The 100 Greatest Action Movies Ever Made, Part III

The 100 Greatest Action Movies Ever Made, Part III

If you're just now reading our series this week of action movies and are wondering why there's been some omissions, here's an explanation of the criteria for why we've left out certain movies.

For this series of articles, we have specifically EXCLUDED comic-book franchise movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Expanded Universe. While they are action movies, they're that plentiful that they'd take up basically an entire section of this list.

As previously discussed, we excluded certain sci-fi action movies, action comedies, and action horrors and, of course, we've left Bond out from the series entirely. You can read back over the previous entries to find out our reasoning. We did, however, include one or two movies from a certain Tom Cruise-starring action franchise, the same with one that's led by Vin Diesel and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson.

A quick note on crime movies. We've included a few already, and while some might brush up against thriller as opposed to action, the ones we've chosen are - in our opinion, and we think you'll agree - definitely action-packed. Hence, why they're in there. We have, however, left out a couple of classics of the crime genre.

Michael Mann's 'Heat' doesn't feature anywhere on the list. Yes, it features one of the finest shoot-outs ever put on screen. Yet, it only makes up roughly 10 to 15 minutes of a movie that's nearly three hours long. It's more closer to a crime / heist movie than an action movie. 'Collateral', again from Michael Mann, also doesn't feature.

Again, there's only one real shoot-out - the nightclub scene - so it doesn't meet the criteria. If we were making a 100-strong list of crime movies, 'Heat' would probably be in the top 5, maybe even right at the top.

With that all cleared up, here's the next 20 of the 100 greatest action movies ever made.


60 'The Taking Of Pelham 123'

'The Taking Of Pelham 123' is by no means what one call a conventional action movie by today's standards. For one, nobody could think of Walter Matthau as a convincing action lead. Secondly, setting the action entirely in a hijacked subway car is not a recipe for high-octane action. In 1974, it wasn't even a conventional action movie then. Yet, when you watch it back, it's so clear how it has inspired and influenced countless directors and action movies. The colour-coded robbers? 'Reservoir Dogs'.  A quick-witted, smart-talking New York cop trying to deal with a fiendishly clever hostage-taker? 'Die Hard'. Sure, it might not spark off in extended gun fights and it doesn't come with a gigantic bodycount, but 'The Taking Of Pelham 123' is indisputably action-packed from start to finish. Just never mention Tony Scott's remake.

The driver / motorman of the Pelham 123 train is James Broderick, the father of Matthew Broderick.



59 'Minority Report'

Steven Spielberg, when he deigns to make it happen, can direct the hell out of an action sequence. Look at 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', 'Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade', even 'Jaws' and its final battle with the shark is cut and shot like an honest-to-goodness fight scene. 'Minority Report' proves that, even if you bring then cutting-edge CGI and a vaguely comprehensible story, the sharp, focused direction is still there. Whether it's the opening chase through suburban Boston or the Lexus factory fight sequence, Spielberg is able to craft these moments together in one endless chase through a future that is dystopian both in a larger sense and for Tom Cruise's haunted police officer.


58 'The Italian Job'

Again, like 'The Taking Of Pelham 123', it's best to simply ignore the remake and focus on the original. Like the Mini itself, 'The Italian Job' was cheeky, small but tightly-made, and could be flung around the place and still hold together. The use of noted stunt driver Remy Julienne made for some of the most spectacular car-based action sequences of its time. Flying across the roofs of Turin and zooming down subway streets, 'The Italian Job' - though influential in itself - took huge inspiration from silent-era movie chases with its slapstick sensibility.

Michael Caine famously did not know how to drive during production, and the wife of stunt driver Remy Julienne doubled for Caine in the wide-angle shots. Michael only learned how to drive at the age of 50.


57 'Taken'

Although it sparked off two horrendously thought-out sequels, 'Taken' did manage to convince the world that Liam Neeson was actually capable of playing a scary, angry man who breaks people's necks at the drop of a hat. Ably directed by Pierre Morel, Luc Besson's almost intentionally ridiculous script has Neeson playing an everyday father who just so happens to have a particular set of skills that sees him murdering Albanians left, right and centre for the guts of two hours. It's not pretty, it's not necessarily well-made, but it cannot be denied that 'Taken' is a gruesomely entertaining movie.


