1 Die Hard (1988)
Part of the reason Die Hard works so well is its cinematic context. Action movies at the time all tended to feature stoic dudes with huge muscles laying waste with boulder-sized fists and machine guns, never doubting their utter alpha maleness and barely cracking a smile.
Contrast that with Die Hard, in which Bruce Willis is a relatively normal-sized, normal looking guy who cracks wise and expresses fear and self-doubt as he almost single-handedly beats back terrorists to literally save Christmas. It helps that Willis, best known at the time for the TV detective dramedy Moonlighting, was incredibly charismatic—but let us not forget that Die Hard also gave us a breakout performance from the beloved Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, one of the all-time great movie villains. Yippie-kay-yay.
2 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Imagine a sweeping war drama and epic romance like Gone With the Wind…but everybody in it has supernatural martial arts fighting abilities, and the way they fight is more technically perfect and beautiful than the greatest ballet company. That may sound ridiculous and lame, but in the able hands of director Ang Lee and main cast members Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Chang Chen, the result is one of the most stunningly beautiful and deeply moving films ever made.
Right, sure, but the action: there are so many amazing martial arts sequences in the film, such as the gang of fighters meeting their end against one young woman in a restaurant…and the near wordless battle in the sky, on the fragile tips of trees. While action movies often rely on special effects to do all of the heavy lifting, in Crouching Tiger, they merely enhance or flavor the preternatural abilities already captured on film.
3 The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy is really more like one long movie, but the middle part is definitely the best chapter, showing the result of Bruce Wayne’s rise and training in Batman Begins and what will play out in The Dark Knight Rises. Indeed, The Dark Knight is arguably the best-made superhero movie of all time, with a tone that reflects the character and shows utter faithfulness to the comics upon which it’s based.
One could argue that it’s a psychological drama first and a superhero movie second, as Christian Bale does a lot of brooding and quiet acting in between unbelievable, high-speed Batmobile chase sequences, Harvey Dent going off the rails, and Heath Ledger giving a chilling and unforgettable performance as the not-funny-at-all Joker (while also blowing stuff up real good).
4 The French Connection (1971)
Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) just…never…stops running. Or driving. Or punching, or kicking, or knocking some thug to the ground in pursuit of justice. His methods may not be normal, but then again neither is the nearly verité-style of direction by William Friedkin.
Despite being so frenetic, so tough, so new, and so very violent, The French Connection won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s the only action flick ever to do so.
5 Aliens (1986)
James Cameron took an entertaining if simple horror movie in space put forth by Ridley Scott with Alien in 1979, and expanded the mythology of the Alien universe to create a terrifying battle between human and alien, the outcome of which is never certain.
It’s claustrophobic like a thriller, but it’s also a science fiction movie because of all the space and, well, alien action. Cameron’s Aliens also further developed the most butt-kicking action movie character of all time: the unstoppable and unflappable Ellen Ripley, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in an Academy Award-nominated performance. Suddenly, the genre wasn’t just for dudes anymore.
6 The Bourne Identity (2002)
In 2002, as the James Bond franchise was slumping its way through an era of stale, lazily delivered clichés, came a refreshingly modern, wholly American spy movie that reflected a more current environment of geopolitics.
As Bond’s Cold War era slipped into history, a sense of “what now?” developed on the world stage, embodied by Matt Damon’s ultra-trained superwarrior who doesn’t know his own identity…but is aware of his own incredible fighting abilities. Thanks to the paranoid, shaky camerawork and urgent pace established by director Doug Liman, the audience rarely knows more than Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) does, and as a result they never quite get to take a breath either.
7 Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Raiders is supposed to be an homage to the action-adventure serials that director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas grew up watching in the 1950s. But the thing is, those often weren’t very good movies—Raiders completely overshadows its source material, as it’s pretty much a perfect film.
Every scene is crowd-pleasing, particularly the action sequences: the boulder chase, the whip-vs.-gun fight, the airplane fight sequence. Plus, a guy’s face melts off! Raiders is pure fun, beginning to end, even after 100 viewings.
8 RoboCop (1987)
Is RoboCop is a violent, action-packed, futuristic cop movie…or is RoboCop a violent, action-packed, futuristic cop movie that satirizes movies from its era that are equally (or more) violent? Like any good work of satire (such as The Simpsons), it works on both levels. RoboCop has a lot to say about the value of human life in the crime-ridden future world of New Detroit.
For example, it’s about a cop (Peter Weller) who falls dead to some pretty intense violence…but he’s then resurrected as a cyborg to summarily execute as many criminals as humanly possible. It’s bloody, it’s gory, it’s full of gunplay, but it’s also got some sweet robot action. And isn’t that what really matters?
