The 100 Greatest Action Movies Ever Made, Part IV
As we have throughout this feature series, we open with our customary explanation on what defines and doesn't define an action movie.
As already explained in the previous articles, we've specifically excluded a number of movies that you might be expecting. The likes of 'Alien', for example, doesn't feature. 'Aliens', however, does. Westerns, likewise, have been excluded - with one exception. More on that later.
We excluded every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, as well as every DC movie - with the exception of 'Blade', which was an aberration in comic-book movies, because of just how violent and messed up it was.
War movies, as previously discussed, were taken on a case-by-case basis. For example, 'Saving Private Ryan' was left out of the series, but 'Black Hawk Down' features in this particular list. It's a question of tone, much the same with action horrors.
With that all cleared up, here's the next 20 of the 100 greatest action movies ever made.
40 'Die Hard 2: Die Harder'
How can the same s**t happen to the same guy twice? If it's John McClane, it can happen three more times. While jettisoning some of the original's subtlety in favour of more explosions, more one-liners and more madness, 'Die Hard 2' still stands far beyond 'Die Hard 4.0' and 'A Good Day To Die Hard'. William Sadler was brutally effective as the traitor Colonel Stuart, but you also had Dennis Franz in there as well as the angry-as-hell airport police chief who butted against McClane at every available opportunity. By no means the best of the franchise, 'Die Hard 2' has its moments - particularly the satisfyingly ridiculous fight on the side of an airplane as it's about to take off.
It will remain one of the great injustices of modern action cinema that 'Dredd' never got the credit it deserved. Karl Urban was perfectly suited to play Judge Dredd, but it was the direction of Pete Travis (or was it Alex Garland?) and Alex Garland's punchy, direct script that really made it all work together. Boiling it down to one episode - a training day, no less - the outside world is only referenced elliptically and doesn't really feature into the action all that much. Drawing on the likes of John Carpenter's 'Assault on Precinct 13' and 'Dirty Harry', 'Dredd' is an example of finely-tuned sci-fi action.
38 'Black Hawk Down'
The French director Francois Truffuat famously argued that there was no such thing as anti-war movie, because by putting it on screen, you are giving the essence of excitement. This is something that's not necessarily true, because you can look at something like Elem Klimov's 'Come and See' and know that an anti-war movie can be done, and can be effective in showing the horrors of it all. 'Black Hawk Down', however, doesn't have this problem. It is a war movie, yes, and it brushes up against the horrors of war, but it's not in the same vein as 'Saving Private Ryan'. Sure, there's an ensemble cast, you have battles and explosions, and it's about getting wounded soldiers out.
The difference between 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Black Hawk Down' is that Ridley Scott perfectly captures the action and adrenaline. The soldiers in 'Black Hawk Down', for better or worse, are feeding off it and pushing themselves on. 'Saving Private Ryan', meanwhile, shows them more as vulnerable human beings. It's more effective for what Spielberg is trying to get across, but it can't be compared to 'Black Hawk Down'. Scott's vision of the soldiers is that, though they may be human, they're highly-trained warriors engaged in a pitched battle. It's probably why the likes of Joss Whedon cites 'Black Hawk Down' as an example of some of the best battle sequences since 'Apocalypse Now'.
37 'Die Hard With A Vengeance'
Say what you like about 'Die Hard With A Vengeance', but the fact is that as threequels go, it's up there with some of the best. Taking McClane out of an enclosed space and putting him across the city of New York might seem like a natural progression, but it's teaming him up with Samuel L. Jackson's "ZEUS!" that gives it the edge. The chemistry and banter between them is infectious and has you wondering why they didn't simply skip over 'Die Hard 2: Die Harder' and just go straight to this.
On top of that, Jeremy Irons is perfectly cast as Simon Gruber, Hans' kid brother, who uses the very obvious motive of revenge to carry off a completely bat-sh*t heist, all with the help of Santa Claus himself. You can tell that Willis, even though it's his third outing, is enjoying it more than he's ever done, and with John McTiernan directing with a confident hand, it works beautifully. Above all that, however, is New York - which, cliched as it is, is just as much a character in the movie as anything else. McClane hurtling a yellow cab through Central Park, trying to jump on the back of a subway, it's all there.
36 'Leon: The Professional'
Compared to Besson's other works, 'Leon: The Professional' is easily up there as his best and most effective. While the relationship between Portman's character and Reno's is definitely suspect, the script and the acting from both gives it a sense of character. When the action kicks off, you care what happens to them both. Gary Oldman's deranged DEA agent, Norman Stansfield, is easily the best thing about 'Leon: The Professional', screaming his way through every scene with a glee that's reserved for villains only.
