You always know where you are with an action film. Line one up of an evening, and you can pretty much guarantee two hours (and preferably less) of mindless, popcorn munching, consequence-free cinematic violence.
Except for those action films that don’t quite meet that brief – the three hour crime epics, the ones that make you think, and the ones with (whisper it) artistic merit.
Yep, a good action movie can take you pretty much anywhere, just so long as it takes you on a funhouse ride of thrills, spills, and shootouts along the way.
Here are 20 of the best action movies of all time. Remember, we have only chosen 20 so we know you will have thoughts about what should be in the list. Add them to the comments below and vote for your faves...
Best action movies
1. Die Hard (1988)
No ‘best action movie’ list can be taken seriously without John McTiernan’s nigh-on flawless Die Hard hanging around somewhere near the top spot. It features a pitch-perfect mixture of mayhem and humour, an impeccable sense of pace, a script full of memorable one-liners, and a bad guy (played by the late Alan Rickman) who’s somehow just as charismatic as Bruce Willis’s hero.
Die Hard pretty much set the action movie template for the ’90s and beyond. It’s often been copied, arguably never equaled, and certainly never bettered.
2. Terminator 2 (1991)
The Terminator was an unexpected indie hit in 1984, making more than 12 times its tiny $6.4 million budget at the box office, and also making a star of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The success of film, star and director ensured that Terminator 2 would secure a much larger budget and a whole lot of hype.
Amazingly, Terminator 2 more than lived up to expectations. It’s one of the most lavish, ambitious, and influential action movies of all time, with a scale and dramatic weight that made a lot of other action movies of the time look like fluffy time wasters.
3. Aliens (1986)
Few expected James Cameron to follow up Ridley Scott’s impeccable sci-fi horror, Alien, with anything like the same level of success. So he wisely didn’t even try.
Instead, the future king of sci-fi action laid down a marker and made one of the finest sci-fi action films ever made. Aliens is a rare successful sequel because it ditches the original’s slow burn slasher movie vibe and replaces it with all-out carnage, as a crew of tooled-up marines takes on a whole hive of acid-bleeding xenomorphs.
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
When it arrived in 1981, the first Indiana Jones movie proved to be a breath of fresh air, harking back to a less cynical time of chiselled Hollywood heroes and dastardly villains. It helped launch Harrison Ford’s career into the stratosphere, and also resurrected the directing career of a floundering Steven Spielberg.
Beyond that’s it’s simply a really good action movie, packed full of memorable set pieces and charmingly broad characters. At the centre of it all is Ford’s Indiana Jones, cracking whips, socking Nazis, and spouting wisecracks with his signature rueful smile.
5. Predator (1987)
Just a year before making the definitive action movie in Die Hard, director John McTiernan made this brilliantly tense sci-fi. Like some unholy splice of Alien and Aliens, it sees a crack special forces team turning from hunters to hunted in a South American jungle.
The film is perhaps most notable for the unique design of it’s reptilian alien antagonist, which spends the first part of the film invisibly stalking our heroes, setting up a truly stupendous one-on-one showdown with Arnie himself.
6. The Matrix (1999)
Has any film had such a profound impact on the action genre as The Matrix since the turn of the millennium? We can’t think of one. The Wachowskis’ mind-bending production is as much a tribute to action cinema as it is a bold reinvention, however, evoking and directly emulating the Hong Kong action cinema of John Woo, among others.
Its reality-warping set pieces combine acrobatic kung fu wirework, cutting edge camera tricks (most notably ‘bullet time’), and cacophonous gunplay. It’s a singular achievement. The less said about the three sequels, the better.
7. The Bourne Identity (2002)
Doug Liman’s 2002 film didn’t just kick off a new action franchise – it influenced the way all action films would be shot for the next decade. Over in London, the producers of Casino Royale would be taking note for the Daniel Craig-led Bond reboot.
The Bourne Identity took much of the fantasy out of action cinema, drawing the audience down into its messy, hyper-violent fights and precarious car chases. Its tale of an amnesiac killer (played by Matt Damon) is sprinkled with deadly confrontations, all brought to a sickeningly improvised conclusion by our blank hero.
8. John Wick (2014)
Keanu Reeves proved himself to be the undisputed action king of the ’90s with hits such as Point Break, Speed, and The Matrix. John Wick showed that he wasn’t content to go quietly into middle age, kicking off a lucrative (and ongoing) action franchise built to showcase audaciously choreographed ‘gun fu’ fights.
The film is transparent, commedably so, about its intention to keep the talking to the minimum. Reeves plays a retired assassin who reholsters his twin-pistols to avenge his dead puppy. And… action!
9. First Blood (1982)
The name ‘Rambo’ became a byword for lunk-headed action in the late-’80s and early ’90s, largely thanks to the dumb-but-fun sequels of the time. But the original movie started things out on an altogether more thoughtful footing.
Sylvester Stallone plays the part of John Rambo, a PTSD-suffering Vietnam veteran who falls afoul of a group of thuggish small-town American cops. The body count is far lower than in those cartoonish sequels, but First Blood’s tense action sequences are way more consequential.
10. Heat (1996)
Michael Mann’s nearly-three-hour 1996 crime epic is known for bringing together two cinematic greats for the first time. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro chew all the scenery in a famous diner meeting between the two, as a super cop and a career bank robber head towards a seemingly inevitable confrontation.
