17. Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003 & 2004)
Quentin Tarantino’s two part bloody thriller is quite different that other films on the list. Tarantino does away with the big budget explosives action of Hollywood, instead taking inspiration from the gritty revenge films and the classic kung-fu movies.
The film stars Uma Thurman as The Bride who is seeking payback on her old team of assassins who, with the help of her old boss Bill, played by David Carradine, massacred her wedding, leaving her for dead. After she wakes up from her four year coma, she sets out on her vengeful quest. The Bride takes part in many exciting and gratuitously violent battles, most notably her slaying of a massive Yakuza gang, all culminating in her confrontation with Bill.
Kill Bill is one of Tarantino’s most stylistically influenced, referencing many past cultural movements and films. Shot in a variety of styles, including an animated sequence, the aesthetics of the film change regularly to keep the excitement and action fresh.
The characters are also some of Tarantino’ most colorful characters played by a large cast of talented actors, including kung-fu stars Gordon Liu and Sonny Chiba. Relentlessly violent from start to finish, Kill Bill is a masterfully crafted and very exciting action epic.
16. The Rock (Michael Bay, 1996)
The Rock is famed director Michael Bay’s greatest action film. When ex-military general Francis Hummel and his force capture Alcatraz, threatening to kill San Francisco with biological weapons, someone must stop them.
The FBI chooses chemical weapon expert Stanley Goodspeed, played by Nicolas Cage, and John Mason, played by Sean Connery, the only prisoner to ever escape from Alcatraz. They are tasked with infiltrating the fortress, rescuing the hostages and disabling the weapons. Jam packed with explosive, high intensity spectacle, the film is a polished and pure action film.
While Michael Bay has been critically maligned for filling his films with empty action and cliches, this film has more focus and substance than most of his other films. It addresses many complex moral questions, such as Hummel’s motivation for his actions and the details behind Mason’s imprisonment.
The action in the movie is also more important and well constructed than some of his more bloated pictures. The car chase scene through the streets of San Francisco is especially impressive and stimulating. The Rock is an exceptional example of a pure action film meant to excite and thrill.
15. Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
Dutch science fiction director Paul Verhoeven made many socially critical science fiction films like Starship Troopers, Total Recall but Robocop is his first and greatest venture into the genre. Set in a fictional future Detroit that has fallen even further into crime and poverty, the police force of the city has become privatized.
When police officer Alex Murphy is brutally attacked and almost killed by the gang of Clarence Boddicker, played excellently by Kurtwood Smith, Omni corporation, who owns the police force, turns Murphy into a cyborg officer or “Robocop”. Programmed to uphold the law, Murphy serves to crack down on the crime of the city and the corruption in Omni corp, all the while trying to piece together his history as his memory has been erased.
In addition to the bloody, slick action of the film, it acts as a satire of the increasing reliance on corporations and technology of the world. Almost thirty years later, its message is more relevant than ever as the ideas in the film are becoming closer and closer to reality.
While the action in the film is mostly to criticize the hyper-violent future, it still provides much excitement and takes over the atmosphere of the film. Robocop is an exceptional science fiction film with great action and social commentary that is as powerful now as it was when it came out.
14. Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964)
Sean Connery stars in his third outing as the legendary British agent James Bond, 007. The film puts Bond up against Auric Goldfinger , an international gold smuggler and kingpin.
When Bond investigates the man further, he discovers Goldfinger’s plot to infiltrate Fort Knox and contaminate the national gold reserves with radioactive elements, making his gold worth a lot more. Bond must stop his plan and his iconic henchman Oddjob, who wields a bladed throwing hat as well as romance the femme fatale Pussy Galore.
Of the 23 films in the James Bond franchise, Goldfinger is one of the most exciting and represents the spirit of James Bond the best. It features many mainstays of the series such as a slew of beautiful women, colorful bad guys with large ambitions and cool gadgets. Connery is one of the best portrayers of Bond, playing him suave and witty but can be serious as well.
The plot and events in the film are not extremely unrealistic, balancing the film between the serious Danial Craig films and the ludicrous Roger Moore ones. Featuring a great theme song by Shirley Bassey, Goldfinger is a thrilling, fun action movie and a definitive James Bond film.
13. The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981)
In this post-apocalyptic film, the world is a large desert packed with roaming marauders and gangs. Mel Gibson reprises one of his greatest roles as Max Rockatansky, in this sequel to the breakthrough Australian film Mad Max.
Max is a tough drifter who begins a conflict a dangerous, leather-clad biker gang. These marauders are trying to infiltrate an oil refinery and Max stands with the defenders in exchange for a tank of oil. Several violent conflicts all build up to a climactic, violent chase across the abandoned desert.
Due to the setting, the film classifies as a science fiction film, but is very primitive in style and content. Filled with old and rusty cars and technology, The Road Warrior is a vicious and gritty action film.
