The 100 Greatest Action Movies Ever Made, Part V
If you've been following along in our series this week, you'll know that we've made a couple of exclusions.
For example, we specifically excluded every movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every movie of the DC Expanded Universe and we excluded Christopher Nolan's 'Dark Knight' trilogy as well. We did, however, include one single comic-book movie - and that was 'Blade', and we feel pretty comfortable with that decision.
Action, as a genre, is almost always pared up with some other genre to give it a balance. There's action comedy, action sci-fi, action adventure, there's even historical action like 'The Wild Bunch'. It's a malleable thing, and what can be defined as an action movie is a tricky thing.
Throughout this series, we've tried - whenever possible - to keep it movies that featured more action than any other genre, but also which we deemed the best of the very best. With our final entry in the series, we've distilled it down.
Here's our final tally of the best action movies ever made.
Beyond the parodies from 'Father Ted' or glancing references in the likes of 'The Simpsons', what all of these highlight is just how smart the idea is that it can be distilled into one sentence - a bus that can't slow down or it'll blow up. Jan De Bont's history as a cinematographer provided him with an innate understanding of how to keep the story moving without ever losing sight of where everyone was. Joss Whedon's whip-smart dialogue provides endless one-liners galore to Keanu Reeves in deep '90s action mode, who is himself paired up beautifully with a gleefully villainous Dennis Hopper and - of course - Sandra Bullock in her star-making role. Deceptively simple in its story, 'Speed' is laced with sharply designed action and some raucous performances.
19 'The Fugitive'
Based on the '60s TV serial of the same name, Harrison Ford and director Andrew Davis take a relatively straightforward concept and turn it into an almost gothic manhunt story that features one of Harrison Ford's most exciting action performances outside of the likes of 'Blade Runner' and Indiana Jones. Tommy Lee Jones hams it up as US Marshal Gerard (and even won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his troubles), but it's in how Davis paces and edits the movie that makes it all so compelling. The dialogue is minimal from Ford, only serving the most necessary beats of his story, whilst Tommy Lee Jones gets the bigger, splashier scenes - especially the manhunt instructions bit. "Your fugitive's name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get him." Boom, you're off and running.
When discussing the Special Edition of 'Aliens', James Cameron described the movie as "40 miles of bad road," and it really is. Where 'Alien' was the pinnacle of sci-fi horror, 'Aliens' smartly understands that it can't very well replicate it. No doubt people watching 'Alien' in 1979 would have simply thought that superior firepower would have easily taken out the alien - and that's exactly what 'Aliens' sets out to disprove. The imagery of gun-toting, cigar-chomping soldiers sent down to some sh*t-hole to exterminate the locals eerily draws on post-Vietnam War attitudes, but it's Sigournery Weaver's vital, bug-eyed performance as Ripley that takes it to a whole new level.
Wherein the first movie there was a certain amount of pragmatism in her performance - that she was simply the last survivor and trying to survive - 'Aliens' sees her in full-blown, tiger mother mode, ready to torch the alien eggs to defend her adopted daughter, Newt. Hell, the final fight actually passes the Bechdel test.
17 'Midnight Run'
Although we typically associate Robert DeNiro and comedy with efforts like 'Analyze This', 'Meet The Parents' or even the low-rent stuff like 'Dirty Grandpa', his finest comedic work is 'Midnight Run'. Directed by Martin Brest and playing a down-at-luck bounty hunter, the central dynamic between him and his quarry Charles Grodin is a comedy two-hander for the ages. It's loud, it's messy, and it's the kind of improvised and off-the-cuff humour that takes an incredible amount of skill and looks almost effortless to do.
The real scene stealer in 'Midnight Run', however, is Dennis Farina as Jimmy Serrano. There's so many of his lines and moments throughout the movie that are instantly quotable, but it's in how Farina delivers them - with the kind of deadpan delivery that can't be taught - that makes them so much more. On top of that, director Martin Brest's command of the tone and blending the shootouts with the whip-smart dialogue makes for the finest example of action comedy there is, bar none.
