would serve him well in 'The Fugitive'.
98 '48 Hrs.'
Walter Hill is a name that's going to come up a few times in this series, as is Eddie Murphy. Fresh out of 'SNL' and eager to place himself as a talent, '48 Hrs.' paired Murphy up with Nick Nolte in a forerunner for the buddy-cop genre that would be spearheaded by Mel Gibson, Danny Glover and Richard Donner. Slick and smart without being showy, '48 Hrs.' is a nasty and lean rip of action-comedy.
97 'Enter The Dragon'
Bruce Lee's work in Hong Kong martial arts movies was enough to bring him to Western audiences with 'Enter The Dragon', the most successful and well-known of his works. Blending Lee's philosophical teachings in Jeet Kune Do with a straightforward, no-nonsense action movie, the action in 'Enter The Dragon' centres fully on Bruce Lee and pulls it through some of the slack moments.
96 'Broken Arrow'
Like it or not, John Travolta's best work post-'Pulp Fiction' was always playing a villain for John Woo. 'Swordfish', sure, it might have had that ridiculous chin-strap facial hair, but 'Broken Arrow' was the same theatricality without the problematic facial hair. Not only that, you had vital '90s character actors Delroy Lindo and Kurtwood Smith in there giving endless exposition the kind of gravitas it needs, and endless slow-mo explosions.
'Crank' couldn't have been released in any other era except the late '00s, simply because there wasn't going to be any other time it would have made sense. It barely makes sense now, to be honest, but the kind of high-concept, over-the-top action comedy that 'Crank' pushes means it can't be ignored. Jason Statham has one of his finest performances as Chev Chelios, a name so ridiculous it couldn't exist in any other movie but 'Crank', but what makes it all the more potent is that it's taking an existing formula and shrinking it down to the base compounds. It's 'Speed' but the human heart is the bomb that's going to go off.
94 'The Expendables'
'The Expendables' can and does suffer from being so clearly aimed at a demographic audience that you could write it off as being cynical. Fans of '80s Reaganaut action without a hint of examination, big explosions, big set-pieces, it's all there. All you needed in 'The Expendables' was a reference to Val Verde and a song by Frank Stallone and it's perfect. 'The Expendables' makes no bones about its influences or its heritage, and while it isn't subtle about them, it's all so brutally effective. Where else are you going to see Terry Crews dual-wielding two shotguns?
93 'Hard Target'
John Woo's first American movie has something of a storied production, including Sam Raimi literally waiting in the wings to take over if Woo messed up. Fortunately, he didn't, but it shows how little US studios trusted Woo. 'Hard Target' was Jean-Claude Van Damme's entreé into US action cinema after crashing out spectacularly of John McTiernan's 'Predator'. Again, vital '90s character actor Lance Henriksen is in there giving the exposition the kind of delivery reserved for Shakesperean soliloquies, but what sets 'Hard Target' is its basis in the '30s action-adventure, 'The Most Dangerous Game'.
92 'Escape From New York'
You can't have an eyepatch in any movie now without there it immediately being recognised as a nod to John Carpenter's creation, Snake Plissken. Dark, grimy and riddled with the kind of cynicism and nihilism that makes up so much of John Carpenter's work, 'Escape From New York' is nothing if not a perfect encapsulation of where action movies were headed. Kurt Russell, eager to shed his lightweight image, threw himself fully into the performance and laces it with the kind of venom a movie like this needs.
91 'Con Air'
If 'Con Air' gives us nothing else, it gives us the image of Nicolas Cage with a ridiculous hairpiece taking in a summer breeze and the line, "Make a move and the bunny gets it!" from John Malkovich. The cast of character convicts makes 'Con Air', with Danny Trejo as Johnny 23 and Steve Buscemi as "The Marietta Mangler" who seems to be the only character fully aware he's in a movie. Throw in LeAnn Rimes' belter of a track and you've got one of the best examples of a Bruckheimer blockbuster going.
90 'Hot Fuzz'
Edgar Wright's deep admiration for the action genre is crystallised into 'Hot Fuzz' from the opening beats. While it embraces the ridiculousness inherent in the genre, it's never being mean-spirited or churlish with it. Instead, it offers up a fun and inventive mixture of British comedy and Hong Kong-inspired action for one of Wright's finest works. Everybody and their mums are packing 'round here.
