27 of the Best Action Movies to Liven up Your Evening
We've racked up some shots of pure adrenaline, from Spielberg to Bond via a lot of Keanu
It is a bit difficult to pin down precisely the place Action movies as we all know them now began. The Nice Escape in 1963? The Nice Practice Theft 60 years earlier than?
The pure Action movie – the oeuvres of Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Segal, Norris, Lundgren and the like, which use the nuts and bolts of thrillers to launch their huge stars right into a collection of even larger explosions – solely actually acquired going within the West within the early Eighties, after Hollywood had had its eyes opened to the majesty of the martial arts movies popping out of Hong Kong and Japan.
Dr No was an early pointer too: Hitchcock’s heroes tended to be resourceful and quick-witted, however the vogue for one who can assume, blast or shag their approach out of any difficult situation began with James Bond, and the Swiss-army-protagonist remains to be an Action film important. There’s an odd circularity to how big-budget Action movies now exist primarily within the superhero movie vortex, with protagonists who’re the logical excessive of that improbably helpful undercover agent.
Definitely, we have not misplaced our urge for food for watching folks smash seven shades out of one another whereas looking for some McGuffin or different. Listed below are the most effective Action movies ever.
Writer, director and star Jackie Chan is an undercover cop trying to sort out a crime kingpin, and can only do so with the help of several extremely good stunt set pieces including an opening car chase and a finale in which gigantic panes of glass explode and crash all around. Breathless stuff.
Steven Spielberg’s lean, taut, Hitchcockian feature debut pits put-upon everyman David Mann (Dennis Weaver, on especially fraut, frothing form) against a truck driver who suddenly cuts him up on an empty desert road. Mann overtakes; the truck swings out in front of him again. Slowly it dawns on Mann: this truck driver isn’t going to let him get out of this trip alive. Who’s driving the truck? Why do they want Mann dead? And will Mann and his rapidly expiring car make it home?
Superhero films are what the big-budget action morphed into once everyone got a bit bored of Jason Bourne-style wobble-camming, and Ryan Coogler and Michael B Jordan’s Rocky reboot Creed served notice of their ability to meld affecting character drama and brutal punch-ups. It blossomed here, with Chadwick Boseman, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and Lupita Nyong’o fighting to save the beautifully realised Afrofuturist paradise of Wakanda.
See? Casino Royale was Daniel Craig’s first run-out as the new 007, and 14 years on it’s still the high-watermark (we’re feeling very hopeful about No Time to Die, though). The previous film in the franchise, Die Another Day, had featured an ice palace, an invisible car and that CGI surfing scene. Its successor opened with a parkour-style chase in which you could almost taste Bond’s sweat, and closed with him being having his knackers battered in a seatless chair and watching the woman he loved drown in the Grand Canal. This was a post-9/11 Bond movie, a spy film about secret agent making tough choices about who to sacrifice and when torture might be justi. It was an action movie with consequences and it finally fleshed out a character who had sometimes seemed like little more than a philandering psychopath with a drinking problem.
Bong Joon Ho’s dystopian epic is basically JG Ballard’s High Rise, but on a train and with Tilda Swinton doing a Yorkshire accent. The last crumbs of humanity are crammed onto class-divided carriages after an attempt to sort out climate change accidentally turns Earth into a snowball, but there’s an uprising brewing among the have-nots.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
It’s quite hard to comprehend now just how gigantic a phenomenon Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was when it came out. Even now everything about it just seems so big: big emotions; big, lush, sweeping vistas of 18th century China, during its last Imperial days; and, of course, gigantic, gymnastic sword fights. The martial arts sequences are still operatically beautiful, and counterpoint with the primly buttoned down emotional lives of its characters, who tend to ache quietly for each other before busting out their swordsmanship and Wudang skills.
It’s quite easy to gloss over it now, but The Matrix really did set off a philosophical earthquake inside a a generation’s already wobbly sense of self. Are we, like, even here though? Are we just brains in jars? Red pill or blue pill, the Wachowskis’ opus is still blistering, still time-melting and still utterly propulsive.