It might be a little dismissive to refer to 'Predator' as just "Aliens In The Jungle", but you can see there's definitely a shared DNA. For example, 'Predator' and 'Aliens' are both fundamentally the same story - muscle-bound, near-impervious soldiers battle an alien lifeform that has a tactical advantage that can't be defeated with brute strength. For James Cameron, it was a commentary on the Vietnam War. 'Predator', on the other hand, doesn't really have much of that subtext. Instead, it's simply a technical exercise. John McTiernan's bona fides as an action director can be stated again and again, but 'Predator' is up there with 'Die Hard' and 'Die Hard With A Vengeance'.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is at the heights of his powers, leading a squad of equally muscle-bound monsters into the jungle. You've got ex-WWF wrestler Jesse 'The Body' Ventura, who has a giant minigun called 'Old Painless'. Sonny Landham, who had to have a bodyguard with him at all times to STOP him getting into fights. Carl Weathers, hot off his turn as Apollo Creed in 'Rocky IV' and taking part in the most well-known handshake in cinema history. Shane Black, who was basically handed a role in the team just so he could do on-set rewrites. Bill Duke, Sven-Ole Thorsen, they're all there, but it's the Predator that stands over all, with its horrifying gurgles and array of methods to skin people alive.
34 'Train To Busan'
While 'Train To Busan' is sometimes described as a horror movie or a zombie movie, it's far more accurate to describe it as an action movie with horror and zombie elements. Tightly knitted together on a train in South Korea during a zombie outbreak, 'Train To Busan' rips through its runtime with pulse-pounding setpieces and blood-soaked satire about class warfare in South Korea. It's not subtle about any of these things, and some of it may get lost on Western audiences, but the sharp sense of style and speed keeps it rolling on to its incredible climax. Be thankful it's hasn't got an American remake yet.
33 'The Getaway'
Sam Peckinpah is known for his unabashed sense of chaos in his movies, and 'The Getaway' is up there as possibly his most violent movie. Casting Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw as two Bonnie and Clyde-esque criminals on the run after a bank job goes awry, Peckinpah utilised their dynamic together to create something really electric and compelling. The shootout in the hotel, however, is something else. It's loud, crazed, but at no point do you ever lose sense of what's going on. The geography of the action is intact as it gets progressively violent, and the absence of any kind of music in it just ratchets the tension up even more.
32 'The Wild Bunch'
When we sat down to write this entire series, we toyed with the idea of potentially excluding Westerns - merely because they fell into their own genre. Yes, 'The Wild Bunch' is a Western, but there is undoubtedly no denying that it is an action movie before the genre itself existed. In fact, Sam Peckinpah - between this, 'The Getaway' and 'The Killer Elite' (which doesn't feature in this series) - pretty much defined the action genre.
The use of fast editing, slow-motion carnage, sound design and the sheer carnage on screen was unheard for 1969, but Peckinpah's belief was that the violence was allegorical to the Vietnam War. Moreover, the intent was to show just how lawless, violent and truly horrifying the violence was in the Old West, rebelling against the bloodless action of TV Westerns that were so common then. To this day, it's still a truly intense watch.
31 'Lethal Weapon 2'
Richard Donner's experience with action dates back to his early days as a TV director, working on the likes of 'Have Gun Will Travel', 'The Fugitive' and 'Danger Island', but in 'Lethal Weapon' and 'Lethal Weapon 2', he demonstrated not only his affinity for it, but his use of comedy to temper it and give it a grounding. By far, 'Lethal Weapon 2' is the funniest of the four movies and much of that is down to Joe Pesci as Leo Getz. Playing a fast-talking, foul-mouthed star witness, it played off wonderfully with Gibson and Glover's established routine from the first one.
30 'Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation'
Compared to say, 'Mission: Impossible 3' or even the first and second one, 'Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation' was clearly and confidently moving into maturity and that's thanks to none other than Christopher McQuarrie. Marrying increasingly dangerous stunts - TOM CRUISE WAS LITERALLY STRAPPED TO THE SIDE OF A PLANE, PEOPLE - and a more streamlined story that borrowed from the show's own mythology, 'Rogue Nation' kept the story simple and the action intense. It worked, as 'Rogue Nation' can easily rank itself as having some of the best action sequences of this decade.
29 'The Killer'
As much as 'The Matrix' borrowed (or stole, depending on how you look at it) from the likes of 'Ghost in the Shell', it also took liberal swathes from John Woo's filmography. 'Hard-Boiled' and 'The Killer' were heavily referenced throughout the trilogy, but none of them came close to capturing the same vitality and madness of their originals. By the same token, you could argue that 'The Killer' was itself taking cues from Sam Peckinpah, what with its ridiculous bodycount, use of slow-motion footage, and the endless shootouts as well.
28 'True Lies'
How can you hope to describe 'True Lies' and keep a straight face? Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a computer sales agent who, in fact, is a super agent working for Omega Sector, a clandestine agency in the US. His wife, Jamie Lee Curtis, is seduced by a car salesman who pretends to be a super agent. Although it's a remake of French comedy 'La Totale!', 'True Lies' manages to blend action and humour together seamlessly - something you wouldn't expect from either James Cameron or Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Moreover, the use of humour in the action makes it all the more fun. Whether it's racing a horse through a hotel, a SWAT team destroying Bill Paxton's caravan, or Arnold Schwarzenegger killing the villain with a Harrier jump-jet missile, the humour informs the action in a way that's often overlooked in other action comedies.