56 'Oldboy'

While 'Oldboy' is often remembered for its shocking twist, there is another scene that stands out when the movie is mentioned - namely, the extended corridor fight. Shot over three days and seventeen takes, the brutal and uninterrupted battle goes on for just under four minutes. Some people have compared it to videogames, particularly side-scrolling beat 'em ups, but there's so much more going on than just that. 'Oldboy', beyond this one scene, is about a person so broken and how tragic it all is. Indeed, Park-chan wook specifically referenced 'Oedipus the King' when writing 'Oldboy'.


55 'Shogun Assassin'

Although most people would more likely associate 'Shogun Assassin' with Quentin Tarantino or Wu-Tang, the movie itself is a thrilling, weird and poetic vision of violence in medieval Japan. While some of it may not have translated fully from the Japanese audience it was intended, 'Shogun Assassin' still works as an enjoyable and compelling piece of Asian action cinema. Moreover, the fact that it was cobbled together from two different movies is like a good example of how Western audiences often prefer more simplified stories rather than lyrical extravagance.

The GZA heavily referenced and sampled scenes and dialogue from Shogun Assassin on his second solo album, Liquid Swords.


54 'The Warriors'

Walter Hill doesn't always get the credit he deserves, and 'The Warriors' is probably one of the most egregious examples of a movie that never got its due. Bathed in street lights and shadows, it's an uncompromising vision of New York pulled straight from comic books, with gangs taking on the form of battling superheroes. The script, co-written by Hill and David Shaber, borrows liberally from Greek myth - not unlike 'Oldboy' - and sees baseball fights in the middle of Central Park, glittering synth over the detritus of a city, and '80s mainstay David Patrick Kelly.


53 'La Femme Nikita'

Luc Besson's action movies in recent years have, to be fair, lost some of their luster. Although the likes of 'Lucy' and 'Anna' have their moments, it's never quite as powerful because he's simply retreading the ground he laid down in the likes of 'La Femme Nikita' and, later, with 'Leon'. While it's clear that he's working with a simple idea, there's still some of the flourish and flair that's made him so effective a director - particularly the restaurant kitchen shootout, which plays it close to something like John Woo.


52 'Total Recall'

It's fascinating to chart Paul Verhoeven's career. In his native Netherlands, Verheoven's early work included the likes of 'Turkish Delight' and 'Soldier of Orange', real prestige dramas that had true emotional depth. Yet, when he came to the US, he made movies like 'Total Recall', 'Robocop' and 'Starship Troopers'. Yet, what makes these movies so good is that Verhoeven never once lost his edge and was, in fact, commenting on what he saw in America. 'Robocop', for example, was about American corporate culture. 'Starship Troopers' was about fascism. 'Total Recall', however, was about the inherent fantasy in American society. It starts off like some weird satire, before it goes straight into outright crazy action with near-slapstick sensibility. Where else would you see someone get killed by an elevator?

Despite it being one of the first movies to use CGI, the X-ray scanner scene was actually drawn by hand as the software at the time was not capable of what the scene called for.



51 'The Bourne Identity'

Although Doug Liman's direction in 'The Bourne Identity' helped to set the tone and feel for what came after, there's no denying that it's definitely the weakest of the three. That being said, the manner in which Matt Damon applies himself to the role is incredible. There's a real sense that Damon inherently understands the character, and while this was all more finely tuned in the likes of 'The Bourne Supremacy' and 'The Bourne Ultimatum', it's beginning to take shape here. Also, 'The Italian Job'-referencing car chase through Paris is a great example of music driving a scene - no pun intended.


50 'Highlander'

For the same reasons that most people will hate 'Highlander' is the same reason people will love 'Highlander'. It's loud, kind of stupid, has an incredible complicated backstory that can be easily ignored, and it features Sean Connery with a silly accent. But, you've also got a soundtrack by Queen, some great fight choreography and a general willingness to enjoy itself. That it somehow spawned an entire media franchise is incredible, but the original remains the best - and, as 'Highlander' coined, there can be only one.


49 'Backdraft'

On the surface, 'Backdraft' could be described as doing for firefighters what 'Top Gun' did for fighter pilots. It's a bombastic, flag-saluting epic of hardened men in hard situations, making the best of it and having each other's backs. But underneath it, you've got some really terrific performances. Robert De Niro gives an intriguing performance as Donald 'The Shadow' Rimgale, an arson investigator who's just a little bit too close to the flames. Kurt Russell and Billy Baldwin, meanwhile, bounce off each other beautifully, but it's Ron Howard's direction that makes it. The fire scenes are wonderfully shot, but also the stunt work as well.

Kurt Russell, along with William Baldwin, Scott Glenn and Kevin Casey performed their own stunts throughout the movie. Not only that, all of the firefighter extras in the movie were real-life Chicagoan firefighters.