9 The Wild Bunch (1969)
Westerns used to be thought of as kid stuff. Back in the ’30s and ’40s, kids loved Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and other good guys in white hats singing along the trail as they foiled train bandits and horse thieves. The real Old West was nothing like that—it was probably more akin to the absolutely gonzo, lawless nightmare world of Sam Peckinpaw’s Texas-Mexico border-fight epic The Wild Bunch.
A huge influence on latter-day filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, The Wild Bunch embraced blood, violence, and moral ambiguity. In 1969, movies by and large did not show blood—guys got shot and they fell down. The Wild Bunch showed (and kind of celebrated) the real consequences of violence with its multiple, never-ending shootout sprees. (One guy’s got a cannon that more properly belongs on a warship.) But sometimes cowboys and gunslingers had to shoot each other, and that made the good guys a little bad, and the bad guys a little good.
10 The Matrix (1999)
A college-level philosophy class was never so eye-popping. The Matrix kind of blew everybody’s minds with its central conceit: that there’s no point to human life beyond their bodies being bags of energy. Neo (Keanu Reeves) gets to decide if he’s cool with that, or if he wants to try to exist on a higher plane via his own free will.
Pretty heady stuff for the multiplex, but fortunately The Matrix features a lot of bells and whistles, such as the fight in the creepy cyberworld between Neo and an infinite number of Agent Smiths, and that innovative “bullet time,” which seemed to bend the very nature of time itself. Not only did it look incredibly cool to watch somebody contort their body around bullets or even stop them, but it complement the themes of the movie, too.
11 Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
After decades of B-movie status, films about guys with capes were slowly adopted into the mainstream with the critical and commercial success of Christopher Reeve’s Superman films, the Batman movies directed by Tim Burton, the Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan, and the Spider-Man movies from the 2000s.
The genre really got going when Marvel Studios started laying the groundwork for its cinematic universe, with individual solo movies to both set the stage and whet audience appetite for the single greatest superhero team-up possible.
For the Avengers’ long-awaited big-screen debut, Marvel hired a director who really understood comic books—Joss Whedon—and assembled a cast of acclaimed actors who were like the Avengers of movie stars: Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man, Mark Ruffalo as the Incredible Hulk, and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, to name a few. No expense was spared making a movie that was limitless in terms of superpowers, earth-shattering fights, things from space—like a comic book come to life. The Avengers is now the standard by which all other big, fun superhero movies are judged.
12 Speed (1994)
By the mid-’90s, action movies were dying under their own weight: huge budgets meant lots of explosions but not a lot of depth or character. Then along came Speed, Jan de Bont’s fat-trimmed, all-killer-no-filler thrill ride couched in a simple premise: If a Los Angeles city bus slows to under 50 mph, a bomb planted on board explodes.
It breaks with form to make for lots of surprises (a lead actor dies early in the film, for example), and the plot necessitates absolutely non-stop action. But there’s also a lot of humanity in Speed: Everyday people from many different walks of life are thrust together onto the city bus and the situation, and they come together as a team to rise up and meet the challenge. Of course, there are also plenty of explosions, buses jumping over chasms, and death-defying leaps, along with Keanu Reeves as a newly minted action hero and a star-making performance by Sandra Bullock.
13 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The original Terminator movie from 1984 is pretty fantastic in its own right—dark, gritty, weird, and menacing, all with a charming, low-budget air. Terminator 2, while a sequel of course, was one of the most expensive movies of all time—but the money is all up there on the screen, and that sheen suits the plot and feel of the story: highly advanced robots traveling through time to alternately kill and rescue the future savior of the human race, John Connor (Edward Furlong).
Especially well executed is the motorcycle sequence, which involves a high-speed chase, a semi-truck, and shotguns. And every time a puddle of liquid metal reshaped itself into that evil Terminator? Still cool, and still looking state of the art after more than 25 years. People that don’t even like action movies can appreciate this one, thanks to the stellar pacing of director James Cameron: action, catch a breath, escalated action, a breath, climax. That, combined with the high stakes of the plot (that kid had to save humanity) and the fact that by the end we’re all somehow crying over a robot in sunglasses being consumed by fire, made for a blockbuster for the ages.
14 Bullitt (1968)
Steve McQueen was one of the first action stars, and a pioneer of the form. He even did as much of his own stunts as film studios would let him—for example, he did some of the driving for the landmark, on-location car chase scene in Bullitt. In fact, that chase is the reason this movie is chiefly remembered today, and if Bullitt consisted entirely of that scene, it would still make this list. It’s just that good.
