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The Best Action Movies

Updated on October 6, 2014

Die Hard Trailer

What's an "Action Movie"?

Action movies feature protagonists who DO stuff. A lot of times, the stuff they do involves fighting, but it also sometimes involves chasing or being chased. Often these types of movies involve a single character (a hero) who has to beat the odds, which are always stacked against him, but sometimes action movies can feature an ensemble cast. Villains in these types of movies wear their villainy on their sleeves. Look elsewhere if you're seeking ambiguity.

I categorize some Westerns (but not all) as action movies. Many adventure films also cross genre lines to also feature lots of the type of activity one might expect in an action movie. Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest exemplifies many of the characteristics of the action film. Other early examples include spy movies (like the James Bond franchise), cop movies (like the Dirty Harry movies), and martial arts movies (often starring Sonny Chiba, Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and/or Jackie Chan).

Of course, the golden age of action movies began in the 1980s, when we saw the genre distilled into its purest form. The 1980s brought us films from classic action stars like:

  • Bruce Willis
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Sylvester Stallone

We owe the 1980s for Rambo and Die Hard, the latter of which spawned dozens of imitators.

These types of films continued to be popular in the 1990s. But Tim Burton's Batman stands separate from the rest by demonstrating the viability of the now-ubiquitous comic book movie.Besides the soaring popularity of comic book films, action movies have been on the decline over the last decade or so. With the exception of Jason Statham, few "action stars" make a living from genre movies any more.

The Movie Poster from Die Hard

The movie poster from Die Hard.
The movie poster from Die Hard.

The Best Action Movies

You can find plenty of other lists of the best action movies online. Some of these lists rank movies with love for and interest in the genre better than others, while others just trawl search engines for random visitor. I listed my personal favorites on this list of the best action movies.

1. Die Hard - I hate to even include Die Hard on my list, but it's unavoidable. Like almost everyone else, I think it's the best action movie ever made. And I still enjoy watching it, years after it first came out.

2. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - Some people might say that this one's a western, not an action movie, but I'm including it on my list anyway because I love the movie so much. I got to see it on the big screen last year at the TCM Classic Movie film festival in Hollywood, and wow, does that movie benefit from being shown on the big screen.

3. The Dark Knight - The truism that a movie is only as good as its villain is even more true for action movies than it is in other genres. Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker is the reason this one makes my list.

4. The Matrix - In terms of pure movie making class and skill, I preferred the similar movie Dark City , but I don't think that it's an action movie. What makes The Matrix awesome are the scenes with the guns.

5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day - The opening sequence with the war scenes is just incredibly fun to watch on my surround sound system. It's got nothing but cool action stuff happening throughout the running time, too.

6. Desperado - I just can't get enough of Salma Hayek in Desperado . She's made other good movies, but she's never looked better on screen. The action sequences are all awesome, and Antonio Banderas is great as the main character.

7. Kill Bill - I don't think I could ever choose between part 1 and part 2, so I always list it as one long movie. (Which I think was Tarantino's original intention anyway.) The action scenes, of which there are plenty, are excellent, but especially the scene where the Bride takes on the Crazy 88s.

Those are my 7 picks for the best action movies ever. Like I pointed out at the beginning, this isn't meant to be a definitive list. These are just my favorites.

What are your favorite action movies?

The Movie Poster for Beverly Hills Cop

The movie poster for Beverly Hills Cop
The movie poster for Beverly Hills Cop

Sub-Genres of the Action Film

Most writers and critics in the film industry recognize multiple sub-genres of the action movie, which is the broadest category for this type of movie. Some movies are "pure" action movies, like Die Hard, but many other films in the genre include aspects of other film genres:

Comedy - The 1980s saw a number of Eddie Murphy action movies that included a strong comedy element. Beverly Hills Cop is the best example.

Horror - When supernatural and other traditional horror movie elements combine with a strong action focus, you get movies like Resident Evil and Big Trouble in Little China. Many newer zombie movies are arguably also action movies, like Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead.

Science Fiction - Not all science fiction movies have a strong action element, but a lot of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies do. Examples include the Terminator movies, The Running Man, and Total Recall. Of course, science fiction action isn't limited to Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Abrams-helmed reboot of Star Trek has more action elements than science fiction elements now.

Spy Movies - The James Bond movies are the longest-running series in this category, but plenty of other examples are out there. The Bourne movies are a recent example, but the Mission Impossible series also counts.

Superheroes and Comic Books - Before the 1990s, movies featuring superheroes were few and far between. They were also generally lower-budget, lower-quality affairs, with the exception of the first two Superman movies. The popularity of Tim Burton's Batman movie changed all that, and superhero movies continue to grow in popularity. It's rare that someone can find a weekend where you can't find at least one movie based on a comic book at the local multiplex.

Other sub-genres surely exist. Action can be combined with almost any other genre. All it requires is stunt-people (and maybe some CGI.)

The Delta Force Movie Poster

The Delta Force Movie Poster
The Delta Force Movie Poster

The Top Actors in this Category

Countless actors have starred in action movies, but for some actors, these are their bread and butter. Some examples of the top actors in the genre follow:

Arnold Schwarzenegger - People my son's age know Arnold as the former governor of California, but those of us who grew up in the 1980s and the 1990s know that he was the probably the biggest name in action movies. For years he appeared in two movies a year--one action movie and one comedy.

Bruce Willis - If you're old enough, you'll remember him from Moonlighting. But Willis really found his niche when he starred in Die Hard, which is still the greatest action film ever made. It's spawned countless imitators and quite a few sequels, too. Now it's rare to see Willis in anything but an action movie.

Sylvester Stallone - No, the Rocky movies are't really good examples of action movies, but the Rambo movies sure are. In fact, if those were Sly's only contribution to the genre, he'd still be eligible for the hall of fame of action movies. He's gone on to make The Expendables and its sequels, which celebrate the kind of old-school action movies that I grew up on.

Those are the big three, but plenty of other stars make (or made) their living primarily in this genre. Examples include:

  • Bruce Lee
  • Charles Bronson
  • Chuck Norris
  • Dolph Lundgren
  • Jackie Chan
  • Jason Statham
  • Sonny Chiba
  • Steven Seagal
  • The Rock
  • Vin Diesel
  • Wesley Snipes

The Expendables Movie Trailer


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