89 'The Seven-Ups'
'The Seven-Ups' belongs to that hallowed line of '70s cop actioners that reached its zenith with 'The French Connection'. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of shared DNA between the two movies, and not just with Roy Scheider appearing both. Legendary stunt driver Bill Hickman also worked on 'The Seven-Ups' and while it may not have a train chase, there's an extended ten-minute blast of tires through the movie that makes it worthy of inclusion not to mention a generous dollop of action-packed shootouts throughout the movie.
'Timecop' is a strange movie, though it's directed efficiently by Peter Hyams and Jean-Claude Van Damme gives the action sequences the pop and verve they need. What makes 'Timecop' so strange is that its concept and its story could have easily gone in another direction. With just a hint of a nudge in a different way, it could have ended up like some sort of noirish, Philip K. Dick inspired, melodrama. It's no wonder that screenwriter Mark Verheiden went on to work on 'Battlestar Galactica', often considered as one of the finest examples of high-brow sci-fi television. That aside, 'Timecop' stands as one of Van Damme's best movies and you've got the great Ron Silver in there mucking it up as the dastardly villain.
87 'Southern Comfort'
Walter Hill's stripped-back take on 'Deliverance' might have been overlooked by audiences on its release in 1981, but looking back, it's kind of crazy how it didn't become a bigger hit. For one, the ensemble cast was at the height of their powers - Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Brion James - but it also had Ry Cooder's moody soundtrack running right through it. As an example of a lean, mean action thriller, 'Southern Comfort' keeps it running and never lets up.
When people talk about revenge actioners, the line usually goes to either 'The Killer', 'John Wick' or maybe John Boorman's 'Point Blank'. Although it's firmly a blaxploitation movie, 'Coffy' deserves to be in the same conversation because from the very get-go, it's clearly a revenge actioner as well. Pam Grier exudes the kind of rage needed to sustain that kind of violence, and the blistering action carries through to the final credits. She literally shotguns a guy in the face in the opening scenes of the movie, so what more reason do you need?
85 'Tank Girl'
While it borrowed liberally from 'Mad Max', there's no denying that 'Tank Girl' was as unique in 1995 as it is now. A post-apocalyptic action-comedy that foists punk iconography together with underground comics, smashed together on screen and with a soundtrack assembled by Courtney Love, 'Tank Girl' wasn't perfect - but it was never really trying to be. It was authentic, riddled with sharp satire, and some gruesomely fun mayhem on top of it.
84 'The Mask of Zorro'
If ever there were two actors suited for a swashbuckler, it's Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas. Directed ably by Martin Campbell and with James Newton Howard's score, 'The Mask of Zorro' is a wildly entertaining spectacle of swordplay and sensuality. It's a perfectly pitched origin story, but it also acknowledges the history of Zorro in cinema as well. The stunts feel real and practical, and there's such a sense of joy from it all that you can't help but cheer along as Zorro flings himself across the screen.
83 'Battle of Britain'
Guy Hamilton's work in staging huge set-pieces served him well in the likes of 'Goldfinger' and would be put to their full use in 'Battle of Britain', a glorious war epic that has all the subtlety of a Stuka dive-bomb. The all-star cast - including Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, Christopher Plummer and Laurence Olivier - all adds an air of gravitas to the proceedings, but it's the use of real-life, surviving World War II fighter planes that makes 'Battle of Britain' that bit more. It's no wonder Christopher Nolan used it as a blueprint for 'Dunkirk', but laced it with dread and tension instead.
Wesley Snipes' bona fides as an action star began with the likes of 'Passenger 57', 'Demolition Man' and 'Drop Zone', but it was in 'Blade' that truly solidified and defined his career. Technically, yes, we're breaking our earlier stated rule about excluding Marvel comic-book movies, but the fact is that 'Blade' is rarely included in discussions about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it's easy to see why. It's far more twisted, weirder and more bloody than any of them. Not only that, the very idea of making a Marvel movie about vampires and having a black actor lead the thing wouldn't happen in the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe.
81 'Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade'
'Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade' follows a similar trajectory of another '80s / '90s action trilogy, 'Die Hard'. The first of the trilogy is considered the best and is itself a modern classic. The second has its fans, but it's generally regarded as an inferior effort. The third, however, saves it from obscurity and not only that, wrestles with its own legacy. In 'Die Hard With A Vengeance', it was Jeremy Irons as the on-screen brother to Alan Rickman. With 'The Last Crusade', you had the excellently-cast Sean Connery as Dr. Henry Jones, Sr. bouncing off Harrison Ford. Their chemistry was instantaneous, and like so much of what made the trilogy great was its inclusion of real, practical effects. While that's considered as a stylistic choice nowadays, it was merely an occupational reality then. It also goes to why 'Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull' felt so soulless by comparison.