In this remake of the 1963 film, Shinzaemon Shimada leads the baker’s dozen of pro sword wielders in an attempt to take down the callous Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira in 1840s Japan. They don’t expect to get out of it alive, but given what a rancid type Matsudaira is, they plunge in anyway. Cue a lot of extremely good swordplay and a climactic battle which runs to 45 minutes long. Director Takashi Miike always manages to make room for genuinely affecting character beats amid the bloodshed though.
Human-vampire hybrid Blade returns to hunt more vampires in Guillermo Del Toro’s comic book adaptation. Two things elevate it: the splattery inventiveness of Blade’s weaponry, and Del Toro’s mastery of its animation-inspired action sequences.
Yes, it’s a rom-com, but the defining image of silent cinema – Harold Lloyd hanging off the hand of a clock at the top of a building – is the most enduring of Lloyd’s ‘thrill sequences’, as he called his action-packed sections of daring stunts. There’s a straight line between Lloyd, who lost a thumb and forefinger to a prop bomb which turned out not to be a prop but carried on doing his own stunts, and Tom Cruise’s full-blooded commitment to smashing up his knees in the name of Mission: Impossible.
The Wages of Fear
Unknown to each other, four unfortunate misfits are stuck in the desert town of Las Piedras. The only way out is an aeroplane ticket, but none can afford it. Then a job comes up. It could be a way out, but it’s only for the truly desperate. A team is needed to drive jerry cans of the incredibly unstable explosive nitroglycerine, and any jolt could set it off during the 300-mile trip across lumpy, bumpy desert roads. Rickety bridges, boulders, and – wouldn’t you know it – unexpected roadworks make things even trickier. It was later remade, brilliantly, as Sorcerer by William Friedkin. Friedkin reckons he didn’t, but he definitely did.
An extraordinarily high concentration of cinema’s most intensely odd character actors, including Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi, are dangerous convicts being flown across America. The prisoners hijack the plane and all hell breaks lose. Cage is the actually-very-nice con trying to do the right thing without letting anyone know he’s on the feds’ side. Glorious stuff.
Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum head up Bill Duke’s noir-styled story of an undercover police officer who goes so extremely undercover that he ends up getting fitted up for dealing cocaine. Fishburne’s Russell Stevens is raw, playing every line as if his very nerves are exposed to the open air; Goldblum is his lugubrious attorney, David Jason. (Not that David Jason.)
Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise is the PR guy for Earth’s United Defence Force, fighting back against an alien invasion, unceremoniously launched into a battle he really doesn’t fancy by his chippy boss. He dies, obviously. But then he wakes up. Then it happens again, and again, and again. How? If he can tell the army’s talisman, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), he could turn the war.
Once Upon a Time in the West
Sergio Leone had sworn off making another Western after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but came around when he had the chance to cast Henry Fonda, long his favourite actor, as the cold, villainous hired gun Frank. Charles Bronson is ‘Harmonica’, the man Frank is bearing down upon. There’s a fight brewing over the one water supply in the desert town of Flagstone, and while the action unfolds at Leone’s usual considered pace to one of Ennio Morricone’s great scores, it’s an action epic to lose yourself in.
Getaway driver Baby drowns out his tinnitus with eclectic mixtapes while he’s swinging cars around Atlanta for the malevolent Doc, and frankly if you put Blur’s ‘Intermission’ and Queen’s ‘Brighton Rock’ on your ultimate driving playlist you’ve only yourself to blame if you get into scrapes. Edgar Wright’s masterfully controlled, powerfully kinetic direction lets the music lead the many, many car chases as Baby goes in for one last job to free himself, escape his past, and bring down the nest of thieves he’s trapped in.
Keanu Reeves infiltrates Patrick Swayze’s gang of cowabunga-ing yahoos in Kathryn Bigelow’s organised crime and surfing crime drama, in the process learning a lot about the mysteries of the universe and the true meaning of bro-hood. Yes, this is the third Keanu film on this list. Well spotted.
In mid-19th century Japan, a roaming samurai arrives in a small town where local lords are scrambling to put themselves at the top of the food chain. The freelance swordsman is recruited as a secret weapon by one faction, but it’s soon clear that he’s got much bigger ideas in mind, and intends to bring all the bloodshed to an end. Akiro Kurosawa’s quite astonishingly violent film shocked audiences when first released, but its influence is enormous. The Westerns from Hollywood and Italy which followed Yojimbo pinched some it its moves, including its droll sense of humour, and a remake – Sergio Leone’s magnificent A Fistful of Dollars – spread Kurosawa’s influence even further.
