For every Doph Lundgreen or Arnold Schwarzenegger, there’s an action star that surprisingly kills it when he’s given the chance to do a more “serious” part.
And then there’s the ones that actually find the space to be great within the very limited confines of the genre – the great, deep, brilliant action films being made right now rarely star an A-lister or even former A-lister, but a few of the reigning champs of blockbuster action fare are actually very good, and do their best to elevate the characters they’re playing, at the least making them relatable.
Here’s a tribute to their work, their most valiant efforts, and, in some cases, even the forgotten dramas and comedies they starred. Not every muscle-guy in Hollywood is a talentless glorified stuntman, as these guys from multiple generations prove.
10. Jackie Chan
Jackie isn’t only one of the finest, most dynamic and resourceful martial artists of his generation, he’s also a damn fine comedic actor on his own right.
At 62 years old, the Chinese star is mostly doing films in his native Hong Kong now, since his time of stardom in American cinema was an unfortunate one, with mostly poorly directed action movies chock-full of CGI that didn’t let his charisma and knack for physical comedy show. His greatest films are probably the earliest ones, the beginning of the Police Story franchise and both Drunken Master movies probably the standouts.
Lately, though, he’s been taking more dramatic roles in Chine, with surprisingly good results. Just take a look at Shinjuku Incident (2009), a dead-serious action thriller with deep dramatic undertones, and the recent films of the Police Story franchise, made in 2004 and 2013.
9. Michelle Rodriguez
Texan tough girl Michelle Rodriguez has mostly been in near-to-worthless schlock on her career, but she’s invariably the best part of all those movies. As the Fast & Furious movies have evolved into fun adventures completely conscious of their own disposability, her Letty became thee bright spot in a cast filled with guys who are also on our list.
It’s like Rodriguez lends soulfulness and relatability to any role, be it as Luz in Robert Rodriguez’s weird action parody Machete or the increasingly goofy Resident Evil franchise.
She’s also been great in slightly offbeat roles in TV series Lost, her debut Girlfight, surf drama Blue Crush, crime thriller Control, docudrama Battle in Seattle and, of course, James Cameron’s Avatar, in which her character will surely be missed when the sequel comes along.
8. Sylvester Stallone
I shouldn’t have to make the case for Sly, a two-time Oscar nominee in the acting categories, but I still feel like I need to. The fact that he rose above the average Hollywood wannabe through a character he created himself (and got an Oscar nod for that script too) should tell you he’s as much of an artist as you can hope to find in the action genre.
While superstardom hasn’t done him any good, he’s been sporadically great not only as Rocky, the role he was clearly born to play, but in lesser parts like Judge Dredd (1995) and even the outright parody of himself he played in Spy Kids 3-D (2003).
Look for James Mangold’s Cop Land, a 1997 crime drama in which Stallone plays Sheriff Freddy Heflin with the right amount of pathos and understatement to the role. It’s a devastating performance by an actor who deserved better roles in his career.
7. Scott Adkins
British direct-to-video superstar Scott Adkins is quite literally a diamond in the rough Even though the direct-to-video action flick market has been improving by the miles recently, he’s still a star that’s way more talented than most of his movies deserve.
He broke out playing against Michael Jai White in Undisputed II, a surprisingly great follow-up to the so-so 2002 Wesley Snipes-starrer. When the third one came around, in 2010, he had become the star of a franchise that’s been slowly getting better under the radar.
He went on to star on his own franchise, the ludicrous yet surprisingly entertaining Ninja films (2009, 2013), by direct-to-video wonder boy Isaac Florentine, played an important part in John Hyams’ bonkers follow-up to the Universal Soldier franchise in 2012, and even brought to life a memorable villain in the otherwise forgettable The Legend of Hercules. When Adkins is onscreen, you’re sure to have fun and be invested – even if the movie around him doesn’t deserve it.
6. Jason Statham
It sure seems like Jason Statham always plays the same guy in most of his action movies. If someone were to tell me the Transporter, Crank and Mechanic movies were all part of the same shared universe, I wouldn’t be that surprised.
When he came along, though, Statham was a welcome breath of fresh air: especially after the first Crank (2006), it was clear this guy had charisma to spare and a dead-on focus on what his characters were all about. That’s how he managed to be actually great in the few offbeat choices he made in his career – this guy has a future when everyone just grows tires of his persona.
Guy Ritchie’s riveting and misunderstood Revolver (2005), crime drama with a pinch of British satire The Back Job (2008), and all-out comedy romp Spy (2015) are testaments to Statham’s versatility and daredevil spirit to try new things and new kinds of characters. When he grows old, we’ll see if that pays off.