48 'Equilibrium'

The premise is simple - George Orwell's '1984' by way of over-the-top action cinema. Christian Bale is able to flatten himself out entirely, but the snappy, incredibly staged action sequences and the ludicruous 'gun-kata' moments are what makes 'Equilibrium' truly special. Kurt Wimmer, directing his first film (he was fired from a previous one), works with a tight budget and keeps the story moving with a sense of simplicity.


47 'Mission: Impossible 3'

After Brian DePalma's twist-heavy opening movement, and John Woo's misfire in the second, it was JJ Abrams who managed to right the ship with 'Mission: Impossible 3' and essentially defined it up until Christopher McQuarrie got his hands on it. All the familiar notes are there, from a face-mask rip, Tom Cruise running at full tilt, and even some intriguing digs at American foreign policy. Philip Seymour Hoffman, however, steals each and every scene he's in as the slimy arms dealer, Owen Davian. The 'count to ten' scene is a masterclass in creating tension with acting and nothing else.


46 'Beverly Hills Cop'

Martin Brest may have disappeared into the ether following 'Gigli' and 'Meet Joe Black', but back when he was in his prime, he was one of the best directors of action comedies. In fact, in three movies, he pretty much defined the genre. One was 'Going In Style', a late '70s caper. The others were 'Midnight Run' and 'Beverly Hills Cop'. Eddie Murphy, hot off the heels of the success of '48 Hrs.' and 'Trading Places', is on fire as Axel Foley and helped to define his acting career. That most, if not all of his scenes were improvised on the spot by him, is a testament to his genius, but it's more than that. 'Beverly Hills Cop' slyly plays with class struggle in America - Murphy, a simple cop from working-class Detroit, manages to easily and contemptuously beat the elites of Beverly Hills with nothing but his wits and his charm.


45 'Inception'

Does 'Inception' deserve to be higher on this list? Well, it depends. Is it a straight-up action movie? Some might argue that point. For one, it has the high-concept premise of a science-fiction movie, but the emotional weight of a romantic drama about guilt in a failed relationship. Yet, throughout it, there's inspirations from the likes of Bond, 'Blade Runner', and even Christopher Nolan's own work. Tying it altogether, however, is the action beats. From the footchase through Mombasa to the Bond-style finale in a hidden mountain base (that's actually in Cillian Murphy's brain), 'Inception' was a hodge-podge of ideas rolled into one sharply executed blockbuster.


44 'Rambo: First Blood, Part II'

If 'First Blood' could be considered as a treatise on PTSD and America's treatment of returning soldiers from Vietnam, 'Rambo: First Blood, Part II' is what happens when you mainline adrenaline and try to keep those plates spinning. Any of the subtlety that existed in 'First Blood' is gone, with some ludicrous firepower replacing it instead. That 'Hot Shots: Part Deux' was able to parody it so easily speaks to all this, but if you can ignore the ridiculousness of it, it's still a very well-directed action movie with Stallone as intense as he's ever been.

Despite its decidedly anti-government stance, then-US President Ronald Reagan was a great admirer of the movie and had it screened at the White House.



43 'Fast and Furious 7'

In no other action movie or franchise, for that matter, would you be able to have a scene where a supercar is driven out of one skyscraper window - only for it to land in another, just before Jason Statham tried to blow the same supercar up with a grenade launcher. That's the kind of ridiculousness at the heart of 'Fast and Furious 7', and while it so clearly flaunts the laws of physics, science and velocity, it's all so stupid that you can't help but enjoy it gleefully.


42 'Fast Five'

It really does speak to the malleability of the 'Fast and Furious' franchise that it shifted from being about street-racers to it being about spies, mercenaries and heists - and nobody battled an eyelid. In fact, it was the best decision that could have been made because, quite frankly, the whole thing was beginning to run out of fuel. Bringing in Dwayne Johnson - who's now getting his own spin-off with Jason Statham - was an equally inspired move, but it's Justin Lin's complete disregard for the laws of physics that elevates it so much.


41 'Big Trouble In Little China'

Although John Carpenter is primarily associated with horrors like 'Halloween', 'The Thing', his more action-orientated work is definitely worth a look. Although the likes of 'Escape From New York' and 'Assault On Precinct 13' tend to be cited as his best examples, 'Big Trouble In Little China' deserves equal billing. It's basically a screwball comedy with martial arts draped across the top, but it's Kurt Russell who makes it as all flow together with the big, dumb bravura act as the fish-out-of-water Jack Burton.


For Part IV, click here.