The plot is loaded with twists and intrigue, something to do with a politician, hitmen, and organized crime, and it all culminates in McQueen as the fortuitously named Lt. Frank Bullitt chasing the bad guys in their 1968 Dodge Charger R/T through the very real, very hilly streets of San Francisco. No standard issue police cruiser for Bullitt—he’s got a sweet 1968 Ford Mustang GT. The high-speed pursuit ends the only way it could, and in the best possible way: with a gas station explosion.
15 Lethal Weapon (1987)
Detectives Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) are mismatched cops, with the former being a loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules, and the other a by-the-books guy who is “getting too old for this s***.” Almost every other cop movie and TV show before and after has used this formula, but Lethal Weapon actually makes it work because the chemistry between Gibson and the reactive audience surrogate Glover is so charming.
That, and the plot—largely couched in dark comedy—never goes where the audience thinks it will. Riggs just doesn’t care that he’s going to get caught in the crossfire when he orders cops to unload on a drug bust he’s in the middle of…or worry about maiming himself by jumping off a ledge with a guy instead of talking him down. This s*** never gets old.
16 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Reboots generally don’t work—and even if they do, they’re still doomed to pale in comparison to the original thing. Not so with Mad Max: Fury Road, which expands and improves on the Mad Max universe with a nonstop ride through the familiar, harrowing, post-apocalyptic wasteland on modified car/tank/war machines piloted by crazed, survival-driven nomad warriors.
Mad Max creator George Miller returned to direct Fury Road, and his 35-plus years of experience as a filmmaker are up there on the screen with an action movie that’s both endlessly thrilling and emotionally compelling. It helps that Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron are along for the ride…to say nothing of “Doof Warrior,” a guy who stands on a moving vehicle and plays a fire-spewing electric guitar. Best. Character. Ever.
17 Kill Bill (2003, 2004)
Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill is an epic tale of revenge, centered on a hero of near-superhuman abilities and unrelenting focus…but with enough vulnerabilities and human motivation to make audiences root for her. The Bride (Uma Thurman) goes on a quest to locate and murder every member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad that left her for dead years earlier—and find the baby she was pregnant with at the time of the attack.
The trail ultimately leads to the gang’s leader, and her baby’s father, Bill (David Carradine), of course, but along the way, the Bride must subdue each of her enemies in insane, insanely choreographed fight sequences, any number of which would be the centerpiece of a semi-decent action movie. But Kill Bill is loaded with them, from the suburban battle with Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) to the acrobatic battle with O-Ren Ishii’s (Lucy Liu) Crazy 88 in Japan, to the “five finger death punch” that subdues Bill.
18 John Wick (2014)
Ultra-violent revenge movies generally don’t have plots hinging on an adorable puppy, but that’s part of what makes John Wick so delightfully different. After the death of his wife, assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) tries to fill the void in his life by adopting a cute dog named Daisy and riding around in his classic Ford Mustang. (A good action movie almost always has a sick car.) After he refuses to sell it to a Russian gangster, the spurned buyer and his cronies follow Wick home, knock him out, steal the car, and—horrific spoiler alert—kill the dog.
Exacting his revenge pulls Wick back into the seedy underbelly of organized crime, as well as numerous, atmospheric gun battles and fistfights across nightclubs, churches, safe houses, docks, and more. This is exactly the kind of action movie that’s perfect for watching with friends, rewinding and replaying favorite moments because they’re just too good to be believed.
19 Gladiator (2000)
“Swords and sandals” movies hadn’t been popular for decades when director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe brought them back in a big way with 2000’s Gladiator. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Crowe for his performance as Roman general-turned-slave Maximus Decimus Meridius. Against a classical Roman backdrop, audiences root for Maximus’s quest to avenge the misdeeds of the evil emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), win his freedom, and survive the brutal gladiator arena— and Scott stages some of the most thrilling action sequences ever put to film.
There’s hand-to-hand combat with and without weapons, gladiator mismatches, re-enactments of old military campaigns, and even a climactic fight between Maximus and Commodus. People get stabbed. People get beaten to a pulp. People get beheaded. Ancient Rome was not a nice time to be alive.
20 Jurassic Park (1993)
The original Jurassic Park was a revelation in 1993, popularizing a sub-genre known as the “techno-thriller.” Pioneered by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, these fables inevitably involve technology run amok to the shock and horror of the humans that created it.
But of course, that’s all a lot of fun to watch, especially when the technology is dinosaurs trying to kill people in a rainstorm, dinosaurs spitting venom in a bad guy’s face, dinosaurs chasing kids, and dinosaurs ripping each other to ribbons. Add in a majestic, unforgettable score by John Williams and enthusiastic direction by Steven Spielberg, and you’ve got a modern masterpiece of popcorn cinema.