It’s the film’s depiction of its central heist-gone-wrong that would prove to be the most impactful and influential, however. Mann gives us a protracted gun battle that tears through the busy streets of LA in deafening fashion.
11. Leon (1994)
Launched at a time when action movies were seen as guaranteed blockbusters, Luc Besson’s Leon (aka The Professional) brought a little European quirkiness to proceedings. It tells the tail of a reclusive hitman, played by Jean Reno, who comes to befriend a young girl (Nathalie Portman in her first major role) and train her up in his deadly profession.
The film’s judiciously sprinkled action scenes are impeccably choreographed. But Leon’s trump card has to be Gary Oldman’s eye-bulging, pill-popping bent cop, who joins Alan Rickman as one of the finest baddies ever committed to celluloid.
12. Robocop (1987)
Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 action classic distinguished itself from a whole heap of ostensibly similar fare with its blackly satirical sense of humour. The young Dutch director manages to throw in cheeky snipes at contemporary US culture in amongst all the bullets and the bloodshed.
Peter Weller’s future cop is brutally killed in the line of duty, only to be rebuilt as a walking tank capable of tackling crime in a dystopian Detroit. Verhoeven injects the film with a surprising amount of pathos, as our metallic gunslinger begins to recall his previous life.
13. Speed (1994)
A buff Keanu Reeves jumps aboard an LA bus rigged to blow if it drops below 50mph. As concepts go, it’s back of a cigarette packet stuff. That it works so well can only be attributed to Jan de Bont’s slick direction, which somehow manages to fit in both an extended prologue and a bonus ending without letting the pace of the film drop.
It also helps when you have a supporting cast of charismatic actors like Dennis Hopper (as the baddie), Sandra Bullock (as the sidekick), and Jeff Daniels (as the ill-fated best buddy) to help sell the whole ludicrous thing.
14. Commando (1985)
Terminator 2 and Predator might be better films, but Commando was arguably the most fun film of Arnie’s golden period. This feverish cheese-dream of an action flick packed in a ludicrous amount of one-man-army chaos, with a correspondingly preposterous body count.
Add in a wince-inducing script and an outrageously camp antagonist who appears to have strolled in from another movie entirely, and you have all the makings of a cult classic. Or you would have, if Commando weren’t so enduringly popular.
15. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
It takes a brave person to feature Mad Max: Fury Road ahead of the superlative Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. 30 years on from the disappointing third entry, however, Mad Max: Fury Road upended all expectations as the (largely) undisputed peak of the series.
Tom Hardy stars as the titular weathered hero, this time sharing the limelight with Charlize Theron’s appropriately named Furiosa. The level of automotive carnage captured by director George Miller, predominantly using practical effects, is pretty much unmatched in all of cinema.
16. The Raid (2011)
Iko Uwais stars as a member of an Indonesian SWAT team tasked with storming a crime-riddled tower block. The visceral, wood-and-bone-splintering set pieces that follow will have you wincing on behalf of the actors and stuntmen, who must have taken one hell of a beating during production.
When it landed in 2011, The Raid was one of the most exciting things to happen to action cinema in years. Director Gareth Evans added a whole new level of kinetic credibility to the genre, which would directly influence subsequent Hollywood action hits like the John Wick series.
17. Point Break (1991)
Years before she won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow tackled an altogether sillier – but no less enjoyable – slice of testosterone-filled action in Point Break. Keanu Reeves plays the part of Johnny Utah, a hotshot FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of surfer dude bank robbers. Like we said, silly.
Patrick Swayze plays the blond-mopped leader of the pack, who forms an intense friendship with Utah. Conflicted interests, betrayal, and a couple of truly monumental chase scenes ensue.
18. Escape From New York (1982)
John Carpenter had already tackled the action genre in relatively conventional (though nonetheless brilliant) fashion with Assault on Precinct 13, but Escape From New York was a different kettle of fish entirely.
Kurt Russell plays Snake Plissken, a one-eyed anti-hero sent into a nightmarish future Manhattan to save the stranded President. With a deeply cynical outlook and a dark, moody palette, Escape From New York feels quite unlike the Hollywood action films that would come along in its wake.
19. Hard Boiled (1992)
No best action movie list could even claim to be comprehensive without at least a mention of the Hong Kong maestro, John Woo. As his last home-brewed production before he answered the call of Hollywood, Hard Boiled is Woo’s biggest and (arguably) best.
Tony Leung and Chow Yun-fat play a pair of cops working to bring down a ruthless gang of triads in their own uniquely violent way. Woo’s action set pieces – moody, balletic, slow motion gun battles, ideally with twin pistols – have since been absorbed into the action playbook, but they were executed impeccably here.
20. Oldboy (2003)
Calling Oldboy an action film feels somewhat reductive. Park Chan-wook’s twisted (and twisty) masterpiece is some sort of grotesquely beautiful mutant, splicing together elements of gangland revenge thriller with a whodunnit mystery and moments of hard-hitting martial arts action.
It all leads up to perhaps the film’s signature moment – a single-shot hallway fight of breathtaking brutality, with a healthy splash of slapstick for good measure. By the end of your first viewing, you probably won’t be quite sure of what you’ve just seen.
- The greatest martial arts stars of all time