16 'Kill Bill, Vol.1 and Vol.2'
Deliberately borrowing from the likes of 'Shogun Assassin', 'The Flower of Carnage', 'A Fistful of Dollars' and dozens more, 'Kill Bill' is Quentin Tarantino's post-modern ode to the eastern and western schools of action cinema - martial arts and samurai movies, and spaghetti westerns. Uma Thurman gives one of her career-defining performances as The Bride, the personification of vengeance, who moves through the comic-book style world of assassins and crime bosses with a razor-sharp blade and no compunctions about slicing people with it.
Utilsing the action and stunt choreography skills of Yuen Woo-ping and his stunt team, the blood-soaked battle at Oren Ishii's house in the first volume is among some of Tarantino's most thrilling scenes. While the second might have stripped back the outsized moments, there's no denying it still had a huge impact. The eye-catching fight (pun intended) between The Bride and Elle Driver inside a trailer is brutal, but it's in how Tarantino knits all these moments together that has it has among his best work.
15 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout'
As much as possible, we've tried to keep franchises off this list. The reason? In a nutshell, franchises tend to arc more towards a safer, more predictable route than individual movies. It's movie-making by way of Lego. Each has to fit into the other, which has to blend into the other, where you have the same characters moving in the same scenes so that it never becomes too distinct. 'Mission: Impossible', as a rule, has almost never adhered to this way of thinking. You can look at any one of them and they're all distinctly different, other than Tom Cruise's ageless face.
Where 'Mission: Impossible 3' was a blending of Brian DePalma's Hitchcockian-tinged paranoia and John Woo's bombast, 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' was boldly original. It stripped away the extraneous parts of the franchise, and focused in on the action and the tension. Christopher McQuarrie's ability to navigate action - by showing you all the moving parts and how they relate to the action - means that you're never once unsure of what's happening, or where your attention should be placed.
There's Tom Cruise's seemingly endless ability to throw himself out of anything - whether it's a moving train, a cargo plane, whatever - and dust himself off and continue running at full speed that sets 'Misison: Impossible - Fallout' as the best in the franchise.
14 'The French Connection'
The story behind 'The French Connection' and the much-mythologised car chase is almost as crazy as the movie itself. William Friedkin, known for taking some extreme steps to get the right shot, strapped a camera to the top of a car and took off after legendary stunt driver Bill Hickman who hauled ass through the streets of New York in the middle of the day - without stopping traffic or closing down streets.
In a way, that kind of manic storytelling feeds into 'The French Connection'. Gene Hackman's jittery, craggy-set Popeye Doyle is relentlessly chasing people across the bombed-out buildings and cavernous subways and it all feels real. Friedkin's history of documentary filmmaking meant that he had a sharp understanding of editing and rhythm - in fact, the opening beats of the train chase was cut to Santana's 'Black Magic Woman'.
But beyond that,'The French Connection' has that raw, rough-edged energy because it really was like that in New York in the '70s. Hackman, Roy Scheider, Friedkin - they weren't trying to replicate anything or make it seem like narcotics officers in the NYPD were that ornery and short-tempered - because they most likely were. This commitment to realism feeds into the action because when it hits, it feels real and more tense - and still does 48 years later.
13 'John Wick: Chapter 2'
There is no denying that 'John Wick' and its sequel have helped to reappraise action as a genre that's worthy of serious consideration, because it's elevating to an art form. Where 'John Wick' took inspiration from the likes of 'Point Blank', 'John Wick: Chapter 2' takes its cues from 'Hard Boiled' and Hong Kong action cinema. In fact, 'John Wick: Chapter 2' can easily stand alongside anything in the canon.
Like Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves willingly and ably hurls himself across the screen with an intensity, blasting through scenes with ease and never once losing the momentum as they do so. The fear with a sequel to 'John Wick' was that by expanding out from the original, it might lose some of its charm. Thankfully, this is skillfully navigated by keeping the action in context and never allowing the world-building to go beyond what services the story.
Refreshingly honest in its intent, 'John Wick: Chapter 2' does what few action movies can; making a sequel that can compliment the original without negating any of its impact.
12 'The Terminator'
That James Cameron turns up three times on this particular list - four times overall in the series - tells you how well he understands action directing. That 'The Terminator' took inspiration from John Carpenter's 'Halloween' isn't surprising, as both movies use the budgetary restrictions to work in their favour. With 'Halloween', it was the stripped-back thrills that gave the movie its best moments. With 'The Terminator', it's a little-known actor called Arnold Schwarzenegger.