27 'Mad Max'
As has been the hallmark of all the 'Mad Max' movies - with the exception of 'Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome' - George Miller's template has been that, when you boil it right down, they're silent movies. The inherent idea is that if you watch the movie without sound, without dialogue, you'll still be able to follow the action and get what's going on - just like silent movies. 'Mad Max' is the first iteration of this idea, and while it doesn't have the same level of panache that 'Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior' has, it's still got a crazed, punk edge to it that makes it effective.
Borne out of Miller's experiences working as a emergency room doctor, the violence and the sheer bloody chaos of it all prompted a revolution in Australian cinema. That it was made on a budget of just AUS$ 350,000 - that's about €220,000 - and managed to pull off some truly insane stunts isn't the only reason to love 'Mad Max'. It's wild and unhinged, yet solidly made - just like the V8 Interceptor.
26 'Bad Boys'
Michael Bay's career as a video director has served him well, primarily because he often displays a willingness to go for the most bombastic obvious route in any scene rather than attempt some kind of semblance or nuance or subtlety. In every movie he does, it's so plainly apparent that he's behind the camera, orchestrating the madness. In the same way that people stoop and bow to the likes of Wes Anderson, Stanley Kubrick or any 'visionary' director, the same can be said of Michael Bay.
He knows how to make only one kind of movie - a Michael Bay movie. 'Bad Boys' is the quintessence of a Michael Bay movie. It's loud, it's impressively action-packed, it's funny, and it straddles the line between ridiculousness and awesome at every possible moment. Will Smith running shirtless through Miami? A car chase on airport landing strip? Product placements everywhere? It's a Michael Bay movie, and nothing else.
25 'Point Break'
Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze paired off against one another, one as an FBI agent, the other as a bank-robbing surfer king. The '90s had some wild concepts and 'Point Break' was one of the best. Yet, for all the tubular and decade-specific trappings of 'Point Break', there is a tightly-shot action movie on show that marks out Kathryn Bigelow as having an innate understanding of what creates tension.
The breathless foot-chase is a perfect example of this, even when everything is on the move, you're still on the edge of your seat. When the action shifts to the bank robberies, it's lain out in such a confident manner that you'd think Bigelow has been directing action all her life. That she hasn't returned to the genre probably speaks to her utter command of it.
24 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'
Ang Lee's sumptuous, gorgeously-realised adaptation of the wuxia novel of the same name stands easily as his most recognised work. By his own description, 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' is 'Sense & Sensibility' with martial arts, and that's accurate. It has the same depth of feeling and romance to it, but the martial arts is top-notch.
Utilising famed choreogrpaher Yuen Woo-Ping for the action choreography, Ang Lee was able to craft together these two warring elements - melodrama and action - into a truly poetic, haunting masterpiece. Chow Yun-Fat's performance as Li Mu Bai is both energetic and, at the same time, understated and measured. Lee's script plays with gender roles, family, the notion of duty and desire - all with some of the best martial arts sequences ever put on screen.
23 'The Bourne Supremacy'
When we look at 'shaky-cam' sequences nowadays, it's almost always as a result of restrictions. An actor isn't able to complete the sequence because of the constraints of their skill, or they need to mask the fact that it's a stunt double. In other cases, it's trying to hide the limitations of the movie, where the kinetic feel is really just hiding a weak story and a failure to properly map out of a scene.
'The Bourne Supremacy' was one of the first movies to use the 'shaky-cam' movement, but the difference between this and poorly-directed offerings is that you can see so clearly that it's being used with skill. Matt Damon's dialogue is scaled back and the shocking opening scene in Goa really does come out of nowhere. On top of that, pairing Damon off against Karl Urban - who really doesn't get enough credit for his performance - gave the movie a sense of threat that the previous movie didn't.
22 'Lethal Weapon'
Contemporary reviews of 'Lethal Weapon' describe it - derisively, it must be said - as 'Mad Max' meets 'The Cosby Show', as it blends good-natured humour and rip-roaring action together in the same breath. While the second movie might have been funnier, 'Lethal Weapon' feels a lot more balanced. The final fight at Murtaugh's house, for example, was choreographed by legendary stuntman Bobby Bass.
Gibson received fight training for that scene by UFC co-founder Rorion Gracie, as well. Beyond that, the kind of tropes we find in action movies nowadays - fights in the rain, helicopters overhead, old cop too old for this shit - that all began with 'Lethal Weapon'.
21 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'
When we talk about action-adventures, you're really just talking about one movie, and its sequels - Indiana Jones, and 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'. The intent of George Lucas was to recreate the film serials of the '40s with then-modern techniques, and it worked. 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' is replete with that pulpy, broad sensibility and Harrison Ford's squared-jawed performance matches it perfectly. Having him hurtling across the screen, dodging Nazis and poison darts at every turn, not to mention battling an evil Belgian archaeologist, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' is every bit the Saturday morning matinee hit as it was in 1980 as it is today.