5. Bullitt (1968)
The oldest entry on this list, Bullitt is one of the most revolutionary films in the history of action cinema. It might have been the first action movie ever to play around with a stylized aesthetic. Bullitt paved the way for other iconic stylized action movies that followed, like Assault on Precinct 13 and The Seven-Ups.
The role of tough-as-nails cop Frank Bullitt was perfect for Steve McQueen. His icy cool demeanor keeps us invested as we follow him deeper and deeper into the case. His memorable turn as the title character is what elevated a relatively generic police procedural into a movie classic.
This movie’s rubber-burning car chase sequence through the streets of San Francisco is rivaled perhaps only by The French Connection for the title of most visceral, thrilling, and influential car chase in film history. The cuts were slaved over to create the maximum number of thrills, much like Alfred Hitchcock slaved over the shower scene in Psycho. It’s no wonder that Frank P. Keller won the Academy Award for Best Film Editing in 1969.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
George Miller’s 2015 reboot of his own post-apocalyptic action franchise was basically a feature-length car chase. When Max and Furiosa get to where they’ve been heading and are disappointed by it, they simply turn around and go back. That’s all the movie has to offer in the way of plot, but it never ceases to be exhilarating, because they’re being pursued by bad guys the whole time.
The hot, bright, saturated colors help to distinguish Fury Road from the bleak tone of dreary post-apocalyptic movies like The Road and The Book of Eli. This one features no Earth-wandering. It’s all action, with stuntmen jumping from car to car and fighting each other, surrounding by the bubbling of oil and the revving of engines.
Any movie that features a guy chained to a moving monster truck, playing a flaming guitar throughout the entire runtime, isn’t exactly going for realism. Still, Miller’s insistence on using practical effects over CGI makes the movie an enthralling and visually engaging experience. Fury Road’s stylized look opened a new chapter for big-budget action cinema and it has yet to be matched.
3. The Matrix (1999)
The Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix is no ordinary action movie. The siblings’ script combined the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson with allegories recalling Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So, the shooting of this movie had to have some serious style in order to carry the weight of its literary influences.
Cinematographer Bill Pope’s visualization of the movie drew in influences from Japanese animation, as well as more specific references like Fritz Lang’s seminal sci-fi epic Metropolis and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He also pioneered the “bullet time” visual effect for this movie and emulated John Woo in his use of slow-motion during action sequences.
Despite being a sci-fi action thriller that toys with the philosophical ideas theorized by Plato and Baudrillard, the Wachowskis managed to find the time to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to the stylized look of the film, which enhances the lofty concepts being interpreted by the movie’s plot. Suffice to say, this is no ordinary action film.
2. Hard Boiled (1992)
In the earliest stages of development on Hard Boiled, director John Woo initially wanted to depart from his usual stylization to make a grittier and more realistic piece. However, once filming had begun, he had a change of heart and it ended up becoming what is quite possibly the most stylized film of his career. This was the film that got Woo noticed in Hollywood.
Woo changed the rules of action movie soundtracks with this film. Soundtracks of the genre usually consist of some pulsating electric sounds or hard rock, but Woo went with jazz music. It juxtaposes in an interesting way with the beautifully choreographed chaos in Woo’s film.
The film’s climactic sequence, set on a maternity ward where our heroes must save innocent civilians and newborn babies while fighting off a legion of mob hitmen, might just be the most stylish, exciting, and breathtaking action scene ever put on film.
1. Kill Bill (2003-2004)
Trust Quentin Tarantino to make the most stylized action movie of all time. While it’s definitely an action film, Kill Bill almost defies genre classification, as its visual style comes from a combination of all of Tarantino’s favorite old-school movie genres: blaxploitation films, Italian horror movies, spaghetti westerns, and of course, kung fu movies.
It has the ShawScope logo in its opening titles, old tunes by Ennio Morricone on its soundtrack, and more pop culture references than an episode of The Simpsons. Kill Bill is basically a four-hour homage to all of Tarantino’s favorite movies.
However, it is also a fiercely original action film with a distinctive visual style. The film flits between color and black-and-white formats and references everything from the Shaw brothers’ “crash zoom” technique to Bruce Lee’s yellow tracksuit from Game of Death.
It’s an action thriller with all the hallmarks of Tarantino’s work: a non-linear narrative, a chapter-based structure, and endless string of cinematic references. It’s so stylized that it doesn’t ever let you forget that it’s a movie and not real. With the explosions of blood, funky soundtrack, and blending of visual styles in the House of Blue Leaves sequence, Tarantino succeeded valiantly in his efforts to create “one of the greatest, most exciting sequences in the history of cinema.”