His freakish size and strength aside, Schwarzenegger's dead-eyed performance and blank recitation of the lines fed into the performance in a way that no other actor could. In fact, there's precious few roles in modern action cinema where the role was tailored so perfectly to an actor like Schwarzenegger and 'The Terminator'. Linda Hamilton's damsel-in-distress routine might be somewhat dated, but when you consider what comes after, it makes sense and gives it context.
It might be somewhat dated in parts, especially the finale, but 'The Terminator' is a thrilling example of how a concept can make a movie as much as an actor can. In this case, both worked together.
11 'The Raid 2: Berendal'
Like 'John Wick: Chapter 2', 'The Raid 2: Berendal' offers up the kind of expansion on action and setting without minimising what came before. There's a bigger budget, which gives the action a wider scope to play with and more resources to use, but it never once loses any of its charm. Moreover, the choreography doesn't become reliant on bigger and splashier effects because, at the core of it, it doesn't need it all that much. It's just more ways to make it more exciting.
10 'The Matrix Reloaded'
Where 'The Matrix' had some semblance of trying to shift reality - or what we perceive as reality - 'The Matrix Reloaded' unleashed itself onto the world with the self-belief that it could make the most ridiculous of ideas seem plausible. A hundred Hugo Weavings fighting Keanu Reeves? Sure, why not. Laurence Fishburne fighting a guy on top of a moving truck with a samurai sword? Absolutely. Carrie-Anne Moss fighting two albino rastafarians on a motorcycle? Of course.
The title itself even feels extraneous, because it's not reloading, it's overloading. Any semblance of subtlety - and there was precious little of it in the original - is now gone, and what's left is some exquisitely staged, but fundamentally outrageous action. The sight of Keanu Reeves soaring through the air or Carrie-Anne Moss racing into oncoming traffic on a superbike is as potent as it was then in 2003 as it is now in 2019.
9 'Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior'
As much as any movie has defined a subgenre, 'Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior' has defined what the post-apocalypse world will look like. In short, lots of leather, lots of dust, warring tribes fighting one another for scraps and survival. Between all this, however, is the idea that humanity will somehow still have the means to create giant trucks and cars with spikes that will roam the wasteland, looking for battle.
While 'Mad Max' had a stripped-back sensibility, 'Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior' used the increased budget to become more ambitious. Mel Gibson's performance never goes above a grunt, but it doesn't really matter. It's George Miller, directing with a kind of madness to his thinking, that you're really there for. That this was made in 1981, with no CGI and no post-production after the fact, shows just how crazy Miller was. You can feel every scrape, every punch, every smash and know that it was all caught on camera as it happened.
That's why 'Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior' is still so effective to this day. It has that texture and impact that can't be faked and can't be copied.
8 'The Matrix'
That 'The Matrix' took so many components from so many disparate places - philosophy, science-fiction, martial arts, Sam Peckinpah action - and then threw it in a blender and what came out was one of the defining movies of the early twenty-first century is no small feat. In fact, on paper, none of it should have worked. Staffing themselves with the very best in stunt coordinators - including David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, who'd both go on to direct the likes 'John Wick' and 'Deadpool 2' - the Wachowskis set out to make the quintessential action movie of the early aughts.
You can't put black trenchcoats and sunglasses together without thinking of 'The Matrix', and while some of the dialogue might now seem heavily dated and fed into the general paranoia of Y2K, the action still stands up incredibly well.
7 'The Raid'
While 'The Raid 2: Berendal' had more of everything than 'The Raid', what it didn't have was both the economy and the cleanliness - if that's the right word. The elegance of it all meant that you didn't even really need to follow the subtitles in order to understand what was going on. Simply put, a SWAT team are sent in to clear out a building controlled by a ruthless crime boss, and soon find themselves cut off and desperate to survive.
Drawing heavily on martial arts classics like 'Game of Death' and the likes of 'Assault On Precinct 13', 'The Raid' pushes through with an intensity and velocity that's only matched by the violence and the insanity of it all. Iko Uwais gives a truly star-making performance as Rama, the idealistic rookie who has to lead the survivors of his team to safety before the bodycount gets any higher. It's not without its issues, particularly in the finale, but when you realise it was made on such a stringent budget and what they came back with speaks to how talented the cast and director are.