If Alien was self-consciously a horror set in space, its follow-up goes full-tilt into action. After 57 years in hyper-sleep, Ripley returns to the moon where the crew of the Nostromo picked up their unwelcome cling-on, this time with a gang of marines in tow. They head off to find out what’s happened to a colony of humans and – would you believe it! – it turns out that there was more than one of that alien. There were aliens.
The last of John Woo’s Hong Kong films is probably his finest. Chow Yun-fat is ‘Tequila’, a police inspector who’s booted off a gun smuggling case when he takes a more agricultural approach to avenging his dead partner than his boss thinks is necessary. Undeterred, Tequila tracks down an undercover cop who’s embedded in another gang as an assassin. Together, they plot to take the Triads down. Dazzlingly staged gunplay and shootouts ensue.
Léon: The Professional
Luc Besson’s stylish crime thriller is built on an extremely strong central trio: there’s Jean Reno as the Italian hitman Léon, Natalie Portman in her feature debut as lonely preteen outcast Mathilda and Gary Oldman on absolutely storming, 1000-percent shouty Oldman form as drug-addled drug cop Norman Stansfield. When Stansfield and his cops kill Mathilda’s family, Léon takes her in and begins to tutor her in the subtle art of bumping people off. The target: Stansfield. But he’s not going down without a lot of gunplay and some of Oldman’s most inspired shrieking histrionics.
The quintessential Arnie film and, perhaps, the quintessential action flick. It’s a series of non sequiturs – Arnie and daughter feeding milk to a doe, Arnie disguising a corpse on a flight by giving it the full Weekend at Bernies, Arnie announcing: “I eat green berets for breakfast, and right now I’m very hungry” – conjoined by rocket launcher attacks. Blissful stuff.
Kurosawa was originally on board this particular ride too, his story elevating what could initially have been a fairly rote disaster-action flick into something more thoughtful. Speed 2: Cruise Control doesn’t end, as Runaway Train does, with a quote from Richard III. Violent bank robber Manny (Jon Voight) persuades the easily led Buck (Eric Roberts) to help him bust out of prison, and they manage to sneak on board a train. But suddenly it starts speeding up. Soon their flight for freedom turns into a battle for survival.
Much stranger, darker and funnier than you remember it. Look at Murphy’s death scene, in which he’s shot into several hundred large chunks. The levels of splenetic violence are so absurd it ends up looking like an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. See also: the bit where a man is literally melted by a vat of toxic waste.
The Bourne Identity
The film that killed off Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond and reshaped every action film that followed it. Before Jason Bourne, action movies were mostly about impossibly large men doing implausibly athletic killings and then mangling cheesy one-liners. Post-Bourne, everything got a bit gritty, a bit real, a bit hard to stomach. This was the kind of action movie in which offing bad guys looked more like a job than a laugh, and where you felt every punch and car crash viscerally. Without Bourne, you don’t have Daniel Craig’s it-hurts-me-when-I-hurt-you James Bond. And the world would be a worse place.
Mad Max: Fury Road
The difference between the campy Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and its follow-up couldn’t be more stark. Muscular, bleak, lyrical, pounding and frenetic, Fury Road follows said very angry Max (Tom Hardy) as he helps the battle-hardened general Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to get five women away from the clutches of the water-hoarding warlord Immortan Joe.
There’s been a massive recession in near-future Japan, and the kids are bored and hopeless. Juvenile delinquency is getting to be such a problem that the only way to sort things out is to force the worst kids to fight to the death on a remote island. When class 3-B are launched into it, including conscientious student Noriko and mourning classmate Shuya, shifting loyalties, improvised bombs and splenetic violence ensue. The moral: don’t trust anyone over 30.
A high concept chase thriller that’s so high concept you only need the one word of its title to know what it’s all about. Dennis Hopper’s put a bomb on a bus, Keanu Reeves isn’t having that, Sandra Bullock’s behind the wheel keeping the whole thing going above 50mph. It’s beautifully put together: just when you think it’s out of gas, Speed floors it again.