While there have always been thrilling and exciting movies since film began, action as a distinct genre did not emerge until the later half of the 20th century. Action movies quickly became one of the most popular genre of movie in Hollywood, ruling box offices and attracting big stars and budgets.
The excitement and testosterone of the films are also uniquely prevalent to the genre, allowing them to explore masculinity and adrenaline in-depthly. Since their rise in popularity, many sub-genres of action films have developed such as sci-fi action, kung-fu as well as the famous blockbuster films filled with explosions and gun fights.
Action film provided Hollywood with a new image in the 1980s and 90s, becoming the main focus for most distributors. It also attracted many actors, as the genre was exceptional at creating iconic movie stars. Although the genre has been tremendously popular with audiences, many critics have written off the genre as empty vehicles for movie and violence.
While a good portion of all action movies made fall guilty of this, there is an equal amount of them that feature original plots and interesting characters. One of the most important aspects of action movies are, of course, the action. The director can choose to make the violence in the film either realistic or gratuitous and stylized. Both can result in great films as long as the action is fresh and entertaining.
Even though action movies are not the most acclaimed films of the year, they are some of the most popular. The genre’s success and influence on the film world make it an important category of study for all film lovers. The list below explores the greatest, most thrilling and most influential action films ever, all in various different styles and forms.
25. Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996)
This secret agent thriller stars Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, an operative who is framed for betraying his other partners during a botched mission. Ethan is then left to fend for himself, without the help of his organization, as he tries to uncover a conspiracy and prove his own innocence.
As he gets deeper into the secrecy and lies, his situation becomes more dangerous and he has to keep improvising in order to stay free and alive. Culminating in an exciting and extravagant chase sequence, Mission: Impossible is a fast paced, explosive action thriller.
The film is loosely based on the 1960s television show of the same name, following a secret agency that undertakes dangerous and improbable missions. They also often involve futuristic technologies and complexly structured action scenes.
Also starring Jon Voight and Ving Rhames, Mission: Impossible was one of the most successful action films of the 1990s, spawning three sequels with a fifth in the works. De Palma’s first venture into pure action film was very successful, influencing many movies following it.
24. Unleashed (Louis LeTerrier, 2005)
Also known as Danny the Dog, this dark kung-fu action film stars action icon Jet Li as Danny, a trained fighter who was raised by the brutal gangster Bart, played by Bob Hoskins. Danny is a killing machine, trained to be fearless and bloodthirsty, but strictly obedient to Bart. His world is changed when he gets sent into a coma.
Upon awakening Danny meets Sam, a blind piano tuner played by Morgan Freeman, and lives with him and his daughter. He learns about how to be human and enjoys life. Unfortunately, Bart soon comes to reclaim his weapon and Danny begins to fight back against his previous owner and protect his friends.
While Unleashed is not Li’s most successful or famous film, it is significant due to its uncommon mixture of heavy drama and spectacularly choreographed fight scenes. Both Li’s acting and fighting skills are at their best as he overcomes his past demons.
The film is also elevated by great performances from Hoskins and Freeman who add to the tension and drama of the plot. The combat in the film is less acrobatic than many other famous martial arts films of the era and much more gritty and brutal. The combined balance of developed plot and intense fighting scenes make Unleashed a distinctly unique entry into the body of modern action films.
23. Con Air (Simon West, 1997)
This star studded action blockbuster is a calculated and exciting example of a pure Hollywood action film. Nicolas Cage stars as Cameron Poe, a decorated military man who accidentally kills a drunk while protecting his wife. He is sent to prison for seven years and on his plane ride home after being released, his prison plane is hijacked by convicts led by Cyrus the Virus, played by John Malkovich.
This situation develops into a hostage situation leaving Cameron to deal with the criminals himself from the inside. The rest of the cast includes many famous faces including John Cusack, Steve Buscemi and Ving Rhames, rounding out the film as an entertaining action hit.
Con Air is a light, fun and campy Hollywood film that attempts and succeeds to entertain. In addition to the explosive, overblown action sequences, the movie also contains other crucial aspects for a pleasing, high-grossing hit.
There are many comedic characters to keep the serious plot light hearted enough to not offend anyone. Cage’s performance, despite the horrible Southern accent, was also well suited to the film, playing a likable and purely heroic main character. While certainly not a masterpiece of film, Con Air is a fun, entertaining movie that exemplifies what the public looks for in an action film.
22. Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981)
Escape From New York is a stylistic science fiction action flick starring Kurt Russell as the iconic eye-patch wearing warrior Snake Plissken. Snake is captured by police but is offered freedom if he agrees to rescue the President of the United States.
The President, played by Donald Pleasance, has crash landed in New York City, which has been walled off as a giant, unsupervised prison where criminals rule. Snake ventures into the city for the rescue only to find out that the president has been kidnapped by The Duke, a criminal played by Isaac Hayes. In order to finish his task, Snake teams up with many colorful characters, such as a taxi driver played by Ernest Borgnine.