6 'Hard Boiled'
The uninterrupted, three-minute shootout in the hospital scene is up there as one of the most spectacular long takes in action cinema history. It gets even more unreal when you realise that every explosion was real and had to be timed, meaning that if a cue was missed or if a stunt player wasn't where they were supposed to be, the consequences could have ranged from having to reset the entire scene to someone being seriously injured.
That aside, the style and the spectacle of 'Hard Boiled' is matched only by the performances from Chow-Yun Fat and Tony Leung, who both give some of their most energetic portrayals of their career. The story itself is utterly bonkers, and considering how Woo initially intended the movie to be a stripped-back thriller is kind of funny when you watch it. That it's had such an impact on Woo's career and action cinema can't be denied. When you watch 'Hard Boiled', the influence it's had on Western action cinema becomes immediately apparent. This is the undistilled, purest version of it.
John Frankenheimer's early career, working on movies like 'Grand Prix' and the lesser-known 'French Connection II', served him well on 'Ronin'. Blending European arthouse sensibilities with broad action, 'Ronin' features some of the best car chases you're likely to see on screen and there's a reason for it. It's all real. Frankenheimer had a total of 300 stunt drivers on the final car chase, including Formula 1 driver Jean-Pierre Jarier and touring car drivers Michel Neugarten and Jean-Claude Lagniez. However, in order to ensure reality, Frankenheimer had the actors sit next to the drivers with a dummy steering wheel in front of them as they did their stunts, often driving the cars through the streets of Paris at over 100 miles an hour.
In turn, this means that when you watch Robert DeNiro looking like he's terrified as the car drives against traffic, it's because he really is driving against traffic. David Mamet's script strips everything back to the bare essentials, and we only need to know enough about the characters to give it a sense of time and place. That each of the characters - Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, Natasha McElhone - have these rich, past lives that we know almost nothing about speaks to both their abilities as actors and the richness of the script.
4 'John Wick'
We've previously opined about 'John Wick' and that its elegance comes from its simplicity and in how it executes that simplicity. There isn't an ounce of fat on 'John Wick', from the costume design right up to Keanu Reeves' economic use of dialogue. You can tell that directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have spent years in the business and have honed their craft to a point where the movie moves with a beauty and purpose that's unlike any other in modern action cinema.
As much as any movie on this list, 'John Wick' has made the case for stunt and action choreography as a category in the Academy Awards, and that the movie is spoken of in revered tones by those in the industry speaks to its essence of quality. That it's all set off by the murder of an innocent puppy dog immediately puts the audience in John Wick's mindset, and when he shoots, stabs and strangles his way to vengeance, it's done in such a satisfying way.
That it's expanded out from this might seem like the sequels are missing some of that elegance, but they've all kept the original's focus on strident adherence to action and a rejection of quick, easy cuts and masking of the essential action. That alone puts 'John Wick' as the premier action franchise of this decade.
3 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day'
There's a moment in 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' where the T-1000 chases Sarah Connor, John Connor and T-800 with a helicopter and flies it underneath a bridge in Los Angeles, hovering off the ground as it nears their truck by inches. The story is that James Cameron wanted the shot so desperately that he operated the camera himself as his operators had families. The scene only takes up maybe five, ten seconds of the entire chase - but it's that insistence on quality that sets 'Terminator 2: Judgement Day' apart from other action movies.
Beyond that, James Cameron's script gives 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' a real emotional heart to it. Linda Hamilton is equal parts warrior and mother, with both realities informing the other. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in what is easily the performance of his career, manages to display a small veneer of emotion and the ending, though it might seem makwish, absolutely resonates because the audience has gone on this incredible, action-packed journey - and that it has to end with such finality.
Robert Patrick is stunning as the T-1000, with his James Dean haircut and dead eyes sprinting after a car now reaching a kind of iconic status. Likewise, Edward Furlong's performance as the misguided, vulnerable John Connor gives it all a weight that is missing from most action movies. In fact, when you strip back the groundbreaking CGI, the insane stunts, the explosions, what 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' is really about is a mother and son reuniting after both suffering a trauma that separated them. That's the core of the movie, and that's why it stays with you long after the credits roll.