The bizarre, punk inspired marauders provide an unsettling presence to the unnatural wasteland and to the overall atmosphere of the film. Max’s hardened exterior, heroic actions and great fighting skills make him one of the greatest action heroes of all time, leading a trilogy of films and inspiring a remake in 2015.
12. Face/Off (John Woo, 1997)
Chinese action auteur John Woo takes an incredibly ludicrous and improbable script and turns it into one of the most intense, thrilling and acclaimed action movies of the 1990s.
The premise has FBI special agent Sean Archer, played by John Travolta, finally catching his arch-enemy Castor Troy, played by Nicholas Cage, who is the terrorist who killed Archer’s son six years earlier. Troy has planted a bomb somewhere in Los Angeles but goes into a coma before the location of the bomb is extracted.
When Troy’s accomplices won’t disclose the details, the FBI surgically removes Troy’s face, putting in on Archer so that he can infiltrate Troy’s circles and stop the bomb. Unfortunately, Troy wakes up and forces the surgeons to attach Archer’s face to him. The two then assume eachother’s lives, trying to stop the other all building up to a typical Woo-style showdown.
The plot of the film is a pretty unbelievable but once you get past that, the film is one of the most emotionally powerful and action packed thrillers of the decade. The interesting questions raised by the unconventional plot make for fascinating character development as Archer and Troy delve into the other’s mannerisms and life.
Cage and Travolta’s performances are quite remarkable, due to the complexity of playing a person acting as another person. The operatic and grandiose action scenes are similarly brilliant, filled with clever sequenced full of lots of stylized slow motion. Face/Off is one of the most original action films ever made as well as one of the most entertaining.
11. The Legend of the Drunken Master (Lau Kar-Leung, 1994)
Although not technically directed by Jackie Chan, this film is certainly his masterpiece. Taking inspiration from an earlier Chan film Drunken Master, the film features the martial art of drunken boxing, although has an unrelated plot.
It stars Chan as Wong Fei Hung, a doctor’s son who becomes entangled with a plot to steal ancient Chinese artifacts and sell them to British museums. Wong accidentally comes into possession of a rare and important jade seal and finds himself being attacked by many thugs who want to get it back. Thanks to his training in drunken boxing, however, he is able to fight them off.
If Police Story was an example of Jackie Chan’s greatest strengths as a stuntman, The Legend of the Drunken Master shows of Chan’s expertise at fighting and choreography. The film is packed with extensive and inventive battles that mix impressive martial arts with the typical slapstick gags of Chan’s films.
The Drunken Boxing technique lends itself greatly to the comedic action genre due it goofy appearance and background, despite actually being a very complex form of martial arts. The Legend of the Drunken Master is one of the landmark films of the kung-fu genre, solidifying Chan’s status as a star.
10. Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987)
This iconic first in a series of four Lethal Weapon films, along with 48 Hours, kickstarted the buddy cop genre, inspiring many similar action movies in the future. The two main characters o the film are Roger Murtaugh, played by Danny Glover, and Martin Riggs, played by Mel Gibson. Murtaugh is an seasoned, mild-mannered family man who becomes paired with Riggs, a loose cannon maverick cop.
Although at first the two do not get along, they soon learn to trust each other and work together. The case they are investigating starts as a suicide but complications arise and it develops into the bust of a large drug distribution and corporation led by Mitchell Ryan and Gary Busey.
The greatest part of this film is the perfect and hilarious chemistry between Glover and Gibson’s opposites of characters. The brighten overly tense and dark situations keeping the film exciting but not too dark for an action film. Their balance also transfers into gunfights as their differing personalities allow them to cover eachother’s backs well.
The thrilling plot and violent encounters as well as the great performances by Glover and Gibson make Lethal Weapon one of the most iconic and important action films ever.
9. First Blood (Ted Kotchett, 1982)
After the success of Rocky, Sylvester starred in this film as John Rambo, a highly skilled soldier tortured by inner demons, a role that he would reprise in three more films after. While the series quickly developed into an overblown and ridiculously gory set of films, First Blood is a more intelligent action film, also focusing on the effects of PTSD on Rambo after returning from the war.
The film starts with Rambo walking through a town and becoming harassed by the local police. He escapes the wrongful custody and flees into the woods and during the chase an officer falls from a helicopter and dies. The crooked sheriff, played by Brian Dennehy, vows revenge and brings support, including Rambo’s old commander, to catch the man.
Cornered and unarmed in the woods, Rambo is forced to use his surroundings to his advantage, just like in Vietnam making the film a good example of a survival action movie. The warfare in the woods between Rambo and the military and police is extremely intense and brutal as Rambo is forced to use primitive traps and distraction methods to save himself.
The serious subject matter of the film and its thematic content make it significantly darker than many on the list, allowing action to play a more important role instead of just excitement. First Blood is a powerful and extreme action film, giving cinema one of its most badass, conflicted heroes.