The plot and setting are some of the film’s strongest assets, creating a fascinating environment for the film. The crime ridden future of the film also acts as a politically charged commentary on the degradation of society. Another important asset that adds to the films greatness is the saturated, techno-oriented design of the city, creating an exciting and unsettling atmosphere in which the myriad of dangerous criminals reside.
Kurt Russell’s performance as Snake Plissken, however, is definitely the most famous part of the movie, creating an incredibly badass anti-hero to root for. Very much a product of the future-focused 1980s, Escape From New York is a science fiction classic producing one of the greatest action heroes of all time.
21. Police Story (Jackie Chan, 1985)
Jackie Chan, the most successful martial arts star of all time, directs and stars in this breakthrough film that propelled him to international fame. Chan plays Chan Ka Kui, a noble police officer in Hong Kong who is framed for the murder of another officer by drug kingpins. Chan must go on the run and catch the actual killers in order to save himself. He has to juggle avoiding the cops, stopping the bad guys and saving his relationship all at once.
Police Story is notable for being one of the first police centered kung-fu movies, inspiring many movies that came afterwards. Like typical Chan films, police story is a thoroughly entertaining experience, combining exciting combat, hilarious slapstick comedy and many dangerous, bone breaking stunts.
In fact, arguably his most dangerous stunt ever appears in this film, when he slides down a pole in a shopping mall that is covered with strings of lights, through a glass ceiling, burning and cutting him heavily. Many times he got severely injured during this movie’s stunts, but his dedication to the craft makes his film more impressive. Spawning an endless line of sequels, Police Story is a highly inventive work in the martial arts master’s career.
20. Air Force One (Wolfgang Petersen, 1997)
This high intensity action movie stars Harrison Ford as President of the United States James Marshall. During a trip with his family and associates, the presidential jet Air Force One becomes hijacked by a group of Russian terrorists.
The terrorists, led by Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman), take the first family and many important leaders hostage, threatening to execute them if they do not get their demands met. Unknown to the terrorists, however, is that President Marshall hid on the plane during the hijacking. With his ex-military skills, Marshall slowly takes control of his plane and saves his family.
Petersen, an acclaimed director of films like Das Boot, adeptly handles this exciting thriller. Featuring well polished and edited action sequences and high tension scenarios, the film is a thrilling and cunning battle between one man and a whole group of terrorists.
It also features many great performances, especially from Ford, Oldman and Glenn Close who plays the Vice President put in charge during the national crisis. Air Force One is a well constructed, non-stop American action film.
19. Leon: The Professional (Luc Besson, 1994)
Luc Besson’s masterpiece focuses on a solitary and calculated hitman name Leon played by Jean Reno. A young neighbor girl Mathilda, played by Natalie Portman, is orphaned when her family is killed by the deranged, crooked DEA agent Stansfield, played by Gary Oldman.
Mathilda then asks to live with Leon, and as they grow closer Leon teaches her the tools of the trade, forming her to become a hitman so she can take revenge on Stansfield. The film’s tensions all build to a thrilling, epic shootout. Also starring Danny Aiello as Leon’s gangster boss, the film is both excitingly violent and delicately emotional.
Leon, at the heart of it, is a touching film about the quaint life of a societal undesirable and his touching relationship with a lost girl. The complex mixture of action and drama makes the film hard to definitively classify but the extensive and stylized gunfights warrant the title of action film.
This film is much more emotionally deep than many of the others on this list, spending a lot more time on character and personality development. Its action, while in less quantity than many, is very well choreographed and executed leaving a memorable impression on the audience. Combining many dramatic and touching thematic elements as well as fast paced action, Leon: The Professional is a must see.
18. Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)
James Cameron’s acclaimed sequel to Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic is very different from the first film. While they both feature Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, the most badass female character in film history, and the same alien species and world, the feel of the films are very different.
Alien is more of a horror-survival film set in space while Aliens changes the genre to an intense and brutal action film. Ripley and a new crew venture back to the same planet as the first film to investigate a lost signal in a human colony there. Once again, an alien infestation has occurred, causing the travelers to fight for their lives. Instead of just one alien this time, however, there are swarms led by a giant alien queen.
Although the genre may have changed, the menace of the alien still remains, creating very stressful and nerve-wracking sequences. It also leads to very exciting battles between the space marines and the aliens which were mostly missing from Alien.
The film has become a classic in its own right over time, leading to many famous quotes like “Game over man. Game Over.” The ending fight scene between the alien queen and Ripley armed with a huge exo-suit is also one of the most recognizable battles in science fiction film. Aliens is an extremely compelling and entertaining continuation of Scott’s original concept, cementing itself in action cinema history.