2 'Die Hard'
"Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs." As with some of the best lines in 'Die Hard', Bruce Willis ad-libbed it on set to give the character of John McClane a little texture. In the hands of any other actor, it's entirely possible that we wouldn't be talking about 'Die Hard'. Bruce Willis made 'Die Hard' what it was as much as Alan Rickman's delightfully villainous Euro-trash villain, as much as John McTiernan's direction or Michael Kamen's score.
It all marries together on screen with the kind of simpatico that comes but once in a generation. The premise is simple - resourceful, plucky cop in the right place at the wrong time - but it's how it's realised and how tightly this is adhered to that makes 'Die Hard' what it is. Do we need to know what kind of cop John McClane was before he got there? Not really. What does Hans Gruber want? Money, the same as everyone. How's he going to do it? Break open the safe, kill the hostages to cover his tracks.
That kind of discipline of storytelling might seem like it's easy, but ask any screenwriter and they'll tell you that it's not only difficult, but virtually impossible in an action movie. On top of that, the concept itself has become a blueprint for modern action. Movies are pitched off the back of it being 'Die Hard' and whatever the setting. The likes of 'Under Siege' and 'Speed' in this feature series are basically built out from that concept, with varying degrees of success.
Like the best action movies, we see that McClane isn't some muscle-bound freak of nature. He's injured, his shirt gets messy, he bleeds all over the place and he's only kept himself alive thanks to his wits and his cunning. He doesn't even have shoes, yet he's able to outsmart highly-trained, rigorously planned terrorists - and he deploys a jet-black humour when he does it. Who else would think of displaying a dead terrorist's body with a santa hat and a message?
That only two of the sequels ever reached the hallowed veil of the first speaks to how much 'Die Hard' was lightning trapped in a bottle. It couldn't be duplicated, and it never has.
1 'Mad Max: Fury Road'
After screening some of the footage for 'Mad Max: Fury Road' at SXSW Festival, director Robert Rodriguez - who did the likes of 'Desperado' and 'Planet Terror' - walked up to George Miller and asked, with all sincerity, "how the hell did you do that?!" There are that many moments in 'Mad Max: Fury Road' where the sheer level of madness on screen practically begs the question - how did anyone make this and nobody died while doing it?
George Miller conceived of the movie as being one, continuous chase and that's what it is - it's a chase across the desert, with almost no let-up. It's ballet and opera as action, with the kind of kineticism and movement you'd expect from the likes of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd silent-era movies. You can watch 'Mad Max: Fury Road' on silent, in fact, and it still makes completely sense. This, again, was an intentional choice by George Miller - who wanted the movie work just as well as any movie could without the need for dialogue.
What makes 'Mad Max: Fury Road' the greatest action movie ever made - in our opinion, anyway - is that you can take it on any level and it works completely on that level. You can take it as a display of the incredible technical prowess of George Miller and the legion of stunt coordinators, and it works as the best of that. You can also view it as an exercise in editing and kinetic, visual storytelling by marrying music and imagery without script. You can explore the feminist themes in 'Mad Max: Fury Road', and how it speaks to the nature of our world and how we view both women and our own environment. Eve Ensler, the playwright behind 'The Vagina Monologues', was on set and consulted George Miller on the script.
Again, you don't have to watch 'Mad Max: Fury Road' with that kind of depth or analysis - but it's there. It's there and that it sits above the kind of insane, crazed stunt work that is not only frightening to think how it was done, but even more frightening when you realise it was made almost no CGI. Throughout production, Miller only ever deployed CGI to paint the background or increase the scale of it. It's that emphasis on creating real, practical effects and action that gives 'Mad Max: Fury Road' the edge of every other action movie.
Look at the likes of 'Avengers: Endgame' or 'Man of Steel', or any kind of modern action movie you can think of. CGI is used liberally and when we watch it, we can often tell when and where it's being used. It makes sense. Actors are expensive, the kind of planning and rigorous preparation it takes to even get one kind of shot or explosion is too much for some directors to bear. 'Mad Max: Fury Road' is a movie made up of these shots.
It is action elevated to art.