As long as there are movies, there will be action movies. No one pretends to be a romantic lead when they’re a kid, or a damsel in distress. They all want to punch, and shoot, and run. What’s more fun than a chase sequence? Here’s our unscientific look at the 20 best action movies of all time.
1 First Blood (1982)
John Rambo would become increasingly cartoonish as the sequels went on, but in the original, he was just a scared veteran trying to survive out in the real world.
2 Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
The second film is more dialogue-heavy, but the first half is essentially nonstop action … and it’s a good thing the Crazy 88 fight is in black and white, because it’d almost be too bloody to watch otherwise.
3 The Raid 2: Redemption (2014)
The Raid was more frenzied, but the sequel (also written and directed by Gareth Evans) got grand, introducing an intricate crime-drama plot. Didn’t matter: Redemption is brilliantly violent, a ballet of broken bones, perfect punches and crazy car chases.
4 Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
You can’t go wrong with any in this series – though it has only gotten better as the years have gone along – but the introduction of Rebecca Ferguson to this series just amped up the emotional stakes.
5 The Bourne Ultimatum (2006)
What should have been Jason Bourne’s final adventure is a thrilling, satisfying conclusion to this kinetic trilogy. Director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon permanently reshaped how we think of the globetrotting espionage thriller. James Bond is still playing catch-up.
6 John Wick (2014)
Keanu Reeves’ first of two masterful franchises on this list, John Wick gave us a mournful 21st-century assassin who won’t let his grief get in the way of shooting every bad guy in the head at point-blank range.
7 Enter the Dragon (1973)
Bruce Lee was popular before this film, but this is what sent him into the stratosphere. Well-made from start to finish, and absolutely unrelenting. The best part about it is that there isn’t a gun to be found in the whole film.
8 The Killer (1989)
John Woo’s Hollywood career wasn’t as sparkling or consistent as fans would have hoped, but this late-‘80s peak remains a glorious salute to melodramatic plotting and poetic shootouts. Chow Yun-fat made for a fierce, soulful assassin — and, never forget, The Killer is where Woo began his obsession with dove-filled action scenes, which have been parodied everywhere from 21 Jump Street to Scary Movie 2.
9 Aliens (1986)
Oh, don’t dare not think of this as an action movie. The existential dread of Ridley Scott’s original is replaced by James Cameron’s trademark intensity, and even though this has aliens and spaceship, this is as concentrated a dose of thriller mania as you will find. You’re gripping your chair just thinking about it, aren’t you?
10 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
George Miller had been mulling a new Mad Max film for years, and clearly, he spent that time coming up with every possible permutation of a chase sequence. This movie remains thrilling, almost insane, four years later.
11 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Because of Ang Lee’s prestige and the glamorous international cast, there is sometimes a sense that this film is bland, good-for-you Important Filmmaking. But watch it again today: This movie is a blast, and a euphoric ride.
12 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
If the first installment was more of a gritty thriller, then T2 is where director James Cameron cranked up the action spectacle. (That’s the kind of thing that happens when you have a much bigger budget.) Harnessing the power of then-new CG technology, this sequel threw down a challenge at the start of the ‘90s that other blockbuster filmmakers struggled to answer.
13 Bullitt (1968)
Yes, the car chases are as amazing as you’ve heard, but what’s striking today is how well this holds up as a cop procedural. Steve McQueen was an incredible movie star, and he was never better than he was here.
14 The French Connection (1971)
Popeye Doyle is the perfect action star for the ‘70s: grizzled, cranky, morally compromised, not the least bit likable, but absolutely tenacious about getting the bad guy, even if it’s for reasons he can’t even necessarily comprehend. Gene Hackman was at the absolute peak of his powers at this point.
15 Seven Samarai (1954)
Hollywood remade Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece as The Magnificent Seven. It couldn’t compare: Not only is Seven Samurai an epic of scope and scale, it’s one of the most emotionally nuanced of action movies, featuring a slew of characters you come to care deeply about.
16 Heat (1995)
Michael Mann’s epic is the culmination of everything he’d been working toward his entire career; the years since still feel like his own response to it. Everybody remembers the diner scene, but the bank heist sequence feels like a magic trick even more today.
17 The Matrix (1999)
The Wachowskis dreamed up an incredible sci-fi dystopia and then cast Keanu Reeves to play an everyman who discovers he’s the chosen one who must free humanity from the tyranny of machines. The Matrix should not have worked, but from bullet-time technology to the film’s trench-coat aesthetic, it became an epoch of pre-millennium action filmmaking.
18 Die Hard (1988)
John McClane just wants to reconnect with his estranged wife. Instead, the poor guy has to fight a bunch of terrorists, led by a fiendishly endearing Alan Rickman. Die Hard made Bruce Willis America’s most likeable action hero. And, yes, this is a Christmas movie.
19 The Dark Knight (2008)
Not just the best superhero movie, The Dark Knight might also be the most quotable: “Why so serious?” “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Plus, a fleet of memorable action sequences and the greatest villain performance ever. The MCU still hasn’t come close to matching this.
20 Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
A throwback to old action serials, Raiders of the Lost Ark is cheeky but also utterly electric. The movie is perfectly constructed and rarely takes a breath. And in Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford gave ‘80s kids their signature hero—even if he’s not so fond of snakes.
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